Hundreds of junior hunters will roll out of bed before sunrise on Saturday, pull on their hunter-orange hats and jackets and head into the woods on an age-old quest.
They’ll be looking for deer, to be sure: It is, after all, Youth Deer Day, a day set aside for junior hunters (and their adult mentors, who aren’t allowed to carry firearms). But whether the young hunters realize it yet, they’ll likely begin to learn that actually shooting a deer on their own special day is merely a small part in a much grander equation.
Those young hunters will watch the forest wake up around them, you see. They’ll feel the hair on the back of their neck tingle when twigs begin cracking in the darkness. They’ll stare into the gloom, perhaps reacting to whispered words of advice from the father, mother or grandparent, hoping to spy the critter that’s skulking toward them.
They’ll enter the woods with grand hopes. Some will fill their tags. Others won’t. But all will leave with memories they’ll never forget.
“From my perspective, youth day is all about participation and getting young kids involved and interested and out in the woods to go hunting,” said Lee Kantar, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s head deer biologist. “It’s a great time to be a learning experience, to go with the family, whether it’s fathers, mothers, grandparents, whatever.”
Most of the state’s hunters who plan on using firearms to hunt deer will have to wait another week — Maine’s residents-only opening day is Oct. 29 — but junior hunters who haven’t reached their 16th birthday get a head start.
Kantar regularly heads to a local tagging station on Youth Deer Day, where he checks the deer and listens to the stories, many told by wide-eyed first-time hunters.
“That is the best part of that youth day … the kid who got his first deer is just jumping out of his skin,” Kantar said. “I had one father and son come in and they were both just going crazy. They were both excited.
“The father was very excited to have his son get his first deer. To just be together and experience that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And being able to witness that brings it home,” Kantar said. “When you see the joy and the happiness when they do that, it’s very exciting stuff.
According to state law, hunters on Youth Deer Day are allowed to shoot a deer of either sex in Wildlife Management Districts where any-deer permits have been allotted. This year, only 26,390 any-deer permits have been given out, in just 12 of the state’s 29 Wildlife Management Districts.
Kantar said that in those 12 districts, young hunters will enjoy a great advantage in that many of the adult hunters who sought any-deer permits didn’t receive them because the allotment was reduced this year. And on Youth Deer Day, all youngsters essentially head into the woods carrying one of those highly sought-after permits.
“They’re going to have a great opportunity,” Kantar said. “In a year like this, where in this area deer permits are down quite a bit, kids really have a great opportunity in the areas where they can hunt either sex.”
As of Thursday, Kantar hadn’t looked at the weather report for Saturday. He was hopeful, however, that young hunters wouldn’t have to deal with conditions that have existed in the recent past on their special day.
“It seems like the last couple years we’ve had some pretty windy, crazy days. Certainly the weather has some bearing on the day itself,” Kantar said. “I think that the guys that want to get out there are going to get out no matter what. It would be nice if we had a nice, cold, crisp type of morning. But we’ll have to see.”
Some things for Youth Deer Day participants to be aware of:
• The day is open to those who are at least 10 and have not turned 16, and who hold a valid junior hunting license.
• A firearm, crossbow or bow and arrow may be used.
• The hunter must be accompanied by a parent, guardian or qualified adult. Those adults are not allowed to possess a firearm.
• All other hunting laws apply.