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Ah, four days past Christmas and not a gift in sight. Most trees are in the snow bank, still glittering with silver icicles, and households are back to normal, with lots of cleaning up to do and a long, hard winter ahead.
Your 2008 hunting or fishing license is still good for a few more days (all of Maine’s hunting and fishing licenses expire Dec. 31), so why not make the most of this year’s opportunities and get out there for a few hours?
You may hunt rabbits, grouse, squirrels, snow geese and sea ducks (all available in or near our region of the state) as well as valuable furbearers such as coyotes, foxes, raccoons and bobcats. I’ve often thought it unfair that sea duck hunters could shoot mergansers, goldeneyes and other species up to the first upstream bridge on coastal streams and rivers, but not inland. I have seen plenty of “sea duck” species as far inland as East Dover when the rivers are open, but they are not legal game for us. Hit the coast on the same day (even the same river!) and you can shoot at them all you want!
In any case, we have plenty to do out there in these final days of December. The most likely scenario is a quick run through the alders and cedars for grouse and rabbits, which is not a bad way to spend a snowy December day, anyway. There is no need to be especially furtive with either species – they’ll let you know where they are by running or flying away, and then it’s up to your shotgunning skills to even the odds.
One could use the excuse that there’s too much snow (and in some parts of Maine they may be right!), but our native snowshoe hares are top-of-the-snow denizens and grouse, of course, roost in trees (and even in the snow), so there’s no reason to avoid them. Rabbits leave copious amounts of tracks and trails through the alders and evergreens, so don’t bother trying to track them unless you are sure there’s only one rabbit in the woods! Once a running rabbit hits a common trail, the odds of you picking up that particular track again are nil. But, it is a good idea to hunt in areas where there are lots of tracks, because sooner or later you will jump a hare that put its faith in its white coat. It’s not difficult to see hares, even in deep snow, if you know what to look for. Even so, it takes a keen eye to sort through all the blacks and whites in a snowy wood – it’s a great challenge and a fun way to spend the day.
Grouse are a different story. They may flush out of the snow, from holes where they dove in to keep warm during a recent storm, or they may flush from the inner branches of a thick fir, hemlock or spruce tree. In most cases they take a back door and leave on a whir of wings, so pay attention, keep your eyes high and be ready to shoot at the first sign of a flush. December grouse are no longer playing games with hunters. They see you, they go, that’s it!
If you know with certainty that the local pickerel pond has safe ice (4 inches or more), it may be a good idea to cut a few holes and see how the ice-fishing is. Never try cutting holes if you don’t know how safe the ice is. I did so one time and ended up on the bottom looking up at the ice – a chilling experience one never forgets! If you’re not certain, ask a warden or sheriff, or walk slowly and make tests holes as you go. Ice doesn’t form evenly across a lake, so be cautious. I don’t go if the ice isn’t 6 inches or more, but that’s just me!
The great thing about pickerel is that they are always eager to bite, winter or summer. Lower a lively 3-inch minnow to a point just over the weed cover on bottom and get ready!
An easy, fast and productive pickerel hole in our area is Branns Mill Pond in Dover-Foxcroft. When there is safe ice by the dam, you can cut holes and be catching fish within minutes of your arrival. I have been there many times when I could not get my second trap set because the flag on my first trap kept tripping! Some days I’d catch half a dozen fish, one right after the other, before I could set my second trap.
Don’t expect that kind of action every time you go, but if pickerel are the quarry anything can happen! Some of these fish can be over 5 pounds, but the majority are between 12 and 20 inches, which are perfect for the pan and excellent eating. Scale and fillet the fish, then make a series of cuts in the flesh side of the fillet about ? inch apart. When you cook the meat, those nasty little Y-shaped bones melt in the cooking, leaving you with a nice chunk of sweet, tasty fish. Breaded and fried, you won’t want to go back to store-bought fish sticks, I can tell you that!
Make the most of these last few days of December (and last year’s license). Get out there and hunt or fish and enjoy the scenery and fresh air. Remember that your licenses will expire on Wednesday, so you will need a renewal beginning Jan. 1. By the way, if you didn’t get a new license for Christmas, don’t blame me! I always recommend a new license as a great holiday gift, and now you can purchase them online at http://www.state.me.us/ifw/licenses_permits/index.htm.
This is a great system because, on Jan. 1 at 12:01 a.m., you can download your license at home and be in the woods again New Year’s morning without skipping a beat.
What better way to start the New Year than in the Maine woods!
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