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This is the day when a different fall “color” reaches its peak in the Maine woods, and the primary hue will be hunter orange. It's opening day of the annual firearms deer season, which, by all estimates, means some 200,000 hunters will be heading into the evergreens in search of Maine's legendary big bucks.
There is probably no more exciting moment in hunting than that instant when the sportsman reaches his carefully chosen hotspot, loads his rifle and settles in to wait knowing that one of the biggest whitetails in North America may wander by. There are many ways to accomplish the task, and every hunter carefully guards his own “secret” method, but when he's finally set and ready, it's the greatest feeling in the world.
Ideally, it will be a cold, crispy morning with little wind, clear skies and stunning silence in the woods. One might hear a coyote in the distance, perhaps the hoot of a pre-dawn owl, but as dusk turns to dawn the forest is still, and every hunter out there is alert, primed and ready for the ghostly appearance of his personal giant Maine whitetail.
What happens next is in the hands of Fate and the whims of the whitetail. The difference between an easy shot and no luck at all can be as little as a single cedar tree in the wrong place, a missed glimpse of brown fur in the distance or, perhaps most often, inattention by the hunter. Deer do not make many mistakes (they are masters at evasion and evacuation), and they are unforgiving when the hunter moves, coughs, clinks a cartridge or drops a glove. Despite all our eager pre-season preparation, the first buck of the season will teach us what we have forgotten: Is the wind blowing the wrong way? Is the sun in your face? Did you forget to trim that one errant branch away from your stand? Whatever you did wrong will loom as the worst error of your life, and you'll be regaling your buddies at camp and at work about the one little glitch in your plans that ultimately cost you a shot.
Sometimes things go perfectly, and we all deserve at least one such trip. Deer begin showing up at corner store check stations an hour after sunrise - someone has to shoot the first buck of the year, and congratulations to you, whoever you may be. My own personal best was a doe shot at 8 a.m. on opening day. One year I drove for 9 hours to get to my spot, got out of the truck, walked 100 yards into the woods and had a 9-point buck on the ground before the sun cleared the treetops in the distance. Such things DO happen!
Of course, opening days can come and go without so much as the snap of a twig in the distance, and I've had plenty of those, too. In fact, I think I've had more years when I did not see or hear a deer till the final week, and if I were to play the odds I probably wouldn't go out until Thanksgiving week or later. Many hunters put all their chips into “the rut,” which won't be for another week or so around here, that period when Maine's love-crazed bucks run through the woods like, well, love-crazed bucks, leaving themselves vulnerable to patient hunters who know their deer lore.
I've mentioned many times that it's important for hunters to be well-prepared for each hunt. Of the 200,000 hopeful hunters entering the woods today, it's a safe bet that at least half of them will see, perhaps shoot, at a deer, which could triple the annual deer kill (driving the state's deer managers crazy should that ever happen). But, the long-term trend has been that about 15 percent of hunters are successful each season, suggesting that 85 percent of sportsmen either forgot something or made a mistake somewhere along the way. “I forgot to load my gun,” and, “I woke up and there he was,” are common laments all season long, and there is an endless (sometimes comedic) list of errors that conspire to keep the hunter from putting his tag on a buck.
You can rarely second-guess or outwit a deer that has seen or smelled you. A whitetail that is standing, staring and sniffing is a formidable opponent and, invariably, they go bounding off to safer havens elsewhere. As noted, deer don't give you many second chances - you're either ready for action when the time comes or you are not!
The basics are always worth repeating: Sight in your rifle, walk slowly, stop often, pay attention and verify every rustle of leaves and every snapping twig. That “squirrel” you thought was jumping around in the woods could turn out to be a trophy-class buck in search of a doe. Listen hard, look often and make sure that every sound or movement is what it appears to be.
Most missed opportunities are the result of hunter inattention. When you enter the woods this season, leave your troubles and worries in the truck. Step off the road, take a deep breath, start looking and listening to the sights and sounds of the woods and get yourself into the game. Go when it's cold, when it's raining or snowing; go when you're tired, when you're busy or should be doing something else. The deer season is short and ends before you know it, so make the most of the time available - spend as much of it in the woods as you can. We wait 11 months for this opportunity each year and it's already in its second day.
I would like to see every one of our readers come home with a Maine whitetail this season, and we live in the right area of the state for it. In fact, central Maine is considered to be not only the best area to shoot a deer in Maine, it's also highly rated for trophy bucks. There's no more time for procrastination: Get serious, get your gear in order and get out there!
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