Hunters split over muzzleloader's primitive nature

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By SCOTT SANDSBERRY Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — It was the opening morning of early muzzleloader elk season, and Don Strand was right where he wanted to be: hunkered down in heavy timber up Nasty Creek in the Ahtanum, 25 yards from a legal elk and lined up for a clear, broadside shot.

He pulled the trigger.

Muzzleloader hunters everywhere can relate to what happened next.

Absolutely nothing.

Hours of skulking through the underbrush in intermittent mist had moistened his rifle's firing cap.

That's just one of the challenges Strand and other hunters willingly accept when they choose to hunt with muzzleloaders — single-shot, black-powder, exposed-primer rifles — thereby opting for a far more primitive experience in hopes of a less populated one.

Strand, 52, first began hunting elk in the 1970s in the Colockum. "I remember all the total chaos in (hunt) camps every time you turned around," recalls Strand, who now lives in Colville. "I stopped hunting Eastern Washington pretty soon after that."

In 1994, he began hunting with a muzzleloader, which typically has a hunt season earlier than, and far less crowded than the modern-firearm season. Strand was hooked.

The epiphany that led Gary Sheets to muzzleloaders occurred nearly a decade earlier.

Now a Skagit County resident, Sheets was out on the opening day of modern-firearm deer season in Utah.

"It was an absolute zoo," he says, remembering with particular disdain "a couple of yahoos" who sat on a hilltop shooting all day long at everything that moved. Sheets found a little buck that had been killed and then ignored by the yahoos, he's convinced, presumably because it wasn't big enough to be worth their precious time.

Sheets also ran into a hunter with a semi-automatic weapon who cheerily related having taken and missed "10 or 12 shots" at one buck.

Says Sheets, "That's when I said, 'Enough of this.'"

He became a muzzleloader hunter, a population that has quadrupled since the early 1980s from fewer than 1 million to as many as 4 million. But it's a population of two very distinct communities on opposite sides of a philosophical fence.

They aren't the Hatfields and the McCoys, perhaps, but they are two very different families.

The smaller community is full of traditionalists like Sheets, using rifles not all that different from what Daniel Boone might have used in 1770. Strand is part of the much larger group of hunters who use a more modern form of "in-line" muzzleloader. (The reference is to the modern gun's ignition system, which creates a direct line from the spark to the powder charge.)

Don Witke of Selah owns a muzzleloader and is a member of the Wenas Valley Muzzleloaders. "Everybody in the club feels the same way I do, that the in-line is a little too modern," he says. "Muzzleloading is supposed to be primitive, and some of us feel pretty strongly about that."

Despite being outnumbered by in-liners about three to one, the traditionalists have long had the greater voice.

The reason is simple: Traditionalists are far more likely to be part of clubs created to celebrate that very tradition and history. The Washington State Muzzleloaders Association, of which Sheets is the president, has a traditionalist bent. So does the Indiana-based National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association.

"The flintlockers, the traditionalists, they like wearing the buckskins, having their groups, getting together and having powwows," says Jeff Smetzler, 35, an in-line muzzleloader hunter from Spokane Valley. "Most of us modern in-liners don't care about forming groups and having powwows. We just want to go out and hunt."

But those traditionalist groups often have legislative liaisons — lobbyists, basically, who can monitor and, presumably, help shape state game agencies' policy when it comes to muzzleloaders.

In Washington, one of those policies has been not to allow scopes on muzzle-loading guns, which can fire a bullet faster and farther than a traditional gun.

"That's one of the biggest arguments between traditionalists and the modern muzzleloaders," Smetzler says. "But if we're all going by the theory that the goal is a good, clean kill (without a scope) you're not utilizing the gun to its full capability. You're not doing everything you can to make that clean kill."

Sheets has a simple response to that.

"If they really want to hang the scope or feel like they have to," he says, "just shoot during the regular rifle season." A muzzleloader hunter can hunt in either the muzzleloader or modern-firearm season, but not both.

Laws vary from state to state.

Toby Bridges, a Montana hunter who founded the North American Muzzleloader Hunting Association two years ago and has written numerous books on the sport, says scopes are legal on muzzleloaders in 38 states.

Washington and other Western states — Oregon, California, Idaho, and Colorado — don't allow scopes on muzzleloaders, something Bridges says is unfair to older hunters with less-than-perfect eyesight. While the younger eye can shift focus between the rear sight, the front sight and a distant target quickly enough for a timely shot, he says, "The older eye can't do that.

"A lot of guys ethically pull themselves out of the game. Hey, I'm 59 years old. I've got a scope. I've shot all my life, and I've shot muzzleloaders since I was 14 years old. But if I had to go somewhere I couldn't use a scope, I couldn't hunt there. The state of Washington allows non-resident hunters, but no (muzzleloader) scopes.

"If they want an example of somebody who feels discriminated against, I'm it."

It appears Bridges will have to stay that way.

"That's a battle that's gone on for years, just modernizing muzzleloaders," says Dave Ware, game division manager of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"The issue is we've set aside these special seasons ostensibly for relatively primitive weapons, and modernizing them is where the debate concerns."

But scope advocates simply haven't won over enough supporters. In a statewide poll done as research for the Wildlife Department's 2009-2011 hunting rules package, responses were nearly evenly split on muzzleloader scopes — 45.9 percent for, 46.4 percent against.

"Scopes were on the table," Ware says, "and the public did not support it."

In-line hunter Jim Pearson of Yakima says the description of what constitutes a legal muzzleloader — seven lengthy paragraphs and nearly a half-page in the state's hunting-rules pamphlet — is part of the problem.

"It should be reduced to one or two sentences," says Pearson, 71. "I think the only restriction on muzzleloaders should be that it is one shot loaded from the muzzle with black powder or a black-powder substance.

"But the traditional muzzleloaders don't want to see that, because they think it will bring more guys into the woods to hunt with muzzleloaders."

It probably would, and with scopes and higher-tech ignition systems, their rate of success could also expected to go up, too. That could have an undesirable consequence.

"The agency would be duty-bound to look at whether the seasons should be adjusted accordingly. And adjusted means shortened. And that's not what people are looking for," says Mik Mikitik, the state Wildlife Department's head of hunter education.

"Be careful what you wish for."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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