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Most folks can feel that special tingle in the air that means fall is in full swing, but Maine's outdoors contingent is getting downright excited about it. All of the state's major hunting seasons will be open by the end of the week (archery deer, small game, waterfowl and bear), which makes this a busy time for us all.
It's sometimes amusing to talk to people who have done this stuff for many years and have all the answers as far as what's good, better or best. Talk about opening-day partridge hunting and the sage old-timer will tell you Oct. 1 is “too early” because it's still too hot, there are too many leaves and the birds will fly off unseen or simply walk away in the thick cover.
I once spent the better part of an afternoon talking to a bunch of guys about this at Smith's Store in Atkinson. We were drinking Pepsis and eating ice-cream sandwiches by the case while we discussed all the reasons why Oct. 1 was too early for bird hunting, but the odd thing is that every one of us, including me, was out there on opening day - heat and leaves notwithstanding!
At that point the conversation goes to all the reasons you can't miss opening day - the weather is nice, the dogs need work, it's just fun to be out there . . . the usual half-baked pronouncements.
Bowhunters are the same. There's no question that October is the time to be in the Maine woods, and many an archer (traditional flat-bowyers, recurve toters and compound aficionados) spend long hours tuning bows, arrows and their shooting skills. I'm sure you've seen the hay bales, plastic blocks, faux deer and bears in rural back yards where avid bowhunters have spent their evenings and weekend afternoons practicing for the big day.
Maine's general archery deer season opens Sept. 29, which is exciting from the “let's go now” standpoint but, as any seasoned archer will tell you (in his back yard or at the coffee shop) “It's too early!”
Well, it is too early in some ways, and it will likely be hot, buggy and too thick in the woods, but if there's a better time to be outdoors in Maine you won't convince anyone who shoots arrows at deer this month. The archery deer season is generally quiet, peaceful and unbearably pleasant. Just cool enough to be comfortable in light clothing, there's little or no hunter traffic (bowhunters tend to take stands and sit still where they think a deer might pass) and the deer are still traveling their summer routes from bedding to feeding areas.
On the down side, deer are still deer and don't trust anything that seems wrong to them, including camo-clad bowhunters sitting in trees. The challenge is simple: get within 30 yards of an unsuspecting whitetail, wait till he turns broadside and put one sharp broadhead right behind the shoulder. Nothing to it - except deer seem to master the skill of staying 40 yards away, facing the hunter and (always) manage to stand behind a tree, some brush or a blowdown.
In the last 35 years archery technology has brought us from simple Indian-style fiberglass recurve bows to graphite, wheels and laser-sight compounds that can hit a dime every time at 40 yards. And we have better camo, scents, lures, blinds and tree stands; plus magazines, books and videos on how to become a better bowhunter. Despite all these advances, bowhunting success rates have stayed pretty much around 7 percent throughout the period. In fact, it comes down to the fact that Maine bowhunters take about one deer per 140 square miles - not exactly a threat to the herd!
The joy of bowhunting is that you can expect to see a lot of game and you'll have plenty of stories to tell around the cracker barrel when the season ends. Over the last several years I have had numerous nice bucks within easy rifle range of my stand while bowhunting, and while it was fun to see them and hope they would come closer, it was frustrating to watch them walk away down the wrong trail, up the wrong hill or through the wrong thicket.
The last deer I saw during the archery season was a big, fat doe that came barreling over the hill toward me after apparently being spooked by another hunter (or maybe a coyote or stray dog). She was flying over that hill, but as soon as she got on my side of the ridge she stopped and stood still for over 30 minutes. Then, she'd take a step at a time, with a long break in between, coming ever so slowly toward me. Of course, I had to sit still, be quiet and not even blink because most of the time she was staring right at me! She got to a point where she would have to go left (toward me and an easy shot) or right (away from me into a thick ravine). And there she stood . . . 20 minutes . . . 30 minutes . . . 45 minutes . . . and then she finally made her decision. Yup - none of the above! She turned around and walked back up the hill, right back to where she'd come from! All I could see of her was her twitching white tail. She didn't run, she wasn't panicked, she probably didn't even realize I was there. She just made a lucky decision, turned and walked away.
That was the end of my season and, in truth, most bow seasons end the same way. The real mystery is that we're all back again this year, tuning our bows, practicing our shooting skills and making big plans for opening day. I've been getting ready for opening day for over 45 years, and still can't think of a better way to spend my time. Surely this year will be different!
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