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For Maine deer hunters this is “must” week, especially for those who are focused on tagging one of the state’s legendary big bucks. It’s interesting to note that the Northeast (primarily Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire) is the last bastion for defining “big” as any antlered deer weighing over 200 pounds dressed, which means with the heart, lungs and liver intact but lacking the paunch and intestines.
Bucks with rut-thickened necks, broad shoulders and extremely large feet have kept the region’s deer-hunting tradition going for well over 100 years. Even the legendary Benoit family of Vermont, which created a much-emulated dynasty of deer hunters who track big bucks in the snow, considered any deer over 200 pounds to be “a buster,” but elsewhere around the country body weight gave way to antler score (inches of bone on the buck’s head) and save for our little corner of the country everyone else measures “big” by the Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young antler scoring systems. There are other variations on the theme such as the Northeast Big Buck Club, Buckmasters and others, which use adaptations of the B&C and P&Y scoring formulas to establish their lists of trophy deer.
Here in Maine, fat deer continue to draw a crowd and our state-record buck, a 355-pound (dressed) behemoth taken by Horace Hinckley back in the 1950s, remains the standard of excellence. Are there bigger bucks out there? I have to think there are because I’ve seen many a track of 200-pound bucks and many more of deer whose feet were easily twice as big, although only the scales decide. Thanks to a few millennia of genetic mixing there are big bucks with small feet out there as well as small bucks with giant hooves – you can’t reasonably tell how much a buck weighs from his hoof prints alone other than to agree that he’s “big.”
Deer hunters debate the details and nuances of whitetail bigness year-round but this week all that matters is that we are smack in the middle of the peak of Maine’s deer breeding season. If you want to hunt during the period when the odds are highest for taking a king-sized buck, now’s the time to be out there. The breeding season varies considerably but generally speaking, the period from Nov. 1 to Nov. 20 is when most of our bucks and does get together to produce next year’s crop of fawns. Any hunter with the least interest in bagging a nice buck and filling the freezer with venison should be out there, all day every day, for the next week or two. Once the rut begins to wind down somewhere around Thanksgiving all those lust-crazed bucks will once again come to their senses and it will be next to impossible to find one until or unless we get enough tracking snow to tip the odds in our favor. There will be plenty of good hunting time left well into the December muzzleloader season but there’s no better time to be out there than right now.
With all that said, and assuming you’re one who wants to bring home the biggest buck of your life, understand that it’s a crazy world out there when it comes to whitetail behavior. Bucks will be running helter-skelter through the woods in search of receptive does and those does will be running pretty much constantly in an effort to avoid having to deal with a red-eyed, persistent buck. This is why there are so many more deer-vehicle collisions in late October and November than at any other time of year. Bucks chase the does, the does run away, often right onto the highway, and – bingo, another insurance claim to fill out.
What all this means to the hunter is that he should gear up for and plan to stay in the woods all day every day because even the most empty corner of the lot can suddenly, immediately fill up with deer, including that big buck, literally in the blink of an eye. Where deer populations are dense it’s possible to see deer galloping willy-nilly through the woods nearly every minute of the day – and not always the same ones. How crazy does it get? Well, a couple of years ago during Hurricane Sandy I saw 35 different bucks (mostly 8 pointers or smaller) in that rainy, misty week. I took pictures of most of them and didn’t shoot any of them (there were all too small to be considered “big”), but what a hunt – I saw deer practically all day long and in many cases they saw me, too, but did not care. Just before Thanksgiving the show suddenly ended and I went several days without seeing a deer, proof enough that the rut was definitely over. Get out there now because you do not want to miss out on a show like that.
This is the time to spend the entire legal hunting day in the woods. Bring food, water and a comfortable seat, rain gear if necessary, and stay out there no matter how empty the woods may seem. If you want to move to a new spot go ahead, but use your head: Look for areas with high numbers of does because that is what the bucks will be doing, too. When the forest seems oddly empty and quiet, keep in mind that mature bucks have been known to travel five, 10, even 20 miles in search of does and they can cover that much ground, and more, in a single day. Years ago I helped trap and tag a mighty 10-pointer that we released in a Maryland cornfield and, a week later, he was in Delaware, clear across Chesapeake Bay. Love has no bounds, apparently!
Closer to central Maine, a patch of thick woods surrounded by crop fields, pasture or hay is a good place to start. Or, try a high hardwood ridge, a low wetland swamp or a birch-covered hillside where alders, apples and sapling evergreens make visibility nearly (but not quite) impossible. During the rut any place is as good as the next. The only missing ingredient is you!
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