| As traditional as Opening Day is for deer hunters, Thanksgiving week is also celebrated as a don’t-miss opportunity for those who want to put some sweet, lean venison in the freezer this season. Truth be told, I’ve always found the last week of Maine’s annual deer hunt to be the most productive, and I’ve been buying deer-hunting licenses since 1962. Believe it or not, in those days the rifle season in portions of Maine opened Oct 15, which sounds great except that it was often hot, dry and uneventful; with few deer moving around and no rut going on to speak of. I did tag a few nice bucks but when I got older and had to deal with the challenges of juggling jobs and time off, I ended up using just two vacation days to get the entire week of Thanksgiving off. At first I thought all of the deer would be gone, the rut would be over and the only whitetails remaining would be scarce, educated and more likely to conduct their business during the hours of darkness. All of this is true but deer are deer, not ghosts. They live in the woods, they have to move, feed and rest, and bucks will keep chasing does till the rut comes to an end in early December.
Finding a deer is difficult enough in the waning days of the season but toss in the fact that there are only 10 hours of daylight this week and one can sense that the odds are stacked in favor of the whitetails that remain. Most of the animals’ activity occurs at dawn and dusk, but it pays to stay on the trail all day because other hunters, other predators and even other deer may disrupt a given whitetail’s routine just enough to put him in jeopardy sometime between one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. One thing is certain you can’t fill your tag if you don’t hunt!
As is the case with most outdoor sports the enthusiasm level of participants is sky high on opening day, but as the season wears on and the weather takes a turn for the worse a lot of hunters hang it up for another year. Fair-weather hunting does have its positive side but if you really want to end the season on a successful note you’ll have to bite the bullet and spend every remaining minute you can afford in the deep, dark, cold and windy woods. Interestingly enough, I have killed deer on the last day of the season four out of the last five years, and last year I shot a nice, fat doe on the first day of the muzzleloader season (a mere two days after the general firearms season ended). My records over the last 50 years show that I’ve killed as many deer during the last week of the season as I have during the first week. Knowing this, I have no problem sticking it out till the very end. Sure, it’s a game of chance and the odds are against any hunter but if you keep going, remain enthusiastic and positive your odds of success increase.
What I like about Thanksgiving week is that there are likely to be more hunters in the woods than during the previous two weeks. This is good because all of that human activity will get the deer moving as they work to escape and evade the sudden influx of hunters. Trackers will be pushing deer, small groups will be driving deer and still-hunters will be bumping into deer at all times of the day. In most cases the deer will successfully avoid the first encounter or two but sooner or later they are going to make a mistake and stumble across a hunter (you?) who toughed it out, stayed put and finally got his chance.
Whether you have the first few days of the week off, just the holiday or can take the entire week, plan to stay in the woods all day. Be sure your rifle is still sighted in (dead on at 25 yards is plenty for most Maine hunting situations) and dress properly for the predicted weather. Bring less stuff; leave the books, phones and pagers at home and stay focused on the job at hand. A bottle of water and a sandwich will get you through the day. It’s down to the wire now so forget the fancy gear and gadgets; sit still or walk slowly, keep your eyes peeled for movement ahead of and around you and stop often to give moving deer a chance to enter your field of vision. If you hear shots in the distance, be on the alert for at least 30 minutes. Expect deer to show up at any time because there will be plenty of other hunters in the woods moving them around. If you find an area that is loaded with tracks, trails, rubs and scrapes plan to be on hand at dawn and dusk every day, when deer are most active.
One of the things I have learned over half a century of deer hunting is to look for small things; glimpses of deer, a single loud crack of a branch or the thump of approaching whitetails that are bounding away from some other hunter. If a movement or noise seems out of place check it out. Determine what it is and be sure that it’s not a deer. Don’t assume that it’s a bird, squirrel or turkey. Wait, watch, look and verify.
The average hunter-deer encounter in the Maine woods takes about 10 seconds, which leaves little time for uncertainty. Once you’re certain that what you’ve seen or heard is a deer, make sure it’s one you can shoot (buck or doe) and then wait for a clean, open shot at your favored target. I aim halfway up directly and behind the shoulder because this is where a deer’s vitals (heart, lungs and liver) are located. Avoid trick shots (head, neck, etc.) because these are small targets with lots of room around them. Chances are you are only going to get one chance to score this season so go with the odds-on opportunity.
There you have it the secrets to successful deer hunting. Now all you have to do is get out there and do it!