By the time I get up, Dad will already be parked in my driveway. Others will begin arriving before the coffee is hot. The darkness outside will appear foreboding, a discouragement to the awaited day.
But Linda’s blueberry muffins and a hot cup of coffee will put smiles on all faces. And we will quickly be gathered around the kitchen table mapping out the days strategy.
It is opening day and the ritual gathering of the deer hunting clan has occurred. Perhaps you too have a number of hunting buddies who get together for opening day. Preparations actually began in October, when I scouted our hunting territory. Or, if you will, we’ve been preparing for opening day of 1986 during every past season, as we gained knowledge and experience in our favorite hunting areas.
Deer hunting to me is a cumulative sport. The game never ends. You learn more every year. We read. We study. We experience. We never know it all. A year never passes but what something totally unexpected occurs.
In 1984 I spent the entire season hunting a specific buck, and got him on the next to last Saturday, just before the season opened on does that year. I learned that careful study of a particular deer’s habits, and perseverance, will sometimes be rewarded.
In 1985 I tried the same technique, focusing on a huge buck which had been seen in the area, and I never got a glimpse of him! I passed up opportunities to shoot a spike horn and at the end of the season any number of does, but I never saw the buck I yearned to see.
One day during week three, a hunting companion did unload his weapon at the buck of my dreams, all clean misses. His description of the size of that giant and his accompanying rack brought tears to my eyes. And from that point on, I had eyes only for one beast. Alas, my eyes never set on him.
And neither did anyone else’s I guess, because shortly after the season ended he began brazenly appearing in a neighbor’s Cabbage Patch! November 1, 1986 will find me out there after him once again. I still believe perseverance will be rewarded! But apparently sometimes it takes more than one season.
Last year resulted in additional experiences and lessons learned. Land blinds were unknown to me, but I experimented with several arrangements, and hit on an ideal blind.
With my back to a huge pine, which conveniently had an indentation allowing me to settle in most comfortably. I arranged all around me pine branches with the needles still on. I could see in all directions except directly behind me, by peering through the needles. And I was effectively camouflaged.
I also put out bits of cloth soaked in buck sent, all around my blind. With the blind facing a swamp from which I knew deer emerged late in the afternoon, moving into the mixed growth of pine and oak amidst which I sat, I would walk in from the opposite side, and settle in a couple hours before dusk. With a snack and a good book, I could spend an hour and a half getting settled in, with some expectation that in the last half hour something might come my way.
Sure enough, one afternoon in week two I heard a deer approaching, and looked up to my right on a slight incline to see a large, fat dough approaching. I put down my book and kept my head perfectly still, eyes trained on the doe. She moved through the woods with an unbelievable grace, glancing to her right every so often. A lamb appeared to be moving along with her in the woods there, just out of my sight.
As I held my breath she picked at the ground and moved closer and closer, finally standing right beside my blind, about 3 feet from me. I could literally have reached out and touched her. Then she finally caught my sent, wheeled around in surprise, cried out in a strange high-pitched bleating sound I had never heard before, and bounded off about 50 feet, where she turned and looked me right in the eye. She must’ve been astonished that I was not firing away.
She continued bleating, and suddenly, from my left, her lamb began the same cry. And they both bounded away. But not too far. For the next half hour, before darkness took me home, they prowled around just out of sight in front of me.
It was my most memorable encounter with deer in 1985, and one I can see vividly even today in my mind. It was also the encounter which finally convinced me that bucks only hunting would enrich our deer hunting experience and make it even more special. With either sex hunting, I would have dropped that doe at first sight, missing the entire fascinating experience.
This year, opening day is going to be interesting for some of us, including my dad, who will possess doe permits, giving them some flexibility during the season. I could’ve used one last year, when the spike horn I had passed up earlier in the season crossed my path the last Friday. We were deep in the woods and he walked all around me, but I could never get a firm look at his small spikes. I had to pass up the sure shot, resulting in a season without venison. Not a great disappointment, but the doe permit would have given me the opportunity to shoot at that point, and I would’ve ended up shooting a buck.
So as the clan gathers on November 1, my plan will be as straightforward as ever. Our group is not large, and gradually has boiled down to a small number of fanatics who appreciate a good hunt, thoughtful guys who I enjoy being in the woods with. We all hunt the same way. We like to take stands for the first two hours, then head to the spectacular hunters’ breakfast at the Manchester Lions Club.
Then we go back to the same areas, this time with a lot of careful still hunting through swamps and likely bedding areas, breaking about 2 PM for a hearty lunch, probably Linda’s famous chili.
The final hours are again spent on stand. With so many hunters attracted to the productive fields and forests of Mount Vernon, you can take a stand almost anywhere and expect someone to scare a deer past you, particularly on opening day.
We try to avoid the most crowded areas. I’ve located some spots which are somewhat difficult to get into. But if a large group does begin to drive in our area, we move out. I really wish we could make a major enforcement push against these big deer drives which are prevalent in central Maine.
The last two years of buck’s only hunting have been truly enriching for me. Very few hunters get out during those three weeks of the bucks only season, and on many days I was the only hunter in my territory. That is a special experience I wish all hunters could enjoy.
Surprisingly, I saw more deer during that period than I did when the woods are full of hunters. I walked a little, sat a little, floated in my canoe downstream to enjoy the sunrise, got in one of my tree stands to enjoy a sunset, spent some time in my new land blinds which seem to work so well, and generally got in tune with my surroundings. On more than one occasion deer walked right by me.
Good luck to you all this season!
PHOTO: Dad with a big buck.