Sportsman’s Corner: Headed up north

Published: 11-16-2023 5:00 PM

By Mike Roche

Back in the 60s, during my impressionable youth, the second week of November was a very special time. It was not only special to me, but to many other young men at Mahar Regional who knew that this was the start of deer hunting season in New Hampshire and Vermont. Those states were collectively referred to as ‘up north” like some kind of promised land. At that time, the Mahar Regional School District included Orange, Petersham, New Salem, Wendell, Erving and Millers Falls. The Erving/Millers Falls guys hunted Vermont because it was closer, and the rest were split between New Hampshire and Vermont.

The two states were very different as far as deer hunting was concerned and the regulations created that diversity. In New Hampshire, either-sex deer hunting was the rule, and you could take either a buck or doe. Not so across the Connecticut River. Vermont was ‘bucks only’ and to be legal, a deer needed to have one antler at least three inches in length, and does were completely protected. The long-standing practices in both states created a very different deer herd in each.

When we returned to school every Monday during the “up north” deer seasons, the hunters would seek each other out to exchange deer stories. Typically, the Vermont hunters would tell of seeing many deer, often dozens, but invariably they would all be does. That skewed population, the product of decades of “bucks only” also resulted in a majority of the bucks taken being “spikes”—yearling one and a half year old males. The New Hampshire hunters would have fewer sightings, but deer taken would be heavier and rack bucks were common, but the totals were smaller.

Over time, both states and the rest of New England modified deer hunting regulations. In Vermont, the large population of deer suffered winter losses. One particular year, maybe 1969, the winter kill was substantial, and it had a long-term impact on the herd. That led to permitting to allow the taking of does. New Hampshire also changed and that state decided to manage deer by allowing the taking of does for a certain number of days at the beginning of the season and set up management zones to set the number of days based on the number of deer desired in each zone.

Massachusetts established deer management zones in the 60s and allocated permits in each zone. The Massachusetts deer management has had number of “tweakings” since then and what is in place today is a lengthy archery season, a two-week shotgun season that begins the Monday after Thanksgiving, and two-plus weeks of hunting with primitive firearms or “black powder season.”

Reflective of the success of the Massachusetts management program over decades is the fact that Massachusetts deer hunters can take two bucks and as many does as they receive permits for as some zones give out a large number of doe permits to reduce deer densities. The health of the Massachusetts deer herd can be measured. Fawn weights (the average weight of deer born last spring and taken by hunters), antler beam diameter of yearling bucks (a reflection of the health of the buck’s mother during gestation), and the percentage of mature bucks (age 2 ½ or older) in the harvest all total consistently and compare most favorably with data from surrounding states in the Northeast.

Bucks also get bigger as you go north, like most mammals. The size difference is an evolutionary development because the larger size makes survival in tough winter conditions more likely, and that genetic trait is passed on. A group of local hunters that is well known to this writer traditionally travels way “up north” to Pittsburg, New Hampshire, for an extended period of chasing those “big bucks.” When they return, they hopefully will have more than just stories!

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This writer’s bird hunting stories are winding down as the woodcock move south. With so few ruffed grouse (AKA partridge), they have been the focus of my Massachusetts upland hunting and their numbers—and the work by both of my French Brittanys—have not disappointed. Most days have included at least a little hunting and the dogs, particularly Tessie who is enjoying her first hunting season, have been really good.

It appears that locally, the woodcock are about gone and my trip Wednesday to the Berkshires may be the last of the season. There is nothing wrong with pheasant hunting, and Massachusetts Wildlife Management Areas are stocked each year with 44,000 pheasants. The dogs and I shifted gears and headed to Birch Hill WMA this week. Laney, the experienced veteran, did super and the Garmin Alpha 200 paired with TT25 collars really does add to the experience. The “truck backing up” beeper sound is gone and the Alpha 200 vibrates and buzzes in my shirt pocket when one of the dogs goes on point. This I can get used to!

This is the first week with no ticks on me after hunting. The dogs are protected with Bravecto and it works very well. Hopefully the weather will become “seasonal” going forward and we can hope for “tracking snow” on the Monday after Thanksgiving (is it really next week?) when the shotgun season opens in Massachusetts.

Mike Roche is a retired teacher who has been involved in conservation and wildlife issues his entire life. He has written the Sportsman’s Corner since 1984 and has served as advisor to the MaharFish’N Game Club, counselor and director of the Massachusetts Conservation Camp, former Connecticut Valley District representative on the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board, has been a Massachusetts Hunter Education Instructor and is a licensed New York hunting guide. He can be reached at mikeroche3@msn.com.