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Today is more or less the official opening day of Maine’s 2011 firearms deer hunting season. Of course, residents-only day was Saturday, but now everyone with a valid big game hunting license may participate, and well they should!
One of the last great traditions left in the Pine Tree State, the annual November deer hunt remains a top priority for avid hunters of all ages, male or female. We psych ourselves up with vivid images of Maine’s legendary big bucks (any antlered deer weighing over 200 pounds, dressed weight) and then sally forth into the frosty, leafless woods in hopes of bumping into one of these rare trophies. Does, fawns, button bucks and “other” antlered bucks (the small ones are called skippers and the rest are called “nice deer!”) are all legal game this month – with the proper permit, of course. Without a valid antlerless deer permit in hand you may only shoot a buck with antlers longer than 3 inches (burr included, or as the law reads, “measured from the skull”).
If you hunt hard and often enough (every day is not considered too much hunting – in my book, anyway!), you should have at least one opportunity to tag a deer that the law says you may take. It could be a doe or fawn, a small buck or a huge buck, but they are out there. All you have to do is find them.
Last week we talked about hunting at every opportunity and ensuring that your firearm (rifle, shotgun, muzzleloader or handgun) was properly sighted in. You won’t see a deer if you don’t go and you won’t tag one if you can’t make a clean, killing shot.
There is, however, a third element to deer-hunting success that is rarely discussed, but is as important as any of the other two. Focus is probably the most underrated aspect of deer hunting, but it’s the most important one. It’s not often talked about in “the literature” and it’s not something you can buy or order via the Internet. Armed with all the latest gear and gadgets, you are still handicapped if you aren’t able to pay attention to the woods around you.
I am fortunate in that I was taught how to pay attention in the woods by the very first deer I killed in LaGrange back in the early 1960s. I was walking along a logging road not far from Boyd Lake, shotgun over my shoulder, a can of Pepsi in hand, just strolling along at high noon without a care in the world. A shot in the distance should have been a warning to me, but I ignored it. Cracking branches coming closer should have rung a bell, but I ignored it. Leaves rustling just inside the woods should have had me on high alert, but I just stood there drinking my soda. It wasn’t till a “nice deer” poked his head around a clump of jack firs that I had the first inclination to take action.
Believe it or not, that little buck just stood there staring at me, just 10 feet away, while I stooped down and put my precious soda on the ground. He stayed there while I stood up, took the shotgun off my shoulder, aimed at the buck, squeezed the trigger, forgot that the safety was still on, pushed the safety off, squeezed the trigger again and finally rolled him over with a load of 00 buckshot.
By all accounts I should not have gotten that deer. True, I was in the woods (daydreaming as any 12-year-old might) and I was prepared for the shot (like I’d miss with buckshot at 10 feet!), but an older, wiser deer (or doe) would have leaped out of their skin to get away from me. This little buck just stood there staring at me and as a result ended up in the freezer, but I quickly learned that taking a carefree stroll down a November logging road at high noon is not the route to continued success.
During the following years I jumped a lot of deer but got no shots using my lollygag technique. I began to take things more seriously when I stepped off the trail into the woods one day and a huge buck jumped up. I just wasn’t ready for him. I heard rustling in the leaves but I didn’t react – at least not as fast as he did. Over 40 years later I can still see his wide, forked rack disappearing into the cedars – and that was a deer I should have had.
That telling incident changed the way I hunted deer forever after, and I didn’t have to buy a thing. From that day forward I simply took deer hunting much more seriously. No more daydreaming, no more aimless wandering. Now, I pay attention to the least sound or movement and I verify whatever attracted my attention, always assuming that what I saw or heard is a deer. It often turns out to be a squirrel, rabbit, chipmunk or some other critter, sometimes even another hunter, but now I am the one who surprises them, not the other way around.
I begin my mental switch the instant I enter the woods. I forget about work, chores, relationships, bills, life, death and all that stuff – I focus on what I can see and hear and I keep that level of concentration going all day. Every sound or movement is checked out and verified. I watch and listen for as long as it takes because deer often move slowly through the woods and will often stop and look around for several minutes before moving on.
You can’t buy patience, perseverance and persistence but these are the elements that will make or break your deer season. Enter the woods with a clear mind and all your senses attuned to what’s going on around you. Only then will you be on even footing with your quarry.
Good luck out there this season!
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