When I write about special hunts and draw odds, I’m usually focused on rifle hunts. I vastly prefer to use my rifles over any other weapon as they are more interesting to me than archery and muzzleloading equipment, but in reality I use all three weapons. However, I do not hunt with primitive weapons solely for the challenge, the only reason I’ll pick one up is to expand my hunting options.
Muzzleloaders allow me to hunt the elk rut here in Colorado with a firearm, but it can be tough to draw a bull license. I don’t feel too handicapped with an unscoped muzzleloader, but I certainly do feel like my range and shot options are severely limited with archery equipment. For me to consider picking up the stick and string, I really have to feel like I’m buying myself some other type of advantage, such as hunting an area much sooner than I could with a rifle or muzzleloader, saving myself preference points, or to take advantage of seasonal opportunities like high country mulies or rutting elk. So let’s focus on how handicapping yourself with a primitive weapon opens up the full gamut of hunting opportunities for you.
The easiest transition for most rifle hunters is muzzleloading. Shooting open sights isn’t overly foreign, especially for those who do much rimfire or surplus weapon shooting. In states where you are allowed to scope your muzzleloader, it’s basically not much different than hunting with a single shot rifle. Sure, your trajectory isn’t as flat, and the firing system isn’t as reliable, but it’s really no trouble to compensate for 200 yard shots if you understand your load. Some states differentiate primitive muzzleloader hunts from scope sighted muzzleloader hunts, some states ban sabots, some states restrict the scope mangnification to 0x, etc, etc.
Here in Colorado, muzzleloaders can take advantage of both the elk rut and high country mulies in mid September. Muzzleloading is especially useful for mule deer in units where there is no high country rifle hunt and where the points required to draw are way out of reach. For instance, while mountain goat hunting last year, we were seeing all sorts of good deer, but the unit we were hunting in did not offer an early hunt, and if you prefer not to bow hunt, this could be a great option, especially since the draw odds in that unit are the same.
Be careful though, muzzleloaders don’t always improve your odds of drawing over a rifle tag. In many deer units the tags are restricted enough that the odds are often worse than a 2nd season rifle tag. I see no reason to take a hard look at those units for muzzleloader season. For elk, a muzzleloader license is often the hardest license to draw in a given unit because it is the only firearm option during the rut.
In Utah, picking up a muzzleloader is sometimes the only way to get into the Cache, Crawford Mountain hunt. And this hunt occurs in late November through early December, getting you both rutting and migrating animals. In New Mexico, rifle deer tags are never available as leftovers, but muzzleloader deer tags frequently are. In Idaho, a muzzleloader opens up several units that are not open to rifle hunting on the general tag or extends your season into the rut.
Now, stepping down to a much more primitive weapon, the bow, is both a blessing and a curse for me. I hate feeling like I could have shot something with a muzzleloader or rifle that I could not have killed with a bow. The short range, the passing on quartering towards shots, and the difficult of drawing while an animal is approaching are all downers for me. BUT, archery season is over a month long in many states, and opens up prime time on the elk rut. Here in Colorado, the elk rut is usually just getting started as muzzleloader season is coming to an end, but you can still take advantage of another full week of prime bugling with a bow. And have I mentioned the other benefits of hunting in September, like the changing colors of the aspens and the mild temperatures? A real advantage to the bow hunting mule deer in early September or even August is that the bucks are still in velvet. While I don’t really like the looks of velvet bucks, the antlers are still very sensitive, so the bucks will avoid heavy cover.
The over the counter either sex archery tag is a very attractive tag for me next year. While there are a lot of units close to where I live that I am no real fan of, the OTC tag allows me to hunt nearly any unit in the state. With the uncertainty of where I’ll be any given week next fall and the lack of time I’m likely to have to commit to my usual backcounty hunt, the OTC tag will allow me a lot more flexibility as long as I bring my bow with me on work trips.
Also, instead of having to risk my preference point on a muzzleloader bull tag to be out during the rut, I can now earn another point, and still have a pretty broad selection of units to hunt.
Archery hunting really opens up a whole new world of easier to draw tags. Last year, I talked to a guy here in Colorado that has drawn bighorn sheep tags 5 times! Yeah, he only killed two of them and he was in his 70s, but the man at least got to go sheep hunting 5 times more than most guys will in their lifetime. Bighorn sheep tags in Colorado are about 10 times easier to draw with archery equipment than with a rifle.
In Nebraska, there are still nonresident OTC archery antelope tags that are legal to use on the Oglala National Grasslands. Montana has an absurdly long archery season, allowing you to get into some excellent action in late September and even early October. In Nevada, which I have to draw a tag for these last four years of trying, my odds as a nonresident in a high quality unit like 14 improve from 30:1 to 9:1, yet the success rate only drops 10%. Of course there are many more examples, but I’m sure you get the point.
I don’t believe there are many carry-over skills that rifle hunters can apply to archery hunting, outside of the usual breathing, trigger control and follow through. It takes far more practice to become a competent archer than it does to become a competent rifleman. However, practice is far easier for most archers, as shooting in your yard, or even at a local city park allows you to get in a quick practice session without the time commitment that a trip out to the rifle range may entail. Also, the strength needed to shoot a high poundage bow well takes time to develop as the muscles used in archery are not ones that the average man will use frequently in other sports.
If your main goal is to go hunting, expanding your options through the use of primitive weapons will allow you to draw more tags in quality areas than would otherwise be possible with a centerfire rifle. I’ll never totally give up my rifle hunts, but utilizing archery or muzzleloader hunts, especially as a 2nd choice is a great way to build preference points for future rifle hunts. For those who are strictly rifle hunters, you might be missing out on some opportunities that a primitive weapon can get you into. Give archery and muzzleloading a try, you might even prefer it. Besides, delving into primitive weapons hunting gives you another excuse to buy new toys, and who doesn’t like that?