Deer Forecast

As autumn draws near, sportsmen throughout the East are turning their attention to the majestic whitetail deer. And this year, as in the past few, they should be in store for some awesome hunting opportunities.

Although some northern states are seeing lower numbers in places as a result of winter mortality, whitetails are thriving in much of the region. As a result, wildlife officials have maintained or expanded doe-hunting opportunities in many areas in an effort to reduce deer numbers. Some states also look for their buck harvests to increase this year, which is even more exciting news.

Whether you're interested in exploring the forests of central Maine in search of a big buck or pursuing wily whitetails in the suburban woodlots surrounding Baltimore and Philadelphia, there should be ample opportunity to put some venison in the freezer and perhaps a rack on the wall.

CONNECTICUT

In 2003, Connecticut sportsmen killed almost 12,000 deer, including a record 2,889 during archery season, from a herd estimated at about 76,000.

According to DEP Wildlife Division deer project leader Howard Kilpatrick, the archery take wasn't surprising, considering private-land hunters in the southern part of the state (specifically Deer Management Zones 11 and 12) could use bait and were given an extra month of hunting in January.

This year, hunters can look forward to another good whitetail season. "In terms of new hunting opportunities, there are a lot," Kilpatrick notes.

The special baiting regulations remain in effect in the south, where whitetail numbers are higher than desired, while the DEP tries to build the population in DMZ 4a. In the rest of the state, herds appear to be fairly stable. DMZ 12's deer take increased significantly from 2002 to 2003, making it the state's hot spot.

DELAWARE

When it comes to deer hunting in the First State, recent years have been the best on record. Ken Reynolds, Division of Fish and Wildlife wildlife research program manager, says last year's harvest was about 11,700, up from 2002 and just off the record of 12,133, which was taken in 2001.

"Right now Sussex County has the highest deer densities," he says.

In an effort to better control the herd, whose numbers top 30,000, the state is increasing antlerless deer opportunities this year. Sportsmen will get two additional antlerless permits on their licenses, as well as new doe shotgun days in October.

While not known as a major trophy producer, Delaware does yield some nice bucks each year, even on public land. In January, for example, a non-typical scored 197, a new state record. It was taken off Norman G. Wilder Wildlife Area near Willow Grove on the last day of shotgun season.

MAINE

Maine's 2003 harvest was 30,313, down nearly 8,000 from the year before, primarily due to windy, rainy and warm weather during November. Because of the lower harvest and excellent winter survival, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife deer biologist Gerry Lavigne thinks the herd, estimated at 274,000 in 2003, will be slightly larger this year.

According to Lavigne, the DIFW is looking to increase the total harvest. The goal is about 36,000 deer. To achieve this, the DIFW will be issuing almost 5,000 more "any-deer" permits than it did last year.

The highest whitetail densities are found in the southern coastal area, where getting land access can be tough. But if you're looking for a mix of decent deer numbers, good access and a solid chance at a trophy, check out the south-central part of the state--Wildlife Management Districts 16, 17, 22, 23 and 26. The whitetail density in that area is between 20 and 25 per square mile. Lavigne says this region now produces the greatest number of mature bucks.

MARYLAND

In recent years, Maryland has been trying to reduce its herd substantially, and the results might be paying off. Last year, hunters took 87,223 deer--including 1,871 sika deer--down from 94,114 in 2002.

"Right now the trend is showing a decline in the buck harvest, which translates into a reduced deer population overall," says Bob Beyer, associate director of the DNR Wildlife and Heritage Service.

For 2004, hunters will find several changes, including streamlined management zones (Region A is Allegany and Garrett counties; Region B is the rest of the state), three additional antlerless muzzleloader days in October and a reduction in the Region A buck limit to one per season.

Counties with the highest deer concentrations remain those near Baltimore and Washington D.C., where densities range from 70 to 100 whitetails per square mile in some locales. These same counties--Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel--are also good bets for record animals, as is the Eastern Shore.

MASSACHUSETTS

In 2004, Bay State sportsmen should find deer hunting to be at least as good as it has been the past two years, when more than 12,000 whitetails were taken.

Bill Woytek, chief of the MassWildlife Deer Project, notes that the recent harvests are up. In fact, the 2003 take included record kills for muzzleloader (1,844) and archery (3,045).

"We've been targeting high-density areas by issuing a lot of permits," Woytek says. Some of the highest whitetail concentrations are found in portions of zones 10 and 11 in the east, as well as in Zone 3, which is the southern area of the Berkshires.

If a nice buck is what you're after, Massachusetts is home to more than a few. About 30 percent of the annual harvest consists of bucks aged 3 and older. Look to both private and public lands, including more remote areas of the Berkshires and the Quabbin Controlled Hunt.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

With two of the past four winters being fairly severe, the deer population has been in a state of flux. In 2003, hunters harvested 9,492 deer, a 14 percent reduction from 2002. This year, however, things are looking up, especially since the winter was rather mild.

"We're expecting our harvest to come up some from last year," says Kent Gustafson, deer project leader of the state Fish and Game Department. "The population should be higher than it was last fall."

For 2004, the FGD has made the entire archery season an either-sex affair throughout the state and added either-sex days in certain WMUs during the muzzleloader and rifle seasons.

Look for the best deer numbers along the lower Connecticut River and in the southeastern corner, where populations are high. Wall-hangers can pop up anywhere, since 28 percent of the bucks harvested are 3 years old or older. Last year, the state-record typical muzzleloader buck was taken near Merrimack. It scored 181 6/8, making it the second-largest whitetail ever harvested in New Hampshire.

