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Ok, so you finished out the regular firearms deer season with a windy, rainy Thanksgiving week that will likely go down as one of the worst ever. Going into last week, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife proclaimed that the harvest was down by 50 percent, and the bad weather on Tuesday and Wednesday made hunters wish they had taken up another hobby – like bowling!
Hunters could say the season ended miserably and simply look to next fall, but there is good news – it’s not over yet! Today marks the opening of the 2008 blackpowder deer season in northern Maine, and for hunters who are willing to travel a bit south, there are two weeks of muzzleloader hunting remaining.
If you haven’t kept up with the blackpowder world, we’ve come a long way from using unreliable flintlocks and primitive percussion guns. The in-lines rule now, and these guns are as reliable and accurate as any modern centerfire gun. In fact, today’s in-line gunmakers are claiming 200-yard-plus accuracy with their newest models, which is more than enough for the average Maine hunter. In-line guns are now so efficient that you can load them on Monday morning and not worry about them all week. Simply pop a fresh 209 primer on each morning and go find a deer. There’s no need to worry about moisture getting inside the gun to ruin the powder and, in fact, you won’t have to clean the gun till well after the season ends.
These guns are so dependable that they are no longer your biggest worry this week. Instead, the focus is on finding a deer to shoot at. As intrepid sports discovered last week, looking for a buck in an open field or leafless hardwood stand is an exercise in frustration. From now till next spring the animals are going to spend most of their time in thick cover, venturing out only at night to feed, and, when the snow begins to pile up, they won’t “venture out” at all. They’ll sit tight, back to the wind, moving very little and living off their stored body fat.
By the end of last week there was little or no snow on the ground, which means the deer will still be moving around freely. They are still out there, still driven to feed on whatever browse and succulents they can find.
To be successful this week, hunters need to spend time in the woods, working the thickest cover they can find and working the high, south-facing ridges where deer like to bed on sunny days. Walk a little look a lot and be ready for a shot. When you jump a whitetail, put your sights on him and follow him till he slows and then stops for that quick look back. Have your sights on his shoulder and squeeze the trigger the instant he stops.
For high-odds hunting, head for the swamps that, fortunately, are numerous in our area. Study a topographic map and look for the areas that are dominated by swale grass, cedars and alders. Put on your rubber boots and pack a lunch because the deer are there but it may take some time and stealthy effort to find them.
Deer know they can’t leave these places without being seen, so they play an expert’s game of hide-and-seek – they may be only 20 yards away but won’t bolt if they think you’re going to pass on by. For this reason, hunters need to be cautious and suspicious. I like to hunt these places slowly and methodically, pausing often to search the woods ahead of me with binoculars. On many occasions I have spent 20 minutes or more just looking into the thickets, and have often spotted a tail, an eye or an ear of a whitetail that thinks he can’t be seen.
Admittedly, this is slow, tedious work, but if you are patient and curious, you’ll start seeing deer that are simply waiting for you to pass by on established trails. Move slowly and stop every few yards to look all around you – even to the rear. I shot a nice buck in Dexter one year after I’d moved nearly all the way through a huge alder patch on the County Line Road. It took me several hours to glass my way through that mess, but I just had a feeling that I’d missed a clue somewhere. I turned around and went about 20 yards back in and finally spotted an antler moving slowly through the twisted alders. The deer had followed me and was actually working his way around me, making sure that I’d left the alders. He stopped only 20 yards away and was looking out to the open field to see if I was on my way back to the truck, as most hunters would have been. I only had a 12-inch opening to shoot through, but it was enough. I still rate that hunt as one of the most satisfying of my career.
Don’t let the wind, rain, cold or snow slow you down this week. There is plenty of time to put your tag on a late-season buck – all you have to do is get out there and make the most of every minute you have available. It only takes a few seconds to see and shoot a deer, but the trick is to put yourself in that position regardless of the conditions. Ignore the weather, avoid the empty woods and spend as much time as you can in the thickest cover you can find. This is tense and stressful work because whitetails aren’t going to do you any favors – they are unforgiving and allow no mistakes. Move slowly, look often and be patient.
Time is running out for sure, but there are at least six full days of hunting ahead of you. You may end up being the last Maine hunter to tag a buck this season, but imagine how good you’re going to feel when you pull up to the tagging station with a nice buck in the back of the truck. You’ll be the talk of the town till next season rolls around!
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