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Deer hunting: It's more than a Maine tradition
ByKen Bailey

HOPE (Oct 12):

"The white-tailed deer: long may it haunt the swamps and the hardwood ridges, to delight and confound the hearts of the people of Maine," Don C. Stanton.

When a deer hunter steps into the Maine woods, he steps into a different world. It's not the 21st century any more. Gone are nasty political rantings. Computers and cell phones won't be of any help. Modern-day life fades into the background during the time he is on the hunt. With bow, rifle or muzzleloader in hand, today's deer hunter looks for the same signs of game as his father, grandfather and those before.

November is a month of change and anticipation. Days continue to get shorter, nights get colder and the first snowstorms of the year offer a preview of winter's fast approach. In some parts of the vast Pine Tree State, small lakes and ponds take on a layer of ice that will stay in place until the spring sun warms the air.

In Maine, November is also known as "deer season." Planning for the coming deer season for many began as last year's season came to an end. Some hunters look forward to the time spent alone in the woods, enjoying all aspects of nature during their search for the elusive whitetail. Others anticipate joining family and friends at hunting camps, some of which have been in families for many generations.

Deer are more abundant in Maine today than at any time in history. (Photo by Ken Bailey)

Smokey fires straining to keep cabins warm, combined with smells of coffee, freshly cooked bacon and the ever-present odor of gun oil greet the senses and provoke tall tales all year long. For some, the hunting camps of today look no different than those that were the center of hunts more than 100 years ago. "Rustic" might be a term that is a little generous when referring to some of today's remote hunting camps.

Along with the changes in society, there has been a change in hunting camps. Some of the newer camps might be a camper trailer, an unused mobile home or an old school bus converted to a camp on wheels.

Many hunting trips begin from the family home. Alarms go off in the cold darkness of the predawn hours and the hunting members of the family gather around the kitchen table for a quick bite to eat, and then hurry to get in the woods for those prime early-morning hunting times.

Fathers, sons, grandfathers and good friends, both male and female, look forward to deer season with an anticipation no other seasonal change brings. Hunting stories that may be 20, 30 or 40 years old are shared time and time again.

"Remember that monster buck up on Oak Mountain? Why he must have weighed 300 pounds. I've only seen him once, but I know he's still there. I'll get him this year!"

One has to be a hunter to understand.

Today there are more deer than ever in many sections of the state. Some regions have so many deer that they are now open to archers who can take an unlimited number of whitetails.

Although the Coastal and Central regions of Maine are experiencing a bounty of deer, Northern Maine and the western mountains are suffering from a struggling deer herd that has not responded to years of bucks-only harvests. Harsh winters and loss of winter habitat have created a situation that will require many years to develop deer herds comparable to what we enjoy along the coast.

Even though deer hunting starts in September for bow hunters, and a special season for muzzleloaders is set for December, November still represents deer season for most. It is when locals take to the woods, and friends and relatives who moved away return to refresh their spirit in the wildness that still exists in Maine.

A look into deer history
Some of the best documentation on Maine history and the evolution of deer comes from "A History of the White-Tailed Deer in Maine," written by Don C. Stanton and published by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in 1963.

At the time this book was written, many of today's big-game management practices were not yet in place, but this information-filled book looks into the long history of deer in Maine and how this adaptable animal's survival has depended on man, its native habitat and numerous predators.

The white-tailed deer is one of Maine's great natural assets. Because of hunting and its economic and social impact, and the many individuals who enjoy watching deer, there is probably no animal in Maine that generates more interest and controversy -- black bear might be this year's exception - among more people.

Today Maine's deer population is growing, allowing for additional hunting opportunities on one hand, and fears of Lyme disease and problems with garden and crop damage on the other. This is in contrast to the early history of Maine when deer were scarce or nonexistent in most of the state, which was then covered by a vast primeval forest.

Other than occasional natural occurrences such as fire, disease and wind damage, there was little to open Maine's expansive forest canopy and allow for the type of new growth that promotes an expansion of the deer herd.

