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War Zone in the Woods? No!

Shotgun deer season, the busiest time of the year for hunting, is underway now across southern New England. To many non-hunters this means it’s a veritable war zone in our forests and the only safe place to be is sitting at home on the couch. I’m not a hunter but I’m here to say that both of these beliefs are untrue. I’ve shared the woods with hunters many times and with just a little bit of extra gear and some common sense there’s no reason not to go out walking, skiing or snowshoeing during hunting season. And if you have the chance, strike up a conversation with some hunters. Many are very knowledgeable about the natural world and many are also very interested in conservation; houses everywhere means no land left open for hunting just as much as it means no land left open for walking.

A video showing the effectiveness of blaze orange

Also, while this shotgun deer season ends on January 2 in Rhode Island and on December 14 in Massachusetts, other animals may be hunted at other times. In January and February there are seasons for everything from racoons to rabbits. In late April and May there’s a season for wild turkeys. And in the fall certain seasons, such as bear and gray squirrel, start in early September and more seasons open in October and November. A few animals can be hunted at other times of year, but winter is the busiest season and summer is the slowest time for hunting. Just don’t assume that when deer season is over, all hunting is done until next fall.

A fluorescent orange vest and hat are your key “fashion” accessories during hunting season. They won’t win you any awards modeling them on the fashion runway, but your goal here isn’t to look pretty, it’s to avoid being mistaken for a deer, and to avoid being overlooked by someone staring down the barrel of a shotgun at a big buck standing off in the woods, with you possibly beyond. During deer season I also avoid wearing deer-color clothing such as a suede jacket; and I avoid white hats and mittens, and jackets with white trim, any of which could look like the tail of the very appropriately named white-tailed deer.

As the saying goes “it’s not just a good idea; it’s the law,” at least in Rhode Island. All users of RI state management areas and other designated undeveloped state parks must wear at least 200 square inches (e.g., a hat or vest) of solid daylight fluorescent orange clothing from the third Saturday in October to the last day of February and from the last Thursday in April to the last day in May, except during shotgun deer season when all users must wear 500 square inches of solid daylight fluorescent orange clothing (e.g., a hat and a vest).

Check the Details:

The dates for hunting seasons are complicated, with lots of special rules and exceptions, such as a much longer deer season on Prudence Island, a special season for paraplegic hunters, and separate seasons for bow hunters and muzzle loaders. This article is just intended as an overview. For specific dates and rules consult the full Rhode Island and Massachusetts hunting regulations for the current year:

Rhode Island Hunting Regulations for the 2013-14 Season

Massachusetts Fishing, Hunting and Trapping Laws

In Massachusetts non-hunters are not required to wear fluorescent orange but it’s highly recommended. Hunting is not allowed in Massachusetts on Sundays, so if you prefer to be out in the woods when there are not hunters around, go on a Sunday. But be aware that there are moves afoot to change this law, so in future years don’t just assume that it still true. And even on Sundays it doesn’t hurt to be seen, so it’s still a good idea to wear some orange.

Many outdoor stores, especially stores that cater to hunters, have orange vests and hats. Spend a little bit more and you’ll get better-made, more comfortable gear, rather than the cheap, annoying plastic vests. When it’s not deer season wearing just a hat or a vest is reasonable if you don’t want to wear both.

And then get out and enjoy the woods during this beautiful time of year. The leaves have fallen, revealing the forms of the trees: trunks spreading into branches; reaching up and out towards the sunlight; each species a little different. And when it snows, everything is arrayed in white (your florescent orange clothing will show up especially well then). Snow on the ground also means it’s a good time to look for animal tracks, whether your goal is to bring home a deer to feed your family though the winter, or just to get an inside look at who’s been doing what in the forest. On one short walk recently I saw turkey, deer, porcupine and fox tracks, all telling a different story about these creatures’ lives in the winter forest.

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