October 21, 2015
The tailgate debate over what constitutes a "big" New England buck continues to rage throughout the Northeast. Old-school hunters insist that a trophy deer is any deer weighing over 200 pounds dressed weight, while modern-era hunters consider antler score as the true measure of a monster whitetail.
Both camps are well entrenched, even within individual states. For example, Maine has its Biggest Bucks in Maine Club, where only dressed weight is considered for application, while the Maine Antler and Skull Trophy Club ignores weight and considers only inches of bone or skull for qualification.
Both points of view may be seen as valid for various reasons. It's been shown that northern specimens of any mammal are usually larger and heavier due to climate extremes. The majority of New England's top-end "weight" bucks, deer in the 250- to 300-pound range, often have antlers that are comparatively small and poorly developed.
Relatively few of the region's fattest bucks meet Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young minimums, and most fail to meet the minimums of the Northeast Big Bucks Club, which accepts bucks based on their gross score. In Vermont, the buck harvest constitutes more than half of all deer killed each year, but may go a decade or more between B&C minimum qualifiers.
Generally, "big bucks" are decided by dressed weight in northern New England while in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island the trend has been toward antler score. Some bucks in southern New England not only meet but exceed B&C and P&Y minimums, but a surprising number of deer score over 180, with some pushing the 200-inch mark.
Interestingly, the average dressed weight of an 8-point buck in Maine may be close to 180 pounds, while an 8-pointer in Connecticut may be 40 or 50 pounds lighter. However, the same bucks may show antler scores that can vary by 20 inches or more, suggesting that most northern deer can't afford to invest their nutritional intake on the luxury of antler growth when winter survival is more important.
Some New England hunters consider any deer, buck or doe, to be a trophy, and annual harvest figures indicate that any-deer hunters constitute the majority in most states.
No matter how you slice it, New England is home to some great bucks in both categories. Here's a look at each state's buck harvest numbers and where hunters should have the best luck in finding their dream trophy this season.
About half of the Bay State's deer harvest occurs in Wildlife Management Zones 10 and 11 — essentially, eastern Massachusetts. According to the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife, deer densities in these zones is still "above goal," which means hunters should expect excellent sport in 2015 and beyond.
Zones 8 and 9 (the east-central region) produce the next highest harvests, which are still only one-third of the kill produced in the eastern portion of the state.
On average, antlered bucks constitute about half the annual deer harvest in Massachusetts. The buck harvest is spread relatively evenly throughout the state, which means there are few pockets of cover where big bucks are invariably found.
Instead, hunters should focus their efforts on areas where scouting reveals the existence of an exceptional buck and then focus their efforts on that area. Trophy hunters can also hedge their bets by seeking permission to hunt privately owned land or hike into remote areas of public land where few sportsmen bother to go.
Generally, hunters stay within one-quarter mile of their vehicles, so the adventurous hunter who is willing to do his homework and go far beyond the last road or trail can greatly improve the chances of encountering an exceptional, reclusive Bay State buck.
For a copy of Massachusetts' 2014 deer harvest report, maps and a list of public lands that are open to deer hunting, log onto www.mass.gov.
Many Nutmeg State deer hunters complained that there were fewer deer available in 2014, but harvest numbers indicate that hunter success rates were near average — slightly lower in some areas and slightly higher in others.
According to Andy LaBonte, deer biologist for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Conservation, it all comes down to acorns.
"When acorn abundance is high (based on end of the year hunter surveys) hunter success has been historically lower compared to years with low acorn abundance," LaBonte said.
For buck hunters, acorns are only relevant to the number of does that are available during the pre-rut, rut and post-rut period. The old adage, "Find the does, find the bucks," has been a proven strategy no matter when the peak of the rut may be. In Connecticut, the best buck hunting occurs during late October and early November, and then again a month later during the nebulous "second rut."
As is the case elsewhere in southern New England, trophy-class bucks are found statewide. Hunters who want to focus on a big buck should find areas of public lands that are under-hunted — or gain permission to privately owned lands where they will have a chance to find, pattern and intercept local bucks searching for receptive does.
All of this takes time, dedication and perseverance, but hunters who maintain their focus can expect a higher degree of success than the average hopeful stump-sitter or still-hunter. For a copy of Connecticut's 2014 deer harvest report, maps and places to hunt on public land, log onto www.ct.gov/deep.
Rhode Island is our smallest state with a correspondingly small deer harvest (2,182 deer in 2014), but it also boasts some of the highest trophy-buck numbers in the record books primarily because it is one of the few states in the Northeast that allows muzzleloader hunting during the peak of the rut.
Some tremendously big bucks are taken in this tiny state each year, most by hunters targeting privately owned land, but the occasional bruiser is tagged on state-owned wildlife management areas as well.
Trophy-class bucks often constitute less than 1 percent of any state's annual kill, however, so the odds are definitely stacked against the hunter. As always, the recipe for success is in three parts: perseverance, determination and a willingness to pass on smaller bucks.
