BY V. Paul Reynolds
Most deer hunters are drawn to the big woods. Admittedly, there is nothing like the North Woods for those who like to cover lots of ground, explore new territory and get away from the crowds and posted land. But deer hunting in small woodlots, I have found, can be highly productive – if you make the most of the natural advantages. There are some significant ones, too.
The most obvious, of course is small woodlots exist. In a perverse way, urban sprawl and the resulting reduction in deer habitat can work sometimes to the hunter’s advantage in these small woodlots. This is because the deer being subjected to hunting pressure often must group up and hunker down in small areas of cover or risk exposure. This makes them easier to find. Along with denser concentrations of deer, a number of these other advantages accrue to the small woodlot hunter. Together, these advantages simplify the hunt equation and increase the odds in your favor.
Advantage one is terrain intimacy. The smaller the woods, the easier it is to get acquainted. It takes time and careful observation to really get to know deer cover. My small woodlot never fails to reveal to me something unseen before, a new blowdown, a bubbling spring or fresh beaver works.
For one thing, this is one of those woodlots with lots of benchmarks, unique terrain features that help the hunter know where he is most of the time, not only in relation to other hunters, but in relation to the deer and their often predictable habits.
The stream winds around in back of this 15 acre woodlot forming a curving boundary with alder banks that make good deer runs. In the center of the acreage is a jungle-thick spruce thicket nearly circumscribed by more open softwood stands that have been selectively cut.
Combine this with some expansive roadside fields nearby that support lots of clover and you have the making of good deer habitat. The simplicity of this woodlot makes it possible to draw with confidence some conclusions about deer behavior: the equation is reduced to three components. They are feed, route of escape and daytime cover.
A small woodlot can also offer and enormous secondary advantage with what I call terrain proximity. My backwoods are easy to get to. So I am able to walk my woodlot often. In October, it just takes a few minutes before dark to poke about and make some mental notes about whitetail activity. If you scope out a deer’s movements on a daily basis, patterns of behavior emerge that otherwise might not be obvious to a casual reader of sign.
Last fall, for example, the buck I would encounter opening day revealed to me his favorite bedding spot a week or so before opening day. His tracks, somewhat larger than the tree does making their nightly visits to the fields, indicated a clear preference for the island spruce thicket. While the does were finding their daytime security in cover beyond the stream, the buck opted to hang close by both the browse and the nightly gathering of does.
Self-evident, perhaps, but not insignificant is a third advantage of the small woodlot near home. It has to do with actual time in the woods hunting. Many hunters spend more time getting ready, driving to the hunting spot and then walking to the deer cover than actually involved in concentrated hunting. Like some many other endeavors, time invested does figure into the hunter’s success rate in the field.
In some ways, deer hunting is akin to golf. Just when you think you’ve got it conquered, it finds a way to smack you silly with great servings of humility.
A few days before opening day several autumns ago, some intense intelligence gathering on the backside of our favorite island spruce thicket led to a discovery. The sign suggested that two bucks were bedding down in he thicket, and one – the larger of the two – was not following the script. He was leaving the thicket on the northwest side, far from the browse area and the heavily used runways on the opposite side of this dense tangle of old growth softwoods. This was a first in my six years of watching this woodlot.
This was where I would sit opening day, I decided. Walking home across the field, I pondered the possibilities and reminded myself to buy a new box of .35 Remingtons.On opening day, first light came grudgingly held back by a low overcast and still air. My boys were settled into their tree stands a few minutes after leaving the house. Nursing a strong premonition, I made my way to the backside of our favorite woodlot spruce thicket. A serious deer hunter who tries most of the time to focus on the all important details, I scolded myself for forgetting to purchase new ammunition.
Standing in the shadows of a large gnarled hemlock across from an overgrown road that skirts the spruce thicket, I hadn’t even picked a spot to settle in for the morning when the vision began to unfold much sooner than I had expected.
A second or two later, I stood like a statute as a robust 8-point buck came to a full stop not 30 feet away. You know what these encounters are like. First there is overconfidence; you smell the venison frying as you lament the early end to your deer season. Then, it dawns on you that the buck is a split second from thick cover and you are caught flatfooted with your lever action Marlin still at waist level. Hmmmm, a Mexican standoff. Easing back on the hammer of the .35 Marlin ever so softly, you shoulder the deer gun and take that snap lung shot just as he does a wheeling turn backwards.
Click! There is no explosion. There is no recoil. There’s just the faded crunch, crunch of a very healthy buck heading back from where he came.
This was not the first time that old ammo had resisted the firing pin in this rifle. But it was the first time that it kept me from an opening day buck. One has to be philosophical at times like that, otherwise self-loathing can monopolize the moment.
Back at home over a hot cup of coffee, I shared the buck story with my wife. Despite the ammo oversight, I told her of the hunter’s satisfaction in having at least correctly anticipated the escape tactics of one of Maine’s most wary and elusive critters. I then recounted the value of hunting small Maine woodlots.
She didn’t seem impressed.
For more articles about hunting, fishing and the great outdoors, be sure to subscribe to the Northwoods Sporting Journal.