|There are many reasons why you may not yet have a supply of venison in your freezer at this point (procrastination, bad luck, no interest in bow or rifle hunting, etc.), but we're getting down to the wire now. Excuses are great for as long as you can get away with them, but sooner or later you're going to have to get up and make a move. Now, I'm happy to report, is the time!
There was a long period in Maine when all deer hunting seasons closed the Saturday after Thanksgiving, leaving nothing for intrepid outdoorsmen to do but catch up on chores (got your wood in yet?) or join in with the throngs of Christmas shoppers (never a top choice for avid readers of columns such as this one). Lately, however, whitetail numbers are up in most areas of the state and biologists have been looking for creative ways to provide more hunting opportunities while maintaining control of the deer herd. No one wants to see more deer in the woods than hunters do, but biologists don't want to experience overpopulation disasters such as occurred in Vermont in the 60s or in many of today's “urban” areas, where herds of deer roam city streets and local officials are at a loss as to how to control them (because the anti-hunting sentiment is so strong they don't even consider sport hunting as an option!).
Anyway, for many reasons we're fortunate that Maine's deer managers have more sense (or authority) than their unfortunate metropolitan cohorts. The result is that Maine hunters can dally through the September and October bow seasons and even let the November rifle season slip by and still have substantial opportunities to use their remaining tags.
All of this is the long way of saying that today is the opener of Maine's 2005 muzzleloader deer season, which runs statewide (in all WMDs) from Nov. 28 through Dec. 3. Then, from Dec. 5-10 a second muzzleloader season runs in WMDs 12,13,15,16,17,18,20,21,22,23,24,25,26,30 (generally speaking, the southern half of Maine). For hunters in our area, that's another two weeks of hunting time, and you can bet that some sportsmen are going to be shooting their deer on the last day of this hunt, which means it took them four months to tag a deer (or, on the bright side, they were able to enjoy the Maine woods for 120 nice, long days!).
Hunters who believe that “real” hunting conditions should include cold weather, snow and complete freedom to move around in the woods will love this December muzzleloader season. Great opportunity or not, far fewer hunters participate once the rifle season ends, and that means you can expect to have most of your favorite spots to yourself for the next two weeks. Also, it there's going to be cold weather at all this season it will be over the next two weeks - certainly it will be colder than it was in September or October! Finally, the odds of having some tracking snow on the ground are quite high at this time of year. Some parts of Maine have already had some snow and you can't reasonably expect the ground to stay brown much longer.
So, you've got solitude, cold and snow - what else is there to consider? Well, the rut is over in most cases, those legendary big Maine bucks are back to being elusive bachelors and you won't find many deer posing broadside in open pastures like you did back when archery season started in September. There are still plenty of deer out there (all those fresh tracks in the snow guarantee that), but they are different deer now - educated, cautious and more concerned with surviving the coming winter.
Success now calls for different tactics - get in the woods early, head for the thick stuff and don't be afraid to take a track and follow it to its end. If you're just out for meat, an old friend from China Lake told me how to do it: “Pick up the smallest track you can find and follow it. That deer will be a yearling and it will have the most tender meat.” Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Of course, you can look for a gigantic track and start following it, but keep in mind that rutting bucks may travel 20 miles or more in search of does, and once the rut is over (which it nearly is by now) those same bucks will travel 20 miles back to where they came from! I learned this the hard way on more than one occasion, when I've gotten excited over a big track, followed it all day and had to quit miles from home with the tracks heading straight north off into the horizon - not even close! It's fun to follow those big deer, and you learn a lot about them (and the woods) along the way, but if you want some easier meat, select a smaller track. Doing so still won't guarantee you a shot - it only seems that way!
As in all deer hunting, the highest odds are in going more often. The days are desperately short now (close to the shortest of the year) and winter weather invariably means clouds coming in to make things even darker, sooner. Now's the time to use your spare mornings or afternoons to hunt, certainly all day Saturday if you can arrange it. The time for procrastination is long past.
Get out there before dawn, pack a lunch and plan to stay till legal shooting time expires. Dress warmly in layers (walking will heat you up no matter how slowly you go), drink plenty of water and pay attention. December deer are flighty and prone to running long and hard across country when they see something they don't like. You may see a deer in the first five minutes or not till the last 30 seconds of the day, but (as the lottery logo says) you can't win if you don't play!