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Today marks the opening day of Maine’s 2012 statewide muzzleloader deer season, generally hailed as the “last resort” for hunters who didn’t, wouldn’t, or couldn’t take advantage of the September, October and November archery and firearms seasons.
Other than the cold, lack of snow and diminished deer herd this is a great time to be outdoors in search of venison. A part of me always hopes that I will get the chance to hunt that extra week (two weeks generally south of Wildlife Management District 17) just because I like my time in the woods and I have always enjoyed hunting with my Lyman Plains Rifle or my T/C Encore – I usually swap them from day to day so I can justify their place in the gun cabinet.
There is nothing easy about hunting the muzzleloader season – it will be cold, the deer will be few and the days will be desperately short – but there are good points as well. Best of all to me is the chance to wander far and wide in search of deer without having to worry about cutting into someone else’s hunting area (which happens a lot during the firearms season) and I don’t have to worry about bumping into bird hunters, duck hunters or anyone else. Even the balsam fir tippers are long gone by now, so there’s no danger of having a group of them come snipping their way into my secret spot (which has happened before).
It’s not too late to find a big Maine buck during these waning days of the deer season, and most hunters will focus their energies on tagging a trophy, even those who have a valid antlerless deer permit tucked away in their kit. I doubt that any hunter would shoot a doe over a monster buck, but sometimes reality gets in the way of our plans. If you want meat you have to shoot, but shooting during the muzzleloader season means that the season is truly over. When the smoke clears that big buck has been given a free ticket to live another year.
The strategies for late-season muzzleloader hunting are not much different than they were for September bowhunters or November rifle hunters. Find where the deer are feeding and bedding, and then spend as much time as you can spare amongst them. Trouble is that by now our deer are in their winter survival mode; the rut is over and the big bucks are not spending much time chasing receptive does. There may be a bit of leftover rutting activity going on but the hustle and bustle of November is long over and most of the bigger deer will be solitary, reclusive and difficult to pattern. There is no substitute for time spent in the woods, especially in the waning days of the season, so put shopping, taxes and the mortgage payment out of your mind and focus on the job at hand. Believe me, the bills and the problems will be waiting for you when you come out of the woods – they are not going away!
When all is said and done, the best place to find a muzzleloader buck is in the lowland thickets, the dense cover near rivers and beaver flowages, and in the swamps where deer can find protection from the wind and predators. This stuff is thick and difficult to move through, which is why the big deer are there, but if you put in enough time, hunt where the sign fresh and most abundant, you will have a chance to fill your 2012 tag.
The key to success this week is persistence. Pack a lunch, a few bottles of water and your hand warmers and plan to stay out all day. Late-season deer may move around to browse or find a new bedding spot at any time during the day, and an hour lost now is lost forever. Stay in the woods, walk or sit as your constitution demands, but keep hunting. Carry more food and water and less “stuff” if you must, but do what is necessary to hunt long and hard all day. For example, my little butane stove has been a life saver during the colder days of the season. I make tea, coffee or instant soup with it at midday. After a warming snack, I’m ready to face the last few hours of the day with renewed enthusiasm for the task at hand.
This year there doesn’t seem to be much of a threat of snow, at least for the low-lying areas, but in the off chance that we do have a quick storm this week, make every effort to get out there and take advantage of it. This is where the resourceful muzzleloader hunter can put his tracking skills to work. Pick a set of fresh tracks (big ones!) and plan on staying on them until you catch up with the buck. This may take a lot of walking, a few slips and falls and a lot of determination but sooner or later you will catch up to him. Dress and pack lightly because you’ll be walking pretty much non-stop all day, maybe for three or four days, but the prize is ahead of you and it can’t be denied – he’s making those tracks and he can only make them one at a time, just like you.
Leave your troubles and your peripheral gear behind and focus on those tracks and the immediate woods around you. The buck may circle, double back or run cross-wind to find out what is dogging him, but if you are persistent you will catch up to him. This is not a good tactic for casual hunters or those who have an innate fear the deep, dark woods, but if you want a big Maine buck and there is snow on the ground this week, he’s yours on a silver platter – you just have to want him bad enough!
For complete details on this year’s muzzleloader season, regulations and license fees, log onto www.mefishwildlife.com.
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