Nebraska Muzzleloader Hunting Adventure
By Mark Kayser
I couldn’t have scripted the hunt any better. Whitetails were filing out one by one to the western Nebraska winter wheat field. In tow behind the brigade of does and fawns was a mature, classy-looking 4×4 buck only steps away from my muzzleloader tag. I was hidden in an abandoned irrigation pump site; and, as I scanned the field one more time to ensure my concealment I turned to check on the buck. To my astonishment, the buck was gone. I gripped my T/C Triumph firmly and eased up on my knees to get a better viewpoint. Questioning my first sighting, I sighed when I spotted him again, bedded a mere 60 yards away. Unfortunately, I only had eyeballs and antlers in view. I knew I didn’t have a shot. Plus, shooting light was fading faster than a toddler on an all-day shopping marathon. My mind raced with headache ferocity as I tried to find an answer to my muzzleloader dilemma.
Nebraska, originally a portion of the Louisiana Purchase, was admitted into the Union in 1867, but it wasn’t until much later that it was admitted into the unofficial whitetail nation. For years, the Great Plains’ state was overlooked for whitetail potential, especially in its western half. The eastern portion of the state includes typical Midwestern agricultural fare, but its western environment appeals more to pronghorn and mule deer, thus being overlooked by whitetail aficionados.
Slowly, word began leaking out that Nebraska wasn’t as whitetail wanting as first thought. Nearly two decades ago an outfitter researching hunting property stumbled upon a whitetail discovery of extraordinary significance in central Nebraska. While visiting a local rancher the outfitter was treated to the sight of a pair of shed antlers discovered in the spring of 1959. Word leaked of the giant sheds and it soon took on the nickname of “the General.”
The monster shed antlers had an estimated, conservative net typical score of more than 218 inches. If you recall, the current typical world record stands at 213 5/8 inches. As far as anyone knows, the trophy buck never fell to a hunter’s bullet. Do you need more proof of Nebraska’s potential? Del Austin’s archery non-typical world record also hails from Nebraska with a net score of 279 7/8 inches. Are you beginning to see a pattern here? Whitetail visionaries have taken notice of the clues and big bucks continue to come from the Cornhusker state like the huge typical whitetail shot near Loma, Nebraska, during the 2010 season. It was shot by Kevin Petrzilka, and reportedly green scores 203 4/8 points. That’s world class in anybody’s book.
Despite the whitetail headlines, Nebraska has still not acquired the notoriety of its neighbors to the east and south, Iowa and Kansas respectively. Nevertheless, it is on the radar screen of many serious whitetail hunters. Marry the right management plan to a worthy property and there’s no question Nebraska real estate can consistently crank out mature whitetails. The Dakota and Texas subspecies of whitetails overlap in this general area, both well known in trophy chat rooms. Dakota subspecies of whitetails sport some of the largest whitetail live weights recorded, plus they account for many of the massive racks being taken in the central provinces of Canada. Of course legendary for high-scoring racks with towing tines, the Texas subspecies shocks hunters each fall from the Mexico border north to the prairie.
Another huge draw is the simple fact that Nebraska allows you to purchase tags online or over the counter. You also can have two buck tags designated for a specific season and use them in any combination. For example, you can purchase an archery tag and a rifle tag, or two muzzleloader tags. Your creativity is the only limit to your hunting opportunities. My hunt took place during the December muzzleloader season, a great option for a finale to your hunting season.
For western whitetail fans, the western half of Nebraska offers it all. Open plains, splotches of agricultural and miles of meandering riparian zones provide whitetails with nutrition, and refuge to mature. Plus, the open environment and ribbons of cover give hunters options for waylaying a Nebraska buck.
For the hunter who enjoys a spot-and-stalk game plan the rolling hills, including the state’s famous Sandhills, has a topography designed for success. You can summit high points at shooting light, spot a traveling buck and put your stalk into play. Good optics are a must along with a flat-shooting firearm. Muzzleloader hunters will want to fine-tune their shooting irons for the December season.
Timber and agriculture create attractions whitetails can’t resist in Nebraska. Do your scouting beforehand and you may discover a funnel, or pinch point perfect for a whitetail trap. The one unique aspect of Nebraska timber tracts, especially those in the western regions, is that that they oftentimes narrow in varying points. This gives you locations to put up treestands, erect ground blinds or simply to take a hillside sniper position.
Agriculture, including wheat, alfalfa and even irrigated corn, attracts whitetails from miles around, especially in December when snow arrives and temperatures plummet. Deer feed and browse on as many as 20 different forage species a day. Still, when Old Man Winter comes to town whitetails target energy-rich food sources for survival. Before and after a storm these sources have the potential to attract blizzard bucks. And, if you’re lucky enough to have a food plot in Nebraska, the December weather can play in your favor. Today’s wide array of food plot ingredients can lure whitetails with delicious forage such as chicory, brassica, clover and others. It’s your job to decipher what the deer are feeding in a particular region so when a storm is broadcast across the airwaves you know where to set up. Remember, feet of snow means disappearing food plots under the snow so deer could easily move to a high carbohydrate option like corn. Standing corn also sits above most snow banks. When a blizzard bears down, cornfields are one of my top choices to target.
Again, do your scouting and look for deer on the move via trails plowed through snow. Also, follow up on tips from local landowners. Nebraska weather varies on late-season hunts. You could bask in 60-degree sunshine or fight a blizzard with spikes well below zero. Some areas of the state garner approximately 20 inches of moisture annually including snowfall, but don’t expect that much in the far west.
Back to my Nebraska hunt, I was dealt another blow diminishing my hunt success. Nothing could go wrong if the buck didn’t get up soon. With only five minutes left of shooting light the buck started swiveling his head. Things were about to happen. Just then, the buck rose and started straight at me. Luckily, I had dialed my Nikon Monarch to four power as the buck stepped inside of 40 yards and just before he jumped the fence into the field, I lit the charge. The Hornady MonoFlex ML bullet disappeared in a cloud of smoke. The buck bolted, but in a wobbling futility. As I walked up to the buck, I smiled over the last-minute success to the end of a long hunting season. I didn’t need my Triumph’s long-range performance, but I’ll take an archery shot anytime this late in the hunting season. Nebraska may not have the whitetail fame of truly Midwestern states, but check it out and don’t forget that the western half of Nebraska is truly a western whitetail wonderland.