It’s always amazing to me to see what a few days of rain and wind can do to autumn foliage. Just like that the trees are bare and the colorful leaves we all admired so much a week ago are blowing around and piling up in precisely the places we don’t want them to be. At my house every entrance and exit is packed knee-deep with leaves, and every time I clear them away they are right back where they were the next morning.
Because I have the time and ability to do so I don’t bother with full-scale leaf removal till after deer season ends, which often puts me in the yard with a rake in late November. If the right Sunday catches me home and conditions are dry and calm I may make a few preliminary piles in anticipation of the great leaf-dragging event, where I pile all my leaves onto a tarp and drag them into the woods just far enough away to keep them from blowing back. This way I only have to deal with leaves one day a year and then I can focus my energy on something more satisfying – like hunting.
Today is opening day of the 2017 firearms season on deer, which is one of the most important sporting dates on any Maine sportsman’s calendar. This is the day when anyone and everyone, residents and non-residents alike, can head for the woods with rifle, shotgun, handgun or muzzleloader in hopes of tagging one of Maine’s legendary big bucks (any antlered deer weighing over 200 pounds dressed – with heart and lungs intact). Statistically, the majority of Maine’s hunters are more than happy to tag a doe or young buck, but every one of them would gladly drop the hammer on a trophy-class whitetail. A few hunters tag a big buck every year and some have never seen one. The only constant is that you can’t kill a deer if you don’t go.
For the last 40 years or so I’ve done my best to help Maine’s hunters fill their tags. The mantra remains the same since the first colonists landed in 1620: Hunt hard, hunt often and shoot straight. Over the decades I’ve seen and met many a hunter who failed to abide by these simple rules and, sure enough, they ended up eating beans all winter.
Because we are limited to only a few hours of legal shooting time each day, it’s imperative that hunters spend as much time as possible in the woods. You may see a deer at first light, at noon or just after sunset, and there are no guarantees. But, deer are taken at all hours of the day and may show up at any time, so the hunter’s best option is to stay out there from dawn till dark. This means dressing for the weather, carrying enough water and food to get you through the day and then being persistent enough to stay out there till the last minute no matter how empty the woods may seem.
Another mistake commonly made by hunters is avoiding the woods when the weather is less than hospitable. However, those who routinely brave the elements know that some of the best hunting occurs during the worst weather – rain, snow, wind and fog make hunting difficult but the deer seem to be less spooky at such times. I know that some of the best hunts I’ve enjoyed over the years have been during some of the most challenging weather conditions. Keep in mind that bad weather creates problems for whitetails, too, limiting their keen senses to the point that a stealthy hunter can practically walk right up on them. In fact, some of the bad-weather whitetails I’ve tagged were just a few yards away from me and never knew it.
I will be the first to admit that spending the day standing in the cold rain is far from fun but if it puts meat on the table I’m willing to endure the worst that Mother Nature has to offer. I have pictures of myself taken with nice bucks I killed on stormy days and the smile on my face easily hides how rotten the weather had been that day. Dress for the forecast and plan on staying out all day – you never know when that big buck may decide to make his move.
Perhaps the most common fault in any hunter’s plan is that he is unable to deliver a killing shot when one is presented. Many a trophy whitetail owes its life to an unprepared shooter who didn’t take the time to sight in his rifle and then practice with it at various distances. Most Maine deer are shot at 50 yards or less so there’s no need to bother with long-range shooting unless you like to hunt in clear-cuts, power lines, blueberry barrens or similar wide-open country. Since the early 1960s I have sighted in at 25 yards, which puts most typical .30-caliber deer calibers three inches high at 100 yards and about three inches low at 250 yards – more than accurate enough for deer hunting. Regardless of which caliber you prefer sight in your rifle from a solid rest at a measured distance and don’t be satisfied with “good enough.” A modern scoped rifle is capable of 3-inch groups at 100 yards, so don’t settle for anything larger. Skilled shooters can whittle that down to 1-inch groups but considering that you will be shooting at an animal with a heart-lung area that is more than 12 inches square, you shouldn’t have any trouble putting your bullet where it needs to go.
Do not skip this element of pre-hunt preparation. It is difficult enough to find a whitetail in range, but if you can’t hit your target the day is almost certainly going to end badly. Even if your rifle was dead-on last season you should still check it again before you hunt this year.
A few seasons back I told a friend of mine to sight in before we hunted but he insisted that his rifle was “dead on.” The next day he missed a fine 10-pointer that ended up in my freezer a few days later.
Oh, the irony of it all!