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The annual Maine firearms deer season is over now, sad to say, but hunters who don’t want to quit yet may still head for the woods statewide this week to find that big buck using a muzzle-loading rifle (or bow), with more options available next week in the Expanded Archery Zone (pretty much southern coastal Maine and select other areas).
I’ve hunted blackpowder deer in Maine since the season was first offered in the mid-80s, and it’s safe to say that things have changed a bit since then. I actually hunted that first year with a flintlock .45-caliber rifle (with patched round balls) because that’s all I had at the time and rather enjoyed the “This is almost impossible” aspect of the hunt. Later I started using a Lyman Plains Rifle left to me by Joe Young, a WWII-era veteran who happened to be around when I shot my first deer back in 1963. He was dying of cancer and I asked him for something I could remember him by, and one day the Plains Rifle showed up on my doorstep. I shoot it (at something) every year in honor of Old Joe.
The days of flints and No. 11 caps are numbered, I’m afraid, because the new in-line rifles (most using No. 209 shotgun primers) have taken over. These modern guns are essentially single-shot rifles capable of 200-yard-plus accuracy, a far cry from the relatively simple arms of just 20 years ago. In fact, I was talking to a well-known barrel maker recently who told me that he had perfected rifle barrels that would deliver “phenomenal” accuracy at 300 yards! I don’t know how all this ties in to the original “primitive arms” concept that generated separate muzzleloader seasons in most states, but apparently the need to take more deer out of the herd has precedence over the choice of implements.
At any rate, a modern inline muzzleloader is the ideal tool for this week’s deer hunt. Using saboted bullets, clean-burning powder, reliable primers, fine scope sights and machined barrels, the element of “will this thing work?” is eliminated, giving the hunter far greater confidence on these cold, snowy days in the early part of December.
The real challenge is finding a deer to shoot in the first place. Long gone are the lazy days of early fall, the crisp October mornings, the November rut and all the other hunter-friendly aspects of the sport. Now, we are faced with hunting deer that travel less, eat sparingly and spend more time in seclusion in the thickest cover possible. Wintering whitetails are hard to find until the deep snow makes them head for local deer yards, but the season will be long over by then.
This is the transition period between intense fall activity and winter’s debilitating cold and snow. The key now is spending time in the woods, especially near thickets of alder, birch and dense softwoods. Few deer will be seen in open pastures or crop fields from now on, and if they do show up in such places it will likely be after dark. It’s great to see fresh tracks in the snow, but unless the deer is standing in those tracks you won’t have much to show for your efforts if you choose to pick a stand near such openings.
Though I’ve never had much luck with deer calls, I have found that whitetails seem to respond well to the various can and grunt calls during this early December time frame. I have hunted the late season in several states where such calls were quite effective. In one state I hunted I used a can call when I jumped several deer and, to my surprise, all of the bucks came back to my position while the does stood and stamped their feet in warning to them! Another time I stopped for a break and uttered a few grunts just for the heck of it, and when I stood up to move on I was surprised to see two does standing less than 10 feet behind me!
Several such instances have occurred that lead me to believe that such calls may have some use during the muzzleloader season. I wouldn’t bet my rifle on it, but if nothing else works, try calling and see what happens. Every situation is different, but if you try a call and it does work, you will have a winter’s supply of venison for your trouble. All I can say is that during one recent season nearly all of the top bucks taken in the East fell to hunters using a call of some sort. The idea certainly has some merit!
One of the best ways to take a nice buck this week is to get on a big, fresh track and follow it. A simple concept, of course, but this is no walk in the woods! Expect to spend the better part of your day (possibly all week) on the track, but if you are patient, alert and ready for action you may well end up dragging a nice, big Maine trophy out of the woods.
If you plan on tracking a deer this week, dress for the part. You are going to be walking (sometimes even running) all day, so leave the bulky clothing at home. Dress lightly in wool or fleece and carry nothing but your necessary gear: Rifle, knife and compass. Anything else is dead weight and will feel like an anvil in your pocket after a few miles of tracking. Move quickly and quietly, keeping your eyes peeled for changes in the deer’s habits as he moves along, and when you detect that he’s meandering, go into your best “sneak and peek” mode, because your buck is looking for a place to bed and will be close by.
If you make a mistake and he takes off running, run right along with him till his tracks slow from giant bounds to easy strides, and then get ready for action again. With practice and experience you’ll see the trends in this buck’s actions and will be able to take advantage of him somewhere down the line. At least in tracking a deer you know there’s one ahead of you – somewhere.
All you have to do is catch up to him and see him first!
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