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The 2007 Maine rifle deer season has ended now, but this week marks the beginning of the annual black powder whitetail hunt. If you were unlucky (or lazy) last month and didn’t put a deer in the freezer, you still have another week to try your luck (or two weeks in most of southern and central Maine).
Maine’s muzzleloader hunt is unusual because it comes late in the year (many states hold their black powder hunts in September or October) and conditions are about as miserable as they can be for hunters. Barring the rare warm snap, it’s likely to be nose-running cold with snow on the ground and the activity level of deer ebbing considerably compared to what it was just a month ago.
This late in the year, deer begin to enter their winter survival mode, which means lots of sitting tight, spending time in dense cover and avoiding confrontations with dogs, coyotes and hunters. The situation now is one of “move only when necessary” because food sources are minimal and deer must conserve their body fat if they want to survive till spring. For the rest of the winter, seeing deer (or even finding sign of deer) will be a rarity, which makes this a challenging week for muzzleloader hunters. But, “challenge” does not mean a late-season hunt is impossible – it’s just more interesting!
Finding deer will be a chore of its own, but in most cases your biggest concern will be making sure your muzzleloader will work when the time comes. Older models (percussion or flintlock) are reliable if you take pains to keep moisture out of the firing mechanism. Snow, rain or condensation (even early morning fog) can render black powder inert, which can frustrate a hunter who’s done everything right up to the point he pulls the trigger. That aggravating “pop” that occurs when a percussion cap goes off but doesn’t ignite the powder in the barrel can be as loud as a bomb in the hunter’s mind, and the deer will normally look up, snort derisively and bound away, flag flying, as you scramble to find another cap. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how that little scenario is likely to end.
It’s safe to say that most muzzleloader-season deer are saved by the hunter’s own failure to keep his rifle clean, properly loaded and primed, so keep this in mind as you make your plans for the week. Think “clean and dry” and avoid moisture at all costs – even bringing your gun into the house from the cold can create condensation inside the barrel, which can trickle down into the powder charge. Take no chances because you’re likely to get only one opportunity for a shot – don’t risk the end days of your season with a careless mistake!
With your gear ready to go, where can you expect to find a deer this week? In our area of Maine, most of the deer will be in yarding areas or, at least, in the thickest cover they can find. With the breeding season behind them and food at a minimum, deer are most concerned with staying out of sight, out of the wind and in the relative safety of dense cover. I’ve found this to be both obvious and frustrating because I know the deer will be there but seeing them can be a challenge, for a couple of reasons.
One year, as I was black powder hunting the St. Albans Wildlife Management Area in Newport, I bumped into a herd of deer in some thick firs on the far side of the pond that dominates the area. I could hear them walking in the snow and I could see legs and the occasional ear or nose, but it was so thick and dark in there I could not see anything specific to shoot at.
I tried calling to them with a variety of grunts and bleats, and had a couple of yearlings walk nearly up to me to investigate, but the bigger deer held back just far enough to avoid me. One of the bigger deer (a buck?) grunted constantly the entire time, and one doe stood back out of sight and stamped her foot and snorted for 20 minutes, but I could not find a way to get a shot.
That scenario ended in a stalemate, and I could only stand there and listen as the little herd finally wandered off into the cattails around the pond. But, it certainly was a memorable event!
In another area I hunted I learned yet more about the interesting habits of post-season deer that I hadn’t considered. This was in some thick cover along the Crawford Road in Pittsfield. I was on high ground watching some swampy cover where deer trails converged from all over the woods. The only sunlight hitting the ground was in an open space filled with cattails and dead grass. With nothing better to do, I started combing the opening with my binoculars. Among all the deadwood, saplings and brush I happened to notice something a little out of place – something dark, curved and . . . just different from the rest of the surroundings. After a very long time I realized it was a deer, a nice buck, and it was just laying out there soaking up the sun. The bad news was that it was too far away for a shot and the woods were so noisy and crunchy that there was no hope of sneaking up on it. All I could do was wait for the deer to get up and, hopefully, move toward me sometime during the day.
The interesting thing was that the deer stood up every hour or so and just moved into another sunny spot, basically following the lone source of heat across the swamp. The buck was never on its feet for more than a few seconds, just long enough to get up, move 10 feet and lay down again. I could see him plain as day at about 150 yards, but there was no chance for a shot with my .45-caliber side lock percussion rifle. It was interesting but disheartening to see the buck moving along with the spot of sun right across the swamp because, unfortunately, he was moving away from me the entire time!
You never know what’s going to happen when you enter the Maine woods in December, but this is your last chance for venison this season – load up your favorite smoke pole and get out there – you won’t get another opportunity to hunt deer again for nine long months!
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