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This is the third week of the Maine firearms deer season, the doldrums as far as hunter activity goes. The majority of gunners will participate during the first week of the season (producing the highest per-day kills) and again during Thanksgiving week (because, thankfully, most folks get Thursday and Friday off that week).
This is the week that starts separating the men from the boys as far as deer hunting goes. The leaves are down, it's getting cold out there, a lot of deer have already been tagged and the Twin Threats (winter and Christmas) mean there is little time (or money) to waste on frivolities such as deer hunting.
Of course, this means only the serious hunter need apply, the ones who are driven to hunt for reasons far beyond a freezer full of meat. There are interesting things to see out there, signs of deer and wildlife in general that the average recliner jockey will never experience, and this is the week to go. The rut is on, which means Maine's big bucks will be traveling (some as many as 20 miles or more in a night), making rubs and scrapes, chasing does and otherwise acting like love-sick fools. There is probably nothing more exciting (to a hunter, at least) than finding a big, deep scrape that you know wasn't there yesterday, or, (as I did just a few days ago) finding a line of saplings shredded by a big buck as he marked his territory. When the shredded bark is lying on top of the leaves and is still moist and pliable, you know that the deer had to have been there within the last several hours. It's just the fuel a hunter needs to keep going out every day in the cold and dark, the rain and snow - there's a big buck running that ridge and I want to put my tag on him!
Many of the antler rubs you'll find in the woods are small hardwood saplings or alders with one side of the tree rubbed down to the bare wood. It's interesting to hunker there and think that, some time in the last day or two, a nice buck has stood here and, in full view of the world, rubbed his antlers on this tree long enough to scrape a handful of bark off it. What's even better is when you find a tree as thick as your calf that has been rubbed all around and down well into the wood, with shredded bark and splinters littering the ground around it. When you find one of these, look for fresh tracks nearby. That deer is going to weigh well over 200 pounds and it's likely that he is not very far away.
Most hunters will decide then and there to hunt that deer and no other, an honorable quest but one that most often ends in defeat. Big bucks are active, mobile and unpredictable, and you're not the only one who's after them! But, if you find such sign early this third week, the odds are that no one has tagged that deer and you have about five days to make your move.
With no snow on the ground your options are to pick a good place for a stand (in thick cover near water or in a natural “funnel” where deer naturally travel) and wait patiently . . . all morning, all day or all week. It's not easy and often not fun, but if you want that deer you will do it.
Should there be some snow the game changes and your odds increase, if only slightly. It's great fun to find a big deer track in the snow and follow it till the inevitable showdown, but there are no guarantees. For example, I once saw a big buck cross the road after a storm on my way home from a night shift job. I changed clothes, grabbed my rifle, some water and a handful of brownies and headed out to track him down. I picked up the track, followed it all day (wading several streams along the way - a cold process!) and finally had to give up at dark when the tracks ended at the Piscataquis River in Milo. The buck had leaped into the river and headed for the opposite shore! I could see his tracks going up the far bank and into the woods heading straight north, but I was out of time: it was dark and I was miles from home. Such is the challenge of a November deer hunt.
Of course, things don't always go wrong, and that's what keeps us going back out when all sense and logic suggests otherwise. For instance, one season was marred by endless high winds and periods of sleet and snow - a mess to drive in and even worse for hunting. The wind blew like a hurricane even down in the darkest lowland swamps, and after a week of it I was close to giving up. In fact, I didn't even go out the final morning - the howling wind and sizzle of sleet on the windows at dawn was too demoralizing even for me. I puttered around for a few hours, convinced myself that sitting around the house wasn't going to produce a deer, either, and headed for the swamp for the last hour or two of the afternoon.
The trees bent like grass in the wind and the sleet was coming down steadily sideways, but I decided to stay till dark no matter what. One whole side of my coat was plastered with ice and the wind howled - conditions couldn't have been worse. I was as disgusted and dejected as a hunter could be when, just before dark, I peeped under the brim of my hat to see a fat 9-pointer standing just 30 yards away. In that instant life was good again, hunting was fun and I was the mighty hunter once more!
The moral of the story is simple enough - get out there, find a place to stand and don't give up till the season ends. Things can go from dreary to cheery in an instant, but nothing will happen if you don't give it a try!
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