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Today is the day Maine hunters have been waiting for since last December. It’s opening day of the annual firearms deer season for anyone with a valid big game hunting license and a hankering for sweet venison steaks. From now till mid-December the woods will be filled with orange-clad sportsmen, all hoping to bring home one of Maine’s legendary 200-pound bucks.
Having been one of them for more than 50 years, I have learned (the hard way) that tagging a deer in Maine is no easy task and that any mistake, in fact every mistake, could end a hunter’s season. Because the state’s deer herd is half what it was a half-century ago, and our annual whitetail harvest was down to a relatively pitiful 18,000 animals last season, hunters must take their job more seriously if they want to see, let alone shoot, a Maine buck this year.
Like most hunters I am always on the alert for deer sign, which I mull over, examine, study and consider at great length in hopes that it will lead me to my trophy. Fresh sign is great, of course, proving that there are deer nearby, but the most important aspects of a successful hunt are within the hunter himself.
After decades of experience in deer hunting across the country I’ve come to realize that there are just two commonalities that make all the difference: Being in the right place at the right time, and making the shot when the opportunity arises. Simple enough, yet hunters continue to try to buy, build or create easier, better ways to get their game – usually without results.
I just returned from a hunt where all of the newest, greatest gadgets yet devised were used to fool big bucks, from trail cams to tree stands and blinds, scents and lures, calls, decoys and the rest, and yet the only hunters who succeeded in tagging their deer were the two old-timers! “Stuff” is great to a point, but if you don’t roll out of bed each morning prepared to spend all day in the woods and if you can’t hit your target (with gun or bow) under duress, you are likely to have a disappointing trip.
Two things I noticed that separated the successful hunters from the Gadget Brigade were that, No. 1, we hunted every day, rain or shine. You can kill a deer in spite of all the latest trends in equipment and gear but only if you spend time in the woods. By Day Three the two older fellows were the only ones getting up in the morning and heading out before daylight. The rest of the hunters in camp had become bored, disillusioned or distracted and found every excuse not to get up, get dressed and get going.
To be a successful hunter you must hunt! Spend all day every day in the woods, or as much time as you can spare from work and other responsibilities. Hunt when it’s hot, cold, wet, windy, dreary or bright. Get out there before sunrise and stay till the end of legal shooting time. Many times the only opportunity you get is in the first or last minute of the day. For example, my buck showed up in the last five minutes of the hunt, sneaking by me in the pouring rain. I was, admittedly, cold and miserable up to that point, but I’d learned this lesson long ago and forced myself to stay put – and once again I was rewarded with a nice, fat buck.
The No. 2 reason why hunters come home empty-handed is that they do not sight in their rifles or bows prior to the hunt – and by this I mean the day before they go out, not weeks or months earlier. A good friend of mine decided not to sight in his rifle because it had been “dead on” last year, and though I told him that anything could happen in a year, he left the rifle in its case until opening day. Sure enough, he saw a nice buck at first light and missed it clean – twice!
Naturally, the miss bothered my buddy so we went to the nearest range and discovered that, what do you know, the rifle was shooting 8 inches high at 25 yards! No explanation for it, no reason for it, no possible way that could have happened – but it did, and he missed his only chance of the season.
Similarly, hunters think if they can hit a pie plate at 25 yards it is “good enough” for deer. Unfortunately, sometimes the only shot you get is a couple of inches in diameter through limbs and brush. Suddenly pie plate accuracy is not “good enough” and another season is wasted.
This also happened on my recent trip. A bowhunter who thought 6-inch accuracy was acceptable hit a deer too low and we tracked it for several hours before the sign ran out and it began to rain: another lost chance that could have been avoided!
This year, turn the tables on your own deer hunt by getting out there as often as possible and stay all day. Hunt hard and often, regardless of the weather conditions. Remember, deer live in the woods year-round and have no place else to go. Get in there with them and make the most of the short days and short season.
And, before you go, make sure that your rifle or bow is shooting straight. At 25 yards, most deer rifles should be bullets-touching, which means you are good to go on whitetails out to 250 yards. If you can’t hit a 3-inch circle at 25 yards with your bow, get closer or practice till you can make the shot – every time.
In the end, perseverance is the key to a successful hunt. Last year I hunted 17 straight days in Maine till I saw the first buck, a fine 10-pointer that fell on the last day of the season. I’m prepared to do it all over again this year if I have to. Are you?
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