November 08, 2022
The severe weather hit just south of Dodge City, when I was about seven hours into a nine-hour drive. The sun disappeared as the rain soon turned to heavy, wet snow. It was late October, and this had all the markings of a classic Halloween storm on the High Plains. The two things I had going for me were a lack of wind—an odd occurrence in western Kansas—and enough daylight that the driving wasn’t too hazardous yet. I’d also planned ahead and slid a new set of wiper blades onto my truck earlier in the day. Still, my tires left deep tracks in the slush building up on the highway, and it was with a sigh of relief that I turned into the driveway of Rut N Strut Guide Service outside Cheyenne, Oklahoma.
I’d made the long drive to meet up with a few friends for a muzzleloader deer hunt in the red dirt country of western Oklahoma. I’d bowhunted the area once before, taking an ancient six-pointer, and I was looking forward to the return trip. I’d also finally gotten my hands on a Traditions NitroFire muzzleloader. The year before I’d seen a prototype of the unique blackpowder rifle that utilizes a breech-loaded powder cartridge—called the Federal FireStick—but this was my first opportunity to hunt with it. Other than the unexpected blizzard, the weatherman called for mild temperatures for most of the week.
The next morning, there was a thick layer of ice covering the landscape as Rut N Strut owner Todd Rogers drove through the darkness to a box blind. The ladder was also coated, making the climb up a bit loud and more than a bit hazardous. When I pulled open the door, a sheet of the frozen stuff broke free like a calving iceberg and crashed into the platform. So much for making a silent entrance into my stand. As the approaching sunrise lightened the landscape, it revealed a wide, rolling prairie surrounded by bottoms lined with oak, elm, and Osage trees. Through the tall grass, I could make out cuts of the near-crimson soil that the area is so well known for. The temperature was climbing, and soon the icicles hanging from the windows started to drip and the frost burned from the tall grass.
Glassing between the melting stalactites, I caught a bit of movement in some thick brush a little more than 100 yards away. A small buck appeared from the cover. From its frostcovered coat it was obvious the whitetail had been napping in that spot for a few hours, and when it shook its coat like a wet dog, shards of flying ice glinted in the early morning sun. Other than that buck, the morning was uneventful, if not a little cold. My friends, who were hunting nearby, had a bit more excitement. Two of them—Mark Sidelinger and Chris Olsen—connected on Day 1 bucks.
If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you’re likely aware that hunting whitetails out of a box blind isn’t my favorite way to hunt. In fact, I’ve railed against it on many occasions with the standard refrain that we have turned deer hunting into America’s other favorite pastime: watching television. Think about it. We have an oversized window in front of us, which is not unlike a big-screen TV, and often we’re ensconced in a cushy chair with some snacks within arm’s reach. The one saving grace is the lack of commercials.
All that said, I’m also a “When in Rome” kind of guy, and I know full well one of the best ways to kill a big buck is to sit in a stand and wait for one to walk by. And in Oklahoma, they even have the benefit of hunting over feeders, which is often more entertaining than most shows on the Discovery Channel. So later that first day, I leaned back in my chair, opened the wide screen in front of me, and spent the day watching wildlife. And while there was a steady parade of does and small bucks, I may have wished for a remote control to fast-forward through the afternoon lull and straight to the good part of the show.
Just like any good TV program, the climax of this episode first came with some foreshadowing. I’d spent much of the afternoon watching the same small buck come and go, feeding a bit and scent-checking any doe that happened to be walking by. His antics and my dwindling snack bag kept me entertained. With about 15 minutes of shooting light left, the buck bristled his fur and dropped his head. I sensed something was about to change, and when he quickly exited stage right, I knew there had to be a bigger buck in the area.
First, I caught the new buck’s legs moving through under the tight canopy of trees. And then his engorged neck. But the rack was still hidden by the brush. He was walking stiff-legged, like big bucks do, before turning broadside to dig at a scrape and rake at the overhanging limbs. I still couldn’t make out his headgear. And then, right before the climactic reveal, the screen faded to black as the falling darkness obscured the deer completely.
