My son-in-law Chris usually gets his deer on his own land. So far this hunting season he has taken just one shot resulting in a freakish miss.
Chris’s field attracts a lot of does and yearlings, but on this particular day, as the light was beginning to fade, he drew a bead on a 200 pound, eight-point buck. The buck was standing head-first to him, so Chris waited for it to turn sideways to get a better shot. Instead the buck dropped his head and began browsing, giving Chris even less of a target.
Chris hunts more for food than for sport. He likes to add a little venison to the pork, chicken and turkey he and Hannah raise on their farm. He’s a good shot both with a bow and a rifle.
Aiming between the buck’s antlers, Chris squeezed off a shot that made the deer buck like a mule and then hightail it into the underbrush with a few wild leaps. When Chris went to investigate whether he had wounded the buck, he found no blood or hair, just a palm-size chip off an antler.
There are an estimated 310,000 to 320,000 whitetail deer in Maine, up from a low of 140,000 in 2008-2009. Last year hunters harvested some 39,000 deer, the most since 1968 when 41,000 were shot.
Only 11% of Maine residents have hunting licenses, a decline in hunters paralleling an increase in the deer population. Maine issued 196,000 hunting licenses in 2009 and just 154,000 last year. So to thin the herd out, state game officials have been giving out any deer permits like Halloween candy. The bag limit on deer has been one per person since 1925, but last year many hunters received more than one permit.
When I was a kid in the 1950s, it was common to see deer and moose strapped to the fenders and trunks of cars and trucks headed south after a Maine hunting trip. Over time hunters became a little more discreet, secreting their kills in the back of pickups trucks.
Two weeks ago, I drove to Farmington and back on business without seeing a single dead deer, a single hunter or even anyone wearing hunter orange. It may just be that the popularity of deer hunting has declined, but it’s also true that harsh winters, coyotes and loss of habitat have redistributed the deer population south. There can be 15 to 35 deer per square mile in parts of southern Maine while up in the County it’s more like two or three deer per square mile.
The Maine town that tagged the most deer over the past 10 years is York. I’ve had good-size does grazing right in my suburban Brunswick backyard. And there’s plenty of deer sign out on the family land in Durham.
My grandfather and namesake Ed Beem owned a hunting camp up in Monticello with a dozen or so other men. They’d spend a couple of weeks up there hunting a bit but mostly smoking, drinking, playing cards and preparing big camp feasts. In the days before snowmobiles, Bampi and his buddies paid a logger to take them in by horse-drawn sleigh.
As far as I know, my grandfather never actually shot a deer. If he did, he never brought it home to Portland. The last few years he went up to camp with the boys he left his bolt-action 30/30 Savage in the bedroom closet. In the end, he wasn’t even interested in target shooting anymore, just a little male companionship.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.