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We’re just days away from another Maine hunting season and, as always, the quandary is where, when and for which species we should focus our efforts. Bowhunters are already taking action in the Expanded Archery Zone (nearly 5,000 square miles generally east of the Interstate Route 95 corridor). Last year archery hunters tagged 1,717 whitetails in “the zone,” about four times more than bowhunters took in the remainder of the state. Some 408 deer were tagged in an area just over 30,000 square miles, which suggests that there will be plenty of whitetails left for hunters who prefer a more wilderness-type experience west of the interstate.
In the next few days turkey, pheasant, grouse, rabbit, squirrel and woodcock hunting will begin, plus the regular duck and goose seasons will open along with such exotic species as snipe and rails. Add to this fox, raccoons and even the ubiquitous coyote, which may be hunted year-round. Meanwhile, of course, the archery deer, bear and moose hunting are already underway.
For many years I tried to do it all and succeeded only in wearing myself out, including my prized Bean boots and a canvas-covered wooden canoe that simply could not stand up to the constant contact with rocks, logs and ledges where I hunted waterfowl between early-morning deer hunts, midday upland hunts and late-afternoon bear hunts. I thought I had everything under control until the trapping season opened in November and then my “do-it-all-or-die-trying” program fell apart. You’re welcome to try to hunt everything there is in Maine every day of the season but I think you’ll find, as I did, that it’s all but impossible to do – at least effectively and with any kind of enjoyment. Running from river to bog to birches and orchards all day every day will put a serious strain on you even if you have nothing better to do and the day is all your own. Toss in a job, family responsibilities and other demands on your time and you’re headed for a major mental burnout.
Older and at least a tad more sensible now, I limit my participation to two activities per day, whether it’s ducks in the morning and grouse in the afternoon or any other combination that lets me enjoy whatever I’m doing without the feeling of having to pack up and move on to the next thing because time is running out. I can switch to rabbits and deer or geese and bear, maybe even head for the coast to hunt sea ducks all day . . . I no longer try to do everything at once and I’ve found that I have a much better time afield as a result.
If I had to narrow it down to just two favorite October pursuits I’d have to go with paddling around some obscure beaver flowage in hopes of jumping a duck or two, and then spending the afternoon strolling through old, abandoned apple orchards in search of partridge and woodcock. The combination of moving quietly across the water or tip-toeing through the leaves and ferns waiting for the explosive flush of a mallard or grouse seems especially appealing to me, and even after more than 50 years of it I never find it boring. I know what to do and I know what’s going to happen but, just like cranking the handle on a jack-in-the-box, I never know when the bird or fowl will take wing, and then I have about three seconds to respond. After half a century I’m still perfecting my technique and, truth be told, I don’t always win!
Lately I’ve become enamored with my little 9-foot kayak, which is perfect for sneaking around flooded bogs and swamps where migrating ducks like to loaf during the day. I have my paddle and shotgun tied to the craft so when birds take to the air I just drop the paddle, grab the shotgun and get to work. The greatest advantage of using a kayak is that I can quickly and easily retrieve my birds no matter where they fall. My old, faithful 17-foot aluminum canoe handles like a barge under these conditions, so I save it for trips down the Pleasant, Piscataquis or Sebec rivers later in the season.
Three or four hours is enough time spent on the water, and on a good day I’ll beach the kayak with enough ducks on board to fill the bean pot that evening. Then it’s time to change gear, clothing and tactics and head for the grouse woods, where the ambience is the same but my feet don’t get quite as wet.
Partridge hunting in October can be a real challenge due to the dense foliage, which, pretty as it is this month, easily obscures birds before and after they flush. Early in the month I do well to see, let alone shoot at, one in five birds that flush. I do my best to hunt toward openings and points of cover where the bird has to reveal itself at least partially along its flight path, but grouse are masters of deception and flight, easily foiling the best-laid plans of any hunter – and his dog.
Challenging as it is, I enjoy partridge hunting because the one time in 10 things go as planned I end up with a fine, fat bird destined for the crock pot on Sunday. Wild grouse (and pheasant, for that matter) is as tasty a meal as one can find in the wild. At the end of the day I come home and build a fire out of oak or ash billets. While the wood is burning down to coals, I clean, wrap and seal each bird in aluminum foil along with some butter and Italian dressing, and then let them slow roast over the hardwood coals. Fifteen minutes per side is about right. Each bird comes to the table hot, tender and juicy, perfectly cooked. That’s all the incentive I need to go out and do it again tomorrow. Even though there are 31 days in October, they go by entirely too fast!
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