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It’s down to the wire now for Maine’s deer hunters. This is the final week of the annual hunting season, open to muzzleloaders and bowhunters.
With plenty of snow and cold temperatures hunters should have no trouble finding a fresh set of big deer tracks to follow. However, as we all know, tracks make pretty poor soup. Finding where the deer is now is infinitely more important than finding out where he was some hours ago. If you plan to find a big track and follow it expect to spend several hours, even days, on the trail before you get a shot. Deer are smart, elusive and alert animals (that is why we love to hunt them), so expect to bring home more stories than meat if you plan to take them on one-on-one. Many times I’ve taken up a big, fresh track, followed it all day and ended up stymied as the deer swam across a major river or stream. I’d have to walk several miles back to the nearest bridge, cross over and come back to where I left off. There aren’t always enough hours in a December day for that! Only the most determined, persistent and enthusiastic hunters win at the tracking game.
Another, less stressful option is to target feeding areas. With so much snow and cold upon us now the deer will be targeting troves of hard mast, i.e., acorns, beech nuts and hickory nuts. This year has been a banner year for acorns – they are everywhere in the woods in great quantities. Already I have seen vast areas on snowy hilltops where deer have been digging through the snow and leaves for the abundant nuts. Just after the most recent snowstorm I crept over a high knoll, wind in my face, and saw five does pawing away at the bounty of acorns that lay hidden under a foot of white stuff. A long-time meat hunter, it was all I could do to keep from taking one of them home with me but, by heck, I like to wait (hope?) for a big buck until the final week of the season. I have a doe tag in my pack so it comes down to the wire and a doe shows up I’ll put meat in the freezer, but till then I’m waiting for Mr. Big to come out of the shadows just before dark.
I’ve actually had a couple of close calls this season. One evening just before Thanksgiving a nice 8-pointer showed up just after legal shooting time. I could see him and he could see me but, alas, the witching hour had passed and I had to let him walk. The next day I picked a spot nearby and found that he had already come through before daylight, his big, wide tracks not 10 yards from where I’d been sitting. These critters will drive you crazy if you let them!
The obvious advantage of having snow on the ground is that there’s no longer a secret as to where the deer are and where they have been traveling. An energetic hunter with time to spare can pick a track and follow it, or he can scout the thickest cover he can find to come up with a mental “map” of where the most deer activity has been. After a fresh snow I actually like to back-track the deer and see where they were bedding after the storm has passed. I’ll make a mental note to focus my efforts on that area when the next storm occurs, and sometimes my strategy works.
The advantage of snow is that it reveals where deer are bedding and where they are feeding. There is often a lot of room in between and so many tracks that the average hunter might just give up, pick a stump to sit on and hope for the best. It’s usually worth the effort to spend a few hours sorting through the tracks and sign because a pattern will be revealed.
Don’t be surprised to find that the majority of deer are not way back in the wild woods. This week I found tracks in my garden and behind the wood shed, no more than 30 yards from the cabin, and here I’d been hunting a mile or two back in the woods. I am not overly fond of “urban” deer hunting but if the whitetails are sticking close to human habitation it makes sense to hunt there. Of course, keep it safe, but if you take some time to find the pockets of thick cover where the deer spend their daytime hours you can reasonably expect to set up an ambush somewhere between their bedding and feeding destinations.
Another critical factor is that we are quickly running out of hunting time. The sun will set before 4 p.m. all week, giving us just about 10 hours of legal hunting time. That sounds like a lot of time but it goes by quickly.
It’s important for hunters targeting the second week of the muzzleloader season in wildlife management districts 12, 13, 15-18, 20-26 and 29 (roughly the southern half of the state) to spend all day every day in the woods. Dress for the weather, carry water and a sandwich, maintain your enthusiasm and don’t come out of the woods till the law says you must – 30 minutes after sunset or about 4:24 p.m. this week. If cold feet bother you, sit near a bedding area during the morning hours and then, when you can’t feel your toes, head for the high ground where the acorns are most abundant. With luck and good timing the deer will be right behind you.
Look for sign, study what the deer are telling you and adjust your tactics accordingly. If the deer ultimately tell me I should be hunting in the small patch of woods behind the barn that’s where I’ll be. At this end of the season there’s no point in being proud – hunt where you can hear 4-wheelers, chain saws and 18-wheelers in the distance. If that’s where the deer are that’s where you need to be, too!
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