Maine’s regular archery deer hunting season opens Sept. 29 (this coming Thursday). Bowhunters tag about 2,000 deer annually, the majority of them within the Expanded Archery Zone, roughly that area east of Interstate Route 95. A few intrepid archers hunt west of the highway but they are limited to bucks only in October. Last season a total of 700 deer were taken in that area, which encompasses about 25,000 square miles. Obviously, there’s room enough to hunt and more than enough deer to go around – with one deer taken per 3,500 square miles we’re not exactly threatening the whitetail population.
No matter where you choose to hunt during the archery season the game is to get close to the intended target. The longest practical range for bowhunters is 40 yards, but most deer are shot at half that distance simply because the Maine woods are so dense and thick with foliage. Once in a while an archer will be presented a shot at a deer in an open field or meadow but even then a 40-yard poke is a long one. Anything more is asking for trouble because the deer could move while the arrow is en route or the arrow could strike a twig or leaf, even a tuft of grass, and fall well short of the mark. I prefer to have my deer up close (10 yards is even better), so I can be sure that my arrow will travel to the target with little or no diversions along the way.
By now most avid bowhunters have already been practicing diligently in anticipation of the season. Having hunted most states where whitetails are legal game I’ve found that target shooting in the back yard with targets at a measured distance is a good start, but it’s a rare event to have a nice buck standing broadside at 20 yards with no angles or intervening brush to contend with. For this reason I like to practice from inside a blind, in a tree stand, behind trees and brush and at varying heights and angles (including behind me) so that when a deer shows up I am somewhat prepared for the unexpected. Deer have a knack for standing still directly behind a sapling, limb or bushy bough, offering a great look at the animal but no shot. Experience has taught me that if I try to thread the needle with an arrow, hoping to get my shaft through the brush and into the target, only bad things will happen. Missing a deer at 15 yards is bad enough but hitting it in the wrong place, resulting in a long and often fruitless search, is worse. I prefer to wait for a clean, clear shot or stand down – the risk of injuring the animal is too high and simply not worth it.
Hunters who set up blinds or tree stands can cut shooting lanes using loppers or brush trimmers so they can be assured of a clear shot at known distances, but as one might expect the deer is likely to move quickly through such openings and then stop in the middle of the thickest brush they can find.
I had a nice buck do exactly that last season. He came right up my shooting lane till he was about 45 yards away, and then turned right out of the lane (where the walking was easiest) and stomped his way across my field of fire without presenting a clean shot. At one point he was no more than 15 yards away but kept his head and shoulders hidden by brush and a blown-down tree. I could easily see that he was a fat 9-pointer but that’s all he would show me. With a rifle or shotgun I’d have had him easily but with a bow it’s not so certain. I had to let him walk and never saw him again.
Another time I was set up in the woods along a cornfield fence line. I expected the deer to come up the trail inside the fence but of course they all walked past me outside the fence in the open corn, giving me nothing but a nice view of tails and antlers as they went by.
The first thing bowhunters will notice is that they will see many more deer in September and October but, unfortunately, most of them will be in thick brush or out of range. By the time the leaves come down near the beginning of rifle season the whitetail’s patterns will have changed dramatically. The places where deer were seen every day will become suddenly empty and the majority of deer one does see will be bounding away with flags flying.
This early-season archery window is a great time to see more deer and enjoy the balmy weather, but getting an open shot at a meandering whitetail is not so easy. The most successful hunters do a lot of pre-hunt scouting and spend most of their mornings and evenings in areas where deer are known to travel between feeding and bedding areas. The rut is still a month away so both does and bucks may be found in small, mixed groups, which only adds to the fun. A hunter who is intent on shooting a nice buck must find a way to fool the alert, sharp-eyed does, which are always looking, listening and sniffing for danger. Nine times out of 10 they will bust you, but when it’s raining, windy or overcast there’s a slight chance that the does will walk right on by, leading the accompanying buck right into an open shooting lane. It happens 2,000 times per year for archers statewide, and this year could be the lucky one for you.
The secret to successful deer hunting has not changed since the Pilgrims landed: Hunt hard, hunt often and make your shot count. Only about 7 percent of Maine’s bowhunters fill their tags each season but maybe this will be your lucky year!