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For those who had no luck during the regular firearms season on deer, there is still a week of muzzleloader hunting available statewide (starting today). Also, next week a major portion of the state (mostly east and south) will be open for another week of blackpowder hunting. All rules and regulations governing the regular firearms season will be in place, most importantly the fluorescent orange rule (hat and vest) and “doe permit” restrictions. This gives hunters an extra two weeks to find that big Maine buck, and in many ways these are the best two weeks of the season.
Perhaps best of all, there should be snow on the ground sometime during this two-week period, which makes finding – and seeing – deer much easier. They are still the clever, elusive creatures they were last week, but with snow on the ground they can’t hide or disappear quite as quickly. In fact, I love the late muzzleloader season specifically because of the snow. It never ceases to amaze me how many deer have been out there, including some big ones, all along.
Truth be told, I have been seeing deer all season, mostly does and yearlings. I’m not necessarily holding out for a big buck (I have a valid doe permit this year), but I’m one who likes to hunt, so I’m stretching things out till the last minute. One morning I had my crosshairs on five different deer but, alas, none wore antlers. I expect that I may see them again sometime in the next 12 hunting days, so I’m holding off a little bit longer. With snow and a chance to track a big deer, I might end up with a reward for exercising my sporting ethic!
If meat is your goal, now is the time to get out there and hunt. Snow will help, but so will the fact that there will be fewer hunters out there. This gives you more room to roam with less competition, although sometimes other hunters can push deer your way. I prefer to have the woods to myself once I start tracking because it’s nice to know that I have a chance to catch up to my quarry without worrying that someone else may bump into him first.
To make the most of these final weeks of deer season, it’s imperative that you plan to stay in the woods all day. We’re down to about 10 hours of legal shooting time now, and it’s going to get worse over the next 14 days. I bring my trusty gas stove, water for tea or coffee, plenty of snacks and a sandwich or two and plan on having lunch in the woods. I may sit on a stump somewhere all morning, eat lunch and then head for another spot for the afternoon, but I stay out there as long as the law allows. Because it’s cold and food is becoming scarce, deer are likely to move about throughout the day. Leaving the woods or going home for lunch can cost you 24 hours of hunting time in the next two weeks, and at this point there’s no time to waste. Bring a few hand warmers with you or build a small fire to help you stay warm, but make the most of these finals days of the season.
One common refrain I’ve heard this year is “It’s discouraging to not see any sign.” Well, that is true, and I have noticed a definite lack of rubs, scrapes and other evidence of bucks on the move. Why that is happening is anyone’s guess (a later rut, maybe?), but the deer are still out there – all you have to do is find them. Also, keep in mind that deer don’t leave a lot of sign in the leaves. One morning recently I had four does come by me just after sunrise, and they stuck around my stand for about 20 minutes before they wandered off. (And don’t think that doe permit wasn’t burning a hole in my pocket!) After they’d gone and things settled down, I went over to check their tracks and had a difficult time finding any! The leaves were thick and flat after a recent rain, but I was barely able to find a single track – and I’d watched the four of them from no more than 20 yards away!
While it’s easy to lose faith, it’s important to remember that the deer are out there, wandering and feeding, and if you put your time in you will have your chance. Sometimes you get lucky and tag one on the first day, while other times you may be coming out of the woods on the last day and bump into one. It can happen, but it won’t happen if you are not there! On one recent cold, windy morning my feet were telling me to get home and do something responsible, but my heart kept telling me to stay put for another hour. It was all I could do to sit there another 30 minutes, but I’m glad I did. Two does and a yearling came by and posed beautifully at 20 yards – an easy shot if I wanted to fill my doe permit. To me, that counts as a successful day, plus it’s incentive to go back out tomorrow and the next day, however long it takes till I find the deer I’m looking for. Over the last 50 years the majority of my encounters with deer have been sudden, unexpected and brief, but the bottom line has always been that if I hadn’t been there at that place and time it wouldn’t have happened. Fortunately, I learned that simple rule of hunting at an early age and even now I force myself to stay out there long after a sane person would have gone home.
A muzzleloading season permit costs $13 (for Maine residents) and a doe permit is good in the area you selected. Load up, get out there and put your time in. The first fork-full of venison roast will make you glad you did!
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