Deer Hunting Legend: Dick Bernier
R.G. “Dick” Bernier is a legendary deer stalker from Northern Maine
To understand who R.G. “Dick” Bernier is, it helps to understand who he isn’t. A prolific writer and lifelong deer hunter, the 56-year-old Maine resident was invited to hunt deer in Alabama.
At the time, Bernier had a well-earned reputation for stalking giant whitetails through the North Maine woods. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to hear his story.
Bernier was entirely unfamiliar with the Southern deer hunting culture, so he was somewhat baffled when his hosts dropped him off at a tree stand on the first day of the hunt.
“I’d never been in a tree stand in my life, so I asked if I could walk around instead,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Go ahead,’ so I took off the noisy jacket they gave me and laid it down at the base of the tree and just took off walking.”
It didn’t take long for Bernier to shoot a deer. It wasn’t the biggest buck in Alabama. In fact, as he recalls, his hosts were none too thrilled he shot it.
“They told me to shoot a mature buck or anything irregular. It had four points on one side and a spike on the other, so I thought that was irregular enough,” he says. “I guess it was a young deer. They all look the same size down there.”
It was his first and only time down South. In his world, a 200-pounder barely raises a glance from locals and massive tracts of public land allow a man and his rifle to wander for miles without fear of stepping on the wrong side of a property line.
For Bernier, hunting is about freedom.
Tracking Big Bucks
Like the time a buck took him on a two-day, 26-mile trek through the Maine woods before Bernier finally caught up to it and put the buck down for good. Dubbed “The Marathon Buck,” it’s one of his most memorable hunts.
He’s tracked big whitetails throughout New England, often scoring after slinking through the snow for hours without a break. It’s a skill few hunters have these days and even fewer are learning.
Ironically, it wasn’t Dick Bernier who learned to track deer from his father. Instead, his father, known affectionately as “Pop,” trailed behind Bernier as he followed a set of tracks through the Maine woods.
“As I tracked, Pop would peel off to one side or the other and wait for the buck to circle back.”
“They always circle back,” Pop would say.
“He would come back and pick up my trail and circle the other way if he didn’t see the deer. Pop killed a bunch of bucks doing that.”
Even with that success, Pop Bernier, who is 75 and doesn’t get in the woods much anymore, wasn’t much on tracking a lone deer. Instead, he preferred to still-hunt.
That’s what Dick Bernier was doing when he killed is first buck, a 100-pound spike, in 1969 on the very first day he was legally allowed to deer hunt. He continued to still hunt for nine more years before he realized he needed something more.
“I wanted to know there was a deer in front of me. I didn’t want to just hope there was one out there somewhere,” he says.
Solving The Tracking Puzzle
It helped that snow was almost always on the ground during Maine’s brief deer season. A fresh blanket allowed Bernier, author of The Deer Trackers and On The Track, to not just find deer tracks, but to read them.
He made plenty of mistakes his first few years, but the pieces of the deer-tracking puzzle started to fall into place. Bernier eventually learned to look at a track and determine not just the deer’s size and age, but its demeanor.
“I learned when I can move fast and when I had to slow down just by looking at the tracks. I can even tell when a buck is looking for a place to bed down. That’s when I know I really have to slow down and start looking ahead,” he explains.
Times have changed, mostly for the worse. A series of severe winters in 2007, 2008 and 2009, along with the gradual loss of good winter habitat, hammered the Northern Maine’s deer herd.
The big bucks that made the region and Dick Bernier famous just aren’t there, at least not in numbers that justify the effort. Despite honing his skills over 30 seasons by tracking bucks through the vast tracts of forest, Bernier doesn’t hunt there anymore.
“The biggest bucks in Maine are found in the southern parts of the state now, but it’s too populated. You can’t get on a buck track and follow it all day like you could in Northern Maine,” he says. “I need room.”
Finding New Places to Stalk
Like an explorer without a wilderness, Bernier finds himself striking out for new ground, where big bucks still roam and a hunter can follow at will. Dick went to the Idaho panhandle last season, where he saw “more deer in a week than I’ve seen in a lifetime.” None were big enough to tempt him to pull the trigger, however.
Northern Ontario has been a pretty good substitute, as well. Better in some ways, despite the 30-hour drive. He hunts a place where he can “walk north and never cross a road.”
The bucks are nearly as heavy and some have impressive antlers. His highest-scoring buck, a 160-incher, came from Ontario. Bernier, however, doesn’t hunt for horns, although he admits he gets a thrill when he shoots a big one.
Instead, it’s all about outwitting a woods-wise, mature buck on his own terms, something that just can’t be done from a platform 20 feet off the ground. And it’s all about doing it on the ground, even if a buck takes him on a marathon walk.
Tip: “If you think you are going slow, slow down some more,” says deer-tracking expert R.G. Bernier. “People go too fast. Use your eyes more than your legs. Stop and watch before you move.”