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I think most folks would agree that the period we’re entering right now, collectively known as “fall,” is the best time of year to be a Mainer. Threats of winter aside, you won’t find better weather, scenery or woodland ambience than you’ll find out there from now till about the end of November. It’s cool, quiet, comfortable and “alive” in the woods right now. If you’ve ever wondered what the reward was for living through Maine’s winters, mud and bug seasons, lace up your hiking shoes and get out there now!
The best excuse you can use for wandering the woods in late September is the age-old dodge of “scouting.” Most hunters use this approach to justify spending every weekend rambling the forest, claiming to be looking for bear sign, deer sign, birds, ducks, beaver flowages . . . you name it! Truth be known, the best way to ensure a productive fall hunting season is to start scouting well before opening day, so there is a germ of honesty in saying we’re going scouting for deer, bear or whatever. Game habits change, the forest changes and conditions change enough from year to year to make scouting a worthwhile alternative to yard work – take it from me!
A September jaunt can reveal quite a bit about how your hunting season will go. Check the usual berry patches and apple orchards to see if natural fruit production is on target. Most years there will be some areas that produce no fruit, or some apple trees that were barren last year will be loaded down with succulent yellow transparents, russets or Cortlands, and you want to take note of those locations early, especially if you want to hunt bears or deer over natural baits.
Also, long walks in the woods right now can reveal the locations of bearing cherry, black cherry or crabapple trees, which bears and grouse find particularly appealing. Most of these will be found in the vicinity of long-abandoned homesteads, near rock walls, in old foundations and the like.
(And our woodlands are full of such lost and forgotten home sites. Most folks don’t know that, back in the 1870s, central Maine’s human population was about 25 percent higher than it is right now! All those old farmsteads are long gone but their stonewalls and foundations remain, along with the remnants of their orchards, gardens and other plantings. Find them and you will find some good hunting for deer, bear and other game, no doubt the descendents of critters those old settlers hunted, too!)
It’s also a good idea to walk the edges of streams, ponds and other waterways to see where deer are crossing these days. The multitude of heart-shaped tracks in the mud is always a good sign, but keep your eyes peeled for the places in which tracks are going both ways, not just in one direction. If you stake out a spot where the tracks only go south, let’s say, that means there is just one time per day that the deer go through there (and possibly at night!). But, if you find tracks heading north and south, that means they are probably coming through the area near dawn or dusk, offering you double the options when it comes time to hunt.
One thing I notice on my September rambles is that last year’s tiny streams and swamps can be this year’s beaver ponds. That’s doubly good news for me because not only can I expect some good trapping later in the year, I can also find good duck and goose hunting once the fall migration kicks in. Not only that, but in a few weeks the annual migration of woodcock will start up, and these long-nosed bog suckers love probing around in fresh mud. Walk the edge of a swamp or beaver flowage in mid-October and you should jump more than your limit of woodcock every day. Don’t forget to work the high ground nearby as well, because these birds like to rest in the birches and alders during the day.
Our area of Maine is rich in orchards, abandoned farmsteads and wild game, so any scouting trip should yield more than enough places for you to add to your “must do” list this fall. One weekend of hiking should reveal dozens of great places to try, not only areas you are familiar with but places that have evolved into good hotspots for this year.
Planning ahead is reason enough for a September stroll in the woods, but I always bring a daypack loaded with water, my ever-present gas stove, some tea and bannock, rice or any other easily prepared staple. I find it immensely satisfying to sit on a stonewall high on a ridge somewhere, sipping hot tea and nibbling on a simple meal while soaking up the warm afternoon sun. You can see Mount Katahdin from most high spots around here on a clear September afternoon, and the hills in between always look as if no one lives here – just leaves and rolling terrain all the way to the sky! Stay out past sunset, of course, and you’ll see lights in the distance, cars racing around and an airplane or two, but for a few moments in late afternoon it looks (and sounds) as if there’s no else on earth.
I like the peace and quiet that I find out there, and the cool days of September tug at me like a persistent child – I can’t say no! I have spent most of my life either being outdoors or wishing I could be, and it’s a rare day when I can ignore the urge to go. The sense of freedom, adventure and solitude I get when I leave the pavement and head deep into the friendly, cozy woods is priceless, and September is just the beginning. I’ll be out there nearly every day till well into next summer, but no matter how long it lasts, it’s never enough. Make any excuse you must, but don’t let these perfect fall days pass you by. Life is short and fall is even shorter!
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