Firearm season opens for Maine deer hunters Saturday, and biologists predict the prospect of tagging a deer will be better than in recent years following a mild winter last year.
The chances of getting a prized big buck may be limited for a few more years, until the herd is able to rebound further from the harsh winters in 2008 and 2009. Nonetheless, big buck hunters in Maine say they still will be searching for a monster whitetail, that big-game animal that has given Maine a far-reaching reputation.
A big buck that qualifies for entry into the Big Bucks in Maine Club is one that weighs more than 200 pounds.
“Some people get a big one once in a lifetime, maybe twice,” said Joe Saltalamachia, of Unity. “I set out 13 years ago to try to get 10. I just decided, I’m not shooting the little ones anymore. No more yearlings. So far I’ve shot five.”
Hunters in Maine who tag a buck weighing more than 200 pounds are given the coveted club patch by The Maine Sportsman magazine, which keeps the club’s records. Normally, 350 to 500 hunters each year make the club, which has been in existence for at least the past few decades, according to the magazine.
Also, this fall hunters should see more deer in the woods after last winter’s mild conditions, said state deer biologist Lee Kantar.
Firearm season for deer begins for Maine adult hunters Saturday and ends Dec. 8, with the conclusion of muzzleloader season. All hunters who participate — whether bowhunters, firearm hunters or muzzleloader hunters — require a valid hunting license.
Last deer season ended in one of the lowest harvests in years, with just 18,839 deer taken. This year Kantar expects it to top 20,000, which is still a long way from the 28,148 taken in 2005 or the 38,153 deer taken in 2002. He said the reason remains the harsh winters of 2008 and 2009, which decimated the deer herd.
Kantar thinks another mild winter this year could send Maine’s deer harvest back toward 30,000; and as the herd grows, the number of big bucks on the landscape also will increase, Kantar said.
“There should be a lot of deer out there. Last winter was one of the mildest winters in 60-plus years,” Kantar said. “Obviously, that is huge for survival of all age classes. People are seeing a lot of deer, and that’s all good stuff.”
Kantar said Maine’s larger whitetail deer are a product of the state’s more northerly climate. Maine’s whitetails are, on average, a few pounds heavier than those in the South, Kantar said.
“The bottom line is because we don’t have a high-density (deer population), we are able to grow big bucks; and the further north you go with all animals, normally the bigger-bodied they are,” Kantar said.
Maine’s big bucks are a key reason out-of-state hunters — as many as 30,000 to 40,000 — flock to Maine during deer season, said Al Cowperthwaite, director of the North Maine Woods.
“The big woods are known for large deer. During deer season 20 percent of our visitors are from out of state,” Cowperthwaite said. “And we have anecdotal evidence from our staff and from camp owners that they are seeing more deer this fall than the last two to three years.”
That’s all good for hunters such as Dave McLaughlin, of Old Town, who specifically targets the big bucks. McLaughlin has four patches from the Big Buck Club in Maine after 50 years of hunting.
“I’m not seeing the big ones like I used to see. I contribute that to there being less deer than in the early ’80s. It will take some time, but I do think it is coming back,” McLaughlin said.
And Saltalamachia in Unity, who has honed his big-buck hunting techniques down to a science that includes meticulous notes, thinks this could be his year — again.
“It’s never easy, but I am becoming more patient. I no longer mind ending the season with a zero. The year I got my 10-point buck, I passed on 14 bucks,” Saltalamachia said. “The legend is alive and well. I do think we still have big bucks in the Northeast.”