Today marks the beginning of Maine’s two-week muzzleloader deer season (one week in the northern portion of the state), hunters’ last chance to fill their freezers with sweet, natural venison.
It has always been my plan to hunt the entire season right down to the last day, and then bring home a fat doe or buck on the final morning. Like most hunters I look forward to deer season and don’t want it to end too quickly, so I use the muzzleloader season as my whitetail cushion. Now it’s time to get serious. I love hunting as much as I love deer steaks, roasts and burger, but there comes a time when the decision has to be made: Should I shoot or not? By this time the answer is moot.
There are pros and cons about hunting the late season. On the down side, most of the year’s annual deer kill has already been tagged and processed. There are close to 20,000 fewer whitetails in the woods at this point, which makes finding them that much more difficult. Also, the weather is likely to be less than stellar, with cold temperatures, bitter winds and snow a real possibility.
On the positive side, muzzleloader hunters are likely to have their favorite corner of the woods all to themselves. In fact, many of November’s most popular areas will see little or no activity in December, giving deer time to move back in and get back to their normal routine. Whitetails will spend these next few weeks browsing, resting and dealing with the final remnants of the rut. Bucks will continue to search for does through December, while the females will often be found in small groups as they look for food and secluded bedding areas.
All of this is beneficial to the December hunter, but there is a glitch: Time is running out and the days leading up to the Winter Solstice are desperately short. By the end of the muzzleloader season legal shooting time will be somewhere in the vicinity of 8 ½ hours, leaving little room for dilly-dallying.
Muzzleloader hunters should plan to be in the woods early (by 6:15 a.m.) and should hunt straight through till dark, which could be as early as 4 p.m. The most productive hours are always early and late in the day, but December’s conditions often keep the animals on the move through 10 a.m. with a short midday respite and then back to browsing by 1 p.m.
I would be the last one to say that deer move about on schedule. In fact, over the decades I’ve encountered whitetails at all hours of the day, which tells me that the best time to be out there is when you have the time. A roving buck is just as likely to show up at noon as he is at 7 a.m., and I have seen them while coming, going and at all intervals in between. The point being that if all you can afford is an hour at dawn or dusk or lunchtime, get out there and hunt. One thing is for certain: You can’t win if you don’t play.
In any case, plan on harsh weather conditions including low temperatures and biting winds. We may have mild temperatures throughout the season but it’s more likely that things will become brittle and crunchy, with or without snow. Most hunters know that stomping around in frozen leaves, cracking branches and snapping twigs is no way to get close to a December buck, so the best approach is to focus on logging trails, game trails and other beaten paths where the footing is at least a little bit quieter.
I am a long-time fan of hunting “places” rather than individual deer. In December I find the best hunting occurs in swamps, evergreen stands and other dense cover where the deer spend most of their daylight hours. For this reason I like to hustle right in to a spot where I think I might see a deer, making all the noise necessary, and then just sit tight for several hours to let things settle down and get back to normal. Soon the chickadees, squirrels, woodpeckers and other critters will resume their activities, which telegraphs to the deer that it is safe to venture out.
It’s not easy to stand still in the dark woods on cold December days when the wind is whipping through the tree tops, but layers of wool, a fleece face mask and chemical hand warmers help take the edge off. In my elder years I’ve been using a portable seat or waterproof cushion to make my stay in the woods more comfortable. Also, I bring my little butane stove into the woods so I can enjoy a hot beverage around 10 a.m. when the wind picks up and game activity is minimal. I figure it’s better to be on stand with a hot cup of tea in hand than to be back at camp regretting that I had come out of the woods.
The real challenge in December deer hunting is bracing for the conditions. Many a hunter is able to withstand the cold and wind till about 2 p.m., and then they head out, shivering and miserable, because they can’t endure it any longer. This is unfortunate because the last hour or two of the day is prime time for deer movement. I can sympathize with those whose hands and feet feel like blocks of ice but I have learned to suffer the cold, especially near sunset, because this is when deer begin to head out to browse. Many of the best deer I’ve shot appeared in those waning minutes of the day, so I will myself to stay put, stay alert and wait it out till legal shooting time runs out.
I might be freezing on stand all day but, surprisingly, walking over to tag my last-minute buck warms me up almost immediately!