Playing the field leads to success for deer hunters

Posted Nov. 21, 2008, at 6:49 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:01 a.m.

After last winter’s record-setting snowfall and its corresponding devastation to central and northern Maine’s deer population, this fall’s hunting season had been awaited with a mix of anticipation and apprehension, of dread and hope. Summer sightings of whitetails by woodcutters, anglers and campers were nowhere near normal numbers and if a doe with fawn was spotted it was a rarity. Confirmation of severe cold weather mortality to the herd was evident to any observant outdoorsman.

During the recent partridge and dual moose seasons, whitetail sightings continued to be comparatively sparse, especially in the heavily forested areas from Bangor to Houlton as well as the renowned big buck territory of the North Maine Woods clear up to Escourt in the Crown of Aroostook. Prospects seemed mediocre at best, but Pine Tree deer hunters are nothing if not determined and optimistic, so despite pessimistic predictions, an army of orange-clad gunners prepared as usual for opening day.

Mixed results

Now here we are three weeks into Maine’s favorite big game hunt and an odd pattern has occurred. The hunters stalking the big woods aren’t faring very well at all but that wasn’t unexpected by the sports themselves and especially by the regional biologists. Unfortunately for those holding out hope, the results thus far are dismal. Just as an example, one of the North Woods checkpoints logged 108 hunters in and out on one particular day the first week of the season, and the total whitetails tagged at the end of that day was three. Those are bleak results and terrible odds!

Some game registration sites have yet to tag a single buck, and the word is that the normal numbers of gunners just aren’t taking to the woods. I’ll be the first to admit that the weather hasn’t cooperated at all until the last couple of days. Northern Maine enjoyed a lovely Indian Summer for a full week in early November, and while those balmy autumn temperatures are great for yard work and easy on the oil bill, such days are not advantageous for bagging a buck. It takes cold nights and crisp, frosty mornings to keep whitetails moving about, and a bit of snow cover is always appreciated by the still hunters and trackers.

If the unseasonably warm weather hasn’t been enough of a hindrance to hunters, two or three days of heavy, steady rain swept the state each of the first couple of weeks. One or the other is bad enough, but the wet and warm combination has kept deep woods whitetails laying low, not to mention keeping a fair number of sports-men at home. Another downside to these mild conditions is the delay of the rut, the onset of which can be hurried along by frigid conditions and always increases deer sightings and shooting opportunities. For the bucks-only zones, the onset of rutting is a last hope for many shooters.

Speaking of bucks-only, regardless of the ban on shooting does in many zones during the regular season, I believe it was a wise and beneficial decision to allow adolescent hunters the option of bagging either sex on the annual one-day debut. Youth day turned out fairly well, despite reduced numbers of deer, with a respectable number of young nimrods enjoying success, and quite a few experienced that wonderful feeling of first-time triumph. Those photos in the album and venison in the freezer will provide lifelong memories and winter-long tasty table fare of the premier conquest.

Playing the field

Having painted such a gloomy picture of results in the deep woods, I’d be remiss in not touting how well the season is going for the outdoorsmen who have reverted to hunting the urban edges. Fluorescent orange-clad guys and gals who are still-hunting, perching in a tree stand or just driving along cut grain fields, pastures or acreage planted with a winter cover crop are shooting bucks on a regular basis. Small woodlots on rural farms also seem to be producing some nice whitetails on a daily basis for the last couple of weeks.

Farm and field hunters are seeing and shooting more bucks this fall than normal, and the ongoing lack of luck by sports stalking the heavy timber only serves to make the continued small woods results more notable. My theory about these early-season farm field successes is that perhaps there was more food and less competition in those spots during the worst of last winter. I also feel there was less likelihood of predation.

As a result, it’s plausible that the whitetails living in urban-edge farmland and small sections of woods were better fed, fatter and healthier before the harsh weather and deep snow arrived. Whatever the case, there seem to be a number of scattered pockets near towns and villages where bunches of deer in every shape and size can be found.

One of my friends spotted a seven-pointer in a roadside field opening morning as he was driving to another spot. After making a 150-yard one-shot kill, imagine his surprise when another even larger buck rose from the high stubble within yards of the downed deer. Another acquaintance missed a buck opening morning but got an even nicer one on Monday morning, while a third buddy, Tom Tardiff of Robinson, missed a shot Monday in a field just a couple of miles from his home but connected on a four-pointer Tuesday just after sunrise.

