New England's Best December Deer Hunts

Opportunities for great deer hunting abound this month, especially in southern New England, where archery, shotgun, rifle and muzzleloader seasons are still open. Our expert has the story.

By Les Bartus

I confess. I love deer hunting in New England during December. I've taken my largest bucks during late-season hunts, but I have plenty of other reasons to head out during December.

One of the biggest attractions about December deer hunting is that most of the competition has filled their tags or simply given up for the year. Another benefit is that the hunting is simplified to an extent. The rut and its craziness is long over, and now the only thing on a buck's mind is regaining some of the weight it lost during the autumn breeding season. Find the food, and you will find the deer. It's that simple.

Other than the practical aspects, late-season hunting simply feels right. It's a last hurrah of sorts, bringing the year to a close. Aesthetically, it's a magical time to be in the woods. There are not a lot of things more enjoyable than slipping through the forest following a hot track while a light snow hisses down through the trees. Feed the soul, fill the freezer, and enjoy a good chance of bagging a real trophy.

Do you really need more reasons to head for the whitetail woods this December?

MAINE
December in Maine means hunting with bow or muzzleloader. The expanded archery season runs straight through from Sept. 6 to Dec. 13. This is a limited hunt and a regular permit is required in addition to the regular archery license. Multiple antlerless deer permits may be purchased for $10 each, and one buck permit for $30.

The statewide muzzleloader season opens on Dec. 1, and goes through Dec. 6. The extended muzzleloader season in limited wildlife management districts begins Dec. 8 and runs through Dec. 13. The extended season is for WMDs 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26 and 30.

In 2003, the expanded archery hunt accounted for 1,740 animals being harvested. This total was up slightly from 2002. The week-long muzzleloader season produced 1,359 deer, an increase of 321 over the 2002 totals. Total kill for 2003 from all seasons was 30,313, a bit lower than predicted, but well within normal parameters. Bucks made up 16,1853 of that total. While that figure is somewhat lower than recent years, biologists blame the drop on the wet and windy weather conditions during the 2003 hunting seasons.

Harsh weather can be a big limiting factor in the Maine woods, either by keeping hunters home during the open season or by impacting deer population dynamics by long, hard winters. While predictions are always iffy, there was not much in the way of snow last winter, and fawn counts were high this spring. All indications point to a healthy herd and good opportunities for the 2004 seasons.

Part of what is known as the Sidney Region, the valleys of the Penobscot, Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers, offer prime hunting opportunities.

Boasting some of the highest deer densities in the state, wildlife management districts 16, 17, 22 and 23 average a bit better than 116 bucks per 100 square miles. WMD 17 in particular shines, with the highest average in the state at over 150 bucks killed per 100 square miles. With the human population at fewer than 50 per square mile in most of these regions, it's not hard to find solitude.

For more information, check out the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Web site at www.state.me.us/ifw/index.html; or phone them at (207) 287-8000. You can also write the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 284 State St., Augusta, ME 04333.

There is also an automated information line in service at (207) 287-8003 that has updated information on season dates, new law changes, etc. Lodging, restaurants and such can be found by browsing the Maine tourist site at www.visitmaine.com.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

NEW HAMPSHIRE
In New Hampshire, the first few days of December offer hunters a choice of carrying bow or firearm depending on which wildlife management unit you are hunting.

The either-sex archery season runs from Sept. 15 through Dec. 15 in units A, B, C1, C2, D, E, F, G, H1, H2, I1, I2, J1, J2, K, L and M. The firearms buck-only season in WMUs C1, C2, E and F goes from Nov. 10 through Dec. 5. In units D, G, I1, I2 and J1, the firearms buck-only season is from Nov. 11 through Dec. 5.

The bucks-only hunt in units H1, H2, J2 and K is open from Nov. 12 through Dec. 5. The season for units A and B (antlered only) is Nov. 13 through Dec. 5. Finally, units L and M are open for bucks-only hunting from Nov. 20 though Dec. 5.

New Hampshire boasts a large number of state parks that are open to hunting and other recreation. Many of these offer year-round camping. To locate these parks, go online to www. nhparks.state.nh.

