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Published: Tuesday, 1/11/2011

Muzzloading harkens back to hunting hungry

UNION FURNACE, Ohio — The sunrise from atop a frosted, grassy ridge top here in southeast Ohio hill country was a gift from heaven.

The temperature hovered around zero — thermometers couldn't agree, minus 6, minus 2, 0, 1. It was a mite chilly to be outdoors for the duration, no matter what. Just ask my frozen little finger.

The fluffy snow, 2 or 3 inches of it, two days old, had turned hard, noisily so, in the icy cold. The bottom had dropped out of the thermometer overnight, with clearing skies and dying wind. No more balmy "teens." The snow crunched loudly under the insulated shoe-pacs — too loudly.

But the dawn view into the rising sun was, well, you had to be there. The low-angle of the golden rays backlit every blade of frosted grass, every twig, each one turned alive with crystal sparkles. Overhead, rank after rank of tall, triple wooden pillars, supporting high-voltage transmission lines, march into the sun. Hard to believe that what otherwise might be regarded as massive eyesores could look regal. But there it was.

The rising sunrays captured the prismatic snow crystals, turning them into a seemingly endless carpet of diamonds. It was as silent as an empty cathedral, minus the lingering scent of burnt candle or incense. So the least little sound carried — what, 100, 200 yards? — to a deer's ears?

Welcome to the world of the muzzleloader white-tailed deer hunter. Get up way before dawn for this? Where are the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail or Carnival Cruise?

The muzzleloader season comes late, long after shotgun and most of archery. It is for those whose connections to the hunt are rooted in American pioneer tradition. Even if ever fewer of us these days cling to traditional flintlock or caplock rifles, reminiscent of arms carried by woodsmen 150, 200 years ago, instead of scoped, modern in-line models. This year's edition began Saturday and ends Tuesday; a winter storm is forecast. Tough hunting.

Luckily, the next meal for muzzleloader hunters today is assured. But the limitations of just one shot and a cloud of smoke are enough to remind a modern mind of the stern lessons of yesteryear. They hunted hungry. The next day's meals were not in the freezer. To be immersed in a glorious morning, such as described above, can make a whole day, but it is enjoyed in part because of the certainly of the next meal and a warm bunk at night.

That is what is season is about — celebrating the tradition — at least that was the original idea. That is why it once was called primitive weapons' season; modern in-lines are hardly primitive.

It was with such thoughts circulating that I crept on the crunching diamond carpet, hoping to fool wary whitetail ears. It took over an hour from the truck to cross some fresh tracks I wanted to follow. Because of the still, calm conditions and sugary sub-zero snow, even my moving slower than the proverbial molasses in January left the advantage with the deer. For the next two hours I covered perhaps 500 yards a step at a time, watching, watching, watching.

The solitary deer I was following moved purposefully, but slowly, browsing, moseying. Presently it came to a 25-foot-deep ravine. It had walked down the neck-breakingly steep side as it were as flat as a mall floor, then minced across a frozen creek and up an open-wooded ridge. Game over. No way I was going down that ravine, chance the frozen creek, or negotiate the opposite side. Predators know the feeling; mostly they go hungry, mostly they miss.

Too, I spied another hunter, 200 yards up on the ridge where the deer had gone. He was on stand, watching too. Let him enjoy his own morning.

Besides, that zeroish morning chill was making a sandwich and a hot sip of tea from a Thermos, back on the tailgate, sound pretty good.

The sun was warming the air, softening the snow, taking out the crunch. Maybe the stillhunting this afternoon will be even better.

Contact Steve Pollick at: spollick@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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