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For the next few weeks, Maine sportsmen will be enjoying some of the most pleasant weather and most productive hunting of the year. Game populations will be at their highest (during an open hunting season, of course. They’re actually and technically “highest” in spring when the brooding and rearing seasons are in full swing and every fecund female of every species has her hands full with newborn young), and conditions are as close to perfect as they are going to get. Everyone wants to be outdoors in October, and it’s easy to convince yourself to stay out another hour or two on those crisp, bright days when the sky is the deepest blue and it just “feels” like fall.
I think October is the reason for more sick time, vacation time and “I’ll be a little late” time than any other month of the year. It’s hard to stick to responsible plans (school, work and such) when the sky is so blue, the air is so clear and the leaves are beckoning so colorfully. I will be the first to admit that I can’t resist it, and have gotten into more “where were you?” related trouble in October than perhaps I should admit to.
I find the lure of the woods irresistible in mid-October, and for good reason. It’s not easy to drive to work, the dump or into Bangor when every pond seems to have ducks on it, every apple tree seems to have partridges in them and I see deer in the back corner of every field I pass. A flock of geese passes over and a woodcock goes twittering into some hillside birches and I’m done – I forget what I was supposed to be doing and wander into the woods like a zombie.
Everyone has their obsessions. Some people live for yard sales, some spend all their Saturdays watching football games, others shop, still others gather and talk about whatever issues seem important to them. Hunters hunt. It’s no easier to explain than why the sky is blue, but the allure of the October woods is impossible to resist. If they could bottle the smell and the feel autumn in Maine more men would probably spend their weekends with their wives, but for now “it” can only be had by getting out there among the wild things and absorbing the unique ambience of the forest in fall.
Stolen days are precious by any account, so it pays to make the most of them. Fortunately, the options are never more varied than they are this month. I have observed a sporting ritual for over 40 years that was designed to give me the most opportunities to be in the woods in spite of such mundane demands as school and work. I suffered through many years of the typical 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. factory schedule and, thanks to a combination of anxiety, proximity and persistence; I managed to get in an hour or two of hunting after work or just at dawn. It wasn’t easy and often wasn’t relaxing, but those few minutes of sport kept me from the edge of insanity.
Fortunately, Maine’s best hunting is near wetlands, and, even more fortunately, wet ground is the norm in our area. You can pretty much throw a stone into the nearest swamp from wherever you are in central Maine, and the odds are that you’ll find some good hunting a short walk from there. Swamps mean lowlands and lowlands mean woodcock, ducks, rabbits, partridges and deer. There was a time when I could park my truck beside an abandoned apple orchard after work, load up with fine shot and expect to encounter grouse and woodcock within 100 yards. I knew I had about one hour to chase them around in hopes of a shot. There was a time limit because I also wanted a chance at ducks in the nearby beaver flowage (another Maine land form that is as common as black flies in our part of the state). The law requires the end of duck hunting at sunset, and ducks are smart enough to wait to fly until about two minutes before sunset. So, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you can take a limit of woodies, black ducks or even mallards before legal shooting time ends.
There were days when I could shoot a limit of three woodcock, four partridges, a couple of rabbits and pair of wood ducks without missing a step. I knew the spots, I knew the tricks and I got it all done in the hour or so before sunset. I was stymied for a while when, in the 1980s, steel shot became mandatory for waterfowl (and that’s all you could possess while hunting). I discovered that steel was a bit more intense than necessary for upland game but it worked.
When the limit on ducks went down to one black duck and the season was cut to a few weeks I decided to forego waterfowl hunting and spend more time in the alders. Partridges, rabbits and woodcock have always been plentiful in Maine if you know where to look for them, and I became quite adept at picking the right apple tree or alder patch on a hurried October afternoon. I wouldn’t hunt the same stand of trees every day, but developed a route where I would visit the same area once a week or so. None were more than 10 minutes from home or work, and it was the rare day when I didn’t get a shot at something.
My favorite spot was a hilltop orchard in Orangeville where, most days, I could make a swing around the edge of the apple trees, pick up a woodcock, rabbit or partridge or two and finish the day under a heavily-laden Russet tree with a commanding view of the Piscataquis River valley. I’d sit on the leaning trunk as the sun set into a cobalt sky and thank my lucky stars that I was alive and here to enjoy one more Maine October.
Drop your books, your tools and your responsibilities and get outdoors while you can. Life is too short and too precious to waste on such humdrum pursuits!
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