One favorite is Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown. This park covers close to 10,000 acres with mixed forest along with some wetlands. You can get there by taking Interstate Route 95 to Route 4 west, and then Route 28 south. Follow the signs the rest of the way. The campground number is (603) 485-9869.

Prospecting along the Connecticut River valley will reveal some prime hunting territory. About 75 percent of the largest bucks produced by the Granite State in the past have come from this area.

The forecast for 2004 is promising. In 2003, the harvest was down roughly 14 percent (9,492 animals reported). Kent Gustafson, New Hampshire's Deer Project leader, attributes this to the effects of bad winters the two previous years in the northern part of the state. To reduce the impact, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department limited the antlerless take in 2003, which also contributed to a drop in the total number of deer killed.

This past winter was listed as average to below average in severity, with the result being a reduced winter kill and better spring fawn survival. The deer taken in 2003 were healthy animals, and the buck harvest showed excellent age structure. Some 54 percent of bucks reported were aged at 2.5 years or older, and 12 percent were age 4.5 years or older. Bucks harvested at 1.5 years of age averaged 117 pounds, while bucks aged at 5.5 years and older showed a respectable 201-pound average dressed weight.

Hunting licenses cost residents $22 and non-residents pay $103. An archery-only license costs $22 and $73, respectively. Hunters must possess an archery license to buy a special archery tag ($16), which entitles the holder to take a second deer.

Licenses may be purchased online at www.wildlife.state.nh.us/hunting. License information can also be obtained by calling (603) 271-3421.

For more information, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department's Wildlife Division may be contacted at (603) 271-2461. Travel information may be found on the Web at www.visitnh.gov.

VERMONT
Vermont's muzzleloader season for 2004 runs from Dec. 4 to 12. Two muzzleloader licenses may be purchased, allowing for two deer. It's bucks only, however, unless you drew an antlerless tag in the summer lottery. License fees for hunting are $16 for residents and $85 for non-residents. The blackpowder tag costs $17 and $25, respectively.

While it's no secret that hunting Vermont isn't what it used to be, there are still plenty of bucks residing in the Green Mountain State. Thanks to some diligent work on the new deer management plan, the herd is improving yearly. Best bets for the visiting hunter include Rutland, Bennington and Windham counties.

Hunters who want to experience some true deep-woods hunting should consider the northern end of the state in Essex, Orleans or Franklin counties. Hunters can go a long time between deer sightings up there, but odds are that when one shows up, it will be a bruiser.

Vermont is blessed with plenty of public-hunting opportunities throughout the state. Green Mountain National Forest in the town of Mount Tabor near the center of the state is a popular starting point, yet it is seldom crowded.

Many hunters overlook the smaller wildlife management areas, which can be a mistake. Places such as the Rochester and Riley Bostwick WMAs in Rochester and Skitchewaug WMA in Springfield may be small, but they have plenty of habitat for deer and they generally do not receive much hunting pressure.

Additional information, including maps of the state's wildlife management areas, is available at the www.vtfishandwildlife.com Web site. Or try the state information line at (802) 241-3700. Tourist information can be found at www.travel-vermont.com.

MASSACHUSETTS
Over the past several years, Massachusetts has been building a reputation as the place to go for quality deer hunting in New England. The herd at present is estimated to be between 85,000 and 100,000 animals. The 2003 harvest turned out to be 10,722 whitetails, of which archers took 2,871. The harvest has leveled off over the last five years, with between 9,500 and 10,000 deer taken annually.

Bill Woytek, MassWildlife's Deer Project leader, is happy with the overall health and numbers of the herd, pointing out that the relatively stable number of whitetails taken over the last several years compared to the decreasing number of hunters in the state shows a trend toward a higher buck harvest per man-hour.

The bottom line is that Massachusetts' bucks are living longer, giving them time to show their true trophy potential. Boone and Crockett-class whitetails have been showing up all over the state in the last few years, as well as many Pope and Young-class bucks.

The eastern end of the state gets a lot of hunter attention due to the whitetail overpopulation problem in some areas there, while the western mountain region of the state also keeps turning out good numbers of quality deer.

