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Perhaps the most dependable tool a Maine deer hunter has is his own level of determination. All the best guns and gear on the market can’t (and never could) guarantee a successful hunt. One must be willing to get out there every day rain or shine, snow or cold, wind or clouds, and put in the time it takes to increase the odds that are, admittedly, stacked so heavily against us.
Considering that this week, the second and last week of the 2011 muzzleloader season, means the end of deer hunting till next fall, hunters who haven’t seen a whitetail (or have passed on small bucks or does in hopes of seeing something bigger) need to make a decision – hunt this week and shoot the first legal deer you see or hang it up till 2012.
I have always been one to hunt till the last hour, and sometimes literally did not see a deer to shoot at till the very last moments of the season. I count those years as the best of all because I was able to enjoy being outdoors every day all season long and still ended up with meat enough to last me the winter. I will say that hunting 30 straight days (or more) without a shot can be a monumental challenge, but what I keep in mind is that the deer are out there and sooner or later I will cross paths with one. It may (and often does) take the entire season to make the connection, but what a joyous day that is for those who won’t give up or give in.
There are some good reasons to continue hunting right to the end this year, one being that the Holy Grail of deer seekers, the “rut,” is still on. Bucks were chasing does with almost textbook regularity just a week ago, and several hunters I know who were looking for top-end bucks said they had seen good numbers of fork-horns, 8-ponters and even spike bucks running with does that were not quite in a receptive mood. Because we are at the far northern limit of the whitetail’s range in the Northeast, the whitetail’s breeding season can extend well in to December, which accounts for all those late-born fawns we see that still have visible spots on their flanks in November.
This early part of December has what is called the “second rut,” where does that did not mate in November are pursued with vigor. For the record, I saw fresh rubs (with bark particles on top of the snow) and scrapes days after the Thanksgiving snow storm, and it’s a good bet that the rut will taper off but continue at least into this week.
Bottom line: don’t think that the season is over! For a mere $13 any hunter with a big-game license can participate in the muzzleloader season right through the end of this week in Zone 14 and most southern zones near us. There are still plenty of opportunities for hunters considering a last-minute attempt to put some meat in the freezer.
The hours, rules and regulations for muzzleloader hunting are same as they were for the rifle season – wear your orange, quit hunting ?-hour after sunset and use only muzzleloaders of .40 caliber or larger. Check page 19 of the latest Maine hunting and trapping regulations booklet for pertinent details, but generally speaking if you hunted during the November firearms season (with or without an antlerless deer permit) you are good to go this week.
And now another tidbit that might help discouraged hunters make another go of it this week. I hunted long and hard through November and, like most of the hunters in my area, saw very few deer. Lacking a doe permit, I was up against the wall when the closing day came and I still had not seen a buck. In fact, I was literally up against a wall, a stone wall close to home that the Thanksgiving snowstorm revealed more fresh tracks (and big ones!) than I’d seen all season. The site had all the elements I like in a whitetail hotspot: a brook, high ground, thick evergreens and swampy cover where a deer could make one jump and be gone. It’s one of those places where you can’t see very far but what you can see is very appealing.
Things looked so good on that last morning that I put off my 9 a.m. tea break till 10. Good thing I did, because just after nine a doe came by, glared at me suspiciously and bounded off, but the 10-pointer following her wasn’t so perceptive. One shot with my old, trusty .308 put an end to my season and made me one happy hunter! I had my buck and now I could have my tea!
What surprised me most of all was that when I finally got my deer out to camp and everyone had a chance to check him out, suddenly all those dejected, discouraged hunters were ready to head for the woods and, surprisingly, all of them bought muzzleloader season stamps and planned to keep on hunting right to the end.
I guess there’s something about seeing a nice buck in the back of the truck that gets the adrenaline going. Plus, I made sure I mentioned all the rut sign I had seen, how the buck had been following the doe and how I’d heard all kinds of grunting and bleating earlier that morning.
I hadn’t seen so much enthusiasm and excitement since the time I opened a cooler full of energy drinks at my sons’ soccer game! Suddenly everyone wanted to keep hunting, no one was talking about quitting and big plans were made on the spot to be back in the woods again the following Monday morning.
I honestly hope they all hunt through the season and that they all get the buck or doe of their choice. I had one of the most satisfying cups of tea ever while I sat beside my buck beside him in the snow. I hope every hunter out there gets a chance to do the same this week – including you!
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