To obtain a copy of Rhode Island's 2014 deer harvest report, maps and public land options, you can go online and log onto www.dem.ri.gov.
Trophy deer hunters have their work cut out for them when they target the Green Mountain State. Very few Vermont bucks grow antlers large enough to qualify for state, regional or national record books, and even the legendary Benoit family's vast collection of "big" Vermont bucks included few, if any, that met the B&C minimum of 160.
Considering that none of the 7,954 bucks taken in Vermont last year met record-book minimums, it's never been more obvious that the term "trophy" is a relative one.
There are plenty of 8-, 10- and 12-point bucks taken in Vermont each year and many weighing over 200 pounds that any hunter would be thrilled to tag, so it's up to the individual to decide what constitutes a trophy-sized deer in his area.
The abundance of apples, acorns and beech nuts is usually the measure for success each year. Hunters who find good numbers of does feeding on these or other forage types should expect to see bucks lingering nearby as well, particularly during the rut.
One advantage Vermont hunters have is that they make take two bucks per year, one by archery and one by firearm and-or muzzleloader. This essentially gives hunters the entire season to find and tag the big buck of their choice.
For a copy of the 2014 deer harvest report, maps and a list of state-owned lands, visit www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
Hunters took 6,743 antlered bucks in New Hampshire in 2014, a decrease from 2013 but still the fourth-highest on record. Over half of those bucks were 2.5 years old or older.
Mature bucks at 4.5 years old averaged 169 pounds dressed weight with an average of 8.4 antler points; bucks age 5.5 or older (4.5 percent of the kill) averaged 185 pounds and averaged 8.1 antler points. About half of the bucks taken last year (45 percent) were yearlings averaging 111 pounds.
From this we can deduce about 150 of the bucks taken last year were 5.5 years old or older, most of these weighing more than younger deer but carrying similar, or sometimes smaller, racks.
New Hampshire is another "weight state," registering animals topping out at 232 pounds for firearms hunters and 224 pounds for archery hunters. The remaining Top 10 bucks in both categories were in the 220-pound class for firearms hunters and in the 200-pound class for bowhunters.
According to preliminary estimates the highest number of deer were taken in Hillsborough (2,147), Rockingham (1,913) and Cheshire (1,122) counties, generally the southwestern portion of the state. High deer numbers means more does and therefore more likelihood of finding bucks, so 2015 trophy hunters may do well by targeting public and private lands in these counties.
Another option is to focus on the White Mountain National Forest in Grafton and Carroll counties. There will likely be fewer deer per square mile in this region but the bucks living here will have more time to put on weight and grow larger antlers.
For a copy of the 2014 New Hampshire deer harvest report, state land maps and more information about hunting in the Granite State, log onto www.wildlife.state.nh.us.
Home of the traditional 200-pound "big buck," Maine hunters continue to tag more than 500 behemoth whitetails annually. Because Maine is near the northern extreme of the whitetail's range, its deer tend to being short-legged and stocky, channeling most of their nutritional intake into bone marrow and fat to ensure their survival through long, often harsh winters.
Although some Maine bucks carry record-book antlers, most of the state's heaviest deer rarely meet minimum B&C or P&Y qualifications. When they do, the lucky hunter definitely has a trophy to behold!
Due to continuing winter mortality and sub-standard habitat, Maine's deer harvest has dwindled by more than half since the 1950s. Some 22,490 deer were tagged overall in Maine last year, some 30,000 fewer than were taken in 1956.
About 16,000 bucks were taken statewide last year, with North Country bucks averaging 175 pounds with 8-point racks compared to 150 pounds and 7-point antlers in the densely populated southern portion of the state.
Deer hunters may take one buck per season and no Sunday hunting is allowed, so the hunter seeking a trophy-sized Maine buck has his work cut out for him.
Fortunately, Maine's deer season begins Sept. 12 in the Expanded Archery Zone (generally the area east of Interstate Route 95) and continues through the regular archery and firearms seasons into the muzzleloader season, which ends Dec. 12 this year.
Because most of Maine is thickly forested, deer have a chance to grow bigger bodies and antlers pretty much statewide. In much of the Maine woods habitat, a 40-yard shot is a long one. Deer can evade hunters by simply walking a few steps into the tangled forest.
Although the majority of Maine's biggest bucks fall to hunters who were hoping for but not expecting to see them, the most consistent success comes to trackers who wait for a good snowfall or those who focus all of their efforts on a particular, known buck.
Maine's early archery season may be the best time to go because deer numbers are highest at that time and the animals are still in their pre-rut mode, but as the season wears on conditions favor the increasingly nocturnal whitetails.
For a copy of Maine's 2014 deer harvest report, current season dates, public land maps and more information, you can go online and log onto http://www.maine.gov/ifw/.