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There was a time when, if you didn’t get your deer by the Saturday after Thanksgiving, you were out of luck till next season. But, enlightened management and a growing deer herd have created extended opportunities for hunters that run well into December.
This week, sportsmen may pursue whitetails with a muzzleloader statewide, and next week those so inclined may continue to hunt with blackpowder arms in most of the area covered by wildlife management units 12-29 (generally speaking, southern Maine). For the ambitious and driven sport with no meat in the freezer, that means an additional two weeks of deer hunting under unusual if not prime conditions.
For most hunters, the real challenge of hunting these late seasons is finding the time to go (with Christmas just a few weeks away) and dredging up the gumption to go into those dark, frosty woods when everything looks so dead and gray and barren.
Our own perceptions aside, the deer have no problem getting along in December conditions. In fact, as long as the snow stays less than belly deep, they will travel and feed pretty much normally, as evidenced by the plethora of tracks and beds you’ll find in the woods at this time of year. Hunters who were unlucky last week may have thought that all the deer had been tagged, but it’s a real eye-opener to get out there on a fresh fall of December snow and see how many tracks (including some really big tracks!) you will find. The annual kill of 30,000 or so whitetails may seem like a lot of deer, but in fact it’s only about 10 percent of the estimated statewide herd, and in many areas far fewer than one in 10 local whitetails are removed by hunters.
Suffice it to say that there are deer out there if you want to go after them, and I highly recommend a last-minute muzzleloader hunt for a number of reasons. For one thing, the December woods are a pleasant place to be if only because there are few hunters about now, there will be snow in places so you can find and follow deer or at least pattern them, and the cold, bare conditions will make deer move about to feed more frequently. It’s easy to fill a deer’s paunch in September or October, but now it’s a little tougher to find enough browse, and that means the animals will have to spend more time moving about in search of buds, twigs and other readily available foods. I have seen deer paw through the snow and frost to get at dry leaves, mushrooms and corn, and they’ll spend considerable time exposing grass and other greens as well. All this takes time, and if a hunter is in the right place and ready for action, he’ll have no trouble filling his tag.
In December, the real problem is finding ways to keep warm while sitting in the woods all day. I have not yet found the right combination of clothing that will allow me to stay comfortable on extended-season hunts, and even with the best woolens, down or fleece clothing I can be shivering like a willow in no time. Chemical hand warmers take some of the chill off hands and toes, but my experience has been that I just have to tough it out.
It’s often a good idea to spend the day walking and standing in combination. Walking keeps you warm and standing gives you time to really think about your strategies and plans. When I find a place that just begs me to stay put for a while, I often have a hard time leaving it, especially when a sprinkling of fresh tracks tells me deer are nearby. I’ll stay put as long as I can stand it (and maybe 30 minutes after that!), but when I start to shiver I’ll move on to the next spot (at least far enough to warm up) and see what’s going on there.
Most muzzleloader hunters I know simply plan on walking the woods all day and never really stop long enough to let their fingers and toes go numb. That may be a better choice for bitter days when the wind is blowing and snow is sifting through the trees. Those are tough conditions for anyone to endure, deer included!
One thing I do to ward off the late-season chill is to fire up a cup of hot tea every few hours. I use a tin cup and a small butane stove to do the cooking, although for many years I made a small, hot fire and boiled water in a coffee can fitted with a wire bail. Everything I need (including water) fits in a small fanny pack. I keep a can of fuel in my shirt pocket to keep the butane warm (gas doesn’t perform well in cold weather). When I’m ready to take a break, I can set up shop and be drinking hot tea in about five minutes. The benefits of a hot beverage on a cold day can’t be calculated – just holding a steaming cup of tea in cold hands can be a pleasure. Taking a break gives you time to re-evaluate the situation, change plans or come up with new options, and the hot liquid feels good going down, too!
The nature of muzzleloader hunting means that you will get one shot at your game, so it’s imperative that hunters take the time to sight in their rifles and know where their bullets are going out to 100 yards at least. Some modern in-line rifles are accurate out to 200 yards and more, but most Maine deer you see in December will be in very thick cover at 50 yards or less. Be able to put that bullet into a coffee mug at that range and you won’t have to worry about going hungry this winter.
Late-season deer hunting is definitely a challenge, but there’s something about being in those dark, cold woods on these short winter days that beats puttering around in the basement. In fact, I prefer a day in the woods to doing just about anything else. Give me a rifle, a patch of woods and a few cups of tea and chances are I won’t be home till dark!
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