Hard winters have diminished the deer harvest, but there are still big bucks to be had -- if you know where to look.
Deer harvest numbers were, for the most part, down throughout the region in 2009, and New England's trophy deer hunters experienced similar results in most states. There were some pockets of good news, as Connecticut established a new state muzzleloader typical record last season, as did Vermont, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club, the region's scoring and record keeping organization.
Let's take a look at the potential in all six states in New England by analyzing their recent trophy harvests and pinpointing those areas and methods in each state that are most likely to produce "the trophy buck of your dreams."
The Bay State has recently gained a reputation as one of the region's top whitetail trophy-producing states. Over the last five seasons Massachusetts has produced more NBBC record book bucks than any other New England state, with more than 500 new entries to the NBBC record book. And that includes more than 100 bucks that score over 150 inches. In fact, this state has produced three bucks that gross over 200 inches since the 2002 season.
In 2009 counties all across Massachusetts continued to crank out a host of good bucks, although top-end bucks were smaller than in previous seasons. The largest gross scoring buck taken in 2009 was a 170-class non-typical taken in Berkshire County. In 2008 the largest buck was a 180-class muzzleloader buck from Norfolk County.
The eastern portion of Massachusetts produces great bow bucks, like this big non-typical arrowed in 2009 by Jason Zimmer. The buck scored in the high 150s. Photo by Jeff Brown.
Since 2000 there has been a noticeable shift in hunting pressure (and deer kills) from west to east, as more eastern hunters who used to travel west to find big bucks are finding better luck in their back yards. But in the center of the state, Worcester County (deer management zones 8, 9 and 10) perennially produces more trophy bucks each year than any other county in southern New England. Zones 8 and 9 are always hotspots, and hunters who gain access in northern Zone 10 (Essex County) may also expect a shot at a trophy.
In recent years bowhunters have really cleaned up in southeastern Zone 11 (Plymouth and Bristol counties) by getting access to private land and connecting on mature bucks in small pockets of woods. And it is interesting to note of woods. And it is interesting to note that Norfolk County (near Boston.) was responsible for 2008's new state record archery non-typical, and for a 210 inch road kill buck in October of 2004.
To the west, towns in and around the Connecticut River Valley are showing signs of returning to their productive days again, and will probably continue to get hunted hard given that several 170- to 190-inch bucks have been taken in this area in the last few years. And the Berkshire Mountains continue to be home to some of the state's biggest bucks.
If you live outside of New England, you would never guess that the Constitution State is New England's "sleeper state" for big bucks. Yet it offers great trophy opportunities for deer hunters, with extended early and late archery seasons sandwiched around a peak-rut gun season and an early December muzzleloader season. The state's liberal bag limits allows hunters to both "fill the freezer" and put a trophy on the wall, especially for those hunters who can attain permission to hunt private land.
State biologist Howard Kilpatrick generally recommends the northeastern and northwestern regions as trophy hotspots (Litchfield and Windham counties). This region has some of the state's largest public lands.
A closer look at the NBBC's records indicates that big bucks literally come from every county. During the past from every county. During the past five seasons, more 150-class or better bucks came from Tolland County than any other. Many other counties produced a half dozen 150-class bucks during the span, including Middlesex County towards the center of the state, Fairfield (south western), Windham (eastern), Litchfield (western), Hartford (central) and New Haven (central) counties. That pretty much covers the entire state. So you can be confident that good bucks can be found just about anywhere you can find permission to hunt.
Maine hunters have really struggled in recent years to continue their legendary dominance for top end trophies. Several bad winters took their toll in northern parts of the state, and then another terrible winter last year compressed harvests.
"To put this into perspective, we must consider that the 2008 and 2009 winters represent the most severe back-to-back winters since 1971-72," according to IF&W Deer Biologist Lee Kantar. Buck kills were down significantly in 2008 and 2009, and will likely be down in 2010 as well.
In 2009 Hunters killed 11,168 adult bucks, vs. 13,566 adult bucks the previous year. And the 2008 total represented a 40 percent decrease from 2007, which puts the low 2009 total in perspective.
The top 5 (per sq. mi.) buck-producing WMDs during 2009 were (in descending order) districts 29, 24, 21, 22 and 20, all in central and southern Maine. Among the antlered bucks taken in 2009, roughly 4,914 (44 percent) were 1 1/2 year-olds (yearlings), while more than 3,462 (31 percent) were mature bucks (4 1/2 to 5 1/2 years old). Male fawns are reported as antlerless deer.
