|Today is the one “holiday” of the year that, for sportsmen, is more exciting than Christmas Day. This is the day when all of Maine’s upland, waterfowl and big game hunting seasons are open. Options range from deer, bear, grouse, woodcock, rabbits, squirrels, ducks and geese. Even rails and snipe (plentiful in Maine but rarely hunted) may be taken along with moose (with the proper permits) and specialty birds including snow geese (a real challenge) and sea ducks (equally challenging). Wild turkeys are on the menu as well with split archery-only and shotgun seasons open later this month.
For me the most enjoyable of all these are the upland species. A good, long walk in the woods this week should turn up enough woodcock, grouse, squirrels and rabbits to satisfy any shotgunner. The great thing about hunting small game is that it’s cheap (shotshells and lunch are all that’s required) and you can actually make noise, move around and basically do all the things you can’t do when in pursuit of big game or waterfowl.
All of this came to mind recently while hunting bears over bait and voluntarily sat from daylight till dark for a week staring at a bait bucket. The bears never showed up but all day long grouse, rabbits, martens, Canada jays, red squirrels and chipmunks came in to sample the bucket’s contents. There were long hours when I found myself wishing I could be off roaming the uplands with a shotgun in pursuit of birds or rabbits, but instead I sat tight, patiently waiting and watching to no avail.
This week will be different, however. Seeing all those grouse and rabbits gave me the “October itch,” so I will be out there roaming the thickets and enjoying the benefits of active pursuit. The simple act of walking will put birds in the air and rabbits on the run, and that’s all it takes to make a successful day afield. One can’t expect to get a shot at every critter that jumps up, but even a poor shot should be able to garner enough meat for a meal at the end of the day.
To make the most of my small game forays I will plan on hitting the cedar and alder thickets for rabbits at dawn and then head for the birch-covered side hills at midday for grouse and woodcock. These birds seem to be most active from around 9 a.m. till late afternoon, at which point I head for a nice, open oak stand and hope to find a few gray squirrels for the pot. It’s possible to cover a lot of ground over the course of an October day, but by the end of the trip I’ll have some great experiences to recall and a delicious meal or two in my game pocket.
Before I head out each day I set aside a small pile of hardwood kindling that I set ablaze as soon as I get back home. I’ll have my gear put away and my game dressed, cleaned and ready to cook by the time the wood has burned down to red-hot coals, and 20 minutes after I place my foil-wrapped game on the grill it’s ready to eat a meal fit for a king, I must say! Grouse cooked this way are juicy and succulent, and rabbit and squirrel are tender and flavorful much better than when they are fried on the stove top.
Since Maine offers a fall turkey season I like to spend some time chasing them as well. The standard procedure is to find a flock of birds and “bust” them (make them scatter), and then sit down and try to call them back to the gun. Gobblers and hens are legal game during the fall hunt so it shouldn’t be difficult to call one or the other into shotgun or bow range. Things get interesting if you are interested in shooting a big tom turkey they are shy and tend to follow the hens around, letting the females do all the cautionary work and trusting that they will alert the flock to any danger that may be lurking nearby. In this case the hunter must be able to sit still and let the hens wander past, hoping the gobblers will be right behind them.
By the way, it is legal to hunt fall turkeys from blinds and tree stands, which add an interesting twist to the sit-and-call technique, and decoys are also allowed.
Having hunted fall turkeys in a dozen states over the years I find that it’s not necessary to find a flock and chase them into flight. I have just as much luck picking a known roosting or feeding area and simply sitting tight and calling every 15 minutes or so to bring these flock-oriented birds close enough for a shot. There are always lonely singles out there that are looking for company and hunters who have the patience to sit tight for an hour or two can lure them in.
Most turkey hunters save the breast meat and grill or bake it in a covered pot, but the remainder of the bird is also good eating. I salvage the legs, wings, back and thighs and boil them down for a great soup stock. Add some chicken broth, vegetables of choice and a little pepper and you’ll wish the fall bag limit could be two birds, not just one!
The choices are many and varied for Maine’s hunters in October. There are hardly enough days in the month to take advantage of all the possibilities, but an ambitious sportsman can enjoy a little of everything before it’s time to focus on deer next month. I have tried many times to hunt all of the legal game species that have open seasons in October and, once or twice in the last 40 years I have taken the “grand slam” of one of everything. It’s much easier (and more productive) to focus on a few species at a time ducks in the morning, grouse in the afternoon, deer in the evening but October can be as busy or as relaxing as you want to make it.
The best part is that come November we can do it all again!