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When I turned the calendar page to October a few days ago I was reminded of a promise I made to myself last fall: instead of spending this whole month chasing deer, bears and other big game all over the country, I vowed to stay home and hunt small game right in my back yard. Much as I love traveling in hopes of bagging a big buck or bruin, while I’m away all I can think about is the great squirrel, rabbit, duck and bird hunting I’m missing. So much attention is given to deer, bear and moose that Maine’s great upland hunting opportunities are all but forgotten.
I’ve enjoyed sneaking through the woods with a .22 or .410 shotgun since the early 1960s and hate to see an October go by without at least one feed of squirrel, rabbit or feathered game.
In fact, in anticipation of fall I make it a point to cut and split a pile of oak, rock maple or beech into kindling-sized sticks. I keep the kindling separate from my heating supply and my fire pit wood. When I get home from a successful day in the woods I make a quick fire using the dry hardwood and then go inside to prepare my game. No matter what I have in hand (squirrel, rabbit, grouse or duck), the preparation is the same. I wrap several pieces of meat in aluminum foil along with a dollop of butter and a tablespoon of Italian dressing. When the wood has burned down to glowing coals, I toss the meat on the grill. When I’ve finished my first cup of hot tea, I flip the meat and brew another cup. When that’s gone the meat is done. Adding some fresh vegetables and garlic potatoes, I sit back to enjoy a delicious game dinner in the open air, the evening stars twinkling overhead.
It’s an easy, enjoyable matter to garner enough game or fowl to make a fireside meal in October. Squirrel hunting is best at dawn or dusk, when the animals are busy looking for acorns, beech nuts and other mast. For rabbits, spend some time in swampy edge cover where alders and evergreens meet the hardwoods.
Grouse hunters do well looking for birds along overgrown logging roads, near apple orchards or in the same alder-evergreen cover favored by rabbits. It takes a sharp eye to spot and shoot a slow-moving grouse walking on the ground and super reflexes to bag a partridge on the wing, but open that foil package and it will all seem worthwhile.
Puddle ducks including wood ducks, black ducks, mallards and teal can be taken by sneaking along beaver flowages, lake shores or river banks at dawn and dusk, when waterfowl are in the air looking for places to feed and loaf during the day.
Rather than pluck these birds I remove the skin and fat from the lean, red meat on the breast and legs. Grilled to a juicy medium-rare, wild duck is as palatable as any wild game out there. Overcook them (or any other wild meat) and you may as well eat boiled golf balls.
Aside from the culinary benefits, there is much to recommend small game hunting in October. Unlike a successful big game hunt, where the hunter must sit still for long hours, making no noise or movement that might alert a deer or bear, small game hunters can walk briskly, make some noise and enjoy the changing scenery at every step. Pause occasionally to give reluctant flyers a chance to rethink their strategy, and then be ready for a shot when you take your next step. On a good day one can expect to have several shooting opportunities at a variety of targets. All of them are perfect for grilling over a bed of hardwood coals.
Maine’s small game species may be hunted through the month of October. Some seasons run through November and into December as well. Rabbits may be hunted through the month of March, one of the longest game seasons in the U.S.
A small game hunting license is required to pursue squirrels, rabbits, grouse and woodcock. To hunt waterfowl, add a federal duck stamp and a Maine waterfowl stamp to the list.
Only shotshells containing non-toxic shot may be in the hunter’s possession when duck or goose hunting. This isn’t a problem because non-toxic shot may be used when hunting squirrels, rabbits, grouse and other small game.
If I had to use only one gun for all my small game hunting, it would be my trusty old .410 shotgun. I own a double-barrel .410 (which I use for rabbit hunting) and a pump-action shotgun for everything else. I have a personal rule not to shoot at game beyond 20 yards so I rarely feel the need for a 12- or 20-gauge gun unless I am planning to hunt waterfowl, which are usually farther away and much more difficult to down with a single shot.
I plan my hunting day so I am sure to work my way through a variety of cover types, which means I should see all of my favorite critters at some point during the day. If I have only half a day to hunt, I decide which species I’d most like to see on the grill that night and focus all my efforts on it. There are years when squirrels are abundant, so I may spend more time in mature hardwoods, but there are years when there seems to be a partridge in every pear tree, so I’ll switch to orchards and alders. There’s always a rabbit or two to be found in October, and any amount of open water, even flooded timber, will hold at least a few ducks.
The beauty of October small game hunting is that by day’s end I will have seen something on my list of preferred dinner entrees. I don’t have to kill them all every day nor do I want to. Sometimes I’ll have exceptional luck and down a couple of grouse in the first orchard I come to. When that happens I just turn around and head for home, leaving my other hotspots for another day. It’s good to have an excuse to go again next time!
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