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Today marks the second week of the annual Maine deer season and, by now, some hunters are already thinking they’re wasting their time. After all the hype and anticipation (not unlike the Super Bowl in some quarters), they realize that a) deer are smarter than we thought and b) they are not as numerous as we though.
Aside from the fact that there is one deer out there for each license holder, Maine is a big state with a lot of room between flagging white tails. The truth is that even an experienced hunter can walk all day and not see a deer. In fact, many hunters walk for many days and don’t see much but tracks, trails, rubs and scrapes; all good indications that deer exist in the woods but none of it tells us where the deer are right now!
The one prime advantage deer hunters have this week is that it’s pretty much the peak of the annual rut, which means eager bucks are roaming the forest in search of receptive does, and somehow they know that if they don’t get the job done this month they are out of business for another year. This is why so many big bucks are found smashed on highways, walking aimlessly through parking lots and otherwise exhibiting really stupid behavior. For most of the year it’s actually unusual to see a buck in the open, but during November they ignore the basics of survival in lieu of the basics of procreation. This is where the hunter comes in.
If you are going to hunt at all this season, find a way to get out there in the next week or ten days. Every hour you spend in the woods means another opportunity to bump into a wandering buck, and the odds are great that you will see one if you stay out there long enough.
Perhaps the greatest ally a hunter can have during this period is the presence of snow. Suddenly, the formerly “empty” woods are filled with tracks and beds – after a few days it looks like hundreds of deer are living right under our noses! The do tend to roam the open fields and clear-cuts after dark, and it can be disconcerting to find so much fresh sign every morning yet so few deer standing around nearby. Remember, these animals have been the prey of stealthy predators for eons – they know how and where to hide during the day. The key is to spend more time in the woods and to spend it in the places deer like to be during daylight hours.
The bottom line now is thick cover. With the end of the leaf fall comes exposure and wind, two things deer do not like. Thick cover provides protection from the elements and reduces their exposure to their enemies. If you’ve hunted at all you’ve seen it before – the dark-brown whitetail standing stock still within a thicket of equally dark saplings. Until the deer moves you can’t tell where he is or which way he’s facing – they blend in that well! They know it, too – I have seen November whitetails stand and watch as I went by, certain that their brown hair provided the perfect camouflage. In most cases it does, but if I happen to notice the curve of a neck or a slash of white belly fur . . .
To maximize your odds for success, get into the woods early and plan to stay all day. Those wandering bucks have lost the normal dawn-and-dusk timetable that regulated their lives all summer and fall. Now they are driven by an undeniable force that keeps them trotting steadily from woodlot to swamp and back again. They will travel many miles per day in search of does, battling other bucks along the way and following unfamiliar trails through new and confusing territory.
If you can’t decide where to start looking, I’d recommend any swampy area where the lowlands meet the high ground. In most cases, these “steps” or “plateaus” neatly border the thick swamp growth and the more open hardwood ridges. Deer like to travel here because they have a good view of the open woods, the wind (at dusk) falls from the high ground and the thick swamp offers immediate cover should danger threaten.
I have hunted these habitat edges for decades and have shot many a buck there as well. In fact, whenever I travel to hunt other states I study my maps, find the plateaus and cover changes and target the same types of areas. It doesn’t matter where you hunt, deer will use these corridors as travel lanes. Be there as often as you can and be ready to shoot – they’ll show up early or late in the day, and at this time of year you may well find your trophy roaming around at midday as well.
There are few easy ways to take a deer in Maine, though already some of your friends and neighbors will have filled the game pole. I have done it myself a few times, and it’s always a joy to put a nice buck in the freezer before all the bad weather and dark days fall upon us. However, the blind luck of the first week is past us now and you’ll have to make a more concerted effort to succeed if you’re going to dine on venison steaks this winter. There are any number of excuses for not getting up in the morning, but if the weather’s right and it’s the peak of the rut (as it is this week) you need to forget the excuses and start making plans!
Get serious, gather your necessary gear and plan to spend as much time as possible in the woods from now on. The actual time it takes to see and kill a deer is mere seconds, but it won’t happen if you’re not there!
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