Massachusetts provides two opportunities for filling your tag. The regular shotgun season opens Nov. 29 in zones 1 through 11 and 14. It ends Dec. 11. In Zones 12 and 13, the season runs from Nov. 29 through Dec. 4. The statewide muzzleloader season opens on Dec. 13 and goes through Dec. 31. All seasons are buck only except for hunters who obtained an antlerless tag in the annual drawing.

Deciding where to hunt in Massachusetts can be an interesting dilemma. You can go east where there is less public land to hunt, but a higher deer density, or head to the western end of the state where huge tracts of public land hold bruiser bucks, albeit fewer of them. Either way, you really cannot lose.

With 16,127 acres, October Mountain State Forest in the Western District is the largest state forest in the Commonwealth and contains just about every type of terrain imaginable, from low-lying areas to steep ridges and hilly peaks. Much of the forest consists of hardwoods, and during good mast years the hunting can be exceptional. If you desire solitude and a "big woods" feel to your hunt, this is the place to go.

In the Central District, check out the massive 10,557-acre Barre Falls WMA in the towns of Hubbardston, Oakham, Barre and Rutland. This enormous WMA contains hardwoods and meadows, with plenty of mast trees, such as oak and beech. Other public areas worth looking at are Hawley State Forest and Conway State Forest.

To hunt the Southeast Wildlife District, the best bet is to write or phone ahead for the latest information. The district supervisor may be reached at 195 Bournedale Road, Buzzards Bay, MA 02532; or call (508) 759-3406.

For more information, or to obtain copies of the various hunting-related publications offered by the state, call the MassWildlife Field Headquarters at (508) 792-7270. For information concerning the Western District, call (413) 447-9789.

Also, the MassWildlife Web site at www.state.ma.us/dfwele/dfw/dfw is a good place to start. The site contains a complete listing of hunting regulations, license requirements, online license purchase, antlerless permit applications, WMA listings and special regulations, plus contact information for biologists, wardens, etc.

Visit www.mass.gov/dem/recreate/ hunting.htm for a complete listing of state parks and forests with maps, driving directions and special regulations pertaining to hunting and camping.

The state of Massachusetts makes life much easier for prospective hunters by publishing excellent downloadable maps of all state wildlife management areas at www.mass. gov/dfwele/dfw/dfw_wma.htm.

Licenses cost $27.50 for residents, and $99.50 for non-residents.

For more information, contact the MassWildlife Field Headquarters at Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Field Headquarters, 1 Rabbit Hill Road, Westboro MA. 01581; or phone them at (508) 792-7270.

Travel plans can be made with the information available at the Massachusetts Tourist Web site at www. masstourist.com.

CONNECTICUT
Connecticut has very good opportunities for the December deer hunter. It takes a bit of planning and some serious study of the hu

nting laws, but in the end a Nutmeg State hunting trip can be very productive.

There is a wide variation of season dates and locations in Connecticut, with different seasons in December for bow, rifle, shotgun and muzzleloader. Season dates differ on public and private property. Throw in different season dates for the various state- owned wildlife management units, plus some differing bag limits, and it's easy to see that some serious map and calendar work is in order.

Complicated hunting laws notwithstanding, Connecticut has quietly become one of the best whitetail hunting states in New England.

Finding some public land to suit your particular hunting style and needs should not be a large problem. Connecticut's public land includes the 17,186-acre Cockaponset State Forest in the towns of Haddam and Madison. Naugatuck State Forest is another favored destination.

There is a comprehensive list of all the state's public lands (including maps of the state-owned land) on the Department of Environmental Protection's Wildlife Division Web site listed below.

License and permit applications are available online. A firearms hunting license costs $14 for residents and $67 for non-residents. Archery licenses cost $30 and $100, respectively. The archery licenses are available only by mail and may take up to four weeks to process, so plan accordingly.

Hunting information is available on the DEP's Web site at http://dep.state. ct.us/burnatr/wildlife, or hunters may write the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, Wildlife Division, 79 Elm St., Hartford, CT 06106-5127; or call (860) 642-5127.

Travel directions, restaurants and accommodations may be found by visiting the state's tourism Web site at www.tourism.state.ct.us.



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