Muzzleloader. The word itself conjures up images of a Louis L’Amour hero taking out an attacking grizzly, or Redford as Jeremiah Johnson finding the .50 caliber Hawken in the frozen hands of Hatchet Jack.
That grizzled mountain-man image is not so far off from the actual picture of Routt County resident and muzzleloader hunter David Dolif, recently celebrating success after hunting big bucks in the dark timber.
“I’ve got a lifetime in hunting,” said Dolif, a hunter since age 16. “I’m a sportsman and outdoorsman.”
Hunting yearly with his son Caleb in the Flat Top Mountains within Game Management Unit 231, Dolif says he loves muzzleloader hunting for a variety of reasons.
“It’s a different skill level to hunt in that season,” he said. “I like the earlier season. It’s a break, a vacation.”
The attraction for most muzzleloader, or “black powder,” hunters is the season’s overlap with the peak elk rut in late September, before the more popular rifle seasons get underway. But Dolif prefers to chase the massive mule deer bucks that roam the unit. The knowledge acquired from a lifetime in the woods includes an abundance of tips on hunting with a muzzleloading rifle.
“Practice a lot. Practice your breathing, and your marksmanship,” he said. “Load each shot exactly the same. That’s important. If you tap down the ball two times, always do two taps. You want it to always shoot the same.”
Although only open or iron sights are allowed during muzzleloader season, modern renditions of the old-style rifles are deadly accurate. Switching recently from .58 caliber to a .50 caliber, Dolif appreciates the take down power for the size of animal he is hunting. His ammunition of choice is the maxi-ball, with no patch between powder and projectile.
Dolif got hooked on hunting Unit 231 after spotting some of the biggest bucks he’d ever seen there, usually in a group.
“That was 18 years ago,” he said. “I mean, these were not typical animals. They were all big-body bucks.”
That spotting has led to the lifestyle that is muzzleloader hunting.
“Now it’s more of a tradition,” Dolif said. “Each year they were just elusive enough. Just slipping away, or slipping out of sight.”
Last year’s hunt began in that all too familiar fashion.
“The first day we spent walking through the timbers,” Dolif recalled. “I know them, and I know their moves – the trails and their patterns, the times they move.”
Heading down toward Crosho Lake, Dolif stopped to check his back-trail.
“There he was on a hilltop, and he took off,” Dolif said.
Over the next two days he would see more bucks, but was never able to get position on them for a shot.
“I have an idea that I know where he’s going to be,” the hunter said. “I caught up with them on Wednesday morning. I looked over the knoll, and there they were: Three bucks. There always seems to be three of them together.”
Dropping his pack, he waited where he was sure the trio would pass. They never came.
Thirty-five minutes … forty … no deer.
Sneaking up for a peek over the top, “two of the bucks are gone, replaced by four does,” he said. “Only one buck is left.”
Crawling on his belly through the dogwood and sagebrush, Dolif took up position about 80 yards away. Still, nature fought him.
“I moved a branch out of my sightline three times and it kept popping back in my way,” he said.
As he’s finally ready to take the shot, the storyteller in the hunter comes out.
“Now, I don’t shoot well from a resting position. I think I shoot better moving or shooting upside-down,” he said. “But the shot is there when it’s there. It’s never perfect. It’s called luck.”
After hauling out the harvest on his back, the buck went to the processor and yielded 135 pounds of steaks, roasts, hamburger and breakfast sausage. The rack and skull have found a place of honor is Dolif’s home as a European mount.
“I believe the meat is better in the early season. It’s not gamey from being run off by all the hunters,” Dolif said.
David and his son now look forward to their next hunting adventure. Next on the list for the father son team is an elk hunt.
“I plan to spend a few years scouting the area,” Dolif said. “Over the years I’ve gotten animals. But you gotta work at it. The number one thing is patience.”
Patience. It’s one of the reasons he chooses to hunt muzzleloader. That and spending time afield with friends and family.
“The people I meet hunting muzzleloader season are different. We have developed a comradery and friendships over the years. We see everybody every year,” Dolif said. “It’s the enjoyment of the hunt. An animal harvest is not really that important.”