October 11, 2016
New England's deer harvest numbers over the last five years have been relatively stable, with a few minor fluctuations.
Most of these ups and downs in harvest totals are attributed to changes in hunter participation, weather conditions during the season or localized deer-population fluctuations. Historically, hunter numbers are down as well, which means less competition throughout the region. But, thanks to what many biologists are calling an "unusually mild" winter and very early spring through most of the Northeast in 2015, there should be plenty of healthy deer available this fall.
It's safe to say that there is a deer out there for every hunter who plans to purchase a big game hunting license in 2016. The next challenge is getting close enough to a whitetail buck or doe to put a tag on it. As the majority of hunters discover each year, that simple notion is much easier said than done.
Hunting Grandpa's old hotspots is not going to work because the habitat and deer behavior have changed dramatically over the last 75 years. Today's successful hunters cannot simply sit on a familiar rock or stump and hope for the best. Instead, they must seek out pockets of prime cover where whitetails can safely bed, feed and evade predators. The best hunting in 2016 may be miles away from where your grandfather shot his big buck back in the day, but enterprising hunters who adapt to the changes and focus their efforts on areas where browse, escape cover and secluded bedding areas converge should have good luck this season.
Much has changed in the realm of deer hunting since the 1950s, when New England's deer harvests were more than double what they are today. The region's once-excellent habitat, the result of extensive logging, fires and reverting farmlands into the 1960s and early 1970s, has evolved into vast expanses of mature forest. Areas that consisted of mixed brush and edge cover so common during the middle of the Twentieth Century has now grown out of the reach of deer, which are primarily understory browsers.
Maine, for example, now has over 17 million acres of mature forest where early-successional habitat once reigned, and the state's deer harvest has declined by more than 50 percent in the interim. Once boasting a deer kill of over 50,000, Pine Tree State deer harvests are now teetering on the edge of 20,000.
The situation is similar in all six New England states, where private and public lands sit idle as foresters advise landowners to wait for a wood products market that has yet to develop.
Some habitat work is being conducted in each state, however, including clear-cutting, selective cutting and bush-hogging, which is good news for deer hunters in 2016.
Studies continue to show that the majority of deer will be found in urban areas where the habitat includes a variety of types ranging from farmland to forest and even manicured back yards. Also, whitetail will utilize areas where recent logging projects have removed the forest canopy to allow a variety of early-successional plants to thrive. A clear-cut will provide about 15 years of great hunting before dominant saplings begin to shade out the undergrowth, forcing the deer to seek browse and cover elsewhere.
This is the hunter's best-kept secret: Find areas where recent clear-cutting has taken place and set up near feeding and bedding areas and on travel routes that deer utilize to access these areas.
To narrow the search on public lands — including state forests, wildlife management areas and national forests — the hunter's best strategy is to contact the appropriate area manager and ask for details on recent logging operations, particularly those that have taken place in the last 10 years or so. Many of these projects are tucked away in areas that are not normally viewed by "the public." Also, roads into these areas may be gated, so plan to put boots on the ground while researching potential hotspots. Using maps, GPS and a compass it should be a simple matter to find and catalog areas containing the best, most productive habitat.
Scouting these best-looking map sites is key to a successful hunt. Not every clear-cut contains prime deer habitat — some are too young or too old. Look for areas with plenty of early-successional growth (brush, saplings, briars and similar young plants), edge cover and dense undergrowth that rabbits, grouse and, of course, deer prefer.
If it looks too thick and nasty to go into you are in business. Now the only challenge is deciding where to set up.
Deer hunting has always been challenging, especially on public lands, but it is not impossible, as thousands of New England hunters prove each season. Through constant scouting and tweaking the hunter can close the circle and get within range of that trophy buck or meat doe he's most interested in.
With this in mind, here's a look at each New England state's 2015 whitetail harvest numbers and a few tips.
According to preliminary totals provided by the Massachusetts Division of Wildlife, Bay State deer hunters tagged a total of 10,054 whitetails last season, down from 11,165 in 2014. Archery and shotgun hunters were neck-and-neck at 4,187 and 4,091 deer respectively, and muzzleloader hunters brought home 1,633 deer. Youth hunters pitched in with another 143 whitetails. Zones 10 and 11 (eastern Massachusetts) led the pack in all categories with 1,934 and 2,173 deer respectively. Zone 9 was a distant third with 897 total deer harvested. Zones 1-8 and 12-14 each totaled fewer than 650 deer each. Amazingly, Nantucket Island (Zone 14) topped the leader board of contenders with 615 deer tagged.
As noted in the introduction, Massachusetts' highest deer kills occurred in essentially urban areas where there is a good mix of broken habitat including farmland, suburban gardens and mixed forestland. The farther west one goes the lower the harvest numbers even though there is more public land acreage available in the state's storied Berkshires, where there are lots of trees but less undergrowth for deer to eat. As the MassWildlife biologists assert, when food resources are abundant deer do not have to move as far or as often to feed.
For a rundown of Massachusetts' 2015 deer harvest totals plus maps and analysis masswildlife.com.
Nutmeg State deer hunters also continue to tag fewer whitetails each season. The 2015 total deer harvest was 8,007, with bowhunters at 4,228 while firearms hunters downed 4,340 whitetails. Muzzleloader hunters tagged 339 deer.
