Fans of winter sports may be disenchanted of late because there has been so little cold and snow of late, but the lack of “winter” is nothing but good news for hunters as the 2015 seasons begin to wind down.
Normally by this time there are bitter cold temperatures, snow and ice to deal with, but for the time being conditions are all but perfect for those who crave a day in the woods in pursuit of grouse, squirrels, rabbits or waterfowl. Conditions “out there” definitely benefit the hunter. In most areas there is a thick blanket of leaves, which, at midday, allow nearly silent stalking for small game hunters. In fact, just a week ago during the last day so of the muzzleloader deer season I was able to walk up on grouse, rabbits and squirrels that normally would have heard me crunching along in frosty leaves or crusty snow a mile away. Of course, I was focused on deer so I didn’t bother with them, but now they provide the perfect excuse for avoiding responsible pursuits for at least a few hours each day.
I keep a kayak stashed in the woods near a favorite beaver bog that winds for miles through a swampy valley, and at last check the flowage was wide open and clear of ice – a real rarity at this time of year. When I passed by in search of bigger game I heard ducks and even some geese calling at the far end of the bog, so I’ll be making the most of that opportunity, which ends tomorrow in the Southern Zone and Jan. 5 in the Coastal Zone, neither of which is very far from central Maine. Avid waterfowlers will go much farther to enjoy a good day of hunting, and with temperatures well above freezing conditions once again favor the decoy-and-shotgun set. Normally, most of our inland waterways are at least skimmed over with ice, which pushes ducks and geese south or to the coast for the winter, but as long as they can rest and feed in protected coves where there is no ice forming, they’ll stick around right till the end of the season. Situations like this don’t happen very often so get out there and make the most of it. I know, I know, this is Christmas week, but sportsmen do have equally important priorities!
Because my kayak is a couple of miles back in the woods I like to hunt my way in, working the wetland areas for grouse and rabbits and then spending some time on an oak ridge where I might run into enough squirrels for a snow-day stew. During deer season I saw several half-white snowshoe hares that had a hard time blending into the dark, brown leaf cover. I didn’t bother with them at the time but I remember where they were, and there’s no doubt I’ll be able to find a few as long as there’s bare ground to work with.
Squirrels are most active at dawn and dusk, but because it has been so warm during the day they have been quite busy even at noon. In fact, deer seemed unusually scarce this season and if it hadn’t been for the incessant nut-scrounging activities of the squirrels I would not have seen or heard much else.
Grouse may be hunted throughout the day as well, although they may sit on their roosts later in the morning if it’s cold or wet. These birds are quite spooky and flush wildly once the leaves are down, and by the end of December they show little tolerance for armed intruders. The wet leaf cover will help hunters get a few steps closer than normal, which can lead to some great bean-pot cookery at the end of the day.
Waterfowl, too, are quite easy to find during the day if you know of a sheltered cove, bog or beaver flowage where there is still some open water. “My” bog winds and twists for about three miles between major roads and is rarely visited by hunters so the birds seem to spend a lot of time there. It’s easy enough to paddle a kayak over the slick, black surface but when ducks are encountered it’s quite a trick to drop the paddle, grab the shotgun, swing on the birds and take a shot. In fact, I keep my paddle and shotgun tied to the craft so I can drop the paddle and shoot quickly, and if I happen to drop the shotgun it’s only going as far as the rope will allow. Friends of mine have lost expensive shotguns by not having them secured to their canoes or kayaks, which makes for a rather expensive duck dinner.
If you don’t have time or interest in hunting during these waning days of the 2015 season, consider a brisk walk in the woods just to see what is going on out there. Topping the list of unusual sightings this month has been porcupines – they seem to be everywhere and are none too shy about walking long distances through the noisy leaves. Their destination always seems to be a grove of hemlocks, so if you know where these evergreens can be found you’re likely to run into a porcupine or two. They’re fun to observe but, alas, they are fond of hemlock bark. They actually eat the cambium layer, or inner bark, of hemlocks and a single porcupine can kill a mature tree in a single winter.
Finding evidence of porcupine activity is quite easy. Wander through a grove of hemlocks and look for piles of tips and boughs on the ground. I’m not sure why porcupines nip and drop hemlock tips but when the ground is littered with them the porcupine won’t be far away. They are easy to see in the uppermost branches of the tree itself, but during the day they are more likely to be hiding in hollow trees or rocky ledges where they can avoid predators.
When snow covers the ground it’s quite easy to find a porcupine trail that leads from a den site to nearby hemlocks, but until we get some winter weather you’ll have to “hunt” for them!