From a participation standpoint, the next two weeks will see the fewest deer hunters in the Maine woods. Opening week and Thanksgiving week have always been most popular with hunters. It makes sense to think that there will be more deer available during the first week simply because there has been no hunting going on other than early-season archery.
Trends in that arena show that the majority of bowhunters focus their efforts on the Expanded Archery Zone (generally that area east of the Interstate Route 95 corridor), where last year archers tagged 1,717 deer and bowhunters brought home just 408 deer in the rest of the state (about 31,000 square miles). That boils down to about one deer per 760 square miles, suggesting that there definitely will be some whitetails left for firearms hunters to pursue in November.
Opening week certainly has its attractions – nice weather, abundant game, great scenery and ambience – but this week the focus will be on the rut, that period of the year when whitetails get down to the business of making more whitetails. The rut actually begins in early November but peaks during the second week of the month in most areas of the state. This is when hunters want to be in the woods all day, not even coming out for lunch, because this is the only time of the year when our famous “big bucks” become diurnal (meaning active during the day) and distracted (meaning they are so busy chasing does that they put themselves at risk to hunters). Stories abound of hunters who have had huge bucks walk right up to them, or stand stoically in the road, or jump up and stand still while the hunter takes aim, something these deer would never do at any other time of year. The bucks’ odd behavior is a key element in hunter success this week, and the sportsman who spends every legal minute in the woods can expect great things to happen – if he’s ready and pays attention.
Tactics for second-week bucks vary but all are productive. Walking logging roads is one time-tested technique; simply move along at a slow pace, pausing often to look and listen, and being reading to shoot when a rut-crazed buck shows up.
The same strategy employed while walking through the woods and off the roads, called still-hunting, is also effective. Still-hunters move slowly, pause frequently and wait 30 minutes or more at each stop. They look for movement and listen for the crack of branches or the rustle of leaves, and they always verify that what they saw or heard was a grouse, a squirrel or a rabbit and not a roaming, love-struck buck. Big and fast as they are, deer can move through the woods with surprising ease in near silence. Sometimes a big buck will sound like a clumsy hunter staggering around in the woods but the experienced still-hunter verifies the source of the sound before moving on. It could be a human or it could be a buck – never make assumptions.
Another popular method of hunting is to sit or stand in an area where deer activity is high. When you find a place that is secluded, full of tracks, rubbed trees, scrapes and other sign, plan to spend a few days on a stand that is 30 to 40 yards away, downwind and away from the whitetails’ primary travel routes. Because swamps, bogs and flowages are part and parcel of central Maine’s best deer habitat it’s a good idea to get above these areas, using the higher ground as a stand site. Ideally, get the wind in your face and the sun at your back, and then sit tight all day. Bucks chasing does will skirt areas of deep water and will be “funneled” into the area between the hardwood slope and the water.
Similar pinch-points may be found where woods meet fields, where ridges meet and in the saddles between hills. It takes some scouting to find the best of these cover types but these are the places where the most, consistent, freshest sign is likely to be found. Get there, sit there, wait it out – and plan to show up before sunrise and stick with it till 30 minutes after sunset. Use all the available time you have and keep in mind that each day that window of opportunity continues to grow smaller. By the end of November we’ll have lost over an hour of legal shooting time, and we can ill afford to waste even a precious minute.
Over the years I’ve heard many a great story of how a hunter failed to capitalize on his one-and-only opportunity to fill his tag. Hunters who nap, read, play with their phones, dig around in their packs or lean their rifles just out of reach against nearby trees usually end up being taught a painful lesson. I learned my own lesson over 50 years ago when I woke up from a noontime nap only to see a fine 8-pointer staring at me from 10 yards away. I no longer sleep in the woods, nor do I bring anything that will distract me from the task at hand. I sit, I look, I listen, and I pay attention. It makes for a long day, sometimes even boring when nothing is moving, but no deer gets by me that I hadn’t seen or heard long before he showed up.
Because the November rut is a nebulous event that begins slowly, peaks rapidly and then fizzles out over the course of several days, it’s important that hunters take advantage of every opportunity. Plan to be in the woods every chance you get including when it rains or snows, is windy or cold – the rut goes on regardless of the weather conditions. In fact, some of the best hunting seems to take place when the weather conditions are the worst.
Deer season comes only once a year, so dress for the weather, stay focused and put in your time. No one ever said deer hunting was easy, but the hunters who are willing to go the extra mile are the ones who are most successful. All you have to decide is which statistical list you want to be on!