WEST GARDINER — Deer hunting heated up in Maine despite cold weather for opening day on Saturday, the start of what state wildlife experts predict could be a strong season.

Maine residents were able to begin using firearms to hunt deer that day, and many hunters wasted no time putting their permits to use.

Trevor Berry, of Farmingdale, and his grandfather Charles Berry, of West Gardiner, found success Saturday morning, with the elder Berry brining down a doe in Bowdoinham with a .270-caliber rifle.

The Berrys took the deer to Four Corners General Store in West Gardiner, one of more than 300 tagging stations across the state.

“He got one, so we can still go for another one, right?” said Trevor Berry with a laugh, adding that it would be up to his grandfather whether they kept hunting Saturday. “It is only the first day. Don’t need to rush it.”

Four Corners General Store employee Dawn Hunt said the Berrys’ deer was the fifth to come in by 10 a.m. Saturday. She estimated that there were 12 on opening day last year.

“It’s been crazy,” said her coworker Jordan Shaw. The women said the previous deer was brought in by a young female hunter who was “very, very excited” about her success.

Charles Berry, 75, joked with the employees that his deer was 400 pounds but later estimated that it was in the 130-to-140-pound range. Any wise observer knew better than to ask where exactly the men had found the deer in Bowdoinham.

“It came across us,” Berry said, confident that he and his grandson would return to spot they tried the first time.

“He’s got more deer under his belt than me,” the younger Berry said of his grandfather when asked who the better hunter is, noting he still has 40 years to catch up.

Father and son duo Chad and Nick Perry hadn’t had any luck yet Saturday morning, and were at the Four Corners General Store for some food before hearing back out to continue hunting.

“This is his first full year of hunting,” Chad Perry said about his 10-year-old son, who was excited about his first opening day. Perry said his son has been tagging along on hunts “since he’s been able to walk.”

Officials at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife expect to build on a good deer season last year, bolstered by a growing population and an increased number of permits.

“With a growing deer population in central and southern Maine, we expect to see even more successful hunters this year,” DIF&W deer biologist Nathan Bieber said Friday in a news release. “Last year was the most successful year in ten years, but this year has the potential to be even better for deer hunters.”

According to the DIF&W release, there are more than 215,000 licensed hunters in Maine, and hunting activity supports 3,400 jobs while generating $338 million in revenue. Last year, hunters took home more than 27,000 deer.

Available any-deer permits are expected to rise 28 percent from last year’s 66,050 to 84,745 this year. Of the state’s 29 wildlife management districts, permit increases are occurring in nine in southern and central Maine.

“With cool weather for the start of season, and even fresh snow up north for the big woods trackers, we expect to see many successful hunters this weekend,” Bieber said. “Even if the rain materializes in the southern part of the state, it will remain cool and leave the woods quiet for hunting.”

While the woods may have been quiet Saturday, Fuller’s Market in West Gardiner certainly wasn’t.

Owner Walt Longfellow estimated 10 deer had been tagged at his store by 10:30 a.m. on what he said is usually the biggest day of hunting traffic. The store already had been tagging three or four deer every week since bow hunting season began earlier this fall.

Longfellow, who has owned the store for 18 years, thinks opening day is fun “because people are excited” and said it doesn’t hurt his bottom line, either.

“It’s good for business, absolutely. It gets them here, and they’re hungry,” he said.

Gardiner hunter Randy Pierce wasn’t too concerned about not getting a deer right off the bat Saturday morning.

“Not yet, working on it,” Pierce said, confident that 2018 will be a productive season. “Oh it will be, yeah.”

Dan Cunningham, of West Gardiner, isn’t a hunter, but he still sees plenty of venison as a local butcher.

“It’s going to be busy cutting them this year,” said Cunningham, who works at West Gardiner Beef and Gratefully Dead Custom Meat Cutting.

“Last year, we had 38 (deer) opening day,” he said about Gratefully Dead Custom Meat Cutting. “It’s been more and more every year.”

Gratefully Dead owner Scot Trussell said Saturday his business had seen 12 deer come in by mid-afternoon, and suspected the iffy weather kept some hunters at home. He expected another busy day Monday.

While many tagging locations are stores, hunters also can take their deer to the Skowhegan Fire Department, which Capt. Rick Caldwell said has been serving as a tagging station for decades.

“You hear some pretty amazing stories,” Caldwell said about talking with hunters.

Skowhegan firefighter Daryl Wyman drew the Saturday shift with Caldwell on opening day,

“Oh my God, I don’t even know. We’ve been steady all day,” said Wyman, who later used the state’s new digital tagging system to show the station had tagged 16 deer by late Saturday afternoon. The largest, he said, was a 250-pound, 12-point buck.

Wyman said it had been busy earlier in the day, and thought the decline in afternoon activity was precipitated by Saturday’s mix of rain and snow.

The state has touted its new web-based registration system, which replaces old game registration booklets that were kept by hand at tagging stations and shipped to Augusta and the end of the hunting season. The state aims to make the process simpler and faster by going digital, while gaining access to real-time data on the animals being harvested.

“This new system will quickly allow tagging stations and hunters to register their animal, and also provide our biologists and game wardens with real-time harvest data,” DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock said in a Sept. 17 news release announcing the new system’s implementation.

In West Gardiner, Walt Longfellow said the computer system created some kinks initially but those have straightened out.

“Now we’re getting the hang of it. It’s not too bad,” he said.

Over at the Four Corners General Store, Dawn Hunt said “the new system’s a lot easier than the old.”

A trio of hunters in Farmingdale have a different kind of hunting system, in which they spend part of opening day each season refueling at High Hat Pancake House.

Laura Safford, who lives in town, called Saturday morning “nice and cold, crisp” as she, Chris McKenzie and Neal Parker headed back out to keep hunting.

McKenzie, also of Farmingdale, was undaunted by the unfavorable afternoon forecast.

“We ain’t no fair-weather hunters,” he said with a smile.

“Mainers, right,” added Parker in agreement.

Parker, of Damariscotta, has a solid season in his sights.

“There are a lot of deer around — a lot,” he said.

Matt Junker — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @mattjunker

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