According to Stanton, several tribes of Indians occupied the coastal regions and Penobscot Valley for a number of centuries prior to the arrival of the white man. The tribes were all of Algonquin stock, and lived mostly by hunting and fishing, although some limited agriculture was practiced. Around 1600, the total native population in Maine was estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 individuals.

The first English colony in Maine was founded in 1607 by Sir Ferdinando Gorges at Popham Beach, at the mouth of the Kennebec River. Since most of the early settlers came from a nonhunting culture in Europe, they had little effect on the region's small deer population.

Slowly, through expanded clearing and increased agricultural use, more land became acceptable to deer, bringing an increase in the whitetail's population.

The chief limiting factor on the deer herd back then, other than lack of proper habitat, was the state's wolf population. Although mountain lions, lynx and bobcat killed some deer, none were as efficient predators as the pack-hunting wolf.

Because of the threat of wolves to man, wildlife and livestock, the first bounties were placed on these animals in 1730, with some bounties staying in place well into the 1800s. As late as 1815, the town of Gorham paid $20 per head, an extremely hefty sum at the time, for wolves killed within that township.

The common practice of grazing livestock in and around the early settlements probably had the most direct effect on deer of any of the agricultural practices of the day.

Stanton's book also reviews the effect of wildfires on wildlife and the Maine landscape. Documentation shows that some early, unchecked fires burned more than 130,000 acres at a time. Although this resulted in some new growth that was good for deer, the population never became numerous due to the wolves that were still an important part of the state's fauna.

The greatest fire in Maine history was in October 1825, when 832,000 acres of land burned over an area from Old Town to Mayfield on the Kennebec River and from Harmony to the Katahdin Iron Works.

From 1820 through 1880, the great lumbering days, accompanying spread of the human population in a pattern similar to its present distribution had a far-reaching effect on the white-tailed deer. By this time, wolves had become extinct except for in far Northern Maine, where records show they remained until late in the 19th century.

Although market hunting for deer -- for retail sale and to feed hungry lumberjacks -- reached its peak during this period, the first legislated attempts to regulate the herd were established.

Before 1873 there was no closed season or bag limit on deer. In 1873 a three-deer limit was established, followed by a two-deer limit between 1893 and 1899. From 1893 through 1895, there was no open season on deer in Cumberland, Knox, Lincoln, Waldo and York counties because of their dangerously low numbers.

New deer regulations help herd grow
In the early 20th century, Maine adopted a number of creative management techniques. Hunters who think the bucks-only law is a relative newcomer to the wildlife scene should know this was first attempted in some counties as early as 1907.

Since 1919, the registration of each legally killed deer has been required, producing a large volume of data that prior to that date had not been available to wildlife managers.

Starting Oct. 30, thousands of hunters will take to the Maine woods in search of the elusive whitetail. (Photo by Michelle Ridlon)

As the hunting season of 2004 gets underway, the state's white-tailed deer population is at one of its highest points ever. Hunting regulations have in many of areas of the state been expanded to the point that some hunters, especially archers, can harvest an unlimited number of deer.

In the 400 years since settlers first arrived on Maine's tree-lined shores the state has changed and so has its habitat and the abundance of the white-tailed deer.

Hunting is safer today
The years 1950 and 1952 share a common, sad statistic that state officials and the hunting community have vowed will never happen again. During the fall hunting season of each of those years, 19 people were killed in hunting related accidents.

During the 24-year-period from 1940 to 1963, there were 235 individuals killed in hunting related accidents. During the past 24 years, from 1980 to 2003, that total had dropped to 28 deaths, in spite of a tremendous increase in development and population, combined with an increase in the number of hunters in the field. In 1950 there were 134,042 licensed hunters in the Maine woods, while 2003 saw the largest number of licensed hunters ever, 213,368.