In 2013 Connecticut's hunters tagged 12,549 deer and in 2014 the number dropped to 11,394. A harvest decrease of some 50 percent over the last two years has raised some questions among biologists as well as hunters, who are leaning toward the increased number of sightings of large predators (bears, bobcats and coyotes) as one reason for the deer harvest decline. Meanwhile, a slow but steady decline in license sales in recent years may also play a part.
A complete analysis of Connecticut's deer population, harvest numbers and season dynamics was not available at press time but it's a good bet that hunters can expect to see as many or, at worst, slightly fewer deer when the 2016 season opens in mid-September. For more information, ct.gov/deep.
Maine's 2015 total deer harvest dipped about 10 percent from 2014 (22,490), with 20,325 whitetails registered, including 14,907 antlered deer and 3,615 antlerless deer. About 10 percent of the kill was fawns (1,801), indicating that a good number (25 percent) of hunters are satisfied with taking an antlerless deer. Of course, Maine is now a bucks-only state for most hunters, who must pass on antlerless deer unless they have an antlerless deer tag in their possession.
Maine's October bowhunters continue to focus on the Expanded Archery Zone (that area generally east of Interstate Route 95), where 1,494 deer were tagged in 2015. In October 664 deer were taken by bowhunters in the remaining 25,000 square miles of the state west of I-95, or about one deer per 40 square miles. Archers were evenly split with a little over 300 bucks and 300 does taken.
Muzzleloader hunters tallied 746 deer including 541 antlered bucks and 205 antlerless whitetails.
All antlerless deer harvested in Maine are by permit only, issued during a lottery drawing held in late summer.
As might be expected, opening day of the firearms season produced the highest single-day harvest, while the last two weeks of the season (late November) produced weekly kills of over 3,000 deer. The first two weeks of November showed harvests of well over 2,000 deer each, suggesting that many hunters prefer to wait for a good "tracking snow," which, unfortunately, did not occur in most areas of the state last season. For a breakdown of Maine's harvest totals, hotspots, zone maps and regulations mefishwildlife.com.
Green Mountain State deer hunters posted a 2015 kill of 12,747 whitetails. While biologists concede that there was a 6-percent decrease from 2014, the total buck harvest (8,330) was up 5 percent and slightly higher than the previous three-year average.
Vermont's archery deer hunters tagged 779 bucks and 2,618 antlerless whitetails. Rifle hunters killed 6,628 antlered deer and muzzleloader hunters took home 406 bucks and 1,038 does. Youth hunters added 517 bucks and 761 does to the total.
The heaviest buck taken in Vermont last year weighed 234 pounds and was shot in Pittsfield. Some 80 other 200-pound-plus bucks were reported last season in Vermont, including at least one heavyweight buck in each of the state's 21 wildlife management units.
There will be some changes coming up for Vermont deer hunters in 2016, including a ban on natural urine lures. Hunters over age 50 will be allowed to use crossbows in 2016 and five days will be added to the end of the October archery season. Bag limits for archery and muzzleloader hunters will be reduced from three to two. The annual limit remains at three deer. For information, maps, licensing, season dates and limits, vtfishandwildlife.com.
The unofficial deer kill for New Hampshire's 2015 hunting season was 10,912, down 4 percent from the 2014 final kill of 11,396. Based on this estimate, the 2015 total is very similar to the 20-year average of 10,896.
"With nearly 11,000 deer taken by hunters, it has been another very good overall season in New Hampshire," said Dan Bergeron, the N.H. Fish and Game Department's deer biologist. He noted the physical condition of deer he inspected was excellent.
The 2015 harvest represents about 11 percent of New Hampshire's pre-season population, estimated at 100,000 deer.
The top five harvest counties were Rockingham (1,975), Grafton (1,809), Hillsborough (1,410), Merrimack (1,210) and Cheshire (940). Slight increases in harvest occurred in Belknap, Grafton and Merrimack counties.
The unofficial deer kill for New Hampshire's 2015 season by county, with comparisons to previous years, can be viewed at www.huntnh.com/hunting/deer-harvest.html. The official harvest total will be made available after all deer registration data are entered and verified.
The Ocean State's 2015 deer season showed a decrease, even precipitous declines in some categories, although the difference statewide was only a few hundred deer.
The total harvest was 1,883, down from 2,182 in 2014. Archery Zones 1 and 2 produced 594 whitetails, down 5 percent from the previous season. Muzzleloader Zones 1 and 2 totaled 820 deer, down from 905. Shotgun hunters in Zones 1 and 2 tagged 192 deer, a 20-percent decrease from 2014 (241).
In Zone 3 (Prudence and Patience islands) the total deer kill was down a whopping 68 percent, from 97 to 31 deer, and in Muzzleloader Zone 4 (Block Island) the harvest was down 57 percent from 7 deer to just 3 whitetails. In Shotgun Zone 4 (Block Island) the kill decreased 21 percent from 283 to 224. The male-to-female ratio was .94 or 914 bucks to 969 antlerless deer.
Rhode Island's complete 2015 deer season report was not available at press time but according to Brian Tefft, Rhode Island's Principal Wildlife Biologist, final figures and analysis should be available online by the time this issue of New England Game & Fish goes to press. For information including 2016 dates and regulations,dem.ri.gov.