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Every Maine deer hunter likes to think he's going to go out on Opening Day and kill a big buck, but if you've hunted the first week with no luck you know how much weight pre-season plans and daydreams carry.
Residents-only day, opening day and the first week (all supposedly big-producing periods for deer hunters) are behind us and we're already into the second week of the season. The majority of hunters who went out with high expectations last week will lose interest (or impetus) this week, and most will skip the rest of the season till Thanksgiving week.
The good news is that if you hunt this week you will have most of the woods to yourself, which means you'll have the luxury of hunting the rut with much less competition. This is the period when Maine's big bucks run themselves ragged chasing receptive does (or does they wish were receptive). They may travel 20 miles and more in their quest to breed, and their wanderings take them over hill and dale night and day. This is why you see so many more dead deer along our highways in November: the victims are does being harassed by bucks or bucks that didn't make it across the road in time. I have never hit a deer with a vehicle but have come close a few times. In fact, one fall I had to slam on the brakes on I-95 near Newport because two bucks were fighting in the road! They paid no attention to me and three other vehicles that had stopped to watch the show, and if we hadn't stopped there would have been two more wasted deer for DOT crews to scrape off the pavement.
It's easy to lose your enthusiasm after several fruitless days in the woods, but the best advice is to keep at it as long as you can. Try new places each time, go farther into the woods than you normally do, hunt the swamps and thick cover, and stay right to the end of legal shooting time. The woods can seem empty and lifeless all day long, but when a deer shows up it all seems worthwhile. I have spent many a day in the cold, in the rain and in spitting snow all the while telling myself I'm wasting my time and deer hunting isn't worth it, but something keeps me there until dark every time. I have learned, of course, that a deer can show up at any time between daylight and dark, and you won't know when that might be. There have been many times when I was just standing there anxiously awaiting the final bell only to have a nice buck come out of the darkening woods at the last minute.
One season I got into the woods late and was distressed to hear a skidder running full bore on top of the ridge. The day was so calm and the machine was so loud that I could not hear my own footsteps in the dry leaves. I thought I should give it up and go home - surely no self-respecting deer would come around with all that racket going on. I also realized that, at 3 p.m., there wasn't time for me to go anywhere else - I'd staked my whole day's hunt on this one great spot, and now all I could hear was the roar of the skidder's engine droning on through the woods.
At 4 p.m. the skidder finally shut down, but I was sure the hunt was a bust. No birds were out, no squirrels were bustling around and it seemed as if the only living things in the forest was that skidder driver and I.
About the time the skidder's roar had echoed away in the distance I heard some movement below me, just a snapping twig or two and some rustling leaves. “Squirrel,” I thought, not even enthused enough to hope it was a deer. The rustling stopped for some time, and then started up again, and it was just loud and steady enough for me to sit up, get my rifle ready and start looking hard in that direction . . . just in case. Whatever was coming was just out of sight at the edge of a small opening in front of me - could even be the skidder driver looking for a lost chain . . .
Just then I saw a branch fly through the air, then another, and then a mighty crashing of brush as a fat 9-point buck stepped into the clearing. At first I couldn't believe what I was seeing - the skidder had just shut down not two minutes ago! I still had enough presence of mind to wait for the buck to move behind a big hemlock before I raised my rifle. I took careful aim as the trophy started whacking a small sapling with his antlers, and then he finally, slowly stepped into the clear.
That's all it took to turn my whole season around, and all I did was go hunting when I didn't really feel like it, remaining on my stand even though everything in me said, “Go home.”
Deer hunting is rarely easy, predictable or certain. The unexpected is what happens most often, and the only way you can make that happen is to get out there when you have an hour to spare and see what develops. Hunters who weren't going to go take some of the biggest bucks of the year, or who went the wrong way, or who tried a different spot or who didn't expect to see anything but went anyway. This year, it could be your turn.
There is at least one deer for each hunter in the Maine woods, yet only 10 percent of hunters will fill their tags this year. If you have a morning or afternoon off and nothing important going on, put on your orange, grab your rifle and get out there. There are no guarantees in this sport, but one thing is certain: You can't win unless you play!
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