Big changes are planned for the flintlock muzzleloader deer hunt at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area next year.
The goal of the changes, according to Middle Creek manager Lauren Ferreri, is to make the hunt “safe and more of a quality opportunity,” she said.
“This is a hunt that’s going to reduce our deer numbers a bit, but it should be a quality hunt that’s safe and productive for those hunters who participate,” Ferreri said.
Every winter for decades, Middle Creek has selected through lottery drawing 100 flintlock hunters to be allowed to hunt deer within Middle Creek’s controlled-access areas that normally are off limits to the public.
It’s a great opportunity that gives hunters access to an area holding a lot of deer after the firearms season has ended.
For many years, the hunt was held during the regular, late flintlock season. That led to a tradition of hunters who didn’t picked to go inside Middle Creek lining up on the public hunting lands just outside the Middle Creek boundary with their own flintlocks, hoping to get a shot at deer fleeing the project.
Concerned that was creating an unsafe situation, the Game Commission moved the special Middle Creek hunt to a date in between the firearms and flintlock seasons, when no other hunting is occurring. That prevented hunters from lining up along the Middle Creek boundary.
Ferreri, who took over as Middle Creek’s manager three years ago, has watched the annual flintlock hunt each year, and she still has concerns about hunter safety.
“It’s kind of a free-for-all with everybody who gets picked kind of going wherever they want to hunt,” she said. “There’s no real order to it, and that can create safety issues.”
Also, given the large number of deer that are on the Middle Creek lands in winter, Ferreri believes hunters could be more successful.
Last season, 85 hunters out of the 100 picked to participate actually showed up to hunt. Sixteen of those hunters took a total of 21 deer, with 20 of those being antlerless and one being a spike buck shot by mistake as an antlerless deer.
For next year, Ferreri wants to change the hunting format significantly.
First, the hunt will be split into two hunts, with tentative dates set for Dec. 18 and Jan. 15.
A total of 36 hunters – 18 per hunt – will be selected by lottery drawing to participate in those hunts, with the first 18 being allowed to hunt Dec. 18 and the next 18 being scheduled for Jan. 15.
Each of those 36 hunters selected in the lottery will be allowed to take with them one guest hunter. So the total number of hunters that can be out for the two hunts combined will be 72.
“What we’ve seen in our hunting surveys is that what hunters enjoy about these hunts is the opportunity to take a deer, and enjoying the experience with others,” Ferreri said. “By allowing everyone to bring a friend, they’ll know they can spend the day hunting with a buddy.”
The hunters will be divided among eight hunting zones at Middle Creek. So each pair of hunters will only be allowed to hunt in one specific zone.
“That should take care of the problem of everybody just going out in a free-for-all,” Ferreri said. “This will spread them out somewhat evenly across the hunting area.”
Typically, the annual flintlock hunt has ended at 2 p.m. Next year, Ferreri wants to move that end time back to 3 p.m., giving hunters another hour to try to get deer.
As always, everyone will be allowed to hunt antlerless deer, while some also will be allowed to hunt for bucks.
Ferreri said she plans to hold a separate lottery among the lottery-drawn hunters to award permission to hunt bucks to nine hunters in the first group and nine in the second.
Those 18 would be the only hunters eligible to hunt for bucks, assuming they still have unfilled buck tags when the hunt rolls around.
“We are reducing the number of hunters who will be allowed to come hunt here with their flintlocks,” Ferreri said. “I expect some hunters won’t be happy about that. But I think, overall, the experience will be a better one for the hunters who do get to hunt.”
The new muzzleloader hunting program imitates the archery hunting program Ferreri instituted at Middle Creek back in 2016.
That hunt affords 48 bowhunters two weeks apiece to chase deer at Middle Creek in assigned zones during the fall archery season.
It has proven to be incredibly popular, drawing 578 applicants last year.
The flintlock hunt this past season drew 464 applications from interested hunters.
I’ve participated in the Middle Creek muzzleloader hunt three times over the years. It is indeed exciting, given the number of deer available.
But I can say that I shared Ferreri's safety concerns.
I recall there being a mad dash in the morning before daylight among the 100 of us picked to hunt to get out in the field to what we all thought were the best hunting spots.
Some hunters carried climbing tree stands, others hunted from the ground.
In the thick brush surrounding the lake, it was easy for hunters to disappear from sight. And it seemed like that was the main area where hunters concentrated when I hunted.
With pressure applied to the area in that fashion, every deer I saw was running, which made for poor shot opportunities with a flintlock.
I did manage to take one deer over the course of my three hunts at Middle Creek, and I can definitely see how reducing the hunting pressure and spreading it out could make for a much more successful hunt for those who win access.
As with the archery hunt, Ferreri promised the new flintlock hunt rules are not set in stone.
“We will survey our hunters next year and get feedback from them,” she said. “If we need to make changes to improve it, we will.”
Look for information on the lottery for next year’s hunt to be announced here at lancasteronline.com in late September or early October.