For some Maine hunters, “hunting season” is an easily defined four-week period during which they’re allowed to pursue deer with their rifles.
For others, however, hunting continues, both for deer and other critters.
And for Brad Allen, the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife biologist who serves as the state’s bird group leader, December is the perfect time to talk about … ruffed grouse?
“You look at a day like today,” he said on Wednesday, as the sun shined brightly and temperatures reached the 40s, “It would be a beautiful day to take a walk in the woods.”
As far as Allen’s concerned, while you’re out there, why not take along Fido, a shotgun, and look for some grouse?
For many Mainers, bird season is also a simple, well-defined affair: October. Period.
But according to the state’s hunting regulations, grouse, pheasant and quail hunters can keep hunting until Dec. 31.
While Allen opts to concede the woods to deer hunters during the regular firearms season in November, he said there are a couple of methods hunters use to target grouse during the month of December.
“One would be the road hunter that of course hunts a lot in Ocrober,” Allen said. “Some of them go back on the Stud Mill Road or big roads that are still open in December, with no snow on them, and still find budding grouse available.”
Allen explained that “budding” grouse often spend late afternoon hours in an aspen or birch tree, eating.
Allen admits that that method of hunting isn’t for everyone.
“Some people find that vulnerability to be a bad thing when it comes to ethical hunting,” Allen said. “I ask myself, what’s the difference between shooting a bird off the road versus out of a tree? But some people believe that having a December season where people can shoot budding grouse, within shooting hours at the end of the day is not quite fair chase.”
The other method involves hunters who spend their time afield with their canine pals, Allen said.
“It’s a great opportunity, especially in conditions like [today’s], to take the dog out again and have the whole month of December to find a grouse,” Allen said.
Allen said hunters may want to change their tactics a bit from October to December, however.
“In colder weather, a lot of the obvious food sources that they took advantage of in October are gone, and they generally seek more cover in December because it’s colder,” Allen said. “You have to hunt a little deeper for grouse at this time of year because they’re likely to be in a mixed hardwood-softwood forest where they get that advantage of cover.”
Another complicating factor: The birds that you’re hunting in December have played the game before, and have learned a few tricks.
“It’s a little more challenging. What you’re hunting is the survivors of October, and they’re very cagey, they’re very educated,” Allen said. “So [hunting] in December, it’s not about numbers. It’s more about a quality outdoor experience, because you don’t kill very much.”
Still, there are some hunters and guides who think the grouse season is too long, and that hunting the birds in December, after they’ve already survived the October invasion of hunters and dogs, is bound to reduce the overall grouse population in coming years.
Not so fast, according to Allen.
“We feel that the birds taken in December are compensatory to the overall mortality of grouse over the year,” Allen said.
“What we generally mean by that is, mortality is significant in game birds and your chances of living to be a year old is probably only 50-50,” Allen said. “If a bird is around in October, December, November — it doesn’t really matter — and he’s taken by a hunter, there’s a 50-50 chance he was going to be taken by a predator anyway.”
Therefore, Allen said, the hunting mortality is thought to “compensate” for what would have been natural mortality.
“A habitat is only going to support so many birds, and by the next spring, that number will be there,” he said. “And if you have good nesting conditions the number will improve again.”
How were the deer?
On Tuesday I asked for your input for an upcoming column, and several readers have already offered their thoughts on the November firearms deer season that recently wrapped up.
If you’ve got some thoughts on the matter — and the state of our state’s deer herd — I’d love to hear from you, too.
Several hunters, guides and a tagging station operator have checked in thus far, and I’d love to hear from some more of each.
In particular, I’m looking to pass along some anecdotal information — the state’s biologists will be providing more in-depth data in a few months — that will show how deer season went in different regions of the state.
So the questions remain open (for a couple more days, at least): What did you see? How was that different from what you’ve seen in past years? What’s your expectation for the future?
And if you’re a tagging station operator who can compare this year’s total to those from the past, I’m sure readers would be interested in hearing what you’ve got to say.