Deer hunting in New England is steeped in tradition that goes back to Colonial times. Much has changed since the Pilgrims stalked the forests of the Northeast, but the ultimate goal, a fat buck or doe for winter sustenance, remains the same 400 years later.
Here’s how things are shaping up in the six New England states for the coming deer season.
Massachusetts’ Division of Wildlife (MassWildlife) regulates hunting during three distinct seasons using 15 wildlife management zones. Biologists estimate that there are more than 100,000 deer in Massachusetts, with the majority of the herd in the highly-fragmented eastern half of the state.
Hunters in this region must deal with access and permit issues more so than their western-region (Berkshires) counterparts, but once a hunter has found a place to hunt, and does their scouting the odds for success turn sharply in their favor.
Hunters may also participate in a variety of controlled hunts such as the popular Quabbin Controlled Deer Hunt, an annual event conducted on Quabbin Reservoir watershed lands, implemented as part of the management program to maintain a balance between deer herd densities and forest regeneration.
Participants are selected from an applicant pool in a special lottery in early September. All applications must be submitted online and submitted from the DCR Deer Hunt web page. Successful applicants will receive written notification by early October. For more information, contact the Quabbin Reservoir Visitor Center at (413) 323-7221.
In addition, Massachusetts offers numerous wildlife management area hunts that are open under the general hunting regulations or as noted for special or controlled hunts. Hunters may view an interactive map that lists WMAs that are open to hunting by visiting state.ma.us and clicking on the “Where to Hunt” link. For more on the great deer-hunting opportunities available in Massachusetts in 2018 visit the MassWildlife web site.
The big news for deer hunters in the Nutmeg State is that a law passed in 2015 allows Sunday hunting on private land in all Deer Management Zones except DMZs 2, 3 and 4a. So far hunter participation and deer harvests have increased in those areas, with some 56 percent of hunters with permits for those areas taking advantage of the extra hunting day, a significant first for Connecticut and New England in general, where Sunday hunting is still banned in some states.
More good news for Connecticut hunters is that the fall wild turkey season now runs concurrently with the October archery deer season, giving bowhunters even more incentive to hit the woods in October. Two birds of either sex may be taken on public and private land during the fall hunt.
According to Andrew LaBonte, DEEP deer biologist, deer population size, human land use practices and public attitudes toward wildlife have changed considerably. In 2018, Connecticut’s deer hunters may take up to 14 deer if they participate in all of the seasons currently open, plus unlimited deer in two of the 13 Deer Management Zones. Add a couple of fall turkeys to the mix and you’ve got a season to remember. For more information visit ct.gov/deep.
Maine’s annual whitetail harvest continues to hover near the 20,000 mark, which is about one-half the number of deer taken in the 1970s and ‘80s and one-third the number of deer hunters harvested 50-years ago. A combination of habitat degradation, reduced hunter participation and severe winters are blamed for the precipitous decline. However, the Pine Tree State remains the preferred destination for hunters seeking a wilderness experience while pursuing one of Maine’s legendary 200-pound bucks.
In recent years, October bowhunters have shifted their focus to the Expanded Archery Zone, generally that area east of the Interstate Route 95 corridor, where more than two-thirds of the annual archery harvest is taken.
Maine’s deer season opens in late September for archery hunting and the firearms season begins Oct. 29. The muzzleloader season opens Nov. 26 statewide and continues for a second week in the southern portion of the state. For more information visit mefishwildlife.com.
According to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, hunting conditions were generally difficult during the 2017 hunting seasons. Statewide surveys conducted in 2017 indicated that apple, beechnut and oak mast production were all good to excellent. In years with abundant fall foods, deer need to move less and tend to be more dispersed, which can make it difficult for hunters to locate them.
Additionally, warm weather persisted for most of the October archery season, causing deer to move less during the day. November and December saw more seasonable weather, but conditions were often very noisy which made it difficult for hunters to get close to deer.
Perhaps the most important factor causing a slight decline in the buck harvest from 2016 was the way Vermont’s antler restriction affected the harvest. While there may have been more bucks in Vermont in 2017, there may have been fewer legal bucks than in 2016. Despite the challenging conditions, it was still a successful season for many Vermont hunters and VF&W biologists are expecting similar results in 2018. For more information visit vtfishandwildlife.com.
The latest New Hampshire Fish and Game Department report confirms that New Hampshire’s 2017 deer season resulted in a total harvest of 12,309 deer. The adult buck kill was the highest in the state going back to when recordkeeping began in 1922. The heaviest deer for 2017 (253-pounds) was taken by Patrick Couch of Rochester, NH, while using a firearm.
Deer population management efforts in the near future will remain primarily focused on achieving WMU-specific deer population objectives as provided by New Hampshire’s Big Game Management Plan. For more information on New Hampshire’s 2018 deer hunting seasons and regulations, visit wildlife.state.nh.us.
The population of deer in the Ocean State is estimated by the Department of Environmental Management at 18,000. Regulations adopted in 2014 sought to put more emphasis on the harvest of antlerless deer. While some success has been achieved, overall deer mortality via hunting, auto collisions and nuisance permits were down by 7 percent.
Hunting is the most effective method for deer population management and fulfills a traditional and sustainable niche for hunters seeking meat and recreation. In parts of the state the deer herd exceeds desired population levels. Three aerial surveys revealed that deer densities in parts of Deer Management Zone 1 are twice the desired population level and as much as two- to five-times the desired population levels in Zone 3 (Prudence Island) and Zone 4 (Block Island).
Fortunately, public awareness and concerns about deer and associated problems have increased. As a result, there is a growing demand for innovative measures to manage deer herds by using managed hunting programs to their fullest extent. This is good news for hunters who want to sample the experience of deer hunting in our smallest state. For more information on deer hunting opportunities in Rhode Island, including licensing information, season dates, bag limits and public hunting opportunities, visit dem.ri.gov.
RECORD BOOK BUCKS?
According to the Northeast Big Buck Club (NBBC), more trophy-class bucks (deer with antlers meeting the NBBC minimum score) are taken in Rhode Island than in any other New England state. Part of the reason for its high numbers of trophy bucks is that Rhode Island allows muzzleloader hunting during the peak of the rut. Also, most of Rhode Island’s best hunting ground is on privately-owned lands where permission to hunt is often difficult to acquire.
Conversely, the majority of bucks weighing in at over 200-pounds dressed weight (with heart, lungs and liver intact) are taken in Maine, where as many as 1,000 heavyweight whitetails are registered with the Biggest Bucks in Maine Club annually. Interestingly enough, few of these over-200-pound bucks grow antlers large enough to meet the NBBC’s minimum score.
Experts tend to agree that Maine’s big bucks must pack on the weight in order to survive the Pine Tree State’s difficult winters, meaning that antler growth is secondary to survival in the region, which is near the northern limit of the whitetail’s range.
Surprisingly, Vermont routinely produces the fewest trophy-sized bucks in all of New England despite being the home of the legendary Benoit deer-tracking family. Green Mountain State hunters rarely tag a minimum NBBC qualifier and in fact a decade or more may pass before a Vermont trophy is entered in the record books.