Believe it or not, deer hunters go through post-season withdrawal just like anyone who’s deeply immersed in a pastime that ends suddenly. After nearly four months of steady attention to the comings and goings of the local whitetail herd, we find ourselves waking up – blissfully, not at 4:30 a.m. – with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
Oddly enough, the joys of sitting around doing nothing wear thin after a few days. Before long Maine’s sportsmen begin looking for other things to do in the woods and on the waters of the state. Few other outdoor pursuits require the intensity and focus of deer hunting, which is a relief in many ways. Spending long hours in the woods checking out every movement, every rustle of leaves, and every snapping twig can leave one worn out and exhausted by the end of the day. Compounded by weeks, even months, without a deer sighting, this level of angst can frazzle one’s nerves. Deer hunting is still the No. 1 sport in the state but now, thankfully, we can turn our attention to less demanding species.
For the next several days it’s still legal to hunt waterfowl in Maine, and thanks to the unusually balmy weather we’ve been having many of our lakes, ponds, rivers, beaver flowages and swamps are still open and attracting migrating black ducks, mallards, mergansers and other species that haven’t yet felt the urge to fly south. In fact, just last week I was deer hunting near a beaver pond that was full of ducks, so many of them that I could not hear anything but their incessant quacking. I had to get up and find another spot to sit. I will be back with my kayak and shotgun to investigate that spot, however. With temperatures near 50 and no storms in the forecast this will be a duck hunter’s dream week.
And, let’s not forget that hunters may still pursue grouse and squirrels till the end of December, and again these balmy weather conditions will make hunting them a pleasure for this time of year. I did not see many grouse during deer season but the woods were crawling with squirrels early and late in the day. I could have filled the freezer with them (squirrels are excellent eating and their tails make great trout flies) but, oh no, I had to stay focused on venison. Naturally, the squirrels seemed to know I wasn’t interested I them. A few of them came as close as 5 yards from me, and one kept running up and down the fallen tree I was sitting behind as if he knew I was not going to shoot him. This week, however, he won’t get away with teasing me. I’m just about to start gathering the ingredients for a hearty squirrel stew and I won’t have any trouble finding room for him in the crock pot.
Many hunters may have forgotten that Maine’s snowshoe hare season remains open till March 31; in fact it’s one of the longest continuous hunting seasons in the Northeast. Hares have been fair game since Oct. 1, but of course all eyes have been on Maine’s deer herd for the last few months and many a lazy lagomorph was bypassed in order to avoid spooking any nearby whitetails. In fact, I passed a section of stone wall every morning where I saw a partially-white hare sitting up against the warm stones. We became used to each other after several such meetings; he would sit still and allow me to photograph him from just 10 yards away and I would walk on by without chasing him off. It was fun to see him sitting there every morning but, again, things will be different next time. There’s always room for a little bit of rabbit in my stew pot.
More ambitious and adventurous hunters may want to try their luck at calling coyotes, foxes or bobcats. Not only are these common predators relatively abundant in Maine, they are also among the most valuable of all our furbearers, especially lately. Prices for raccoon, fisher, muskrat, beaver and most other furs have hit rock bottom. In fact, they’re so low fur dealers are recommending that trappers not even bother with them this year, although the larger predators are still bringing decent prices. Don’t expect to be able to quit your job and make a living out of hunting these animals, however. The success rate among predator hunters is quite low due in large part to the incredibly sharp survival instincts these animals share. They allow no mistakes and have the same reaction to every sight, smell or movement that catches their attention – immediate flight! The average deer is a pushover compared to the average predator. Give predator calling a try this winter and you’ll see what I mean. It’s fun but it’s definitely not easy.
Of course, some hunters may be worn out from their whitetail hunting experience and may want to just take a walk outside merely to enjoy the ambience of a snow-free December woodlot. I often carry a .22 or shotgun during my post-season treks but I’m more interested in finding a sunny spot where I can put down my pack and brew up a nice, hot cup of tea. It’s fun to be in the woods, not necessarily to hunt anything, but simply taking time to relax and enjoy our wild surroundings. There is much hubbub to endure once we get back into the “real” world, but an hour or two spent roaming the woods is a great way to clear the mind and renew one’s spirit. I know for a fact that I’ve never come out of the woods feeling worse than when I went in, and whatever emotional weight I carried in with me is long gone by the time I get home.
For many of us the woods serve as our drug, our religion, our source of energy. I know that I always feel rejuvenated and refreshed after a long hike, and that’s a feeling I don’t get after a long day at the mall!