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Hunters all over the Northeast are looking with great anticipation toward Maine’s opening day of firearms season (set to begin Saturday for residents only, and then Monday for all hunters). Even though I’ve been deer hunting every fall since 1962, I still can’t sleep the night before opening day. There is nothing so energizing than that first day of the season, knowing that somewhere out there a big buck roams, and all I have to do is find him. Nothing to it!
Perhaps that is what keeps me awake on those frosty nights in November – knowing that there is a lot more to it than most folks know and, truth be known, the odds are against us. About 10 percent of Maine’s licensed hunters tag a deer each year, which means 90 percent do not! The same holds true in every state with a one-deer limit, and even where hunters are allowed multiple deer the same 10 percent seem to get 90 percent of the animals that are taken.
The primary problem, based on all my years in deer camps all over the East, West, South, New Brunswick and Canada, is that hunters lose their opening-day enthusiasm practically before they head out the door that first morning. I’ve seen sports heading back to camp for “breakfast” at 10 a.m. opening day and that is the last time I see them in the woods! It’s a fact that, beyond our pre-season dreams and fantasies, deer hunting is cold, boring, frustrating work, with hours of walking and sitting involved and, most days, nothing to show for it. I would be willing to bet that of any group of hunters spending a week in the woods, more than half of them would be sitting by the wood stove come Thursday morning. I’ve been in camps where hunters started packing up Wednesday at noon, and by Friday there would be no one left to go hunting but me!
Though I’ve taken a deer pretty much every season since I was 13, very few of them were first-day gimmies. Once I got past the novice stage, the bucks came harder every year. Some years I’d hunt the entire season before getting a shot, and one year I bowhunted all month in October, gun hunted every day in November and didn’t kill a deer till mid-week in muzzleloader season! That is a lot of hunting time, even for one who enjoys the woods as much as I do. I was one tired, ragged and sore hunter at the end of that season, but the big 9-pointer I shot made it all worthwhile.
What I’ve learned most about deer hunting is that it’s not the clothing you wear, the gear you use, the gadgets you buy or the theories you develop that put meat on the table, it’s simply getting out of bed and getting into the woods every day that do the trick. In my younger days I spent countless hours standing in the rain to get a deer, braving snowstorms, wind and bitter cold and got a deer, skipped school and work to get a deer and even ended up divorced a time or two because I wanted a deer so badly. The bottom line was that I went out and put in my time, day in and day out, no matter what else was happening.
I would not recommend quitting your job or your marriage for the sake of killing a deer, but you get the idea. Letting the alarm run itself out at 5 a.m. and going back to sleep is not the way to spend your precious and few November hunting days. Put the alarm clock across the room, set the coffee pot for 4:30 a.m. and do what you need to do to get up and moving before daylight each day.
It’s not easy to leave a toasty warm house and head into the cold, dismal woods for a long day on a stump, but that is what you need to do if you want to put some meat in the freezer. Every Monday I come into work and ask the other guys how many deer they saw over the weekend and, all season long, the answer is, “I didn’t feel like going.” Eh? It’s deer season boys – what else is there to do BUT go deer hunting?
I never mentioned it before, but one of the hunters I admired most in my life was Stephen Jay of Milo who, at the time, was probably the one and only true wild man I’d ever met. He was a hard worker and very entertaining to be around, but come deer season he’d quit his job, losing all his seniority and benefits, just so he could spend more time deer hunting. As his foreman at the shoe shop, I tried to convince him to stay and work, maybe take a Saturday morning off or just go home “sick” mid-week, but he’d just look at me and say, “I gotta go hunting!” I knew exactly what he meant and I often wished I had the guts to do the same thing!
Stephen knew, as all successful hunters know, that you can’t go out one or two hours a week and reasonably expect to get a deer. Productive deer hunting takes time, energy and determination. While you are daydreaming about this year’s monster buck, remind yourself that each deer must be earned and that you may have to go when it’s raining, snowing, windy and cold. Be prepared for it, plan on it and force yourself to get out there every chance you get. I have taken as many last-minute bucks as anyone I know and the main reason is that my hunter’s heart would not listen to my quitter’s feet! I may get cold, achy, hungry and bored, but I’m staying till the last gun is fired, and I sincerely hope that last shot of the season is mine!
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