Union County muzzleloader hunt starts Monday

Millions of Americans set their clocks back an hour Sunday to make the annual autumn switch to Standard Time.

Four days from now many hunters in Northeast Oregon will switch back their timepieces back more than 150 years.

The sportsmen will be among the approximately 440 people expected to participate in the annual Union County muzzleloader hunt for white-tailed deer. The hunt with weapons of yesteryear begins Monday and runs through Nov. 25.

The outlook for the hunt is solid, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Leonard Erickson. He expects it to be comparable to recent seasons.

Hunters will again be able to take either a buck or a doe, elevating their chances of success. A second major plus for hunters is that the season will be during the breeding season of white-tailed deer rut. This means bucks will be more vulnerable because they will be more focused on finding does than evading hunters.

"Bucks get a little dumb during the rut,'' said Darrel Plank of La Grande, an experienced and knowledgeable muzzleloader who annually takes part in the November whitetail hunt.

La Grande outdoorsman Phil Gillette said that it pays not be in a hurry when hunting whitetails, especially when they are in their rut.

"It is a patience game,'' said Gillette, the outdoor department manager at Ace Hardware.

Gillette explained that whitetail bucks are very aggressive when in their rut and will travel great distances in a short time in search of does. This means if whitetails are not present in one area, they may appear in a relatively short time.

"A buck on Fox Hill one day could be in Elgin the next,'' Gillette said.

A good way to attract bucks during their rut is to rattle two sets of deer antlers together. This simulates the sound of two deer in a confrontation.

"A buck may come in because he wants to know what they are fighting over,'' Gillette said.

Throughout the two-week season hunters will be restricted to muzzleloaders, a weapon that peaked in popularity more than 150 years ago.

A number of those participating in the Union County whitetail hunt will be muzzleloader aficionados like Plank, individuals who make their own rifles and other equipment. Other hunters are new to muzzleloader hunting.

"They want to experience something new and exciting,'' Gillette said.

In many cases, the hunters will be participating because getting a tag for the Union County hunt is easier than landing one for a buck deer centerfire rifle hunt.

The muzzleloader hunt traditionally starts the day after the second bull elk rifle season ends. The reason?

The ODFW wants to give muzzleloaders a chance to hunt in a less crowded environment, Erickson said.

Plank said one important thing black powder hunters need to do when preparing for their hunt is to make sure their rifle is clean and in good working order. A good way to clean the barrel is to run a cloth into it with a ramrod.

Hunters are encouraged not to use the wooden variety of ramrods used by muzzleloaders long ago, but instead ones made of plastic and nylon. Plank explained that the synthetic ramrods are flexible and will not break when hunters are bending them while reloading quickly. Wooden ramrods will break, however, which can cause injuries.

The white-tailed deer muzzleloaders will be pursing beginning Monday will primarily be found in brushy fields, agriculture fields and stream bottoms. Whitetails are not nearly as common as mule deer in Union County, but they do have a wide distribution. This is a sharp contrast to five decades ago when whitetails were virtually nonexistent in Union County.

Retired ODFW Biologist Mike Kemp told The Observer in 2011 that the first report he heard of a whitetail in Union County was in 1965 or 1966 when someone driving a fish-stocking truck reported spotting a whitetail on Fly Creek near Starkey.

Later, whitetails began to be reported in Palmer Valley and in the Lookkingglass Creek area.

It is not known why whitetails have been expanding their range in Northeast Oregon. There are a number of theories. Some people believe that the growing number of wolves in Idaho may be pushing whitetails into Oregon.

Hunters who take whitetails are encouraged to have them checked for chronic wasting disease by the ODFW. Hunters willing to do this should bring their deer in to the La Grande ODFW office. Hunters should call the office at 541-963-2138 before taking in their deer.

Chronic wasting disease has been found in a number of western states but not in Oregon.