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Folks who have never tried fall hunting often wonder what the great attraction is, and most mistakenly think it has something to do with killing game. It's certainly a goal of most hunters to bring something home for the table or the freezer, but what most people don't realize is that per-capita success is miniscule when it comes to gun hunting, and bowhunters are even less likely to succeed.
Most years, some 200,000 deer hunters enter the woods with a rifle in November, but slightly over 13 percent of them get a chance to fill out their tags. In October's archery season the success rate is often about half that - some 7 to 10 percent most years. All of this indicates that some 90 percent of hunters are not successful, and that has to make you wonder what it is that could make over 150,000 rifle hunters and tens of thousands of bowhunters keep going back into the woods every year.
You have only to step into the woods on a crisp fall morning to get the first hint of what motivates these intrepid sportsmen. We all agree (hunters or not) that fall is the greatest time of year in Maine, but those first few minutes of the autumn day are priceless no matter what you are doing. The cool stillness of dawn punctuated by the smell of falling leaves and the brilliant blue of the morning sky are as good an elixir as any, and most hunters can't get enough of it. It just feels good out there, comfortable, quiet and calm, and even if we don't see a deer, bear or grouse we are happy.
This week, as the swamp maples continue to turn red and the occasional, shockingly orange sugar maple turns up along the road or on a distant hillside, we think about how short the seasons are, how enjoyable the woodland ambience is and how quickly it will all turn to the somber hues of winter. Because the season is one of perfection doomed to end, we have to get out there and enjoy every minute of it.
Though I hunt and shoot as much as anyone, my real joy in the fall woods is not only hearing the soft chirping of foraging chickadees but being able to whistle them in close enough to touch. You can imitate the call of a chickadee and, in minutes, be surrounded by a curious troop of the black-capped nomads. There have been times when I've had them land on my rifle barrel, my boots and my hat brim - they are curious and trusting little mites and always full of life and interest in their surroundings.
Later, when things get more serious during the rifle season, I like to listen to the buzzing call of creepers and nuthatches. These and other small birds keep things interesting during those long, quiet days when the deer are not moving, and their industrious labors can entertain a stump-weary hunter for hours on end.
I think most early-morning hunters will understand what I mean when I say that finding a partridge roosted before dawn can be a memorable experience, too. Grouse have the habit of spending their nights on limbs and branches as protection from owls and other predators, but every so often you'll find one that has decided to roost on a bare limb over a road or trail that happens to lead to your “secret” spot.
You sneak quietly through the woods, intent on getting to your destination without making a sound, and you might consider yourself quite the Leatherstocking till a partridge bursts into the air right over your head! If I don't have this happen to me at least once a week I'm not hunting very hard, and though I've put thousands of grouse to flight in my career, I still have not gotten used to the loud, unnerving noise they make as they clatter off in search of another, better roosting site. Why they wait till you're right under them to flush is beyond me - I'd think they'd be better off just letting you pass by - but for some reason they just have to make a scene in the pre-dawn darkness. It's not easy to maintain your focus after such an encounter, and you have to believe that every deer within five miles has heard the commotion.
I've never conducted a study to find out how many times I've NOT seen a deer after such an episode, but I'd think the bigger, smarter bucks would take the hunt and leave head for the high ground upon hearing their brother grouse flush before daylight. Because partridges are diurnal birds, most active in daylight, it's a dead giveaway to hear one flapping about in the dark. All prey species (including the hoofed variety) know it's not a good thing!
I have spent the better part of the last 45 years in the woods at all times of the year, quite often on sunny days but have also endured just as many cold, wet, rainy, windy, snowy days in pursuit of one sort of game or another and, quite honestly, cannot remember a single day I would not want to relive. There is something going on “out there” that is as comforting as a wool blanket in January to the avid sportsman and, rain or shine, we can't bring ourselves to miss it.
I have come in cold, wet, shivering and exhausted after many a long day with no luck, but I've yet to think I've had enough and don't need to return. I still look forward to “opening day” with the same enthusiasm I had at age 12 and, these days, dread the last day of the season with a passion because I know that any one of these seasons could be my last.
It's fall in Maine, the most glorious time of the year. Find the time to get out there and enjoy it because in just a few short weeks the harvest season will be lost to us for another year. If you have a hard time understanding the lure of the fall woods, whistle up a chickadee - I'm sure he'll be able to explain it to you!
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