VASSALBORO – Just across the Kennebec River from Maine’s capital, in the midst of a developed part of the state, hunter Julius Koenig and his neighbors love it when deer season rolls around.

In Vassalboro, where some of the state’s highest turkey and deer populations exist, plenty of both are taken by hunters each year, and often make Vassalboro the No. 1 hunting town in Maine.

In fact, the biggest hunting towns in Maine are not up north in Aroostook County, nor in western Maine or even around Moosehead Lake. A vast percentage of all big-game animals hunted in Maine — white-tailed deer, moose, wild turkey and black bear — are taken in the southern quarter of the state.

A Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of 12 years of tagging station data found that Maine’s biggest hunting towns are in the southern quarter of the state, where 65 percent of the population resides.

Close to half of all big-game animals killed by hunters since 2000 were registered with the state between York County, just an hour from Boston, and the midcoast, as far as Waldo County. As much as 45 percent of all big game were tagged in this southern quarter of the state, belying the notion that the hunting culture in Maine exists primarily up north.

Of the top 10 hunting towns in Maine, nine are in southern and central Maine. York, near the very southern tip of Maine, ranks No. 10.

The fact is, a robust hunting culture exists in the southern half of Maine, as proven by the number of big-game animals taken by hunters there.

Moreover, in that area a hunting ethic has evolved based around hunters asking permission and securing access to private land to assure hunting can continue in the most developed part of Maine.

In northern Maine, traditionally, large private landowners have allowed hunters to use their land without permission. But in the southern half of Maine, hunters have developed new habits to adjust to the landscape.

“Vassalboro is really tricky. It’s heavily posted and there is not a lot of public access. It can be quite challenging to hunt in Vassalboro,” said Koenig, 27, a hunter of 15 years. “I’m blessed because my mother has a farm that I’ve always been able to hunt on. But it would be very challenging to go into Vassalboro and find unposted land and not be confronted by a landowner.

“It’s almost a yellow-brick road of posted signs.”

Nonetheless, at the regional wildlife offices across Maine, state biologists say Maine’s hunting culture not only exists in the southernmost part of Maine, but thrives.

“People think we’re just a bunch of city people down here and it’s all developments and shopping malls. And that represents a fair part of the region. But there is plenty of undeveloped land in southern Maine. There is plenty of hunting, and a very strong wildlife population. I see it in every town I go into,” said regional biologist Scott Lindsay of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s southern office in Gray.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

That over the past decade, nine of the top 10 hunting towns registering big game were in the southern quarter of Maine is a fact state wildlife biologist Keel Kemper considers with pride.

“This is where it’s happening,” said Kemper, who is based in Sidney, between Augusta and Waterville.

Deer and turkey accounted for 85 percent of all big game taken by hunters in Maine in the past 12 years and largely populate this southern quarter, with more than 20 deer per square mile.

By contrast in northern Maine, where white-tailed deer are at the northern end of the species’ range, deer exist in smaller numbers — as few as one to three per square mile, said Rich Hoppe, the state wildlife biologist in Ashland.

“It’s gotten to the point, I could say in the deer yards in the big woods, we only had four or five areas that held wintering deer. In the past, way back 15 to 20 years ago, we probably had 30 or 40 areas,” Hoppe said.

“I’ve been here since 1988. We used to have more hunters from Vermont come to northern Maine. But since 2007 and 2008, we’ve lost 50 to 70 percent of our deer. Hunters know that.”

Wild turkey have migrated slowly north since the bird was reintroduced in York and Waldo counties by state biologists in 1977 and 1982, respectively, and since the first hunt was held in 1986, according to DIFW.

But the deer numbers, on the other hand, have just dwindled, said Hoppe, a 30-year veteran with DIFW.

In Dover-Foxcroft — just northwest of Bangor — Steve Boyd at Foxbrook Variety said fewer hunters stop in his shop during deer season than they did 20 years ago. He notices because fewer deer tagged means fewer sales.

“In 2007, there were 255 deer tagged. Last year there were 142, a loss of 113 customers. They don’t all spend money in my store, but a good portion do. The whole reason to be a tagging station is to get people in the door. But if they’re not having success hunting, they’re not coming in my store,” Boyd said.

