For generations, sportsmen and women have viewed Maine’s vast north woods as a wonderful (if unforgiving) outdoor playground.
Travelers headed into those woods and emerged days or weeks later with tales about the huge trout and massive deer that they’d seen or taken.
Many hunters will tell you that the glory days of deer hunting in our northern forest have ended. And today, I’ve got statistics that illustrate just how grim the situation has become.
On Saturday, I shared some anecdotal accounts of the most recent deer season, and readers from across the state checked in to share their stories.
On Tuesday, I received an e-mail from Al Cowperthwaite, the executive director of North Maine Woods Inc., who passed along some eye-popping statistics that further flesh out my previous column.
For some, the north Maine woods is a vague concept. For Cowperthwaite, North Maine Woods is more tangible: It is the official name of the group that ties together large and small landowners who control more than 3.5 million acres.
NMW staffs checkpoints and collects fees that allow people access to those private lands. According to the group’s Web site, more than 100,000 people use North Maine Woods land for recreational purposes each year.
As you might imagine, deer hunters are among those who head into the working forests looking for a northern Maine buck.
This year, Cowperthwaite enlisted the help of gate staff in order to get a better idea of the deer situation in the NMW.
“In a non-scientific study, I asked checkpoint staff at the close of the season if they tracked the number of deer that were taken out of the NMW region this fall,” Cowperthwaite wrote. “While this is not something we ask them to do, I found that most checkpoints do this every year.”
Cowperthwaite admitted that staffers may have missed a few deer that were covered or hidden, or that weren’t noticed when vehicles came out of the woods at night. But he’s confident his totals, which were compiled until the weekend after Thanksgiving, are pretty accurate.
According to Cowperthwaite, approximately 90 deer were harvested by hunters within the North Maine Woods this year.
And although Cowperthwaite has no similar tally from past years, he said that during one season about 10 years ago hunters took 144 deer out through the Telos Gate alone. This year, staffers counted 18 deer at the Telos Gate.
Cowperthwaite said that as the deer herd in northern Maine has declined, the number of people who head into the North Maine Woods to hunt during November has followed suit.
“In the 1980s, 35 percent of all NMW visitations took place during the month of November,” Cowperthwaite wrote. “This year it will be about 15 percent.”
Breaking down the hunting season further, Cowperthwaite shows how tough it has become to bag a buck in the North Maine Woods.
“We had 5,500 parties enter NMW during November with a harvest of less than 100 deer,” Cowperthwaite wrote. “So odds were one party in 55 shot a deer. Or about one hunter per 120. Or one deer per 35,000 acres. Or one deer per 1.5 townships.”
Slim odds, indeed.
That’s not to say that all hunters avoided the North Maine Woods this fall. As it turns out, bird hunters turned out in force, and enjoyed some productive days afield.
“As for October, it was the busiest October since NMW expanded into the West Branch area in 1999,” Cowperthwaite wrote. “Partridge were plentiful and word spread quickly. Our staff also report that many November hunters came with the intent of hunting partridge rather than deer.”
Seventh annual Freeze Up on tap
Come January, many Maine anglers head to lakes and ponds, drill a few holes, and enjoy a day of ice fishing.
For another group of hardy souls, there’s another option.
Kevin McKay, a guide and proprietor of a fly-fishing Web site, www.maineflyfish.com, figures that January is the perfect time to haul out the waders, grab a fly rod, and head to a coastal river with a bunch of his friends.
McKay calls the annual event the “Freeze Up,” and some years, it lives up to that billing.
At least one year, however, abnormally warm weather — the temperature rose to about 70 degrees — greeted gracious anglers on their yearly outing.
In a recent e-mail, McKay told me that plans are already under way for the seventh annual Freeze Up, which is open to all.
The outing will be held on Jan. 3 at the Mousam River in Kennebunk. Anglers will meet at Rogers Pond, a park off Water Street.
Food will be provided, pot-luck style, so if you decide to head down, you might want to take along some grub to share.
Anglers will arrive early, share breakfast and lunch, and hold a casting contest.
If you’re interested in attending, or don’t know what kind of food to bring, go to McKay’s Web site to learn more.