Backtrailing for Next Year’s Blackpowder Deer Hunt

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

In 1853, a pioneer named Alfred Beeson stopped for water at Tub Springs in southern Oregon. On August 27, 1853, he wrote in his journal, “... 15 miles over hilly stony roads through very heavy timber to mountain spring. Good wood, water and grass. Saw several bears, killed two deer.”

No record remains, but Beeson probably carried a Hawken-style mountain rifle or a full stock Kentucky gun that fired a patched round ball. His quarry was either the Columbia blacktail deer or the mule deer.

The mule deer and the blacktails he hunted are the same and, west to east, they inhabit the same country where our forefathers found them.

One thing that is different now is we have to draw a tag for the privilege of hunting our deer. That minor inconvenience limits entry to some of the best hunting areas and lifts our odds of a high-quality hunt and the chance for putting venison on the table.

Let’s see how that’s working out for us in Western Oregon and Eastern Oregon by backtrailing through the muzzleloader statistics.

Western Oregon

In 2008, the last season for which the data was available, Western Oregon general season rifle deer hunters enjoyed a 22% harvest success. Muzzleloader hunters, on the other hand, relished a 39% harvest rate.

The South Indigo hunt, which kicks off at the end of the rut in late-November, turns in the best numbers with 50% success and 42% of those are four points or bigger. 

Next in line is the Applegate Unit with a 47% success rate. This one starts in mid-November, which gives the hunter a chance to chase big bucks in the rut.

The North Muzzleloader hunt (100M) kicks out deer to 41% of its hunters and the Melrose-North Sixes hunt (123M1) is not far behind, with a success rate of 38%. Incidentally, these two hunts are the easiest west side seasons to draw. 

The most difficult draw on the west side is the North Bank Habitat. It is also the lowest performer of the west side muzzleloader hunts, because here hunters have a chance to bag a Columbia whitetail in a late-season opportunity. I suspect, given the four-year harvest success of 26%, that hunters are prone to hold out for a big whitetail and go home empty-handed. But at 26% success, it still outperforms the west side centerfire rifle hunt.

Eastern Oregon

On the other side of the Cascades, rifle hunters and archers reported a harvest of 29%. Their brothers and sisters that carried muzzleloaders, though, fared better by a considerable margin.

According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics compiled in the 2010 Oregon Tag Guide, harvest success for the 2005 to 2008 seasons has run highest in the Silver Lake – East Fort Rock hunt with a 67% harvest success. In this nine day hunt, any deer is a legal deer. 

The antlerless hunts in the Metolius Unit No. 2 and the South Paulina hunt rank second and third in harvest success, with 66% and 64% respectively.

For the trophy hunter, the Hart Mountain hunt, an early October season, has returned the highest success rate with a 55% harvest over the last four seasons. The North Wenaha – East Sled Springs, for any whitetail, has produced meat in the freezer and a trophy on the wall for 52% of its muzzleloader hunters.

The Metolius No. 1, a muzzleloader hunt for any deer, has returned a 51% harvest. The Klamath Falls Unit boasts a 49% harvest success with good numbers of larger bucks.

To the east, some of the biggest bucks have come from the Juniper Unit muzzleloader hunt. With a 46% success rate, 73% of the deer were four-points or bigger. 

Another southeast Oregon muzzleloader hunt, the Northeast Whitehorse, turned out a buck harvest of 46% with 64% four-points or bigger.

Two hunts, the Silvies and Ditch Creek, have turned in less than stellar results, with percentage of hunter success lower than the rifle/archery season average. But even these hunts offer a chance to hunt without the competition of the centerfire rifle season. 

A few of these tags are not easy to draw. To hunt Hart Mountain, a modern-day mountain man has to apply about 11 years to build enough preference points. If the Juniper hunt is the goal, it takes about 14 years. Those are the difficult ones.

A hunter who wants to hunt the Ditch Creek, Union County or North Wenaha-Sled Springs seasons has a good chance of drawing a tag every year.

A lot has changed in the 150-plus years that have elapsed since Beeson walked the Green Springs Road but we can still backtrail the men and women who settled this country – when we haunt the hill country with a muzzleloader in hand.

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