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If you awoke this morning thinking deer season is over for another year, don’t panic. While it’s true that the regular firearms season on deer ended Saturday, there is still hunting time available via the annual muzzleloader season, which begins today statewide and carries on in our area (generally considered “southern Maine” for muzzleloader hunting purposes) through next week (as long as you are willing to hunt in the area south of Route 16).
Most black powder hunters in the Rolling Thunder Express coverage area are at least able to hunt somewhere nearby for the next two weeks, which may be a blessing in many ways. For one thing, the woods will be relatively empty of other hunters, so for the cost of a $13 muzzleloader stamp (which may be purchased online at www.maine.gov/ifw/licenses_permits) you can have your favorite piece of woods all to yourself for 12 full days.
Those who follow the ups and downs of the Maine whitetail’s annual breeding cycle (the rut, as hunters like to call it) consider December hunting to be just as good as November’s famed “peak rut” period because amorous bucks will be roaming the forest in search of does that were not bred previously. This late rut period is what produces all those June-July fawns that still carry their spots come next fall.
With room to roam, plenty of active bucks still on the run and much less competition, what else could a December muzzleloader hunter ask? Well, snow might be on the list, and while early forecasts aren’t showing much in the way of white stuff much before Thanksgiving, the odds are that we’ll at least see colder temperatures during these two bonus weeks of hunting time.
Perhaps the best way to fill a December muzzleloader season tag is to plan hunts that put you in thick cover near feeding areas (orchards, cornfields and pastures) and then near the tops of ridges where deer will spend their days soaking up what little sunlight there might be.
Walking on frozen, cornflake-like leaves when temperatures are in the 20s (or even less) is a challenge for sure, but if you get there early and have the patience to sit still for several hours you may have a chance.
Another option is to gather a couple of buddies and conduct quick, short drives of small patches of woods. Maine law requires that three or fewer hunters may participate in a drive, so there’s no point in picking a patch of woods that runs for miles and trying to surround it with just three hunters. Instead, pick small woodlots that deer normally use in their travels. Use safe tactics (wear your orange hat and vest!) and move slowly.
The idea is to encourage the deer to go from Point A to Point B at a slow walk. There’s no gain in having them run and bound away – shots at running deer are always iffy, and because muzzleloaders are limited to one shot, it’s silly to waste your powder on a deer that’s bounding six feet in the air at every jump.
This is a good time to hunt the marshes and wetlands. It’s rare to see whitetails in the open woods at this time of year because they don’t like to be exposed and there’s little for them to eat, especially on frosty ground. The wetlands offer thick brush, tall grass and some protection from the wind. This is where a two- or three-man drive would work well. I’ve spent countless hours hunting alone in swale grass with deer walking or running ahead of me just a few yards away – but always just out of sight, of course!
If the weather is mild or wet (snow or rain), consider hunting in the alders along a river or stream. You can’t see more than 20 yards in this stuff but neither can the deer. Dress lightly but bring binoculars so you can take a few steps and then slowly glass the surrounding area. I shot a nice buck doing just that in Dexter one year. He wouldn’t leave the alders and for most of the morning all I could see of him was a glimpse of an antler, his tail or his back, but after several hours of hide-and-seek he finally paused in an opening where I could see his head and shoulders. I was cold, wet, hungry and exhausted at the end of it all but in the end I had a nice buck to drag out, which made it all worthwhile.
The key to success during the muzzleloader season is persistence. By the end of the first week hunting must end by 4:30 p.m., which makes for a very short day in the woods. Pack a lunch, bring some water and plan to spend all day whenever possible. Make the most of the dawn and dusk periods but go whenever you can because deer can be anywhere, even during midday. At this point in the season you can’t afford to waste a minute!
One last thing to consider – be sure your muzzleloader is primed and ready and that it still shoots straight. Just a few days ago a friend of mine (who routinely hunts with a muzzleloader) missed what he calls “the biggest buck I ever saw” because his muzzleloader fizzled when it fired. He’d kept it on the rack, loaded, since last season and hadn’t fired it since, assuming that it would work fine when the time came.
Well, his season ended on a very sour note because the gun didn’t fire, the deer stood there in full view while he popped cap after cap to no effect, and finally the buck just walked away, safe for another day.
Opportunities at big bucks are rare on the best of days, and it helps to be ready for them. If you like sleepless nights with nightmares about monster bucks that got away, don’t bother range testing your muzzleloader this season. Someone, somewhere, is going to have a similar sad story to tell at the end of the season. I hope it’s not you!
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