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It’s down to the wire for Maine’s firearms deer hunters this week – the hunt comes to an end on Saturday, ready or not. I’ve done my best to help local hunters fill their tags, and some undoubtedly already have, but if you’re in that unfortunate group that still hasn’t scored, it’s not too late.
Many hunters actually wait for Thanksgiving week to hunt because it’s likely to be colder; the leaves will be gone and if there’s going to be any tracking snow this season this is when it will happen. We don’t always have snow during the final days of the hunt, but when we do the odds for success are much higher. For one thing, snow tells us where deer have been and what they’ve been doing, which helps narrow the search, and snow in the barren woods makes spotting a deer much easier. In October, for example, a huge buck can disappear behind a leafy bush, but with snow on the ground there’s nowhere to hide. If he’s close enough to see he’s close enough to shoot and that’s all most experienced hunters need to turn the tables.
Because this is the last week of rifle season (muzzleloader season opens on Monday) it may be a good idea to go back to basics for a few minutes before setting out. Is your rifle still on target after weeks of trudging through the woods? Is your knife still sharp after whittling on apples and cheese back at camp all season? Do you have enough water, snacks and warm clothing to get you through these last cold, dark days of November? Conduct a quick check of your gear; make sure your rifle is on target, and then plan to spend every available moment in the woods this week. I work around Thanksgiving by planning the big meal for after dark (not always a popular idea with those who do the cooking!). Had a not shot several deer at midday on Thanksgiving I might think a few hours here or there would not matter, but there are no hours left to waste and the clock is winding down. Find a way to hunt all day every day this week and, at worst, negotiate for a plate of left-overs.
Because it is colder, the leaves are gone and deer know that snow makes them more visible, the best places to hunt this week are the thickets where no one else wants to go. Every deer I’ve ever shot in late November was less than 20 yards from me, in cover so thick I had to wait to make sure the animal had antlers. Some hunters can’t stand the confines of a dense alder or cedar patch but I feel quite at home in these places – it’s where the deer are and that’s where I want to be, too!
It’s easy enough to find a good place to hunt. There will be tracks and trails galore weaving into and out of heavy cover. Simply find the place where the most tracks and trails converge and then plan to be there all day every day till the closing moments of the season. Check for tracks daily to find a pattern, or at least proof that deer are using the area, and once you find the honey hole, pick a good spot (downwind) and begin your vigil.
Or, if there is good snow cover (and anything more than a dusting is “good”), consider following a set of big, fresh tracks. Expect to do a lot of walking in rough country over many hours, but if you are persistent and determined the odds are that you will have a nice buck to drag out before the end of the week. Find that big track and stay on it, but if you run into a bigger track, switch over. In farm country or small woods you may be able to catch up to your quarry the first day, but in big, unbroken woods you may spend the entire week tracking down your prize. If you choose to take the Benoit approach (named for the late and legendary Larry Benoit, who made the art of tracking popular), do not dress warmly (you’ll roast!), do not carry a lot of gear (a knife, rope and a few brownies will suffice) and do not give up. Go light, go fast, be alert and shoot quickly – that’s the bottom line in tracking. Stump sitters will find that tracking is a tad more work (I’m being facetious here!), but once you get into the game of matching wits with a big buck you may never be the same.
I tracked one Thanksgiving buck for four days before I ever locked eyes on him, and it was almost two more days before I finally got a shot. It was the most strenuous, exhausting, demanding hunt I’d ever been on (well, that 6-day moose hunt in Newfoundland came close!), but it was also one of the most satisfying.
One trick an old friend taught me was to pick the smallest track I could find and follow that. If all you want is a deer make it easy on yourself by focusing on a nice, fat yearling. Big bucks will travel for many miles, often crossing streams, rivers and sucking bogs, but smaller deer will stick close to home. Expect to earn any deer you decide to track, but if time and ambition are limited go small, not big.
It’s my hope that every reader of the Rolling Thunder who wants a deer this year will tag one, large or small, buck or doe. I have put them all in the freezer at one time or another and was never disappointed – any hunt that ends with venison on the table is a successful one. Over the years I’ve met and helped countless hunters, young and old, drag their first deer out of the woods and every one of them was thrilled. So, get out there and hunt; I want to see that same smile on your face by the end of this week!
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