Having hunted New England whitetails with enthusiasm and success since the early 1960s, I think it's safe to say you can kill a deer in 2011 — if you want it badly enough. Success rates throughout most of the region have been steady in recent years regardless of winter mortality, fawn recruitment or antlerless deer permit allocations.
Climate and population numbers are not the primary limiting factors when it comes to tagging a whitetail in a New England state: the primary factor is how much time you spend hunting. This year, resolve to be on stand every possible hour of every possible day during the open season and you will have your opportunity. A whitetail with your name on it is out there — it's up to you to find him!
Here's a state-by-state look at where and when to make the most of your 2011 deer hunting season:
The most recent harvest numbers available for the Bay State indicate that 10,581 whitetails were taken in 2009, about 700 fewer animals than the 2008 harvest. Harvests have declined slightly each year since 2002's all-time record kill of 12,417 deer.
The season breakdown included 3,492 deer taken by bowhunters, 4,927 by shotgun hunters and 1,958 by muzzleloader hunters. An additional 200 deer were taken during the special Quabbin Reservation hunt.
Though deer harvests have declined over the last five years, biologist Sonja Christensen said that technicians are reporting a "balanced age structure" among the deer checked in by hunters, indicating that young deer are surviving to older age classes.
MassWildlife biologists contend that there are plenty of deer throughout the state and some good deer hunting may be had even in the densely populated eastern zones, although access and permission to hunt privately-owned lands may be more difficult to acquire.
The less-populated western and central areas of the state annually produce more deer thanks to an abundance of state forestlands, wildlife management areas and other public hunting grounds.
Deer Management zones 8, 9, 10 and 11 are the traditional hotspots for whitetails, with DMZ 3 in the far western part of the state leading the pack.
Antlerless deer permit applications are included with the purchase of a hunting license and must be submitted in mid-July. Management zones with leftover antlerless permits are distributed by MassWildlife on a first-come, first-served basis
Also, MassWildlife conducts several limited hunts on some eastern-region WMAs where hunting can be productive for sportsmen who take the time to apply.
The Constitution State offers deer hunters a variety of options on public and private lands using rifles, shotguns, muzzleloaders, bows and a variety of special permits.
Connecticut's most recent harvest numbers indicate that 11,553 deer were taken in 2009, a decrease of 13 percent from the previous season. However, archery and muzzleloader hunters tagged significantly higher numbers of deer while firearms harvest numbers dropped.
A variety of special zones, permits and bag limits were implemented last year to increase deer harvests in an effort to reduce deer populations "in those areas of the state where it is needed most," according to William Hyatt, acting chief of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
Specifically, deer hunters on private land in Deer Management zone 7 (the New Haven area) were allowed to take one additional deer during the shotgun/muzzleloader season. In zones 11 and 12 (Fairfield County) private land hunters were allowed to take two additional antlerless deer during the shotgun/rifle season and one additional antlerless deer during the muzzleloader season.
Also, the DEP focused on holding controlled hunts in former "no hunting" towns including Redding, Ridgefield, Wilton, Darien, Brookfield and Fairfield.
Other efforts to increase the deer harvest included extending the private land muzzleloader season and allowing the use of crossbows during the January archery deer season in zones 11 and 12.
Connecticut's hunter success rates are some of the highest in the Northeast. Bowhunters averaged about 33 percent over the last five years, while rifle and shotgun hunters posted 25-percent success rates during the same period.
The Ocean State's deer kill averages about 2,500 animals statewide. In 2010, a total of 2,422 whitetails were tagged by hunters. Hunter success averages about 14 percent.
Most years the state's muzzleloader hunters take about half the deer harvested in the state, with the remainder evenly split between shotgun and archery hunters. Last year, for example, Rhode Island's blackpowder hunters tagged 1,225 deer, almost exactly half of the overall kill. Some 88 percent of the statewide deer harvest occurred on the mainland, with 287 deer taken on various controlled island hunts.
Part of the draw of blackpowder hunting in Rhode Island is that it is one of the few states in the region that allow muzzleloader hunting during the peak of the rut. For this reason, Rhode Island hunters have posted more trophy-class bucks than any other state in the Northeast, a remarkable record considering Rhode Island is also our smallest state.
Among the state's wildlife management areas, 14,000-acre Arcadia WMA continues to lead the pack when it comes to total deer harvested. Active habitat management including timber cutting, mowing and wildlife plantings make Arcadia the place to go for odds-on deer hunting this fall.