And while an active hunting culture still thrives in Penobscot County, Vince Sawyer, owner of Toot’s Delicatessen in Dexter, said the deer densities do not compare to when he grew up along the road to Moosehead Lake. Sawyer can recall tagging upwards of 500 deer at Toot’s seven years ago. Last year he tagged just 231.

“I used to hunt, but the friends I hunted with moved away. I don’t have time and my kids are not into it, so I gave it up,” Sawyer said.

However, the abundance of deer and turkey in the southernmost corner of Maine is well known among hunters, and today a large number choose to hunt there.

NOT JUST LOCALS HUNTING

The significant opportunity to hunt in southern Maine is why Fred Wiegleb, president of the Scarborough Fish and Game Association, moved to York County in 1982. Now the president of one of Maine’s largest fish and game clubs, Wiegleb said the hunting culture is far from fading in southern Maine.

“It’s one of the attractions to coming to Maine. Elsewhere when you get into the metropolitan areas, you’re not allowed to hunt. Not so here,” said Wiegleb, of Arundel.

And it’s not just locals who know it.

Lindsay, the regional wildlife biologist in southern Maine, said last year he got a call from a half dozen retired state troopers in Connecticut interested in deer hunting in his region.

“They had gone up to northern Maine for a couple of decades. But they got to the point in their 60s and 70s, they wanted to explore other places. They asked about lodging, and blocks of land to hunt where there was a good success rate. They did a lot of research. That’s more typical of what we’re getting now,” Lindsay said.

More and more, Lindsay and Kemper said, out-of-state hunters call their offices inquiring about a southern Maine hunt, joining a strong group of locals who already hunt there.

Lindsay added that there has been a greater effort among biologists to help facilitate hunting in the south.

“It’s why our long-term strategy is working with landowners here and securing access,” he said.

Maine boasts a unique hunting tradition where private landowners have long allowed others to traverse across their land “to fish or fowl” without asking permission. This is the way in northern Maine, where private landowners often own huge tracts of land.

But in southern Maine — as land has become more developed — Lindsay said hunters have needed to adopt the practice of knocking on doors, meeting with private landowners, and asking for permission to hunt their woods and fields. And they’re doing it, so that come November, they’re getting their deer.

Kemper said he definitely has seen more hunters seeking landowner permission.

“Asking for permission is becoming more and more a way of life. It’s not something people here grew up with. When I first moved here from Georgia, that stunned me. Where I grew up, you asked permission if you wanted to get out alive,” Kemper said. “If access was as bad as everyone says, that would be reflected in the numbers (of big game tagged).”

EVOLVING PATTERN

Will there be even more of a shift in hunting as more and more hunters discover the deer and turkey hunting in southern Maine?

“There are probably more hunters that hunt in southern Maine, I would agree with that,” said Allen Starr, a regional wildlife biologist in Enfield, just north of Bangor. “If they had a choice of driving three to four hours to northern Maine where they will not see deer in a week of hunting, or maybe not traveling that far with gas prices, they maybe will choose to stay closer to home.”

Gunnar Gunderson, president of the Lincoln County Rifle Club in Damariscotta, wonders if there is a seismic shift taking place in the way hunters hunt today.

He wonders if the era of the more “traditional” hunt that takes place far out in the woods has been replaced by a quicker alternative and, as with so much in our society today, something closer to home.

“I knew a guy from New Jersey, a hunter, he was afraid of going in the woods. He wouldn’t go in the woods where he couldn’t see the paved road. He hunted in New Jersey,” said Gunderson, a 28-year hunting education instructor.

To be sure, biologists across the state who see the per-town tallies of deer, turkey, bear and moose taken by hunters each year observe a pattern evolving in the southernmost part of Maine. And it is a pattern that may eventually debunk the myth of the “two Maines,” that long-held view of the state as a place encompassing a more rural outdoor sporting public to the north, and a more urban populace to the south.

“Hunting is alive and well in southern Maine,” said Gunderson in Damariscotta. “I’ve taught close to 2,500 people hunter safety. When I first moved up here there were lots of slob hunters, but I think the behavior is way better. Besides hunter safety we now have a discussion about landowner ethics in our classes. And we push that hard.”

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

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