Well, this is it – the final week of Maine’s 2017 firearms deer season. Technically there are still two weeks of muzzleloader season ahead but for most hunters this is the last chance to get into the woods and fill that buck or doe tag. For decades I hunted only Thanksgiving week because it only cost me 2 ½ days of vacation time and the odds of having a good tracking snow on the ground were much higher. There have been snowless Thanksgivings but all things considered if it’s going to snow this will be the week for it. Either way, hunters need to make the most of these final days of the season because it’s going to be a long, hard year before we can get back into Maine’s legendary deer woods.
Along with snow comes colder temperatures, which hunters take to mean that deer will be more active as they fill up on browse and mast before the long, treacherous winter ahead. It is true that deer seem to be more active during the day at the latter end of the month, although the lingering rut may also be a factor, plus there are usually more hunters in the woods, which keeps deer moving even when they ordinarily would not be.
All things considered, this final week of the season is a great time to seek that winter’s supply of healthy venison. Hunters need to be prepared for the cold and snow, and as always it’s to the sportsman’s advantage to spend as much time as possible in the woods. This is more important than ever now because the days are much shorter. Legal hours will be from about 6 a.m. till 4 p.m., nearly three hours fewer than we had in October. From my perspective the mornings seem to go by quickly and the afternoon shadows seem to grow long beginning around 2 p.m. I’m sure the deer notice the difference in daylight hours and adjust their feeding and bedding schedules accordingly. At this point they are nearly entirely nocturnal, rarely moving at all during the day except for a short period at dawn and dusk.
To make the most of these dwindling days the hunter is best advised to take a stand near feeding or bedding cover early and late in the day and then, if nothing happens, pick a track and follow it during the daylight hours. If nothing else, following a fresh track in the snow will reveal areas that deer are using for feeding and travel lanes as well as bedding sites. By adding up the available evidence and factoring in when the last snowfall occurred, the hunter can come up with a strategy that should produce the desired results.
Hunters who prefer to sit and wait for their deer will do well if they hunt wetland areas and swamps because deer prefer to hide out in the thickest cover they can find. The leaves are down, there’s snow on the ground and little escape cover to protect them, and so it makes sense that they would seek refuge in the dense evergreens. This is not to say that deer necessarily bed down all day. Many times I have seen groups of does simply stop walking and stand still for hours, not bedding or feeding, just gazing into the distance and listening, but all while on all fours. Considering that deer are a prey species constantly pestered by coyotes, bobcats and feral dogs, plus the added stress of dodging fall hunters, it’s a wonder they get any rest at all, but such is the nature of life for any creature in the Maine woods.
What hunters need to know is that the circle of opportunities is much smaller now due to habitat changes and the simple fact that there are fewer deer available this week than there were in early October. In fact, about 75 percent of the annual harvest has already been reduced to steaks, roasts and burger, which means hunters will need to step up their efforts if they want to garner their own supply of venison in these waning days of the season.
This is the week where hunters must invest all of their skills and preparations. There simply is no more time to waste. To make the most of this final week hunters should spend every available moment in the woods, staying out from dawn till dusk if necessary. This means carrying enough supplies (water, snacks, etc.) to sustain themselves through a long, cold day in the cedars, and resolve to do it day after day till the final bell has rung.
I find it easy to stay out all day simply because the days are so short at this point in the season. With legal shooting time ending right around 4 p.m. it almost seems as if we’re being cheated – in fact we’ve lost close to three hours of hunting time compared to October. All of this means it is imperative that the hunter spend as much time as possible in places where deer are most likely to be.
One tip that may help hunters fill their tags is that while deer like to spend their days in swampy thickets, the biggest attraction is a plant called “Old Man’s Beard.” This is a unique, mossy structure than can be found hanging in clumps from dead, dying and downed softwoods all through the evergreen forest, but especially in areas that are wet most of the year. For whatever reason, deer love to eat this stuff. When a tree covered with moss falls to the ground deer will converge on it and pick it clean overnight. Most swamps in Maine have an abundant supply of leaning or fallen spruce trees that are covered with Old Man’s Beard. When you find such a place, spend some time nearby, especially early and late in the day. Wait patiently and let the deer come to you!