What Deer?

What to make of the 2010 deer season? That’s the question that’s been bugging me for the past few weeks. Not a scientific analysis. Just trying to make sense of observations I am not academically trained to interpret.

A deer expert I am not. Far from it, in fact. The only kind of field research I know is hunting familiar territory, talking to other hunters doing the same and gathering observations and opinions, always trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, fact from fiction, seldom easy. I only know what my eyes and trusted sources tell me. No more. No less. We all know what we’ve seen and how it compares to other years in the same areas. But who knows which of our conclusions are valid or invalid? So let me just lay it out there? You be the judge.

The impetus for this piece was an interesting night spent at an old Greenfield farm Saturday in the company of deer hunters eager to throw in their two cents worth. We were brewing and sampling tasty ales, not by any stretch of the imagination getting carried away, in a cozy, wood-heated barn chamber. Four or five of the fellas had hunted together and taken a doe the previous day, the final day of blackpowder; another young man had killed two bucks, one a handsome Shelburne 8-pointer. All the men were more than willing to chat about deer season and their impressions of the local whitetail population, which doesn’t seem to be improving despite draconian herd-building measures during the past decade. Our lively little discussion made it clear that I’m not the only one who’s wondering why, after years of conservative antlerless-permit allotments here, the deer population doesn’t appear to be growing. In fact, it seems there are fewer deer in the woods now than 10 years ago. Of course, I may be wrong. Perhaps everyone in the room that night was sadly mistaken. I don’t know. Not a one of us holds a wildlife-management degree, just years of patrolling the same woods, reading the same sign, observing.

Before we continue, I admit I did little deer hunting this year. A Dec. 2 family tragedy set me back and I never really got back into the swing of things. That doesn’t mean I ever totally ignored my favorite haunts, because I did take several challenging 4-wheel-drive reconnaissance missions searching for promising sign in the snow where experience told me I should find it. Guess what? It wasn’t there. As for actual hunting, I got out the first two days and, in perhaps seven hours in the woods, saw six deer, two of them bucks, one of which I shot at. So who am I to complain? There were indeed deer where I hunted. Not a lot, but enough to make sitting in a reliable stand worthwhile. In other woods where I’ve hunted longer and have several established stands that have produced consistent deer sightings, I had trouble cutting a track on a forest floor littered with nutty feed, high in protein. Yeah, I know the experts will say there was too much feed in the woods, thus the deer could have been anywhere. And maybe they’re right. All I can say is that what I found was unusual. Not long ago, when acorns, beechnuts and wild grapes were everywhere in those same woods, deer sign was widespread, including many frequently traveled runs, worn deep and wide into the snow, crossing the forest trails. All I saw this year was a lonely track here and there, nothing to spring a man out of bed in the wee hours and put him in the woods with daybreak enthusiasm in his soul.

My first hint of the current sad state of western Franklin County deer hunting came toward the end of shotgun season’s first week. A friend with more than 50 years experience called bemoaning the disappearance of deer in Conway woods we had hunted many times together. He said he’d been through the smallish parcel several times and there were no deer. None. Pointless to return.

I asked about the woods across the road, and the ridge to south, across the stream? Any shooting there?

A little the first couple of days. Nothing to get excited about.

Hmmmmmm? Where could they have gone? There are always deer there.

True, but not this year.

Like many local veteran deer hunters, my friend attributes our deer decline to coyote predation of spring fawns. This may or may not be true but you can bet that if it is, state wildlife biologists will be the last to admit it. The experts claim coyotes have a negligible impact on our deer population. Amateur woodsmen disagree. The times they have a changed.

Into blackpowder season, my friend gave me another ring. He’d been everywhere, found nothing enticing, was discouraged. Did I feel like accompanying him to the oaks by the pond atop Catamount to see what was happening up there? His uncle’s friend told him the oaks were all pawed up. Always up for a woodland ramble, I drove and we scouted through the oaks, guns in hand, never cutting a track, not even a coyote or squirrel. Perplexed, we departed and took a roundabout route west to another spot on the mountain, parking near a gate across the trail leading to the famous old schoolhouse. We walked the trail a mile or more through an upland oak forest, classic deer country, many acorns underfoot, and cut one track in snow that had been down for three or four days. One freakin’ track! A small one at that. Befuddling.

Puzzled, I suggested we take a ride to the big woods of Conway, where I wanted to drive three miles up a treacherous mountain trail to what I call “The Beechnuts,” if we could make it. Well, we were able to brave the ice and again found one uninspiring track crossing the ancient trail named after a wild, freathered barnyard pest. Imagine that! One lousy deer track in three- or four-day-old snow. I could not believe it. The deer were definitely not there, and they were not crossing a similar trail maybe three miles south, one I had monitored two or three times that week and been astonished by the lack of sign.

My friend phoned me again a day or two later. He had more news, had spoken to an old hunting buddy we often hunted with in the past. Our mutual friend told of a 20-man party he had joined toward the end of shotgun season, led by a notorious gang that has overpowered the same woods for decades. His tale was not one of success. The only reason they had increased the party to such extreme numbers was a previous lack of success moving deer. Well, on this day with their eager army rarin’ to go, it turned out they had too many bodies, so they split up and hunted adjacent parcels, 10 on each side of the road. Twenty experienced hunters with many notches in their belts pushed woods they knew well and no one saw so much as a flag. Not even a distant flash. They couldn’t believe it. Although I am aware that this crew’s hunting routine probably toes the line of illegality, we all know it happens and is nearly impossible to stop. Still, some will say it’s inappropriate for me to mention such activity in print. I disagree, am only using it to support my contention that deer were scarce locally.

By the time all the numbers are in statewide, it is likely we’ll be looking at a 2010 all-weapon harvest in the neighborhood of last year’s, which was down a bit from 2008. Just this week an inadequate MassWildlife press release reported incomplete preliminary archery and shotgun harvests of 3,644 and 4,435, the former a record, the latter a continuation of a downward trend. Who knows how productive the blackpowder season was? Probably around 2,000. But even that harvest has trended downward recently. And remember, state harvest numbers over the past decade have been skewed heavily eastward, reflecting little about our local situation. A significant majority of the deer killed in this state today are taken from Worcester County east, in the suburbs, where the woods are small and young and easy to hunt, especially for bowhunters set up behind shopping plazas and residential neighborhoods, not to mention shotgun-toting groups hunting in unison. The bigger woods of western Mass. are no longer attractive to most contemporary deer hunters, too difficult.

Yep, there’s no denying times have changed, and not for the better here in traditional deer country, where dairy farms and habitats conducive to healthy, burgeoning deer populations have gone the way of the stoneware churn. Whether it gets better or worse is anyone’s guess. But it’ll be interesting to watch, and listen to the professorial excuses.

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