Before first light on Saturday morning, thousands of Mainers will roll out of bed, gather up their gear, and head for the woods, where yet another epic opening day of deer season awaits.
At least, that’s the plan.
It might be snowy, or wet, or windy, or cold. And it just won’t matter. We’ll be out there.
This opening Saturday of deer season, which is reserved by law for Maine residents, is more than just another day on the calendar, you see. It’s a day filled with tradition and ritual, enhanced by the optimism that fuels us at the beginning of each new hunt.
Opening day, simply put, is special.
For me and my group of pals — and for other, similar groups around the state — opening day is an annual reunion in the woods. All of us would admit that we don’t get a chance to spend as much time together as we’d like. Fishing trips are less frequent and shorter than they used to be. Finding days when all of us can meet up has become more complicated over the years, with family life and professional obligations pulling us in different directions.
But this? Opening day? A day to renew our passion for the outdoors, to tromp across familiar land, to skulk along the brook or to sit and wait in well-positioned ground blinds? We’ve been waiting for the chance to do this for the past 11 months, ever since we limped out of last season, deerless, but unsurprised.
Last year was bound to be tough, our group knew. That July, we learned that the woods we’d spent so many hours in had changed.
It had been a couple decades since that patch of woods had last been cut, and we’d often lamented how thick it had become. Shooting lanes that were once 100 yards long had grown in, and in most places, we’d be lucky to see a deer more than 40 yards away. Cutting was in order, we agreed.
And cutting was done.
Last year, we found ourselves in an entirely new (former) forest, with spots that could have seen deer 400 yards away. And we did see them, occasionally, as they scurried for cover.
When the season ended, nobody had fired a shot.
Luckily, the frustration of those hunts fades quickly. Instead, we focus on what we saw, what we learned, what we experienced, and what we’ll do differently next time.
Now, next time is upon us.
After another mild winter, we’re confident that more deer will be out there, waiting to frustrate us again. And after scouting those regenerating woods, we’re also confident that even after a single year of growth, there are plenty of places for those deer to hide.
Deer sign is abundant. Our hopes are high. Kind of.
And come Saturday morning, we’ll return to the woods that we’ve spent so many good times in, and share our annual tradition.
A couple of us will find a good place to sit. Someone else will walk. We’ll spend hours in our own, listening to birds chirp and squirrels scurry, watching the edges for a stealthy deer.
And then, eventually — if nothing exciting happens before then — we’ll gather at the trucks and share one of my favorite traditions.
The sun will have set by then, and the evening will be chilly. We’ll stow our guns and share our individual tales with the each other.
Someone saw a doe. Someone thought a buck was coming … but it didn’t. Someone was harassed by a red squirrel … again.
Or, maybe, that won’t be necessary. Maybe — just maybe — this is the year. Come sundown on Saturday, we might all be at the tagging station, telling other hunters how we came to find this hefty 10-pointer. We might be calling meat-cutters, looking to line up an appointment. We might be considering the merits of various taxidermists.
That’s the way this season works, you know. In a given year, 70 percent of us will leave the woods at the end of November without a deer.
But that’s a thought for another day. Today, with the season-opener looming, we don’t dwell on that.
For now, all we know is, we’ve done our advance scouting. We’re ready. The deer are waiting.
And if everything works out, this season might be all we hope for.
It just might.
Got a deer story to share? John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke