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This is it, folks! We’re down to the final week of Maine’s 2008 deer-hunting season and conditions couldn’t be any better for those who have yet to put their tag on a big Maine whitetail. Cold temperatures and the promise of snow this week could make all the difference, so if you haven’t taken the time to wander the woods in search of venison, spend your day or two off (you do at least get Thanksgiving Day off, don’t you?) in the woods and see what happens.
By now about 75 percent of the season’s deer harvest is already wrapped and in the freezer, but don’t let that little detail slow you down. There are an estimated 175,000 deer still running loose out there, and one of them has your name on it – if you can drag yourself out of bed and go!
Looking over my records from nearly 50 years of deer hunting (and I’ve recorded every deer I’ve shot in that time including date, time of day, weather conditions, distance, gun and load used, number of shots fired and all that anal-retentive stuff!), I’ve found that I’ve taken nearly 70 percent of them in the hours before 9 a.m. Several were taken minutes after sunrise, and many were downed later in the morning, but, in general, I’ve had the best luck overall on morning hunts.
The early-morning period is when deer are on the move from their nighttime bedding and feeding areas, heading for the thickest cover or highest ridges they can find to spend the treacherous daylight hours in relative security. They know that hunters will be about when daylight arrives and they will move into more secure areas as the sun rises higher in the sky.
Because deer are also active at night, I try to get into the woods well before sunrise so that I’m set up and comfortable well before the first dim glow of morning creeps over the horizon. Sometimes I get fooled by deer that pass by me in the dark, but that just adds to the allure of a morning hunt.
I normally hunt on the ground, finding a good tree to lean against that also has a level, flat spot for my feet. I kick the leaves, snow and frost away, and then settle in to wait. I try to be in place and ready to hunt before the first morning birds start chirping. Usually, it’s a chickadee or nuthatch that signals the coming of day, but once in a while I’ll hear a red squirrel’s chattering call somewhere off in the distance.
There is a brief flurry of activity as the daylight critters begin their day, then there may be an hour or two of dead silence – and this is when you want to be out there and ready for action! Somewhere between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. is when deer seem to do most of their last-minute wandering, and that’s when you want to be there, ready and waiting for them.
With cold and snow on the way, all the leaves down and deer in their late fall nocturnal mode, where should you go to find one? If I had only one choice, I’d pick the edge of a swamp, that nebulous zone where the hardwoods meet the softwoods. Normally, there’s a slight dropoff where the hardwoods merge and then drop into the wet ground, and that is where you want to be. Deer will wander along that edge throughout the day, and if you can find specific areas where deer trails come out of the swamp into the open cover, you are where you need to be.
But what if you can only find time to hunt in the afternoons? No problem – head for the same place. My records tell me that about 30 percent of the deer I’ve shot were taken in late afternoon in that hardwood-softwood transition zone, most often just at sunset. The reason for that, I believe, is that whitetails like to get up to the edge of the hardwoods just at dusk, but they’ll stick to the evergreens till it’s well past legal shooting time. Only then will they take a chance and expose themselves in open cover.
For this reason, I’d pick a spot farther into the swamp for an afternoon hunt. I have learned the hard way that hoping for an open shot in the waning moments of daylight generally ends with me standing there watching shadowy forms moving about in the evergreens. Had I elected to hunt down in the darker woods, I’d have had a deer to drag out at the end of the day, but the price for being lazy is usually . . . nothing!
If you’re going to hunt the cedars in the few afternoons we have remaining, be sure to set your watch for the exact time and then plan on staying in the woods till the last minute of legal shooting time (which is listed in the 2009 Maine hunting regulations). The reason is that when you hunt the swamps it seems to get dark much sooner there, but you stand to lose 20 minutes or more of legal shooting time if you let the long, dark shadows get the best of you. Stay put, hunt till the law says you must quit, and then head for home.
I strongly recommend that you stay put till the last second because many of the afternoon deer I’ve shot were taken at the last minute. Had I left my stand even five minutes sooner, I’d have lost another opportunity.
It’s not easy to sit still and stay alert, morning or evening, when it’s cold and snow and the wind is tickling the back of your neck. Still, the season is about to end and you don’t want to add another unfilled tag to your collection. Get out there, hunt hard and make the most of every available minute. When you get your chance, aim straight and squeeze that trigger – the rest will take care of itself!
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