New England's Deer Outlook

Part 2: Where To Find Our Biggest Bucks


New England's deer hunters took two world-class bucks last year and a dozen or more in the 150 class. Can it get any better than that? Our expert thinks so and explains why.

By Bob Humphrey

New England's trophy deer hunters had been patiently listening to biologists and deer hunting "experts," who had been predicting a bumper crop of big bucks, and last year the lid finally blew off.

Persistent warm weather kept annual harvests short of projections for several seasons. Then came the brutal winter of 2000-01, and biologists began qualifying their expectations for the fall of 2001.

Fortunately, a more mild winter followed. Deer populations recovered quickly and there was a bounty of big bucks on hand along with nearly ideal hunting conditions. Buck kills were up region-wide, and included some spectacular specimens. This bodes well for the coming season.

Obviously, the brutal winter of 2001 wasn't as hard on deer as we had thought. Last year's kill hints that this year's numbers should be even better. Add an abundant mast crop, deer that are in great shape and mild winter conditions, and the stage is set for another big-buck bonanza.

MAINE
Maine hunters had a phenomenal season last year. The statewide buck kill of 20,694 was the second highest ever, falling just shy of the all-time record buck kill of 21,422 set in 2000. This also represents a dramatic recovery from 2001, when only 16,798 antlered bucks were killed.

Last season also produced new archery and muzzleloader record bucks, and at least one buck that, field dressed, tipped the scales at 300 pounds.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

According to Gerry Lavigne, Maine's top deer biologist, of the antlered bucks taken in 2002, roughly 9,100 (44 percent) were yearlings, while more than 3,700 (18 percent) were mature bucks (over 4 1/2 years old). These figures are consistent with a growing trend in Maine's buck population - a reduction in the average age-class. The high number of younger bucks indicates a growing population. However, fewer mature bucks suggests increased hunting effort directed toward bucks may be starting to have an effect on the number of older bucks. Or it could be a result of the severe winter of 2001, when many of the older bucks probably succumbed.

The good news is that many 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-old bucks will be sporting trophy-class antlers, and there should be plenty of them around this season.

The top five buck-producing wildlife management districts (WMDs) were (in descending order) districts 24, 23, 22, 21 and 17. All are in central and southern Maine. Dick Arsenault, Maine Antler and Skull Trophy Club president, has also noted more trophy entries coming from southern and central Maine in recent years, including last year's archery and muzzleloader records, which came from Cumberland County.

Given that information, trophy hunters might be well advised to shift their attention southward toward places like Kennebec, Waldo and Hancock counties where there are some large, unbroken tracts of forest and higher deer densities.

Across the remainder of central and southern Maine, the odds of encountering a big buck are probably similar. Trophy-class deer are taken in every town, but because most of the land is in small, privately owned tracts, the key to success is gaining access. With burgeoning deer herds along the coast, many towns are loosening their hunting restrictions, landowners are becoming more accepting of hunting, and the state is allowing hunting on some formerly closed game sanctuaries. The best odds here are with archers hunting the expanded season, which runs from early September through the first weeks of December.

If you judge your trophy more by its body size than antler score, or you prefer the solitude of the big woods, your odds are probably better in the northern part of the state. The traditional big-buck producing areas of the north include southern and central Somerset, Piscataquis and Penobscot counties. The Biggest Bucks In Maine Club (deer over 200 pounds) records also show some of the best areas are in the headwaters of the Kennebec and Penobscot rivers. Closer inspection shows the towns in the Moosehead region score particularly high. While this may be partly due to the high incidence of sporting camps in the area, this region also produces big deer for the do-it-yourself hunter. Most of the land is private, but accessible free or for a small road access fee.

For more information, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 284 State St., Augusta, ME 04333; call (207) 287-5248, or visit the MDIFW's Internet Web site at www.state.me.us/ifw/homepage.htm.

PART 1


Last month, we covered the top hunting areas in New England.

 

NEW HAMPSHIRE
According to New Hampshire biologists, last year's mild winter probably allowed for better-than-average population growth in portions of the state. This and snow cover that resulted in excellent hunting conditions were reflected in the 2002 deer harvest. The total kill was up 21 percent from the previous year, and the 2002 statewide adult male kill was 6,855, up 15 percent from 5,981 in 2001. This figure also broke the previous statewide record of 6,554, set in 2000.

Average yearling antler beam diameters measured last fall indicate deer are generally below the biological carrying capacity of their deer range and in good physical condition.

Figures from the New Hampshire Antler and Skull Trophy Club (NHASTC) show two distinct trends with regard to the geographic distribution of trophy bucks. The majority of heavyweight deer still come from northernmost Coos County, but possibilities exist statewide. Last year, Coos County accounted for five of the 10 biggest bucks, six of the 10 bigges

t firearms bucks and three of the top 10 muzzleloader and archery bucks taken in the state.

Figures from the latter two categories give a slight edge to Grafton, Belknap and Sullivan counties.

Cold temperatures through much of last winter could have a residual effect going into this fall.

Hunters planning on visiting New Hampshire are encouraged to contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, 2 Hazen Dr., Concord, NH 03301; call (603) 271-3421, or visit the NHFG Web site at www.wildlife.state.nh.us to receive a free packet on visiting and hunting in the Granite State.

