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Cold weather heats up muzzleloader deer hunt

The acrid smell of black powder hung in the crisp afternoon air as I walked along a logging road deep in the bluff country of southeast Minnesota. Several inches of snow lay on the ground, with a thick crust of ice sandwiched in between. With each step, I punched my heels forcefully through the icy layer in order to keep from slipping like a cartoon character on a skating rink.

Below me, Dan, the newest member of our hunting party, stood in the bottom of the valley, waiting for the rest of the drivers to descend from the bluffs above. He was one of four guys who had done the real work during this deer drive, pushing the thickly wooded coulee and steep side hills toward those of us who were standing at the end of the valley.

My buddy, affectionately known as Slick, stood on the ridge above me, field dressing a fat doe that had succumbed to his flintlock rifle. Year after year, Slick has been the sharpshooter of the group. This year was no different, as he filled four antlerless tags in the two days that we hunted the coulee region.

I turned and continued up the road, tracking a mature doe that had ventured within range of my muzzleloading rifle. As I rounded a corner, I found the deer, not far from where it had been hit.

"Looks like a good one to donate to the food shelf." I thought to myself, as I noted the healthy girth on the animal and unsheathed my hunting knife.

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It was the final weekend of the muzzleloader season, a time when those of us with remaining deer tags get together to manage the whitetail population by harvesting the female of the species. This year, a blast of cold weather had the deer feeding almost nonstop and we were pushing deer from the oak-laden hillsides on every drive.

But our group was hardly in top condition to be hunting in such a cold and rugged landscape. Injuries among the group included a bad hip, bruised ribs, a broken arm, and one tough hombre who had just completed a round of chemotherapy — and still insisted on walking during every drive.

Yet, we all felt fortunate to be hunting some of the best deer habitat in the state and the newly constructed log cabin in which we bunked had all of the comforts of home—and then some. Injuries or not, one couldn’t ask for a better opportunity.

It seemed like the deer drive had barely started when an old doe came speeding down the valley in my direction, tailed closely by several yearlings. Sitting in the snow, I rested my elbows on my knees, and tracked the doe in my sights, waiting for a clear shot.

But just as the animal leapt onto the logging road, I heard the sound of thundering hooves above me and looked up in time to see a whole herd bearing down on my position.

I suppose the title of this column could easily have read, "Hunter Trampled by Stampeding Deer." But the sight of a blaze-orange clad hunter with his mouth open and eyes the size of silver dollars must have been enough to keep that herd from pummeling me into oblivion.

Needless to say, I didn’t get a shot at that doe.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to explain to my hunting partners why I let 30 deer go by without taking a shot. Over the next few minutes, at least two more groups of whitetails coursed through the valley and soon, blue-black smoke was suspended like a cloud across the basin.

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As we hiked down from the bluff and waited for the rest of the group to arrive at the truck, I couldn’t help but think about the limited hunting access in many areas of southern Minnesota. Late season doe-only hunts are a great way to get on land that is normally inaccessible, and when they are held in permit areas with high deer densities, the action can get downright hot, regardless of the temperature.

Chris Kolbert is a freelance writer from St. Charles.

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