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Today is the opening day of Maine’s 2013 firearms season on deer, one of the most enduring traditions in the sporting world. Hunters young and old admit to not being able to sleep the night before the annual hunt begins, many of them kept away by visions of big bucks they hope to see or once saw and missed. After many decades of deer hunting I have plenty of memories to reflect upon the night before the season opener, and in my later years I tend to sit beside the wood stove with a hot cup of tea in hand, reminiscing about all those opening days in the past.
While I have tagged more than a few deer on opening day I almost hope I don’t because a successful shot ends the season for another year and I don’t really want to get it over with quite that quickly. A lot of anticipation, preparation and planning goes into deer hunting, and if a buck shows up in the first moments of daylight on opening day the fun ends before it gets started. It’s like looking forward to a championship boxing match and having the fight end with the first punch. Cold, snow, wind and rain notwithstanding, I want to spend some time enjoying Maine’s November woods. During those years when I did fill my tag on opening day I felt cheated, as if I hadn’t gotten my money’s worth.
My best seasons were those in which I was able to hunt every day the entire month (except Sundays, of course, when everyone is out hiking and having picnics in a safe and orderly manner). There’s always that element of dread in the back of one’s mind as the days turn to weeks and still no deer, but I enjoy being out there and I know that if I put my time in and am ready when the time comes, I’ll get my chance.
It’s been said that you should be careful what you wish for, and I’ve had a few close calls during my 50+ years of deer hunting. Several times I was literally down to counting the minutes of legal shooting time when I finally got my chance. One year I’d found a swampy crossing that was pocked with deer tracks but it was obvious from the sign (in several inches of snow) that the deer were coming through there primarily during the hours of darkness. I hunted the spot for several days, standing stoically from dawn till dark where I had the best view but never seeing hide or hair of a deer. Each morning I’d find more fresh tracks, rubs and scrapes but no deer; I even found tracks in my tracks coming and going, and one morning I found two sets of BIG tracks in my footprints where I’d stood in the snow the day before. Sheesh!
I had faith in the place but was beginning to have my doubts about it, especially since I had only two days left to hunt. Friday came and went without a glimpse of a deer, and Saturday morning was no different. There were plenty of fresh tracks and sign in the snow but no deer. On a whim I decided to move my stand to the far side of the swamp, to an area that had fewer tracks but seemed to be where all the deer were coming from. My plan was to catch one coming out before dark as it headed toward the near side of the swamp – at least that’s what the tracks in the snow kept telling me.
Despite all the continuing fresh sign I was none too enthusiastic as I headed to my spot for the last hours of the season. Deer sign was everywhere but, as the saying goes, “You can’t eat the tracks!” It was cold, snowing again and windy, about as miserable as an evening could be at the end of November, but I was determined to stick it out to the final minute of legal shooting time. As they also say, “You never know.”
The swampy woods were dark and gloomy as I checked my watch at 4 p.m., which meant I had fewer than 30 minutes to go. Another check at 4:15 p.m. told me I was about to go home empty-handed. I glanced up from my watch and caught movement among the moss-draped firs, just enough to tell me that a deer was coming through! Gun up and ready, I waited as the whitetail, a 6-point buck, wandered through the softwoods, nipping at the moss and taking his sweet time. I had just minutes to work with and he was wasting them tasting Old Man’s Beard one nibble at a time!
At last the buck stepped into an opening between to big white birches and gave me the chance I needed. At the shot he took off but didn’t go far, and when I checked my watch again it was exactly quitting time – not another second left in the season. Talk about cutting it close!
The same thing has happened to me many times over the years, and each event reinforces my conviction to stay put and finish the season no matter how bad it’s been, no matter how bored or discouraged I become. Deer hunting is not a perfect science and there are no guarantees, but one thing is for certain: you won’t get a deer if you spend your November sitting on the sofa. I don’t like the cold, snow, wind and rain any more than anyone else, but I know that the deer are out there and the only way to get one is to be there with them. Use every moment that’s allotted to you from opening day till the final minute of the hunt. Take the gamble, go with the odds, and suffer through it all with enthusiasm and optimism. A last-minute deer is as exciting (and delicious) as any, and there’s no better way to finish a season!
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