Today is opening day of Maine’s 2016 muzzleloader deer season, a third chance for hunters to fill their freezers with sweet, tender venison.
It’s hard to imagine that the September and October archery seasons have long passed, that the November firearms season is over and suddenly we’re into the final phase of deer hunting in Maine for the year. Much has changed since bowhunters first took to the woods for the special Expanded Archery Deer season back on Sept. 10. The grass is dead and brown now, the leaves are gone, temperatures have plummeted from the 70s to below freezing and about 20,000 deer have been removed from the woods by other hunters. Now it is cold and dark in the forest, the deer are far removed from the open fields and clear-cuts they frequented in early fall, and the all-important rut is just about over with. Hunters will need to up their game if they want to be successful over the next two weeks (only one week in the northern zones) but it is possible to put a tag on a fat Maine whitetail in December. Persistence and perseverance are always paramount, with time spent in the woods being the most critical aspect of a productive hunt. As always, you won’t see a deer if you’re don’t go where they are.
When I have to put all my eggs in one basket (which I frequently do when muzzleloader season rolls around), I head for the deepest, darkest evergreen cover I can find and spend the entire day looking for fresh deer sign. Whitetails aren’t going to be behind every tree but they do spend a lot of their time in certain areas, primarily on trails leading from feeding to bedding areas in thick cover where they can move about without expending a lot of energy or exposing themselves to danger.
Without question visibility is poor in such dense cover but it’s not necessary to see deer 200 yards away. According to my records over the last 55 years I have killed more December deer at less than 40 yards than I have at longer distances. In fact, most of my December whitetails have been taken at 25 yards or less, not because I’m a light-footed pro who can ghost through the woods like fog on the wind, but because I hunt in places where I can only see 30 yards or less around me. When the wind is right and I pause frequently while walking slowly through the woods I manage to get to within rock-throwing distance of my quarry, giving me an easy shot with my trusty old Lyman Plains Rifle.
Legal hunting hour this week are generally from 6 a.m. till 4:27 or so (check the rule book for specifics), which is a short day from a hunter’s perspective. For this reason I like to pack a lunch and all the necessary gear so I can stay in the woods for the entire day. Conditions being what they are (cold, dark, still and somber), I like to tuck into a habitat “seam” where I can see part of a swamp, part of a hardwood ridge and much of the transition area or plateau between the two. Deer like to travel these areas because they know that one jump into the swamp will put them out of danger yet the open hardwoods give them plenty of visibility as they head toward bedding or feeding sites.
The key to success in these places is the wind. I try to find a place where I can observe the swamp and the hardwoods without allowing my scent to drift through the area I’m watching. I may have to move several times over the course of the day because of wind shifts but I’ve found that it’s better to move than to take a chance on deer discovering me with their noses. Nothing’s worse than spending 10 hours on the cold ground only to have a nice buck snort and run because he caught my scent at the last minute. Watch the wind and move to a new spot as necessary – there is no time for mistakes at this stage of the game.
Another good reason for staying out all day is that by December deer have run out of free and easy meals and must spend more time feeding, which means they must move about more frequently in order to get their 10 pounds of daily browse. Target areas where acorns, mushrooms and other winter food sources abound, and don’t forget that much of what a deer eats consists of twigs, leaves and buds. Another popular late-season food is Old Man’s Beard, a type of moss that hangs from dead evergreen trees. Find a place where there are plenty of fallen trees covered with moss and you’ll find deer. Remember to get there early and stay as late as the law allows because deer will become increasingly nocturnal as winter approaches.
Maine’s bucks will still have their antlers at this point but they will soon lose them. There is what the experts like to call a “second rut,” in which bucks continue to search for does that were not bred back in November. This accounts for the late-born fawns we see in fall that still have spots on their coats. Hunters who must shoot a buck would do well to spend their time in areas where does are concentrated, or focus on areas where deer feed heavily at night. A roaming buck may come by in hopes of finding a receptive doe. Pick a spot downwind of an area where does frequently feed and give the buck a buffer of 100 yards or so. Don’t stand where you expect the buck to come through, stand about 50 yards downwind of that spot so he won’t see or smell you as he makes his rounds.
Muzzleloader season is when the tough get going in Maine. If you still want to tag a deer you’re going to have to earn it, but I can say for certain that grilled December back strap is just as tasty as it was in September!