For private-land options, towns in the northern portion of the state including Burrillville, Exeter, West Greenwich, Glocester and Foster are the best places to seek permission to thin out the deer populations.
Caught in a quandary between its legendary big bucks (deer over 200 pounds) and its position at the extreme northern boundary of the whitetail's home range, Maine has been having a difficult time providing hunters with the kind of deer hunting their grandfathers enjoyed back in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s. Factor in some of the worst winter weather on record, dwindling winter yarding areas and the arrival of venison-hungry coyotes since then and you have all the ingredients for what we have now: much shorter deer seasons and harvests bordering on half what they were just 30 years ago.
Even after years of one-deer, bucks-only hunting except for those holding a valid antlerless deer permit, Maine's 2010 harvest totaled just 20,063, including a 17-percent decrease in the expanded and special archery seasons. The statewide adult doe harvest totaled 5,204, about 12 percent below pre-season quotas.
The secret to successful Maine deer hunting is persistence and patience. There are an estimated 200,000 deer in the state in November, at least one for every licensed hunter in the state. Because Maine is over 90-percent forested, it is difficult to spot and stalk deer. Still-hunting works for persistent hunters who have mastered the art of walk-and-look hunting, while stand hunting pays off for sportsmen who have the patience to wait it out day after day in areas where deer sign is fresh and abundant.
One unique aspect of Maine deer hunting which also benefits hunters who like to track their deer in fresh snow is that all lands that are not posted are open to hunting. This means a hunter in a reasonably remote area can pick up the track of a big buck and stay on it for days if necessary, crossing private lands, town lands and county lines without worrying about garnering every landowner's permission to hunt.
It is always best to contact landowners for permission to hunt whenever possible, but many areas of Maine are remote wilderness where huge tracts are owned by absentee paper companies and other large property holders. This gives hunters room to roam and an opportunity to "work" a deer to the best of their ability.
In 2010 Green Mountain State hunters tagged 15,523 whitetails, up 2 percent from the previous year. Due to a very mild winter, deer numbers were expected to increase along with the harvest. In addition, weather conditions favored hunters through most of October and November. When colder temperatures and snow kicked in during December, the harvest declined by 6 percent compared to 2009.
Vermont biologists consider the abundance of acorns and apples to be an important factor in deer-hunting success. Average deer weights increased dramatically and deer dispersed widely because of the abundant food availability. Also, deer tended to move less during daylight hours in October and November due to the unusually warm temperatures.
According to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, a deer density of 15 to 20 deer per square mile is "the proper prescription" for most of Vermont moving forward. After many years of over-browsing, Vermont's habitat is now in relative balance with the deer herd. This is good news for hunters, especially those who remember the precipitous drop in the herd during the 1960s and '70s, when degraded habitat caused deer to starve at the rate of 20 and 30 per square mile — and more!
Vermont's best deer hunting takes place in traditional areas where good habitat and hunter access combine. Windsor and Orange counties produce good harvests every year. The towns of Rutland and Franklin are always good bets.
Always topping the list is Grand Isle County, which produces some 8 deer per square mile for hunters, one of the highest per-square mile ratios in the state.
The Granite State's deer harvest dropped 6 percent to 9,759 over the 2009 kill, but state biologist Jane Vachon attributed the reduction to a planned decrease in the antlerless deer harvest.
"The reduced kill was the desired result of efforts to reduce the female deer kill," Vachon said, "and help speed population recovery following declines in deer numbers in most of the state since the winter of 2007-08."
The top five county deer harvests in 2010 were: Rockingham (1,732), Hillsborough (1,435), Grafton (1,368), Merrimack (1,041) and Cheshire (981).
As always, the best hunting in New Hampshire is generally in the southern counties and wildlife management units bordering Massachusetts. WMUs K, L, M and J2 are perennial leaders in deer numbers each year. This is not "wilderness" by any stretch of the imagination, but instead is a fine mix of hardwood and softwood stands, farms and brush country, ideal whitetail habitat during the fall and early winter months.
New Hampshire has plenty of "north woods" whitetail habitat for hunters who prefer more remote areas. WMUs A, D1 and D2 traditionally provide the highest harvest number each fall. This is rough, mountainous country that is sure to challenge any hunter's skills, but deer are there in good numbers and there is plenty of room to roam. Contact local foresters or wildlife managers for information on recent clear-cuts and other habitat manipulation projects in recent years that may offer some good hunting when the season opens this fall.