According to Al Wentworth, president of the Maine Antler and Skull Trophy Club, great bucks will come from all three regions in Maine (Northern, Central, Southern). The question is not only "where to find a trophy buck" but also "what type of hunt do you want." The Northern section of the state offers vast, unpopulated territories with limited numbers of deer, but if you cross paths with a buck in just could by one of those massive-racked 200-pound bruisers. The Southern section of the state is more densely populated with both deer and humans, and a higher number of hunters. The Central region, which includes everything from the Penobscot River to the Kennebec River, and from the lower sections of Somerset and Piscataquis counties to the northern sections of Penobscot county, offers a the best of both worlds with reasonably good deer densities and plenty of open land to hunt.
Maine bucks are harder to find nowadays, but there are some around. Mike Harcz took this bruiser 170-class 8-point in Aroostook County in 2009. Photo by Jeff Brown.
What a difference two years can make. This state was a real bright spot in 2007, setting a record for buck kill. Then in 2008 things took a turn for the worse. While the 2007 statewide adult (1.5 years old or older) buck kill was 7,667, a 15 percent increase from 6,678 in 2006, and the highest in New Hampshire's history, 2008 fell off quite a bit. The 2008 buck kill was 6,390, a 17 percent decrease from the previous year. Then 2009 dropped another 7 percent to 5,940. That's not a good trend line from a hunter's point of view.
Almost all WMUs exhibited at least modest decreases in adult buck harvest in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, with northern and eastern WMU's taking more significant reductions. Total male kill, including male fawns was 6,772. If we look at bucks 3.5 years or older, the 2009 harvest tallied 19 percent at 3.5 years, 6 percent at 4.5 years and 3 percent at 5.5+ years old. Additionally, mature bucks at 4.5 years old averaged 172 pounds dressed weight with 7.9 points while bucks 5.5+ years old averaged 187 pounds with 7.9 points also.
According to Roscoe Blaisdell, President of the New Hampshire Antler & Skull Trophy Club, the heaviest bucks tend to come out of the most northern portion of our state, particularly Coos County. In 2007, Belknap County produced the heaviest buck (255 lbs.), while Grafton County held the honor in 2008 with a 250 pounder, and again in 2009 with a 249 pound buck.
The majority of the largest antlered bucks used to come from the Connecticut River Valley, but recently they seem to be distributed more evenly throughout every portion of the state.
Looking into the state harvest numbers, your best bets for killing a buck in this state include opening days of the muzzleloader and firearms seasons, and any Saturday. Of course, the majority of the annual bucks harvested are taken during the firearms season, with archers and muzzleloader hunters accounting for about 40 percent of the adult male harvest. WMU J2 (near the southern Maine border) tallied the most bucks for the six consecutive years until 2008, when M (at the southeastern most corner of the state) produced more. WMU's H2 and K typically finish 3rd and 4th respectively.
As I have reported for the last few years, the biggest change in Vermont deer seasons in more than 100 years occurred during 2005. And since that time the state has been on a consistent climb in terms of buck quality and overall buck harvest. Although its makeup is very similar to other New England states, Vermont had in the past failed to produce the "top end" bucks that would rival those produced in neighboring Massachusetts or New Hampshire. While poor hunting conditions reduced the 2009 overall buck harvest, the quality of bucks harvested continued to impress.
According to the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, the antlered buck harvest in all seasons increased 58 percent from 4,956 in 2005 to 7,805 in 2006, and then another 15 percent in 2007 to over 8,950, and then a high of 9,539 in 2008. The total tailed off to 8,039 in 2009, but the five year progress is staggering. And it is reasonable to expect that, assuming favorable hunting conditions during the 2010 season, we could continue to see progress.
According to the state, about 9 percent of the total buck harvest comes during archery season; 9 percent in muzzleloader season; 7 percent during the youth season, and 75 percent during firearms. The northwestern corner of the state is a great bet: WMU A has a great bucks-per-square-mile ratio of 3.4, vs. a state-wide average of only 1.2 bucks per sq. mile. WMU B typically accounts for the most bucks harvested, with over 1,000 of each of the last several seasons. This WMU has been hunters' best bet for taking a buck since 1996.
WMU's K1, K2 and N south along the New York border are always well above average. In terms of trophy bucks, according to the NBBC the biggest racked bucks taken during the last few years have come from all across the state -- Caledonia, Essex, Chittenden, Lamoille, Windsor and Windham counties. In 2009 the biggest racked buck was a 160-class non-typical taken in Orleans County. Washington County produced a new muzzleloader state record typical last year, with a rack that scored 152 gross B&C.
After a poor trophy buck year in 2005, Rhode Island rebounded nicely over the next few seasons. Surprisingly, this little state typically produces a large number of quality bucks over 200 pounds, and typically the best bucks fall to muzzleloaders hunters because they have a unique opportunity to hunt during the rut (the season runs through most of November). Rhode Island produces more muzzleloader record book entries than any other state in New England.
During the last three seasons Washington and Providence counties produced most of the trophy bucks, including several that score over 160 inches. Historically, the NBBC records show that these two counties finish at the top in terms of trophy buck potential, with Kent County a distant third.