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There’s only one day in Maine that generates more excitement than today, and that can only be the opening day of the firearms deer season. That’s still some weeks away, however, so those who bowhunt for deer or pursue upland game and waterfowl take center stage starting today.
The challenge now is deciding what to do — spend the day deer hunting, chasing partridges in the orchards or paddle down a quiet stream in search of ducks or geese? As the days get shorter the options dwindle, and, as is always the case, the best hunting for any species is at dawn or dusk. Therefore, you can only throw the dice, pick your poison and get to it!
It is possible to do it all in a day, but that takes some planning and energy. I used to try to cram in as much, varied hunting as I could each day, and in fact completely wore out a pair of L. L. Bean’s famous rubber-bottomed boots by the end of deer season. Not only did I hunt birds, rabbits, ducks and deer, I even set out 100 traps along a nearby stream. Because traps must be checked daily, I set out before daylight each morning, laden with my pack basket and tools, walking the trap line in hopes of catching a mink, raccoon or fisher along the way.
I’d reach the end of the line just after daylight, and would trade my waders and lure for a shotgun. Rabbits, woodcock and partridge inhabit wetland cover in October, so I’d make the return trip by busting through the alders and birches along the stream. It would take me an hour or two to hunt my way back to the truck, and most days I’d have a rabbit, a few birds and maybe even a wood duck or two to go along with my fur catch.
After taking care of my game and eating a quick lunch, I’d head for the nearest overgrown apple orchard to take on the local grouse population. These birds tend to wander into the apple trees in mid-afternoon, and in the early season it’s not unusual to find whole family flocks poking around on the ground or in the trees. In fact, it’s always a good idea to stay locked and loaded even after a few birds flush and fly away. There’s always a chance that a few stragglers will hang back, sitting quietly on overhead limbs in hopes that the danger will pass by. Of course, if you aren’t paying attention they will wait till you have turned your back and are walking away before they disappear out the back door on clattering wings. I learned to expect such furtive tactics and often managed to bag a bird or two that normally would have made good their escape.
As the afternoon shadows lengthened, I’d grab my bow and head to a distant, quiet corner of the orchard or to a lowland funnel of mixed young growth and wait for the local deer population to stir. In early October the whitetails tend to start feeding in early afternoon, often well before the sun has slipped down below the trees. They’ll be headed for pasture fields or apple orchards in search of food, and if you pick the right spot (with plenty of leafy cover) you can often anticipate an easy shot at close range.
It happened in those days that I was able to hunt deer on a hilltop orchard till late in the afternoon, but the quacks and honks of ducks and geese deep in the bowels of the neighboring bog told me that a) they were about to leave on their southerly journey and b) I should get down there for a proper sendoff.
At times I would literally run out of the woods, head for the car to trade bows and arrows for a shotgun and steel shot, and dash along deer trails through the alders to a shoreline spot I knew where ducks and geese leaving the bog would pass about 20 feet up and no more than 25 yards away.
The trick with afternoon ducks is to be there before sunset and wait until the very last instant before sunset. For some mystical reason the birds often would not lift off the water till there was only a minute or two to spare between legal shooting time and poaching. In all the years I have hunted ducks and geese I have rarely seen them be late for their next appointment, but many times they wait till the sun is all but gone before they take to the air.
The action is fast and furious because, in most cases, all of the ducks in a given bog or beaver flowage will pick up and leave at the same time, often (but not always) accompanied by a cacophony of quacking and wing-flapping. You’ll hear the whistle of chevroned wings long before you see the first birds approaching, but they will be traveling at 40 miles per hour or more and will give you about three seconds to make your shots count.
However, those three seconds are among the most exciting in all of hunting. One instant the cobalt sky is clear and empty, and the next it is filled with ducks, all traveling fast and treetop high. I’ve hunted with friends who became so excited they literally fell on their faces in the bog as they tripped over beaver-cut alders while taking their shots. One time a friend did his belly flop just as I shot at a black duck coming around the bend. The duck flipped and tumbled down, landing right on top of my floundering buddy’s back. That was about the easiest retrieve ever!
About the time the last black or wood duck hits the water the day is about over because all waterfowl and migratory bird (including woodcock) hunting must end at sunset. In October, that means you’ve just spent about 10 hours in the field, a good long day by any standard! By Thanksgiving the deer-hunting day will be down to 8 hours or less, but for now the action and the opportunities are almost unlimited.
Get out there and make the most of our generous bag limits and season dates and enjoy the outdoors during what is arguably the most beautiful time of year in Maine. October doesn’t last forever, you know!
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