This week is an interesting one for Maine’s deer hunters. After eight weeks of steady hunting pressure, a waning rut, harsh weather conditions and completion of the leaf drop conditions now fully favor the whitetails. It’s much noisier in the woods now, visibility is much improved and wind currents allow even the most subtle of scents to waft far away into the forest, alerting deer to the presence of hunters long before they even see or hear them.
Plus, hunter participation this week is traditionally low. The thrill of opening day is long past, the rut is all but over and the season-ending Thanksgiving week is still far away.
It may sound as if there’s no point in hunting this week but in fact there are several factors that make this a great time to be in the woods. It may be cold, windy, perhaps snowy or rainy, but conditions this week are comparatively balmy for whitetails facing what The Farmer’s Almanac claims will be yet another severe winter. Temperatures hovering around the freezing mark are no threat to whitetail survival, and there is still plenty of food available ranging from leaves, mast, green sprouts, browse, apples, mushrooms and other choice tidbits that deer nibble on over the course of a day. Deer must eat about 10 pounds of food per day, which means they’ll spend many hours browsing, and this includes daytime hours.
Hunters must make the most of the rapidly dwindling daylight hours, and the only sensible thing to do is hunt all day, every day. No more afternoon naps, no more leisurely lunches, it’s time to get serious if you want to fill your freezer with venison. It’s true that the firearms season ends Nov. 28 and muzzleloader hunters get an additional two weeks to reach their goal, but it’s been shown that participation falls off dramatically after Thanksgiving. Only the most dedicated hunters bother to suit up for blackpowder season, during which only about 1,000 deer are taken statewide, or about one whitetail per 300 square miles. If statistics mean anything, it’s that the next two weeks are do-or-die time for Maine’s deer hunters.
The first thing hunters will discover this week is that there will be few “easy” deer available. About half the annual harvest is already in a freezer somewhere, which means there are 10,000 to 12,000 less deer in the woods, and most of those whitetails were taken in the most popular, convenient areas. Also, there will be fewer deer seen in open fields, sparse woods or other places where the lack of leaf cover exposes them to hunters’ eyes. Now the deer are tucked far back in the thickest cover they can find and most will not be seen again unless someone, or something, drives them into the open.
The most productive way for the single hunter to fill his tag this week is to join the deer in their dense habitat, spend all day and just sit tight till they leave their beds and begin feeding. The most activity is likely to occur near dawn or dusk, but it’s best to be on hand well ahead of time because, as we’ve discovered, deer will see, hear or smell you if you try to come in late. If this happens the animals will simply sneak out the back door, leaving hunters to think that there are no deer left in the woods. They are out there, but they are no longer the naïve, shy, trusting critters they were in September. And remember that deer are masters of evasion. If they know you are there they will make a wide circle around you, communicating that fact to other deer as well. Generally, if you sit still for an hour or two the deer will go back to low-alert status, but if you continue to make noise or move around they’ll find a way to avoid you. Don’t give them that chance.
If conditions allow, still-hunting (slowly walking through the woods with frequent, long stops to look and listen) is an option this week. If there is snow on the ground or it’s raining the chances of deer hearing your approach is minimized, but they can still see you and smell you. Consider the wind direction when planning a still-hunt and force yourself to move slowly, one step at a time if necessary, and stay focused on what’s happening around you.
Quiet conditions for hunters are also quiet conditions for deer, and they are much better at stopping, looking and listening than we are. Be patient and scan all around you for anything that could be or looks like a deer. Study every sound or movement and verify that it is (or is not) a deer. Watch and wait, and don’t move on until you’ve positively identified the source of any disturbance. There have been many occasions when I was within a few yards of a nice buck but still could not be sure what it was. When I waited and let the animal make a mistake I would win the game, but if I ignored the signs I would pay the frustrating price. Patience is the late-season hunter’s most important virtue!
Because hunting conditions can be quite harsh during this third week of the season many hunters end up going home early because they have cold hands or feet or they get hungry or thirsty. Plan ahead by bringing extra hand and foot warmers, and bring enough provisions with you to last all day. My pack always includes two or three bottles of water, apples and sandwiches and a Space blanket which I can fold up and use as a comfortable seat, even on wet, snowy logs or rocks.
I also carry a spare soft (orange) hat in case I want to sit for several hours, and I bring a fleece, camouflage face mask which helps keep my face and ears warm during long days on stand.
The secret to success this week is simple: Stay in the woods all day, pay attention to the wind, and keep movement and noise to a minimum. It’s just that easy!