|How in the world did this happen? All of a sudden we're down to the last week of the Maine gun deer season (blackpowder hunting in Wildlife Management Districts 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26 and 30 this week), and some Expanded Archery Season hunting in specified areas of the state (generally the southern half of Maine). The pre-season “hype” began way back in July (remember warm, sunny, breezy July?), but now we're into somber, serious winter weather and the last chance to put some sweet, healthy venison in the freezer.
Compared to September and October, the December woods no longer have that cozy, comfortable feeling so many hunters seek as part of their sporting experience. By now the ground is usually hard, crunchy and fraught with frost, making it tough to “sneak up” on a deer, even when walking wilderness tote roads or trails. And, with the likelihood of snow on the ground, the air is no longer just “nippy,” it's downright cold and biting, but while there's still beauty to behold out there. One thing is for sure, you won't have a lot of company in the woods this week. Indeed, perhaps it might be an option to allow Sunday hunting in December - you're not likely to encounter many casual Sabbath day hikers or picnickers in the cedar swamps this month!
Conditions in December are harsh for hunters, but the deer are not much better off. This is the beginning of the worst for them. Cold, wind and snow means calories lost, and if it's a normal winter (with plenty of snow and low temperatures) the whitetails are going to need all their energy (stored and otherwise) just to survive till spring. As winter digs in, the whitetails hunker down, spending more time in secluded yarding areas and venturing out to feed only when it's safe, necessary and calorie-expedient.
If you're going to hunt deer with a muzzleloader or bow this week, your options are generally limited to thick cover deep in the swamps and thickets where the animals spend most of their daylight hours in winter. Don't be misled by all the tracks and other sign you may find in open woods and fields - most of that activity takes place at night. December deer begin to melt back into the densest cover they can find long before the steely light of dawn streaks over the horizon, so don't sit by a field or orchard and expect to find herds of deer scrambling past.
Because it's the last week and the days are the shortest of the year, it's probably best to plan on spending all day out there. Legal shooting hours this week are from about 6:25 a.m. to 4:25 p.m. (check the “legal shooting hours” chart included in your 2005 hunting regulations booklet for precise times - or the warden will explain them to you!). That's really not very long from a hunter's standpoint. You can easily while away an entire day at the edge of a swamp and not realize how fast the time has gone.
Though it's the tradition among hunters to come out of the woods for lunch, especially when hunting from a camp or trailer, but there is no time to waste on such formalities now. I usually bring a daypack with me and plan to stay in the woods till dark. I carry a small gas stove, some water and a selection of teas, coffees and hot chocolates to drink around midday. It's quite a mood booster to have a hot drink going with all that cold and snow around me, and if I'm clever enough to have packed a few brownies, cookies or a sandwich or two, I'm set for the day. Truth be known, December deer hunting is not unlike January or February ice-fishing - a lot of sitting and shivering and not much action, but it's the only way to put a deer in the freezer if you've dallied this long without tagging one.
Because deer tend to remain in protective cover once the leaves are down and serious cold dominates the scene, it's generally best to take a stand along well-used trails at dawn and dusk in hopes of catching a laggard coming back from an overnight feeding foray. This is also a good time to use tactics other than just standing and waiting, which can be challenging if the temperature drops out of sight. I have had some luck in the past using grunt calls, “can” calls and rattling - deer are always curious about such sounds, and if nothing else a post-rut dominant buck might be moved to investigate the sounds of an intruder in his territory. The first year Maine allowed a blackpowder season I was standing in ankle-deep snow in St. Albans blowing on my grunt call and not really expecting anything to happen. I stood and listened for more than an hour with no results, so I turned around to try another area and nearly stumbled over two does and a fawn that had walked right up behind me! Another time I tried rattling and had two bucks come running in and start fighting - just out of sight, of course! It was cold and dry that year, noisy as can be, and so I could not risk trying to sneak up on them. All I could do was listen and wait, but I was hunting a huge patch of alders along Dead Stream in Atkinson and, as luck often has it, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some things about deer hunting never change no matter what the season!
It may seem to be too cold, too late or too close to Christmas to be deer hunting this week, but the option is there if you have the means, the will and the time. It's always interesting to be in the Maine woods, and there are things to see out there this month that most folks will never get to experience. “Making meat” is a big part of it, but a chance to observe the changing ways of nature is reward enough for you time spent outdoors this week. Go out there, see what's going on, and don't worry about Christmas yet. After all, the 25th is still weeks away - there's plenty of time for shopping!