Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on the final days of regular firearm season.
The last week of hunting white-tailed deer in Maine came to an end this past Saturday.
When Thanksgiving Day comes around, a hunter knows that he or she only has until that weekend to bag one… or else the freezer will only have peas and pork chops to burn until next season comes around. I was in similar mindset; after all, I’ve got jerky to dry, steaks to fry, and stews to stir!
My last week of hunting started on the Saturday before the final weekend. My brother, Tucker, travelled from New Hampshire to partake in our annual hunting excursion, and we woke early to make the best of it. (I have often thought that the hardest part of hunting is waking up; once you can keep your eyes open, usually you’re good to go). However, during our morning hunt we didn’t see any deer but discovered new and promising terrain: a small hardwood stand ripe with sign and buck scrapes.
A buck scrape is where a male deer rakes the ground below with his feet, leaving a scarred patch of soil stripped of its top layer of leaves, sticks, snow, or other debris. Not only could one perceive buck scrapes every 25 feet, but both male and female tracks criss-crossed frequently on the ground. Any sign is good sign; even if there are only fawn and doe tracks in the area, there will eventually be an interested buck moseying along.
On the way out, as my brother and I stumbled out of the woods onto a road-side path, my vision caught an impression in the ground and I stepped back after my momentum carried me past. At first it looked like a moose print, but it wasn’t. Friends, this was the largest buck print I have ever seen.
Once in a while a hunter will cut a huge track in the mud that looks elongated: this is where the deer has literally slipped, enough to distort the actual size of its feet. The track I looked at now was on solid footing and its size was clearly not the result of mere slippage. Although it wasn’t overly wide, the track was at least 4 inches long! I looked up at Tucker with eyes wide, just as he finished observing what had caught my eye and the look we shared confirmed the location of our hunt.
After an hour-long nap and a few slices of pizza, my brother and I both took positions in tree-stands, probably 250 yards apart. The chill and windy climate seeped through my boots after two hours of sitting, and it was nearly through all six layers that I wrapped myself in: under armour, long-johns, a wool sweater, fleece jacket, cotton hooded sweatshirt, and a Carhartt “Arctic” jacket. You may have noticed I didn’t list a wind breaker: big mistake. I remembered it on the morning hunt and it kept me toasty for a while.
However, I neglected to stretch it over my already bulging body for the evening hunt. If it’s cold and windy out, a wind breaker makes all the difference. Even if you get agitated with how noisy it can get while pushing through the scratchy branches, just put it one layer deep, away from the exposed outside.
Three hours went by without my peepers catching sight of anything, and soon the woods grew quiet as darkness fell. I flipped on my LED head lamp and made my way down the tree and out of a forest that seemed to be nestling down to sleep. A walk in the woods at night is remarkably calming (as long as you’re not lost), and as I touched along a brook during certain parts of my trip back, I found myself slowing down and enjoying the hushed silence around me.
Almost back to the truck, just as the numbness in my legs and feet started to ebb away, I saw my brother’s headlamp sneaking through distant trees along the hardwood ridge to my southeast. From a distance the two of us must have appeared like fire flies finding each other in the darkness. I reached the truck just as Tucker burst through the roadside brush in a flourish of metallic sounds as branches raked along the tree-stand supported on his back.
He looked at me inquiringly while I stood prostrate against the truck silently holding my .35 Whelen and I asked: “No Big Hoof?”
“No Big Hoof. You?”
“Nope. No Big Hoof.”
I resolved then not to give up just yet: I still had a whole week left of hunting. I returned to the spot on the next Tuesday, five days before the final day. I started the hunt with a nice walk through the woods which led me to where my tree-stand rested into frame underneath some camouflaging spruce bows. I knew that where my brother had placed his stand, further from the stream, procured even more sign and evidence of at least one giant buck. Figuring this much, I threw the stand on my back and began to hike into this area which seemed to promise a good hunt.
I approached the stand of hardwoods carefully, for it had so much sign along the ground that I had the suspicion that if a deer didn’t run me over, I would at least see one at a distance. The particular spot that I headed for eventually came in to view, right where two large white-birches and a solitary oak nuzzled up against a small patch of softwoods which looked awkwardly out of place among the predominantly hard-wood forest.
Now, as everything happened so fast, it’s hard to describe exactly what happened. I may have hastened my step, for I was anxious to finally get off the ground and cease the noise made from walking, but the sequence of events that followed my next steps proved to be overwhelming, as I suddenly found myself in the heat of the hunt…
(Part II of this series: “Late season hunting” will continue on Friday, Dec. 12)