THE FINAL afternoon of the 10-day muzzleloader season found the scribbler sitting on a trifold chair within the branches of a big balsam tree, my last chance at a buck with the gun.

It’s been a tough season as the bucks seem to be extremely nocturnal and there’s been no sign of daytime rutting activity near the stands I’ve spent time in, both early morning and late afternoon.

Most of my gun hunting is done with the muzzeloader because of work and family obligations during the regular nine-day deer season. But it’s not all bad, for the woods are quieter and deer start getting back to normal patterns with all the orange-coats gone.

The challenge in these alleged no-bait times is finding some natural food sources in this nonagricultural area, because the colder weather has deer thinking nourishment and survival in a big way.

It’s a joke to even begin to believe that deer feeding patterns are natural in most areas, not when stores and gas stations are still selling corn, apples, sugar beets, alfalfa and silage by the ton.

Yet hunters are supposed to refrain from using artificial bait with some crazy hope of competing against all those backyard feeding operations. It’s an issue the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has to address.

Cedar, green grass, leftover acorns and princess pine seem to be the best natural drawing cards for December deer in the North Woods. I found a bunch of fresh tracks around a dozen old spruce trees that hit the ground months ago, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what bud or seed they were eating from them.

Deer had been scraping in the area of my stand for green grass shoots that were coming up under brown clumps of marsh-like grass. There were a lot of tracks but they weren’t feeding when I was around, except for one buck fawn that showed up on two of my rather short sits.

It appeared that the final afternoon would offer great weather conditions with temperatures in the 20s and overcast skies. But I hadn’t sat down for 10 minutes and the west wind came up, the snow started and it was a darn blizzard.

Like most hunters, I sat there with visions in my head of past years when a buck would suddenly step out into a clearing or onto a nearby trail. I spent 90 minutes dreaming about where and how that buck would show up, but it never did.

The nub buck didn’t show on this afternoon but right before shooting hours, two does came running out of the tag alders. 

It was like a miracle, in the final minutes of the season, that I got to fire the ol’ smoke pole at a big doe some 60 yards away.

The 50-caliber slug connected and the deer ran off into heavy cover before it dropped.

I’m not going to pretend that my muzzy makes me a Daniel Boone of sorts, for there’s no comparison between the flintlocks of old and my modern in-line gun. Today’s muzzleloaders utilize a straight breech plug and a shotgun primer for ignition, so there’s no delay between pulling the trigger and the shot.

Yet it does require pouring premeasured black powder down the barrel and seating a slug on top of the charge, all from the muzzle. It’s a single shot with no hope for a quick reload, so there are limitations.

It turns out that I had harvested an old dry doe that didn’t have fawns this year, which explains why it showed up with no little ones. I was left to wonder whether it was a sterile deer or whether its fawns didn’t make it for some reason.

There are plenty of black bears and coyotes around, along with vehicles on the highways. And I was hunting not far from a known pack of wolves in the Columbus Lake area.

This fat, healthy doe will provide plenty of roasts, chops, steaks and scrap for ground burger and sausage. I might even have enough meat to order some of that venison bacon other hunters are always raving about.

If history repeats itself, some of it will end up in venison dishes at the Wild Game Feed next June, which is the largest fundraiser of the year for Three Lakes Fish & Wildlife Improvement Association.

I’ve got some venison but this is the first year in a long time that I did not use my buck tags, not for archery or gun. We hunters always think that spike or fork we passed up early in the season will be easy pickings if we need some venison later on, but then we never see them again.

The DNR reports that license sales were down about 11,000 for the gun season, totaling just over 576,000. My guess is that a disproportionate share of the decline occurred in the northern region, and much of it because of chronic wasting disease (CWD)-related baiting bans.

It’s alarming how many former hunters I bumped into this year who never bought a license because of either concerns about chronic wasting disease or opposition to the baiting bans.

When the experts made their initial predictions about a massive fallout among hunters by the year 2050, CWD and baiting bans weren’t even on the radar screen.

That means the challenges facing Wisconsin and the DNR on the subject of hunter recruitment just got tougher than we ever imagined.

There’s more at stake here than just the hunting traditions that we’ve passed through the generations. Fewer hunters equates to less license revenue, fewer equipment purchases and fewer excise taxes. Together, that means a huge loss of money for conservation projects, habitat work and law enforcement.

While some diehards will be chasing whitetails in the late bow season, my hunting season is over. It’s time to prepare for Christmas and think about drilling holes in the ice.

And there are no regrets with venison in the freezer and some memorable moments boosting the family tradition.