This third week of the annual deer-hunting season often shows the lowest level of participation among hunters. It’s not opening week, which is traditionally the most exciting week of the season for hunters, and it’s not Thanksgiving week, which sees a surge in hunter activity because many hunters take the holiday and the following Friday off from work in a last-ditch effort to fill their tags.
There is one great advantage to hunting this week, however, and it’s all about the rut. Experts, pundits and armchair experts all agree that Maine’s rut was going to peak “around the 10th of November,” which means we’re still in high-energy mode within the whitetail population. Bucks will be chasing does with a passion this week as the annual breeding season begins to wind down, giving hunters plenty of incentive to be in the woods.
Deer are generally alert, intelligent and quick to depart when danger threatens but during the rut those otherwise elusive bucks fall prey to the need to breed. Reclusive, shy and evasive for 50 weeks of the year, those legendary Maine bucks squander all their survival skills on a chance to mate with a receptive doe, and in so doing end up on some lucky hunter’s living room wall.
Of course, the fact that those big bucks expose their Achille’s heel this week is only half the battle. Hunters who want to be successful must do their part by spending as much time as possible in areas where there are still plenty of does, essentially using the females as bait in hopes that a randy buck will enter the area looking for them.
With snow on the ground (a possibility but not likely this season) and room to roam it would be a simple matter to find a big buck’s fresh track and follow it to a successful conclusion, but the odds are that there will not be much snow for tracking this week, at least not in southern or central Maine. Head north if you want to try tracking a big, old Maine buck and good luck to you on that!
Elsewhere in Maine the key to success this week is in hunting areas where does are concentrated, and this usually means thick cover near farmland, clear-cuts and other areas where browse is abundant. That this year has been another monumental one for acorn production does not help matters much because with all that mast readily available throughout the woods the deer (especially does) do not have to travel far to fill their stomachs. The ground is literally paved with acorns in areas where oak trees dominate, which creates an additional challenge for hunters. Find the food, find the deer – it’s a simple equation but a difficult proposition when food is everywhere.
It is rare to find deer bedded in the open hardwoods and most of their feeding activity will be at night, so it makes sense for hunters to target the thick bedding cover that deer use during the day.
Focus on dense cover on south-facing slopes in areas where it may only be possible to see a few yards around you in places. Pick a spot that offers good visibility and set up so that the wind carries your scent away from the bedding area. A buck that is moving around (as those big bucks usually do) will scent you eventually but by then you should have seen and evaluated him. The average deer rifle is accurate out to 250 yards so if you see a buck you want to shoot take him at the first opportunity. They move fast and disappear quickly!
I always recommend that hunters stay in the woods all day. Most of the action will occur early and late in the day but because the rut is on it’s possible to see a buck chasing does at any time. Many nice deer are taken between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when a lot of hunters are heading back to camp or the truck for lunch a little siesta. Forget taking a break – stay in the woods and hunt! Bring drinks, snacks and sandwiches with you and plan on staying put throughout the day. I’ll admit that it can be painfully boring to sit in wet leaves all day without seeing anything but it only takes a moment to turn that boredom into heart-thumping excitement. A buck can run in and out of the picture in just 10 seconds, but what a thrilling 10 seconds that can be. Stay alert, pay attention, and keep your rifle in your lap or in your hands. Your one and only opportunity to score will likely go by in an instant so be ready for it.
Much is said about the various shot opportunities that deer offer but based on my 50-plus years in the woods I recommend placing your shot halfway up directly behind the shoulder. This gives you about 8 inches of leeway in the heart-lung area. A deer hit with a typical hunting bullet will not go far and all your pre-hunt preparation, energy and effort will be rewarded. Go with the odds-on guaranteed shot – I’ve never had a heart-shot deer escape.
One mistake many hunters make is leaving the woods too early. We are allowed to hunt till one-half hour after sunset. Because the daylight continues to dwindle at this end of the season it’s important for hunters to remain on stand till the very end. I have killed many a nice buck in the last five or 10 minutes of the day, often in places where I hadn’t seen a single deer. At quitting time simply unload your rifle and walk out. There will be enough daylight left to get you onto the nearest logging road or trail. When it gets dark turn on your headlight (for safety reasons) and head for home.
We have only two weeks left in the regular firearms season on deer and every hour matters. Hunt hard, hunt often and shoot straight. That’s all there is to it!