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Every so often I spend a few October days bowhunting for deer. Truth be told, archery hunting is one of the least productive methods for putting a whitetail in the freezer. Even with a full month of deer hunting to themselves (only bowhunting for deer is presently allowed in October) Maine’s archers tag some 2,500 deer each year, which comes down to about one deer taken per 200 square miles – not much of a threat to the statewide deer population!
What’s great about October bowhunting is that the woods never seem more alive. The leaves are changing, the nights are cooler and the daytime skies are crisp, clear and bright. Because archery tackle is so ineffective, good for about 40 yards in expert hands, most bowhunters see far more deer than they shoot at, and they miss far more deer than they hit. But, seeing deer is nearly as exciting as tagging one and most bowhunters have great, interesting stories to tell about the ones that got away.
Well, just the other night I was sitting on a rocky ledge above a winding brook that serves as a travel route for deer heading to a neighboring farm. There were plenty of tracks going both ways indicating that deer were using the trail and even a few tentative rubs (saplings scrubbed down to bare wood by bucks marking their territories). Just below my spot was a stout sapling that had been rubbed clean and broken in half by a large buck, so I knew I was in a good spot.
Legal shooting time ended at 6:44 p.m. that day and at 6:35 p.m. I heard the tell-tale crunch of leaves as a deer made its way out of the swamp toward my stand. Seconds later there he was, a fine 8-point buck, broad and long-bodied, moving slowly along the brook. If he kept coming he’d end up about 8 yards from me, broadside and wide open, as easy an archery shot as any bowhunter is going to get. On he came, and I was at full draw when he stopped, not in the opening I’d hoped, but directly behind a maple sapling still thick with leaves. Such obstacles are the bane of archers everywhere because it’s nearly impossible to thread an arrow through the maze of limbs, twigs and foliage, so I waited . . . and he waited . . . and I waited . . . and he waited, and finally I had to let the bow down – my muscles couldn’t take the strain! The buck walked past the sapling and stood in the logging trail I’d come in on, and in that moment and snorted, bounded across the road and disappeared. He’d gotten a whiff of my scent and, as big bucks will do, took no chances. Just like that he was gone and down went the success rate for bowhunters. My trail cameras say that buck (and several others) are still in the neighborhood but, alas, they are all coming through at night, somewhere between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. Smart, because it’s not legal to hunt deer except during daylight hours. The game will continue, and I’ve no doubt I’ll see more deer, but will I tag one? Not likely!
Fortunately, there is another side of bowhunting that keeps me going even though the odds for success are against me. This is a busy time of year for wildlife and on an average day I can expect to see turkeys, rabbits, grouse, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and various other critters that keep me entertained between deer sightings. On a good day I may bump into a moose or a mink, maybe a fisher or bobcat, and even on ho-hum afternoons there will be squirrels, chipmunks, owls, ravens and crows enough to keep me busy. Bowhunting is a lot of things but boring is not one of them. Any student of nature and observer of wildlife will find more than enough going on to occupy the long hours spent waiting for deer to show up. Quite often whitetails are the only animals that don’t make an appearance!
For example, just the other night I was in a favorite spot along a stone wall with a swamp behind me and a hardwood ridge to my front. A huge pine tree struck by lightning lay halfway up the slope, and for the first hour or two squirrels and blue jays swarmed the fallen giant, no doubt picking away at pine cones, insects and other delicacies. Just before dark I saw a large, black form moving among the pine’s broken branches. Instantly, I thought, “Bear!” There have been bear tracks in the mud all around the area and several neighbors (including me!) have had bruins visiting their feeders during the recent cooler nights.
I watched intently as the black hulk slowly moved along the fallen pine toward my position. I considered my options (shoot, don’t shoot, wait, don’t wait) as any bowhunter would and decided if there was a shot presented I’d take it but only if the bear came all the way down along the tree and stood broadside in a small opening near the roots of the fallen tree, just 15 yards from me. I watched as the animal disappeared behind the thick, black trunk of the tree, and then came to full draw as his nose came into view in the only opening I’d have for a shot.
Almost immediately I knew I’d been duped! Instead of a pointed snout and the thick, broad head of a black bear I saw the flat face and forehead of a big, fat porcupine! Easily weighing 40 pounds and black as night in the dusky light, I was sure I was going to get a shot at a bear, but instead . . . I got to watch a fat old porky clamber over the stone wall and disappear into the swamp behind me. An exciting few minutes for sure, but in the end I came home empty-handed, which is usually the way it goes in bowhunting!
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