Why such a drastic improvement in hunter safety in the state of Maine? There were a number of laws phased in over a period of time combined with better hunter awareness and firearms education, all of which have contributed to this improved safety record.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Maine citizens realized that something needed to be done. Making changes to the state's hunting laws was not an easy process, as some hunting practices were longstanding traditions. Although it took a number of years, the following changes have made hunting the safest of Maine's outdoor activities.

* 1971 -- Deer drives were outlawed and hunting for deer was stopped at sunset instead of one half hour after sunset.
* 1973 -- The wearing of "hunter orange" clothing was required.
* 1986 -- It became mandatory that all individuals pass a state-certified Hunter Safety Education class before they could obtain an adult hunting license. Today, more than 200,000 Maine hunters have completed this valuable course.
* 1987 -- Bow hunting safety education became mandatory.

Because of this increased safety record, some regulations have recently been altered. Most notably the legal hunting time has been moved back to one half hour after sunset for many species, including deer. Nationwide statistics showed there was no increase in the number of hunting accidents in states that included the extra 30 minutes of hunting time. Hunter orange clothing and better education are credited for that extension.

Because of the emotional aspects of hunting, it is often assumed by those not associated with the sport that it is an extremely unsafe activity. Statistics over the past 20 years actually show that in Maine skiing, snowmobiling, all-terrain vehicle riding and boating all have more accidents and activity related deaths each year than hunting.

Recently, Maine has been bucking a national trend of stagnant, or in some cases decreasing, hunting license sales. Along with the overall increase in licensed hunters, the number of the state's youth taking up hunting has also been on the upswing. In 1999 there were 16,563 junior hunters (ages 10 to 15) licensed in Maine and last year that number had climbed to 18,531.

Youth hunting programs sponsored by the state and local rod and gun clubs, combined with three special youth-only hunting days, have contributed to this increase in young hunters. Recent changes in hunting regulations now allow only youth hunters, on special youth days, to hunt for wild turkey, waterfowl and deer. Adults must accompany the youth and are not allowed to carry a firearm.

More opportunity
Although many of the state's older hunters fondly recall the "Good Old Days" of hunting in Maine, the truth is that today's hunters, especially deer hunters, have more opportunity than ever before. Wildlife management practices and strict bag limits and seasons now allow hunters in this state to harvest more species of game and in many cases enjoy increased bag limits as well.

Deer are approaching an all-time high, moose numbers are strong and the black bear population is growing in spite of an annual harvest of nearly 4,000 animals. Wild turkeys, which did not exist in Maine 30 years ago, are rapidly expanding into counties biologists once thought would not support these prized game birds.

Even though Maine has popular hunting seasons for migratory waterfowl, turkey, moose, bear, coyote, bobcat, rabbit, fox, raccoon and other game animals, the white-tailed deer remains the most sought after prize in the woods.

Most deer hunters dream of harvesting a trophy buck whose antlers will grace their wall and whose venison will feed their family throughout the long winter. The reality is that trophy white-tailed deer are few and far between. With a statewide success rate of just over 20 percent, deer hunters are satisfied if they can harvest a deer regardless of its size. Venison is venison, and hundreds of delicious recipes have been developed over the years, making this free-range meat a favorite in many households. Because of the expansion of commercial deer farms, venison is becoming a regular fare at many restaurants in and outside of Maine.

Over the years, venison has had a reputation of tasting "gamey." This strong taste is usually the result of mishandling the deer starting right at the time of harvest and up to when the animal is processed. Properly field dressed and promptly cut and packaged, venison will rival any expensive cut of fine beef for taste and nutritional value.

Whether one leaves their home in the predawn hours to hunt a favorite patch of woods all alone, or wakes up to the sights, sounds and smells of deer camp surrounded by friends and family, deer season has a special meaning in Maine.

Starting this weekend there will be more and more orange-clad hunters, greeting each other with a smile, a wave and a verbal greeting -- "Got your deer yet?"

November - the real deer season in Maine.

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