Maine’s 2016 deer season has come to an end with the second week of muzzleloader season now behind us. Having been hunting somewhere for a wide variety of game since early September I always spend the first few days of “freedom” in a daze, wondering what I’m going to do and how I’m going to spend my time after close to 100 days of steady, all-day hunting.
Oddly enough, about the only thing I can think of is to head back outdoors and spend more time where the critters are. We can continue to hunt ducks, grouse and squirrels till late December, plus rabbits through March. Predator hunters can chase coyotes, foxes and bobcats through most of the winter and, if safe ice ever forms, we can all get out on a frozen lake or pond and spend some time ice-fishing for trout, bass, pike, salmon, perch, pickerel, cusk and the like. Needless to say, there is more to the Maine outdoors than deer hunting!
I can’t complain about my season overall. I had several encounters with deer I didn’t want to shoot or could not. I did not have a doe permit for every place I hunted and most of the bucks I saw were spikes or little crotch-horns, good for beginners or meat hunters but, luckily, I am well past the novice stage and have plenty of venison in the freezer thanks to some good-luck hunts in other states.
I had plenty of interesting encounters with wildlife other than deer during my many weeks in the woods. For some reason this year was the year of the squirrel. I was able to observe dozens of them in various situations that always gave me a laugh. For example, once while sitting 20 feet up in a tree stand I had a gray squirrel climb up, go into my open pack and steal an apple out of it. He was no more than arm’s length from me and did not seem to care – he just popped into the pack, rummaged around among the granola bars and stole a big, fat Honey Crisp apple that I was saving for lunch. He had a heck of a time carrying the apple away to his den and dropped it several times, but he put on quite a show.
Just recently I had the same thing happen but while sitting on the ground. I was set up in the tangled limbs of a fallen hemlock and thought I was pretty well obscured by the evergreen foliage around me but about an hour into the morning a red squirrel came running down the tree trunk, stopped five feet from me and stared very intently at my pack, upon which I’d placed another big, fat Honey Crisp apple. Being more flighty and manic than the average gray squirrel, I expected this little red to run off on other business but instead he ran over, grabbed the apple and started running with it! I took him several tries to finally get the apple (which was bigger and heavier than he was) up into a nearby pine tree for safekeeping, but he finally got the job done and took off on other errands.
I have had squirrels, deer and turkeys stop by and sample my half-eaten apple cores in the past but I’ve never had anything steal my apple right off my pack, just arm’s distance away. It’s one of the reasons I like to spend so much time in the woods – you never know what’s going to happen out there.
Another interesting encounter occurred while I was in a different tree stand hunting in the late afternoon. Just before dark a flock of turkeys showed up and pecked apart my two apple cores that were lying on the ground below me, which would have been entertainment enough except that just past sunset the flock began to go to roost and one of them, a nice, big tom, decided to fly up and land on the shooting rail of my stand! Here I was just inches away from a 20-pound gobbler and, for a few seconds, he had no idea I was there. He gawked at me for several seconds as he fought to gain his balance on the thin, cold, metal rail, and then he flew off to find a better pace to spend the night, literally slapping me in the face with his wings as he departed. I immediately thought of all the bright spring days I’d spent trying to call a gobbler into range without success yet here I had one practically in my lap – and the fall turkey season had just closed!
In my younger days I’d have been annoyed and frustrated at having game so close but not able to shoot them, but now I enjoy these little encounters. It's not as if I have to shoot another turkey, squirrel or even a deer, and when I get to observe them up close and personal I count that day as a success even if I go home empty-handed.
For the rest of December I’ll go out with my .22 or shotgun and pretend that I am grouse, duck, squirrel or rabbit hunting. I’ll certainly take a shot if one is offered but if all I do is sit in the woods with a hot cup of tea in hand I’ll be happy. By this time of the year I have enough meat in the freezer for all of my annual “feeds” (deer, bear, moose, squirrel, grouse, rabbit, goose, etc.) so there’s no driving need to add more to the pot.
From now till spring turkey season being out there is reward enough for me. I consider it “counting coup” if I go out and see legal game that I choose not to shoot simply because I already have a full stock of wild game on hand. I hunt for meat and memories, so either way a day afield is a success. I wonder how many Christmas shoppers can say the same!