October 23, 2011

Hunting: Rituals mark opening day of deer season

By Bob Humphrey

The wait is almost over. Saturday marks the start of another Maine deer season, at least for residents. Sure, the expanded and special archery seasons have been open for a while, but it is the regular firearms season that reigns supreme.

The week prior is spent preparing: rubbing a fresh coat of mink oil on your Bean boots, sighting in your favorite deer rifle and perhaps checking a few of your favorite haunts for sign.

Some folks stay at home, while others head off to camp. The opening eve eventually arrives, and after a bit of revelry, all settle down to what likely will be a fitful night's sleep.

Morning arrives. First order of business is coffee, the deer hunter's life blood. At home it's an electric coffeemaker, set up the night before with carefully measured contents in a paper filter, preset to turn on at a specific time. At camp it might be an old tin pot, filled with water and a handful of coffee grounds, then set atop the wood stove to boil.

Next comes breakfast, a big part of the opening day ritual. Throughout the state's rural regions, orange-clad soldiers converge on church basements, legion halls or local greasy spoons for the annual hunters' breakfast. The air is filled with the aroma of coffee, bacon and maple syrup. Veteran hunters tell tales of past openers and bucks that seem to grow bigger each year, while youngsters look on wide-eyed, dreaming of felling the mighty stag. "Remember that year it rained so hard..." starts one hunter. "How 'bout the time I shot that spike-horn. Back at the check station by 7:30," boasts another.

Meanwhile, much the same is occurring in hunting camps in the more remote regions. While bacon sizzles in a cast-iron pan and coffee simmers on the woodstove, hunters don layers of plaid wool and orange by the light of the gas lamps.

The mood changes from light to more serious as hunters leave the din of the breakfast crowd behind and head afield. For some it's a short ride, for others a few strides. Stepping out of their pickup truck or the cabin door into the inky blackness of predawn, all is quiet. The air is still and crisp, and they pause to look up at countless stars. In the distance a great horned owl hoots, signaling the imminent shift from nocturnal to diurnal hunters.

The first wave of hunters -- the stump sitters -- make their way toward carefully selected positions in the darkness, where they'll await the dawn, allowing enough time for the woods to settle before shooting light. They're hoping to catch deer still in their natural movements and unaware of the throng that is about to descend upon them.

The second wave -- the walkers -- will wait until there's light enough to pick out a patch of brown or white fur, an out-of-place horizontal line or the flick of an ear before proceeding into the forest. As they do, they may unwittingly push deer toward the first wave, their senses set on high alert.

Gradually, black turns to gray and obscure shapes take on more discernable form. The ears of a deer turn out to be a couple of tenacious beech leaves and that huge rack is merely the skeletonized branch of a deadfall pine. A shot rings out in the distance, then another. Your heart quickens as you hear rapid, heavy footfalls headed your way. Opening day has arrived.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: bhhunt@maine.rr.com

 

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