A ruffed grouse struts to attract a mate. Credit: Courtesy of Steve Day

Matt LaRoche is Superintendent of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a Registered Maine Guide and an avid outdoorsman. He can be reached at 207-695-2169 or at matt.laroche@maine.gov.

I did not grow up in a hunting family, so I had to hone my hunting skills on my own and by reading books and magazines. I made lots of mistakes in those early years and failed to cash in on my opportunities on a regular basis. I didn’t shoot my first deer until I was 24 years old, but after that, I became a pretty good hunter and shot a deer every year for quite a few years in a row.

My father was a great dad, but he was more interested in teaching us about baseball than hunting and fishing. As a kid, I excelled in baseball, but as I got older, my brother Mark and I wanted to learn how to hunt. The extent of our hunting training was following dad around in the woods for a couple of hours, watching him miss a pheasant and him handing Mark the shotgun and saying, “Don’t shoot anything you’re not going to eat.”

Mark and I followed each other around behind our house in southern Maine, taking turns using that old 12 gauge single-shot. It was education through trial and error. I did manage to shoot a nice big cock pheasant that year, but those flighty ruffed grouse and wily whitetails were a little too difficult for either of us to bag. I can remember coming home from school all excited about the grouse I had seen the day before and planning how I would get that bird today. I never did shoot that bird, but I had a great time trying!

Fast forward a few years. While at the University of Maine, I secured a paid internship with North Maine Woods in the Town of Allagash. I got college credit for time worked and didn’t have to take calculus. What a deal! The ruffed grouse of Maine’s North Woods seemed to be a totally different bird than those that lived behind my house growing up. The birds that lived behind my house seemed to spook when you closed the door, and these northern Maine birds would sit on the side of a gravel road and let you shoot them. What a difference a couple of hundred miles makes!

I couldn’t wait to tell my brother about these partridges that you could actually bag. Mark came up bird hunting that fall, and it has been an annual tradition ever since.

Mark and I hunted deer in northern Maine back when there were a lot of deer in the big woods. We hunted at Churchill Depot when I worked there as a ranger. There were deer trails worn right down to mineral soil down along the river back then, and we didn’t know enough to sit still and watch one of those paths.

One bit of advice that I would give a novice hunter: Find a well-used deer trail then sit and watch that trail from a good vantage point with some cover for a couple of hours in the early morning and late afternoon.

Fast forward a couple more years. I had been hunting with some of my buddies for almost a week at Churchill. It was the first year of the bucks-only regulation. I had seen several does that week but no bucks. The guys had all gone home on Friday, so I decided to sleep in on Saturday morning. I got up, had a nice breakfast and took my time packing my gear, and headed across the dam to hunt the west side of the river. When I got to my hunting spot, someone had parked their truck right where I had planned to go into the woods. I knew from experience that oftentimes the deer would come out of the woods in the opposite direction as the hunter went in and cross the road.

I stood there looking up the road, thinking about what I was going to do next when a nice fat crotch horn buck came to the side of the road and stopped. I made a well-placed shot right behind the forward shoulder. The buck turned and ran about 50 yards back from where he had just come and was laying there dead when I got to him.

I eviscerated the deer, took the heart, and went back to camp. I had only been gone for about 15 minutes, so my wife thought I had forgotten something. When I showed her the deer’s heart, she gave me a big hug, and there was harmony in the home for the rest of that fall.

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