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This weekend marks the opening day of the 2004 firearms season on deer, and it would be hard to miss the fact that over 200,000 licensed hunters from around the world will have roamed the Maine outback before it’s over. This Saturday is “residents only” day, which means out-of-towners must cool their heels through the weekend before heading into the crispy pre-dawn darkness Monday morning.
Every one of those hunters has big plans for the season, “big” as in trophy Maine buck – any antlered whitetail over 200 pounds. In many parts of the country (and it’s creeping north as we speak) the definition of “trophy buck” has changed from dressed weight to antler score. It will come as a shock to many to find that, in most cases, the state-record buck (by score) is not the fattest buck ever taken, and in fact most big-antlered deer are substantially smaller than the beefiest of bucks that are taken each season. The Northeast is notorious for producing heavyweight deer with antlers that the average trophy hunter would not claim, but that is changing as hunters learn to wait for a better trophy or figure out how to hunt an area that has little or no competition.
The “trophy” dilemma exists pretty much in the minds of those who participate. I have always considered any Maine deer a worthwhile trophy. There have been years when I would have given my rifle for a shot at a yearling doe, and I often had to shoot such a deer or go hungry that year. I have been lucky enough to take some pretty nice bucks along the way, but I’m the last one to claim to be a pure trophy hunter. I like my venison on the grill as much as on the wall. In fact, I have all of the antlers (or tails) from every deer I’ve ever shot and, to tell the truth, I still enjoy telling the stories of them all – trophy class or not!
One of my favorite deer hunts ended with a small doe in the freezer, but that was a great hunt. It was a windy, dry year and walking in the woods was so noisy that it was not possible to “sneak up” on a deer, as hunters love to do. I got tired of walking into the woods at dawn and watching tails go sailing over the horizon – after all, the deer could track my every step from the truck to the swamp, and each crunching leaf sounded like I was walking on broken light bulbs.
It happened that there was a shallow stream running through my favorite patch of woods, and one morning I decided to take a radical approach: I’d just don a pair of trout waders and walk up the stream to my secret hotspot! It was slow, cold going there in the misty pre-dawn, but I actually enjoyed the slow pace. I could see well into the woods, I could hear reasonably well because the stream was shallow and quiet, and all I had to do was keep moving straight through the woods to my destination.
I had just about reached the edge of the swamp I intended to hunt when, out of nowhere, a nice doe bounded across in front of me and hesitated in the alders along the stream. I had not seen a deer all season, it was the last day I could hunt and the odds of me seeing another whitetail were minimal. The crosshairs found the deer’s shoulder and the gun went off as all this raced through my mind, and a moment later I was able to claim my prize.
Perhaps even better was the fact that I was able to float my deer out of the woods without a hitch. The stream was clear and obstacle free, and all I had to do was tie the doe to my belt and head for the truck.
I have had some easy hunts and some first-day successes, but that little water stalk was a pleasing way to end the hunting year. It wasn’t a big deer, and I got to the tagging station in time to see some huge bucks get their ankle tags, but I was more than satisfied with my season.
I had the same sort of experience last year while black powder hunting out of a tree stand. As usual, I was down to the wire, last day, last hour, and out of the brush comes a little spike buck that had no reason to be there. To my everlasting surprise, the buck walked straight under my stand and stood there for about five minutes. I was up there, aiming straight down, trying to decide if I should shoot or not when I realized this was my last day to hunt, I’d get no more chances to go and here was 100 pounds of tender venison just five yards away.
The smoke cleared and my winter’s supply of meat was “made,” as the old-timers would say. I did not think I’d been cheated by taking such a small buck, nor did I think I’d committed the crime of the century by shooting a spike. I like deer, deer hunting and deer meat, and any time a hunt ends on the positive side, I consider it a success.
You are free to make your own rules about such things this season, and I wish you well no matter what your goals. Be sure you rifle is shooting straight, be certain of your target and spend as much time in the woods as you can spare. Even if you can get out every day, Maine’s November firearms deer season is a fleeting one, and I guarantee some of us (maybe even me) will end up heading out on Thanksgiving Saturday wondering where in the world all the deer have gone!
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