LOSING THE PLOT LINE
After that cliffhanger, I committed to finishing out the series. Surely that buck would show again, and hopefully, he’d give me an opportunity at a shot. Heck, I was just hoping to get a better look at him to make sure he really was worthy of the starring role in this story.
The next day was more of the same: a parade of does, fawns, and small bucks. One supporting actor did make an entrance, coming from behind my blind and walking through the scene long enough to make me think seriously about putting an end to the tale. But he just didn’t have quite what it takes for a breakout role, so I let him walk. In an effort to speed up the plot, I inserted myself into the scene. Instead of waiting it out in the box blind, I spent the third afternoon of the hunt on a high point overlooking the area where we suspected the buck was bedding. My costar for that show was a single lonesome doe.
I gave that spot one last chance before deciding it was time to find a new show to binge-watch. We were getting down to the wire—just two more sits before I’d have to head home. Todd Rogers dialed up a new plan and placed me in what amounted to a bow stand. Oversized and with a comfortable office chair, the blind sat just 11 yards from the feeder. I wouldn’t have to worry about testing the NitroFire’s long-range capabilities.
The action heated up soon after I climbed into the blind. A few does stopped by the feeder for an afternoon snack, followed by a spike buck that appeared from the thick brush. The little guy spent most of the afternoon in and around the feeder, and I was reminded just how effective a box blind can be. By keeping motion to a minimum, I was able to watch and photograph the little buck for an hour or more. All while still scanning the surrounding cover for other deer that might cruise through.
And just like on the first afternoon, it was the smaller buck that alerted me to approaching deer. When the spike popped up his head and looked past the blind to a spot just behind me, I slowly reached for my rifle. I was limited to what I could see in that direction, so I had to assume there was another deer or something else approaching. Then the small buck switched his attention to my left, where I could just make out antlers moving through the thick cover.
I was still unsure if there were two bucks coming to the feeder, but I quickly made the decision to ignore whatever was behind the blind when I realized the deer coming from my left was definitely a mature deer. I was afraid if the buck made it to the feeder he would be too close. While the young spike let me get away with some movement, the older buck was likely a lot wiser.
The buck showed his street smarts by moving to skirt around the far side of the feeder. I pulled up the rifle, moved the crosshairs up his leg until the scope was full of hair, and dropped the hammer. As the smoke from the powder cleared, I saw the buck running, head down, out of the scene, before he tumbled into the grass. It was a chip shot—32 yards—and the buck didn’t go another 20 yards before dying with a hole through his heart.
I zipped the window shut and climbed out of the blind to lay my hands on the star of the show. Though this type of hunting still isn’t my first choice for hunting whitetails, the four days spent watching a near constant stream of wildlife from the window of my blind was fun. And my patience was rewarded with a beautiful Oklahoma buck. And that show sure beats anything you’ll see clicking through 500 channels from the comfort of your living room.
Currently, the Traditions NitroFire muzzleloader is the only muzzleloader on the market compatible with the exclusive Federal FireStick powder charge. The .50-caliber rifle features a 26-inch, fluted, tapered barrel that has a 1:28 twist to get the best accuracy and performance from modern muzzleloader bullets at ranges out to 200 yards. Traditions also fits the NitroFire with a new Elite XT trigger system that has a captive half-cock and allows the action to open with the crossbolt safety still engaged, making it easier and safer to load and unload the Federal FireStick.
The Federal FireStick is a self-contained powder charge encased in a weatherproof polymer cartridge that’s similar in appearance to a shotgun shell. Instead of pouring powder down the muzzle and following it with a bullet, hunters simply load their chosen projectile from the front of the NitroFire barrel, seating it firmly on a shelf built into the rifle’s “chamber” just ahead of where the powder charge will sit. The FireStick slides into the breech and the cartridge is then capped with 209 shotshell primer, making the rifle ready for the hunt. FireSticks come charged with Hodgdon’s Triple 8 granular powder in both 100- and 120-grain versions. New for this year, Federal has also announced an 80-grain charge in the FireStick.