Nebraska Sand Hills Traditions Muzzleloader Hunt
Can you imagine a more barren place to hunt whitetails than the plains of Eastern Colorado? I could not. Not until David Morris and I arrived in the Sand Hills of Nebraska this past season with expert Tecomate Videographer Matthew Carmen. We all met at the Rapid City South Dakota airport as scheduled on November 30th. Our four day muzzleloader hunt would begin December 1st. We headed out to join forces with our outfitter, Lynden Branson, a life-long resident of the Nebraska Sand Hills region. And I`ll go ahead and say it now, Lynden knows how put together an extraordinary deer hunt in the topo-rich grass covered sand dunes that surround his home range. This would be a hunter`s choice muzzleloader mule deer or whitetail hunt. And if you plan to hunt the Nebraska Sand Hills, leave your lock-on and climbing stand at home. Not a tree in site!
We would hunt a vast commercially operated open range cattle ranch well in excess of 100,000 acres. Lynden knows this countryside like he knows his own back yard. Basically it is his back yard. The ranch we would hunt backs up to Lynden`s small Nebraska home town community where he has lived all his life. There was a good chance each day when we left our camp in town that we would encounter a good mulie or whitetail buck in someone`s yard on the way to the ranch. We nearly did.
On the second morning of our hunt just a few minutes after the sun`s first rays enlightened the frigid 15 F degree sandy ridges, barely outside town on the ranch, we spotted a terrific 28” wide mule deer buck. The buck raised his head and displayed a striking 5 x 5 rack configuration silhouetted against the early morning sunrise. This buck was irresistible. Instantly David Morris committed, “I`ll shoot that buck.” The stalk was on. And after closing the distance on foot from 500 yards to approximately 100 yards, by utilizing the lay of the land to conceal his approach, Dave`s perfectly placed Traditions 250 grain bullet, fired from his trusty Traditions Vortek Ultralight .50 caliber muzzleloader, took the elegant monarch squarely, high in the shoulder. The big mulie dropped in his tracks. Way to go Dave!
Interestingly whitetails, our beloved close cousin of the mule deer, of the Nebraska Sand Hills region have not always been a part of the scene. According to Lynden, approximately 30 years ago, the locals began noticing these smaller “crazy deer” in their pastures more and more often. The whitetail`s demeanor is generally more “wired” than the more passive mule deer, to which the locals were accustomed - thus the local nickname, “crazy deer.” It is believed that the whitetail population of the Nebraska Sand Hills has expanded over the last three decades or so and it is supported by limited agricultural activities, mainly hay farming that regularly creates tender new growth that whitetails need and desire. David Morris explained that the combination of native plant life, agricultural activities, mixed with cover provided mostly by topography, are the primary causative factors that support the whitetail herd in this area.
Early on hunting day two I was now the hunter. David Morris would observe and provide much needed moral support. Tension mounted for me as it always does when I make the transition from observer to hunter/shooter. In case you don`t know, I have a hard time keeping the wheels on the wagon at times, especially in open country spot and stalk shooting situations - and even more so when the target of opportunity is a trophy whitetail buck. No doubt, I was feeling the pressure.
My first choice was to hunt a mature Nebraska Sand Hills whitetail buck. Without hesitation Lynden decided that we would head uphill into the weed covered pot holes and grassy sand spur laden drainages high atop the dunes in hope of finding a big mature whitetail buck that we had seen late the day before. Tecomate cameraman Matt Carmen spotted the buck late on our first afternoon hunting. We all watched the trophy 8-point whitetail and three lesser bucks vanished into the high verdant folds at sundown on December 1st. We knew this buck was good. He was definitely a shooter. David Morris believed that this impressive 8-pointer was the same mature heavy beamed buck that he had seen in a picture captured on his Reconyx trail camera one year prior while on his first sand hills hunt with Lynden.
As if Lynden knew exactly where our buck would be bedded he parked our Ford F-150 4 x 4 down hill and on the downwind side of the knolls that we would explore around 10:00 AM. Lynden`s strategy was to work around the hills, ridges, and drainages while taking advantage of the harsh wind and topography in order to locate our buck. If we got busted by our intended prey, no problem. We would simply wait patiently and give the buck we jump time to settle down after he makes his escape into the open country in the distance. Then undertake another calculated downwind approach. Luckily we met with success on our first attempt.
I was packing my Traditions Vortek Ultralight .50 caliber muzzleloader, loaded with a 250 grain Traditions bullet. Three powder pellets (150 grains) would be ignited by a Winchester #209 shotgun primer when the hammer fell – the .50 cal slug would leave the barrel traveling around 2000 ft per second. The Vortek Ultralight topped with a 3.5 x 10 Vari-X III Leupold scope performs accurately for me at amazing distances at the rifle range. My challenge would be to make it all come together in a live target situation in Nebraska.
We got lucky when we guardedly topped the first hill on our initial stalk. Lynden instantly spotted and recognized one of our target buck`s companions from the day before. The young buck stood alert and aware of our presence approximately 75 yards across a steep drainage, ready to bolt. As we climbed only a few steps higher we found companion buck #2 and #3. One was standing and alert; the other was bedded and so far unaware of our presence. Lastly, after a few steps further up the hill, Lynden spotted our big 8-pointer bedded only 50 yards away down the steep hill in the very bottom of the drainage that we overlooked. I moved forward into position for a shot. Matt moved his camera on tripod into position. I knelt and shouldered the Vortek, forend rested firmly on my Bog Pod. I aimed at the bedded buck. Lynden waved his arms tentatively trying to get our buck to simply stand out of curiosity for the shot. It did not quite work out that way. The buck did stand. But at the very same instant he exploded out of the bottom running up hill on the opposite slope. The buck`s only mistake was stopping at the top to look back before he disappeared.
Lynden hastily ranged the buck when he stopped and then called the shot, 120 yards. I was darn lucky to connect on a slightly quartering away shot in the blustery 30 mph crosswind. The smoke from the muzzleloader discharge partially obscured my view momentarily upon firing. I had no idea if I had connected but I felt that the crosshairs were steady on the buck`s vitals when I squeezed the trigger. David Morris told me immediately that he believed that the shot was good. He had seen the buck`s tail twitch as if he was hit hard when he trotted out of sight at the base of a small rise.
After reloading the smoke-pole our initial recovery attempt led us to the site where we had last seen the buck. We had moved in too quickly and we jumped the buck. He raced full speed ahead 150 yards before he stopped abruptly and then collapsed. Thirty minutes later we stalked cautiously up to my big Nebraska 8-pointer where he expired. The celebration began.
I find it hard to believe that I am the hunter that has taken another mature trophy whitetail. Somebody pinch me! Especially when the odds are heavily stacked in the buck`s favor - such as in quick shooting spot and stalk situations. My Nebraska Sand Hills trophy whitetail is certainly a tribute to the effectiveness of my equipment and the support of my friends than it is to my hunting proficiency. David Morris would have made that shot off hand at the running buck and dropped him. I was darn lucky to connect as the buck stood still. I can tell you without reservation that the sweet shooting easy handling Traditions Vortek Ultralight and my super steady Bog Pod, along with the support of David Morris, Matt, and Lynden, are responsible for my success on this adventure! Thank you all!
Good luck hunting. And above all, be safe!
Posted by David Shashy