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Reminiscing about muzzleloaders in the ’70s

As the late archery and flintlock deer seasons get underway this weekend, a contingent of intrepid hunters will venture forth with those special weapons for a final chance to put some venison in the freezer this winter.

Both seasons run through Jan. 23. These late hunts present plenty of challenges, especially with some of the harsh weather that can happen in January.

Bows and arrows were first legalized for deer hunting in Pennsylvania in 1929. The first archery season for deer in Pennsylvania occurred in the fall of 1951. The first winter archery season came in 1964 and was restricted to certain areas of the state. In 1967, the late archery season was expanded statewide and has been a fixture ever since.

The first muzzleloader deer season occurred in 1974. Hunting was permitted only with antique-style flintlock rifles with open, iron sights. The three-day season was restricted to just 37 state game lands, and both bucks and does were legal game.

Despite all those limitations, four bucks and 61 does were taken during that initial season. In 1975, hunters managed to take 174 deer during a five-day split season. Hunters bagged 340 deer during the 1976 muzzleloader season, which included 39 state game lands and two islands on the Susquehanna River. In 1977, 60 state game lands were opened to the muzzleloader hunt, and the harvest more than doubled to 866 deer. The muzzleloader season finally became a statewide event in 1979 when flintlock hunters bagged 2,459 deer.

During those first seasons, most of the participants tended to be black-powder enthusiasts who already owned and were familiar with shooting flintlock rifles. Many of them even donned the traditional buckskin clothing of the old-time mountain men during the special season.

Back then, few gun dealers stocked any kind of flintlock rifle. And even if they did, not many folks were willing to make the investment in such a rifle, along with all the necessary accessories to shoot and clean it, just to hunt deer for a few days in the middle of the winter on a handful of state game lands.

Another major roadblock to participation was those years were still in the longstanding era of one deer a year for Pennsylvania hunters. So even to be able to hunt in the late muzzleloader season, you either hadn’t taken a deer in the regular season or simply decided to wait until muzzleloader season. Add to that the deer herd had already been drastically reduced before the late season even starts and flintlocks often fail to fire in any kind of inclement weather, so taking a deer with a muzzleloader this time of year is not a high-percentage play by any means.

Despite all the challenges, a growing contingent of hunters embraced the concept of the late muzzleloader season, and several gun manufacturers responded by producing affordable flintlock rifles for the large market Pennsylvania represented.

In the late 1980s, regulations changed, allowing hunters to take more than one deer per year in Pennsylvania if they held the appropriate licenses. This allowed many more hunters to participate in the late flintlock season, and this special season continues to enjoy a significant following.

Varmint hunters can also try calling coyotes, foxes or crows into gun range this time of year using either mouth-operated or electronic predator calls. Crows may be hunted on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until April 11. There is no closed season on coyotes, and foxes may be hunted until Feb. 20.

Both coyotes and foxes can be hunted any hour of the day or night, including Sundays. A general hunting license is sufficient for hunting crows and coyotes, but a furtaker license is also necessary to hunt foxes.

The dates for late-season duck hunting around the state vary by special zones established for waterfowl management. Most of our region is part of the South Zone where duck season opened back on Nov. 17 and wraps up on Jan. 16.

Most of our region is within the Resident Population Goose Hunting Zone where the season for Canada geese opened on Dec.14 and runs through Jan. 16, followed by another three weeks of goose hunting from Jan. 29 to Feb. 20. During the late goose seasons, the daily limit is 5 geese.

In additional to a general hunting license, duck and goose hunters must also have a federal duck stamp and a Pennsylvania migratory bird game bird license. For specific information on the various waterfowl seasons, hunting zones and bag limits around the state, consult the Pennsylvania Hunting and Trapping Digest that comes with your hunting license or check the Game Commission website, www.pgc.pa.gov.

As I wrap up my final column for 2020, I know I share the sentiments of most of us that I am glad to put this year behind us with the hope that 2021 will bring a return to something resembling normal life and the freedoms we have come to enjoy.

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