In a few months — after the state’s biologists collect and compile tagging station data — we’ll all find out exactly how tough this year’s deer hunting was.
Earlier this year the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife predicted the deer kill would be about 19,500. Two straight severe winters have taken their toll on the deer herd, biologists say. During the 2008 season, hunters took just 21,062 deer.
The average deer harvest for the 10 previous years: 30,353.
With some hunters still afield with their muzzleloaders for another week in the state’s central and southern zones, it’s still officially deer season.
But for the majority, “deer season” is a four-week regular firearms session that runs through the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
For those hunters — like me — it’s time to take stock of the season that was, assess what we saw and plan for the future.
Earlier this week, I asked readers for some help in compiling this column. The basic question I posed to you was pretty simple: How was your deer season?
The underlying issue I hoped readers would examine was a bit more complicated: Did what you saw during your time in the woods mirror biologists’ grim predictions?
Readers responded. A few tagging station operators took time to share some interesting numbers.
And while it might come as no surprise to hunters, even the hunters who filled their tags noticed a not-so-subtle downturn in deer activity in their hunting areas.
In Aroostook County, where the past two winters were particularly tough on the deer herd, that likely comes as no surprise.
But even hunters in regions with more stable deer numbers said they’ve noticed a difference.
The state deer-kill tally is usually released by the DIF&W in March. Until then, we’re left trying to compose a picture of the season through unscientific, anecdotal accounts of those who participated.
Let’s start with a few folks who work at or own tagging stations:
ä Denise Cameron, who owns Cameron’s Market in New Limerick with her husband, Doug, said the hunting in southern Aroostook County has been slow.
“We’ve tagged 26 [deer],” she said on Friday. “We had 46 last year.”
In other years, before two tough winters, she said it wasn’t uncommon for the store to register 60 or 70 deer or more.
And Cameron said this year’s total would likely be even lower, save for an important factor: Two former tagging stations in nearby towns — one in Oakfield, one in Hodgdon — aren’t registering game any longer.
ä Bruce Harris, who works at Moosehead Trail Trading Post in Palmyra, said the store has continued to tag a lot of deer in a part of the state that has been known to have a thriving herd.
Look closer at the numbers, however, and you’ll see that a decline is apparent.
“The total right now is 172,” Harris said. “We were close to 250, 260 [two years ago].”
Harris said the store has typically tagged between 250 and 300 deer a year during most seasons.
And like the Camerons, Harris has a hard time comparing this year’s total to those in past years because of a change in available tagging stations.
“There are two tagging stations right in our area that closed down this year,” Harris said. “We picked up most of both of their tagging, and we’re still way down.”
Those stations were in Detroit and Pittsfield, he said.
Harris said hunters have been frustrated by their lack of success but haven’t been willing to give up entirely.
“There’s a lot of black powder licenses being sold,” he said.
ä Craig Watt, the manager of Indian Hill Trading Post in Greenville, said earlier this week that his store had tagged 51 deer thus far in 2009. A year ago, the seasonal total was 68. In 2007 — before those two costly winters — it was 128.
Watt said the 15-year average is 123 deer tagged, and the best year came in 1992, when he tagged 195 deer.
“I think there were many factors this year,” Watt wrote in an e-mail. “Certainly winter kill is one issue, but the warm and unseasonable weather was also a big player. I also know that hunter numbers are down, and I believe that is due to both the economy and the fact that our harsh winters and their effects have been so well publicized. On a positive note, we did tag some nice large bucks this year.”
Now, let’s hear from some hunters.
ä Robert Beaulieu of Mapleton shared a sentiment echoed by several fellow hunters.
“I found this season to be the worst that I can remember. I have talked to several friends and others who have hunted the same part of the state that I live and all of their opinions were the same: ‘There are no deer left,’” Beaulieu wrote.
“Everyone reported very few sightings and most of those were does,” he wrote. “Deer sign was almost nonexistent.”
Beaulieu said that he’s very concerned about what the future holds for Aroostook County hunters.
“I, and my hunting friends, agree that the situation is very serious and can’t imagine what steps can be done and how long it will take for the deer herd to rebound back,” Beaulieu wrote.
ä Larry Totten had an atypical tale to share.
“Three of us have a camp in Monroe and have been hunting there for over 25 years,” Totten wrote. “We bow and rifle hunt. In general we have seen a decline in the number of deer in our area over the years and this year looked like it would be the same. As we set stands and checked them for the best sign, we thought we were seeing less sign.
“For the first time in 25 years, I think, we all got a deer in bow season,” Totten wrote. “We then invited three friends to camp in rifle season.”
All three of those hunters also shot deer, Totten reported.
“Why? The weather was very good, so maybe that is the key. Maybe just luck?” Totten wrote.
ä Jeff Nicholas, the president of the Maine chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association, says he missed bow season due to tendinitis in his elbow and injured his back during the regular firearms season. He’s looking to fill his tag during muzzleloader season.
“I would say that [the DIF&W] assessment of the herd was pretty much on the money this year,” Nicholas wrote. “Normally at my place in Palmyra I have three doe families whose range overlaps my 30 acres. Last year I had at least 14 different deer that I could positively identify frequenting my 2.5 acres of food plots and 30 reclaimed apple trees.”
This year, Nicholas said, there have been far fewer deer on his land.
ä Hauns Bassett of Unity said he has a unique way of determining the deer-hunting success while he’s at work.
“I teach at China Middle School and have a mannequin I dress up outside my room for the seasons (soccer, basketball, hunting, Valentines, etc.),” Bassett wrote. “On it, the students fill out a fluorescent orange tag with their deer details. This year there were only five on the ‘hunter.’ Last year I was running out of room for tags.”
Bassett said that while hunting, what he hasn’t seen has been as telling as what he has seen.
“As I walked field edges and woods roads and checked in on traditional spots where I have seen plenty of tracks, rubs, scrapes, I was surprised and disappointed to find almost none,” Bassett wrote. “It was not until after Veterans Day that I began to see an uptick in rubs.”
ä Steven Michaud of Topsham also had a rough season.
“I have never seen it this bad and I’ve been hunting for almost 40 years,” Michaud wrote. “I now hunt in Bowdoin, an area where — in theory — there are more deer than most places in Maine. I hunted with my three experienced sons, hard, all season. Two of them didn’t see one deer. One son and I saw a few tails. Normally, all see at least some deer.”
And although he’s hunting in southern Maine, Michaud worries about the northern herd.
“I continue to hear that the north woods is a deer wasteland now (I used to hunt in the north woods until eight years ago when I started hunting in Bowdoin),” Michaud wrote. “I didn’t hunt up there myself this year but many people told me they saw absolutely nothing and it’s almost like they’re extinct. My opinion is this has now reached literally crisis proportions and an entire way of life is at stake in rural Maine.”