Maine’s 2017 deer-hunting season ended last week in a minor squall that left about six inches of snow on the ground. The first flakes began to fall around noontime in my area, and of course I was deep in the woods in hopes of seeing a whitetail (buck or doe) during the last hours of the season. That was not to be, unfortunately, but either way I felt as though I’d won. I hunted the entire season starting in October and even had the audacity to pass on a doe and later a small buck because I did not want my season to end so soon.
It’s almost a violation of the hunter’s creed to put the crosshairs on a legal deer and not pull the trigger but in my elder years my priorities are much different than they were when I was young. Somewhere in my 30s I began to put more thought into my hunting when I filled my tag on opening day and then had to sit out the entire season. There is, I discovered, a lot more to deer hunting than merely killing a deer. As time went on I found ways to extend my season, going as far as not shooting anything smaller than an 8-pointer the first week, then a 6-pointer and down the line just because I wanted to spend more time hunting.
From a participation standpoint this year was one of the best ever. I saw quite a few shootable deer early on but let them walk, but I also saw all kinds of critters, big and small, that I would not have encountered if I had tagged out early.
What was interesting to me on that last day is how I was able to sit in the woods in a favorite spot, the snow coming down, yet there were no tracks leading to my position. By 4 p.m. the forest looked entirely clean and empty, no sign of anything or anyone, including myself! Just after sunset a flock of about 40 turkeys came through, clucking and yelping as they scratched in the snow for the abundant acorns they know lay below, but no deer showed up and the season ended, just like that.
I did not feel too bad about failing to tag a deer in Maine because earlier this fall I traveled to another state where almost everything I did is illegal in Maine: I hunted with a crossbow, over bait, on Sunday, shot two deer and had them processed into steaks, burger and sausage, all within a five-day period. I still love to hunt in Maine but when I want meat I go where I have to go to find it.
Our deer season ended Dec. 9, and on Dec. 11 I did the only sensible thing – I headed out with my .22 for a look around the snowy woods in hopes of finding places where the deer were traveling, bedding and feeding. I did not have to go far! Just over the rail fence in my back yard I found four sets of tracks that had to have been made overnight because they weren’t there the evening before. The animals had been pawing around in the neighbor’s broccoli patch, and then they made a beeline for the last of my rutabagas. They ate the frozen greens but did not touch any of the vegetables, which works out well for us all. The deer get to survive another day and I get to enjoy my own garden vegetables this winter.
Deeper into the snow-bound woods I found the trail of what must have been dozens of wild turkeys, tracking them from where they left their roost that morning and all through the forest where they typically search for food during the day. I didn’t bother going after them or catching up with them because turkey season is long over and there’s no benefit in spooking them off the property. They’re free to go now till next spring, when we’ll start hunting them anew.
What I was hoping to find was some bedding areas where deer lay down during the storm and found what I was looking for just a few hundred yards from my back door. The beds were clean right down to the leaves, which mean the animals were there before the snow started. I was hunting hard about 500 yards farther into the woods, which proves the age-old adage – you have to be in the right place at the right time. This time they were but I was not!
I followed their tracks through the woods for about a mile and found where they had stopped to paw for acorns, which told me what I already knew. This year the woods were littered with acorns, literally piles of them under every white oak, and the bounty went on for miles through the woods. This is good news for deer but not so good news for deer hunters because a whitetail needs to eat 10 pounds of food per day but when there are tons of acorns available the process takes but a few minutes and requires that the deer move only a short distance before they can bed down and spend their spare time chewing their cuds. Deer will bed just about anywhere that offers a good view downwind and a reliable breeze upwind – it’s all but impossible to sneak up on them when conditions are favorable. When it snows, rains or is extremely windy they are at a disadvantage but then they are exceptionally nervous and will bound away with very little provocation.
All of this post-season meandering is, of course, merely an excuse to get back into the woods in preparation for next season. I look for patterns of movement; bedding and feeding areas and trails that meet or crisscross at certain points. This information goes into the memory bank for next season, when I use what I’ve learned to fill my tag. I just hope all this sign leads me to a big buck and not a doe or skipper – I don’t want my season to end that quickly!