Thanksgiving Day Blackpowder Blacktail

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

On a November morning, a hunter poured a careful measure of powder down the muzzle of his rifle and seated a round ball against the charge. He looked to the priming, pinched the percussion cap and slipped it under the hammer. Then he put his hand on his brother's shoulder to wake him. They slipped into the oak trees toward the river as sun lit the new day.

Burrell Hudson Pitts was half Muskogee Creek, half Choctaw Indian. According to family tradition, he killed an Oklahoma whitetail buck on a November day in 1857 with a black powder rifle and a round lead ball.

150 years later, Pitts's great great grandson read the account in a family diary and related the following story:

"On that Thanksgiving morning in 1857 my grandfather was hunting along the "Neosho" or Grand River within earshot of Fort Gibson."

The eco (deer in the language of the Creeks) were pvfne (fast) and that is why he hunted them near the banks of the Neosho limiting directions of escape by vretv (going around) and crawling through the osa (poke weed) to the water's edge. There he found a yakpe eate eco (a forked horn deer). Eme folowv tvpockuce (he shouldered his gun) and rvhetv (shot it)

"It continues by saying este-hvtke mekko vtetv cerakko (white man chief come on horse), vne vyetv cuko vpeswv (I go home with meat)."

In the generations that followed, the family moved west and the deer hunting tradition was carried on from father to son.

Pitts was captivated by the idea of recreating his ancestor's hunt. In the spring of 2008, he applied for, and drew, an Applegate Unit muzzleloader hunt in southwest Oregon.

"I wanted my first experience to be as close to what he did as possible," Dave Pitts said. "No binoculars or spotting scopes." For his hunt, the modern day muzzleloader opted for a sidelock 54-caliber percussion gun. He cast his own lead bullets and settled on a powder charge of 88 grains of FFFg black powder.

On Thanksgiving Day, Dave Pitts and his brother Mike woke to rain; rain that freshened the air and softened the ground underfoot. Long before light, they found shelter above a bench with a well-used game trail. Dave calculated that he had three hours to hunt before he would have to go back home for his Thanksgiving dinner.

Gray light spread in the eastern sky. Dave led the way along the ridge line to the edge of the conifers. A game trail led down into the oaks.

Here, two ridgelines came together. From above, the hunters watched the draw and the slopes below.

Two deer moved across the hill from left to right. With the wind in their favor, the brothers stalked to within 30 yards of the trailing animal. When they were close, they saw that it was a small-bodied buck with three points on one side and two on the other. Dave let the buck walk.

Back in position again, Dave and Mike spotted three more deer, a long distance away. Without binoculars, they had no way of knowing if any of them were bucks. Dave began to question his decision to do without optics.

By 8:15, the mist bore heavy again. Somewhere, on a road, a mile or more away, a truck moved up the mountain. It slowed and stopped.

Mike spotted a deer, motionless, listening to the sound of voices carried on the still air. The animal was below them, almost concealed by the oak trees. When the truck began to move again, the deer began to feed again. Dave saw glimpses of its dark coat against the red bark of the madrones and the dried leaves of the oaks. Every time he saw the deer it was closer, moving uphill.

Dave led the way to cut the deer off on the downwind side of the game trail he thought the deer was on. He slipped his backpack off and then felt Mike's hand on his shoulder.

"There he is. It's a buck, a good one, he's right there."

Dave turned his head slow and followed Mike's gaze uphill. There. A dark body, broadside against the oaks. 50 yards. One conifer and a few oaks between. Dave moved to place the fir tree between the deer's eyes and himself.

Antler tips extended beyond the trunk on both sides of the tree.

Pitts tucked the butt into his shoulder and brought the blade front sight into the notch of the rear sight, found the pocket behind the foreleg and squeezed.

Fire stabbed from the muzzle and the buck, hit hard, ran headlong downhill into the smoke that hung heavy in the air.

"Speed load!" Mike said.

Dave reached into his jacket, grabbed a speedloader, tore it open, dropped in the powder, started the bullet and rammed it against the charge. The ramrod bounced out and the deer pounded toward him.

Dave's second shot hit the buck turned it. The big 3x3 went another 25 feet and lay down. Dave Pitt whispered a prayer of thanksgiving.

One hundred fifty-one years after his great great grandfather bagged a black powder buck, Dave Pitts added another chapter to the family history, with his brother along to share the experience. Just like grandpa did it.

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