| Today is the true and official “opening day” of the 2004 Maine firearms deer season, a tradition in sport that has endured for over 100 years. Some wonder what the great attraction is to “going into the woods and freezing on a stump all day,” but that is the ignorant assessment of people who have never been there. There is a lot more to it than that, and in fact the moment a taggable deer shows up is actually the anticlimax.
For avid hunters, “deer season” began long before this day ever came. The buildup starts as early as July, when sporting magazines begin their serious coverage of last year’s deer season. Advertisers get in the game early, too, sending catalogs, flyers and special issues touting the year’s newest developments in gear and gadgets. Sportsman’s groups offer hunter safety courses, shooting competitions and “game nights” designed to keep the fires burning through the long summer and into the approaching fall.
Sometime in early September the average hunter can stand it no longer. He has to get into the woods and see what his local deer herd has been up to. In most cases, an autumn ramble reveals new tracks, trails, a few antler rubs (which pre-rut bucks use to mark their territories), and, in some places a scrape or two (those oval spots cleared of leaves and twigs that look as if someone had dropped a valuable key or ring and had cleared the leaves away while searching for it). If you look closely, you should see a clean, clear hoof print in the center of the scrape, which is the buck’s “signature,” left there for other bucks (and does) to fear and admire. Look closer and you might see a broken branch or twig over the scrape, more evidence that a mature buck is getting ready to defend his territory and take on the responsibility of increasing the herd. Only totally committed hunters would care to know this next, but if you kneel down and get really close to the scrape, you’ll be able to detect the musky odor of whitetail urine, also left there by the buck as evidence of his presence and prowess. This stuff may not mean a lot to us humans, but it’s the writing on the wall for whitetails, and they take it very seriously!
These signs, especially scrapes and rubs, increase in frequency as November approaches. Scientists suggest that early to mid-November is the peak of the deer breeding season in Maine, which means the biggest bucks in the state will finally come out of hiding and put themselves at mortal risk for the sake of breeding a receptive doe. This is the time of year when the most bucks are killed on highways (as they pursue does that are not quite “ready”), in open fields or “just standing there staring at me.”
Whitetail bucks are reclusive as old men who live alone, but when November’s rutting moon rises, they act as silly and reckless as any teenager on Friday night. The price for their transgressions are high a trip to the taxidermist and a winter in the freezer. But, the urge to hunt these bucks in November is as strong as the deer’s own urge to procreate, and if you can imagine such a thing, you understand some of what motivates Maine’s 200,000-plus deer hunters each fall.
There are other reasons for being out there this month, however, and they are the little things that Saturday morning layabouts will never appreciate or experience. Perhaps one of the more interesting things that happen in the pre-dawn, as hunters throughout the state make their way into the dark and silent woods, is the sudden, unexpected flush of a partridge from its spruce-snag roost head high and 10 feet away. Many a hunter has had to go back to camp for a change of boxers after such an event it’s not something you can anticipate or get used to!
In the moments before full daylight you’re likely to hear owls hooting nearby, a big red fox on its last predatory swing through the swamp, a mink making its way along a trickling brook, or even a bear or moose ghosting by in the twilight shadows. I once nearly bumped into a huge porcupine that was hanging low under a hemlock bough. He fell with a thump into the leaves below, and waddled off rather humbly, I thought, but none the worse for wear.
There’s a certain pleasure in arriving at the chosen stand site before daylight. There’s time to scrape away the leaves around your feet and get your gear ready for the day. It’s at this time that I brew up a cup of hot tea on my little gas stove, relax and get into the hunting mode. I clear my head of everything but the mission of the day finding a trophy Maine buck and making my shot go straight and true.
It’s one of the great pleasures of life to be deep in the woods at dawn, alert to the sounds of approaching game, listening to the chickadees, nuthatches and red squirrels, knowing that sometime soon that snapping twig in the distance will turn into the object of our year-round obsession.
The woods never seem as full as they do when a big, matured whitetail buck suddenly makes its appearance. Often preceded by the merest rustle of leaves or crack of a branch, it always amazes me that a 200-pound-plus animal can move so easily through the alders and cedars. And, how can so much of the deer be hidden behind leaves? I have often had to wait for a deer to walk 100 yards or more past me and almost out of sight before getting the clear, clean shot I wanted. They always seem to pause behind brush, logs or tree trunks with little more than their nose or tail showing; sometimes so close I would swear they could hear my heart pounding away in my throat!
I have learned from experience that waiting is the best policy, and I stay true to my instincts till the deer finally reveals that critical “behind the shoulder” area. When I pull the trigger, I know that my bullet will travel straight to the target and that the deer will be dead when I get to it. At that point the dreaming, the preparation, the hunt is over. I always regret having to leave the woods for another year, but that’s what this game is all about. Not every hunter who enters the woods this season will kill a deer, but that’s not all that drives them. Give it a try for yourself this year and see what it’s really all about. You just might be surprised to find that you like it, too!