Today is the long-awaited opening day of Maine’s 2015 firearms season on deer, a fall tradition that harkens back to the days of the Pilgrims. I suspect that those early settlers ate venison year-round and didn’t bother themselves with restrictions like closed seasons, bag limits and (heaven forbid!) Sunday hunting. They ate everything they could grow, gather, catch or kill and made no apologies for it because survival, not sport, was the name of that game.
These days most folks can survive the living year without once tasting deer chops, steaks or burger but nearly 200,000 licensed hunters could not imagine a winter without a good supply of game in the freezer. Only about 10 percent of the hunters who venture into the woods in November come home with a winter’s supply of meat, this after decades of advancements in clothing, gear, strategies and tactics that have driven the outdoor press since the 1960s. The number of “gear guides” out there is staggering, each one filled with nifty new products that are sure to improve hunters’ odds for success.
But, the one constant that has never changed is whitetail behavior. Deer remain the most elusive and difficult of all game animals to hunt, especially if you have your heart set on a big, mature buck. Only a few hundred of these exceptional trophies are taken by hunters each year; the remainder are small bucks and antlerless deer (does and fawns). In the end, about 90 percent of hunters go home empty-handed, which may say something about all the fancy gear and gadgets they bring into the woods with them. Could it be that there is more to deer hunting than buying all the right stuff?
Each year I’m amazed at the number of hunters who fail to adhere to the three basic tenets of successful deer hunting: Sight in, go often and shoot straight. Simple and free, these proven elements of a productive hunt seem to be the most difficult concept for hunters to grasp.
Sighting in takes no more than 15 minutes but can make all the difference in the hunt. After all, if you can’t hit your target what’s the point of being out there in the first place? Start with a sturdy, steady bench or table, shoot at a paper target set at 25 yards, and continue to adjust your sights or scope until you can place all of your bullets inside a one-inch circle. If all sight and mount screws are tight it shouldn’t take more than a few rounds to get on target, and then a few more to zero the rifle.
Now, protect your firearm as if it were made of gold – no bouncing, bumping or dropping. Keep it in a padded case well away from curious admirers and don’t allow anyone to play with it or fiddle with the sights. If you should drop or bump the rifle, sight it in again. It doesn’t take much to knock the sights out of alignment, so don’t take any chances. Head for the range any time there’s reason for doubt and especially after a load air or road trip. Check again when you get to camp – it’s the only way to be sure that your rifle is still on target.
Perhaps the biggest mistake hunters make is not getting into the woods often enough. We wait all year to hunt deer in Maine, why is it that suddenly in November there are so many other things to do? I must be more of an addict than I thought because I have quit school, jobs and just about everything else in November. I go hunting every day (except Sundays, of course!), rain or shine, cold or warm, spending every legal minute that’s available to me. I don’t see deer every day, of course, but I have learned over the decades that I won’t see any if I stay home, do yard work, clean the garage or go to the dump. If it’s daylight I hunt and that’s all there is to it. Every minute lost to the mundane cannot be recovered, so get your chores and obligations taken care of before the season opens. They’ll be waiting for you when you come out of the woods, guaranteed.
Finally, when you see a deer get your rifle up and aimed in but wait for a good, clean shot at the heart-lung area. When sighted in at 25 yards the standard deer rifle is good for 250 yards, so there’s no need to rush. Aim in, wait for the deer to turn broadside and then take the shot. Place your bullet halfway up behind the deer’s shoulder. This is the so-called “boiler room” and guarantees a quick, clean kill. Don’t fool around with head, spine or neck shots – the risk is too great for a miss or a bad hit. Go with the highest odds – directly behind the shoulder, halfway up. I’ve taken the same shot on Maine whitetails since 1962 and have never lost or missed one: Not very creative, perhaps, but invariably effective.
There are only a few weeks left to the deer season and every day we lost a few more precious minutes of daylight. It will be getting colder, too, with the likelihood of snow before it’s over, so hunters will have to buck up and take it if they want to succeed this year. Bring snacks, brew some tea around noontime, wear your warmest clothing but plan to spend all day every day in the woods. Even with all this it’s possible that some hunters won’t see a deer this season, but it’s certain that they won’t see anything if they stay home.
Hunters wait anxiously all year for the start of the firearms season on deer. Be prepared, get out there and make the most of it. Don’t even waste a single day because November 2016 is a long way off!