Information on trophy deer in New Hampshire is available from the New Hampshire Antler and Skull Trophy Club (NHASTC), 22 Scribner Rd., Raymond, NH 03077.

VERMONT
Last November, Vermont rifle hunters enjoyed continuous snow cover and excellent tracking conditions. Hunters killed 8,599 bucks during the 16-day season. Those conditions persisted into December, allowing muzzleloader hunters to tag 778 bucks, 1,692 does and 304 fawns. The combined buck kill from all seasons was 10,791, up from 10,235 the previous year.

Results from the rifle season provide a good guide for where to find bucks. Last year, Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) B (western Franklin County) led the state with 865 bucks. Nearby WMU A (Grande Isle) produced 143 bucks, but it topped the state in terms of bucks killed per square mile. Next highest on the list was WMU N (western Bennington County) with 685 bucks, No. 2 in terms of bucks per square mile. Orange County units J1 and J2 also scored high with 624 and 595 bucks, respectively, and had better-than-average rates of bucks per square mile. The other big producer last year was WMU K2 in Rutland County, which produced 612 bucks and came in at No. 3 for bucks per square mile.

WMU B also led the state for buck kill during the muzzleloader season, with 75. WMU J2 tied with WMU H1 (Washington County) for second place with 53 each. Bowhunters also did the best in WMU B, tagging 156 bucks. Second best went to WMU D1 (western Orleans County) with 90, and WMU H1 was a close third with 89.

The Northeast Kingdom contains roughly 50 percent of all state lands or easements, and most of the private land belongs to paper companies, which typically allow free access.

For more information, contact the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, 103 South Main St., Waterbury, VT 05671-0501; call (802) 241-3700, or visit the VFWD's Internet Web site at www.state.vt.us/fw/fwhome.

MASSACHUSETTS
The Bay State has slowly gained a reputation as one of the region's top trophy-producing states. Last year it blew away the competition, largely on the strength of two world-class bucks. One, a 204 1/8-inch 10-pointer, is the largest gross-scoring typical ever taken in Massachusetts and the top net-scoring buck in New England, according to Northeast Big Buck Club records. The other, a 203 2/8 gross non-typical, is the largest hunter-killed non-typical in the Bay State since 1940.

It's almost unfortunate, but these giants overshadowed an octet of 160- and 170-class bucks and a smattering of 140- and 150-class bucks.

There has been a consistent shift in hunting pressure (and deer kills) from west to east. More hunters who used to head to the Berkshires for "deer week" are turning their attention to the eastern half of the state, and they are finding some nice bucks in the process.

Deer management zones 10 and 11 have become the places to go. Hunters who gain access in northern Zone 10 (Essex County) may expect a shot at a trophy. Meanwhile, in southeastern Zone 11 (Plymouth and Bristol counties), there is more open space, though most of it is also privately owned. Bowhunters may have a decided edge when asking permission to hunt these spots.

The same is true for Worcester County (zones 8 and 9). However, outside of the suburbs there is plenty of open space and public land to hunt on. To the west, towns in and around the Connecticut River Valley haven't been quite as productive, but will probably get more attention since the new 200-class state-record typical was taken in Franklin County. The other 200-inch buck, which came from Berkshire County, might help revive interest in that area, too, although DMZ 3 in the southern Berkshires continues to hold its own.

For more information, contact the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Field Headquarters, Westboro, MA 01581; call (508) 792-7220, or visit the MassWildife Web site at www.state.ma.us/dfwele/dfw.

RHODE ISLAND
The Rhode Island Fish and Wildlife Division's official position is that there are too many deer, and biologists set seasons and bag limits designed to encourage doe harvesting.

Hunters keep targeting bucks, however, and take some impressive specimens. Last year was no exception. The muzzleloader season produced a 170-class 11-pointer and a 140-class 9-pointer. Both archers and shotgunners collected some nice 120- and 130-class bucks. The heaviest muzzleloader buck, a 206-pound 8-pointer, was shot in Providence; and a 195-pound 6-point from Cranston was the top shotgun deer. The heaviest archery deer, a 250-pound 10-pointer, came from Scituate.

Based on antler measurements, NBBC records indicate the top three counties to be Providence, Washington and Kent. Overall kill numbers indicate that the most deer are taken in the towns of Exeter, Foster, Glocester and West Greenwich.

For more information, contact the Rhode Island Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, 4808 Tower Hill Rd., Wakefield, RI 02879; or call (401) 789-0281.

CONNECTICUT
Connecticut is also plagued with too many deer in many parts of the state. Thus, most of their management is directed at encouraging either-sex or antlerless hunting.

Still, biologist Howard Kilpatrick recommended the northeastern and northwestern regions as trophy hotspots. He attributed this to quality habitat and relatively less hunting pressure. This region has some of the state's largest public lands.

Last year's NBBC records hint that big bucks could turn up almost anywhere. Middlesex County produced a 170-class buck; New London yielded a 160-class buck; and hunters bagged 150-class bucks in Hartford and New Haven counties.

For more information, contact the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, State Office Building, Hartford, CT 06115; call (203) 424-3011, or visit the DEP's Internet Web site at www.dep.state.ct.us/burnatur/wildlife.



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