Two days later while checking his trapline just after dawn Tom sighted four deer feeding in another field not far from his house. He used his cell phone to contact a friend who had another spot under surveillance, they met up and after a long, careful stalk Tom’s buddy downed one of the two bucks in the field-feeding quartet. This week it was Tom’s son’s turn to hunt, and each morning the pair rose before first light and drove and walked to check out half a dozen likely meadows and pastures before Joe had to return home and get ready for school. The Tardiff duo saw seven does and four bucks in four abbreviated morning outings, including the crotch horn Joe shot. All of the whitetails were in fields or near apple trees along meadow edges within five miles of their house.

Now just in case someone is thinking only the younger, more foolish bucks would leave the safety of heavy forest to frolic and feed in the wide-open spaces, think again. Earlier this week Travis Kinney of Bridgewater shot the biggest buck of his life. In fact, Travis tagged the dream deer of most deer hunters’ lives; it weighed 241 pounds field-dressed, had two drop tines, 12 points and three more tines broken off from fighting. Travis made a 300- yard shot on his whitetail using a .308 his grandfather handed down to him and admits it was as much good luck as good marksmanship. Regardless, it’s a mount of a lifetime for the wall and venison for the freezer.

I’ve heard a dozen or more stories of success and near success by hunters haunting open terrain over the past few weeks. Due to the unusually warm, wet weather, of the several early-season bucks checked over while being dressed off, skinned and cut up, none of the neck and leg glands showed signs of being in rut. Even this past week three deer checked showed only minor indication of the impending mating season.

If the current cold-weather conditions continue, the rut should become more evident, therefore bucks will travel more in search of a doe, as well as feeding more, so the likelihood of spotting a deer in a field also increases. Thanksgiving week continues to be prime hunting, and hoping for trailing and tracking snow, many whitetail enthusiasts schedule annual vacation time to coincide with this period. Outdoorsmen are all hopeful that the rut, frigid weather and fresh snow all synchronize to provide peak conditions. It’s possible hunting conditions and results in the deep woods might improve. I hope so, but it’s not a bad idea to spend a few prework mornings checking out the farm country in your area.

Be prepared

There are three main methods of field hunting. Every style will work and all have their proponents. The most popular approach is to nestle into the brush, using natural cover as camouflage, along a fence row, irrigation ditch, hedge or field edge. Position yourself in a spot offering a full view of the clearing as well as open shooting lanes with no farm buildings, machinery or livestock in the backdrop. If there is an apparent deer trail showing regular use, many sportsmen will take the time to put up a tree stand offering an overview of the approach route as well as part of the field.

A second option is to be on site at first light and slowly still-hunt the edges of several contingent fields where deer and deer sign have been regularly seen. If wild apple trees border the meadow or a small wood lot separates two or three pastures, that’s all the better. Spend more time looking than walking and even sit on a rock or stump for a few minutes every so often. If your work schedule allows it, the last hour or so before dusk is almost as good a time as dawn to spot a feeding or traveling buck.

The last option, a great one for the aging or infirm who just can’t stand the walking or the cold-weather sitting any more, is to drive secondary and farm roads perusing the open areas. Some older sportsmen pinpoint a field with regular whitetail visitors and park their truck on a high spot overlooking the pasture, then it’s a wait-and- watch game. This year in particular, a lot of rural bucks are being spotted by hunters driving a circuitous route overlooking a few dozen fields each day prior to work.

There is one caveat to these field-hunting options, it’s imperative to have enough gun and adequate optics to get the job done if a buck is finally spotted. On rare occasions a deer will show up close to the shooter, but more often than not 100-200 yards is the average shot distance. This is not the situation for that old faithful.30-30 with open sights. A .243, .270, .30-06, .308 or 7 mm-08 are all flat-shooting, long-range rifles and especially deadly when topped with a variable-power scope up to at least nine power. Just in case no stumps or trees are nearby to lean on, a monopod or bipod is a great asset.

Pick a spot in the field which offers the shortest shot in all directions and be patient. Make sure there are antlers before you pull the trigger. If there’s any doubt, go without! Stalking the deep woods for whitetails is part of Maine’s heritage, but currently playing the field is proving to be this fall’s best option.

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