NEW JERSEY

Since taking a record 77,444 whitetails in 2000, New Jersey had exhibited a decline in its harvests. That is, until last year, when sportsmen killed 69,456--the fourth-best take on record and a 10 percent increase over the year before--indicating the herd is still doing extremely well.

"We know the herd is bigger than it should be," says DEP deer project leader Carole Kandoth. "The problem in the state is access."

For 2004, the DFW is looking to reduce deer herds in 62 percent of the state, particularly south of I-80 and north of I-195. Hunterdon County should lead the harvest, followed by Sussex and Warren. Anyone in search of a bruiser may want to try Monmouth, Somerset and Morris counties, along with Cumberland and Burlington.

"I think hunting opportunities will be as good as they've ever been," Kandoth says.

NEW YORK

The Empire State's 2003 deer take of 253,088 was down about 18 percent from 2002's record 308,216. This is due to harvest increases and winter mortality in 2002-03 in certain areas.

As a result of the lower population--estimated at just shy of one million--the Department of Environmental Conservation plans to issue approximately 100,000 fewer antlerless permits than in 2003. Barring horrible weather or a mast failure, however, the agency anticipates hunting will be on a par with, or even better than, last year's.

"We expect to see an increase in the bucks taken this year and a slight increase in total harvest," says Dick Henry, DEC deer team leader.

As far as overall numbers, Steuben, Cattaraugus, Allegany and Chautauqua counties should once again lead the harvest. If you're looking for a monster buck, the counties near Rochester are good bets.

PENNSYLVANIA

This year should be an exciting one in Penn's woods. For the past two years, Pennsylvania has protected approximately 50,000 additional bucks annually through antler restrictions. During this time, the number of yearlings in the buck harvest has gone from nearly 85 percent to less than 60 percent.

"I think we're going to see more older bucks and larger bucks taken than ever before," says Pennsylvania Game Commission deer management section chief Gary Alt.

With a deer population estimated at 1.6 million, hunting opportunities should be outstanding. There have been some incredible harvests recently--a record 517,529 in 2002, followed by 464,890 last year. This year, the state allotted 1,039,000 doe licenses, its most ever. In addition, crossbows are legal for archery season in WMUs 5C, 5D (the southeast) and 2B (Pittsburgh area). Also, the late-season antlerless hunt has been lengthened in 5D.

Look to the southwestern, southeastern and northwestern sections of the state to provide some of the best whitetail hunting.

RHODE ISLAND

Whitetail aficionados who hunt in Rhode Island will be happy to learn that the good deer hunting should continue this year.

During 2003, sportsmen took 2,242 whitetails, a 7 percent increase over the year before. Of note is the fact that the bow harvest was 737--a new record--and 41 percent of the 737 came from Prudence Island, where deer densities are incredibly high, topping 60 per square mile.

"Prudence Island has a considerable amount of public land, so people have a lot of opportunities," says Division of Fish and Wildlife supervising wildlife biologist Lori Gibson.

For 2004, Gibson says, the state's deer population is estimated at 12,000, up just slightly from the past few years.

The big bucks should come from Washington and Providence counties.

VERMONT

As in New Hampshire, Vermont's deer herd has felt the wrath of Mother Nature in recent winters. Since 2000, the population has slipped from about 150,000 to 130,000. In response to the lower numbers, antlerless permits will be available in only seven of the state's 24 WMUs this year.

"We're anticipating a deer harvest similar to last year's, maybe a little higher, depending on how the weather treats people," predicts John Buck, who chairs the Fish and Wildlife Deer Project for the state.

Depending on where you hunt, you're likely to find anywhere from a few deer per square mile to more than 30. One of the most promising regions is the Franklin and Grand Isle counties area (WMUs A and B), where herds are doing well thanks to Lake Champlain's warming effect and the area's relatively abundant farmland. As always, the Green Mountain National Forest and the Northeast Kingdom should offer a decent chance at a mature buck.

WEST VIRGINIA

This year should be an outstanding one for hunting in the Mountain State, with biologists expecting the buck harvest to climb from last year. The total take last year of 73,128 bucks was disappointing. It was the lowest number since 1993.

"I think we're going to see a significant number of older deer with big racks being taken this year," says Paul Johansen, DNR assistant chief of game management.

Statewide, the herd is estimated at 900,000, with two thirds of the counties having populations above objectives. The highest deer densities are found in the northern panhandle, as well as in parts of the northwestern and north-central regions. Brooke, Hancock and Ohio counties all yield at least seven bucks per square mile; the average for the state is just under three and a half.

Look to the southern regions for the biggest racks. The archery-only counties have been producing some truly impressive trophies. These counties include Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming, as well as Kanawha, Raleigh and Nicholas.

CONTACT INFO

CONNECTICUT: 860-642-7239; www.dep.state.ct.us/burnatr/wildlife

DELAWARE: 302-653-2883; www.dnrec.state.de.us/fw

MAINE: 877-620-8367; www.state.me.us/ifw

MARYLAND: 410-543-6595; www.dnr.state.md.us

MASSACHUSETTS: 617-626-1500; www.state.ma.us/dfwele

NEW HAMPSHIRE: 603-271-2461; www.wildlife.state.nh.us

NEW JERSEY: 609-292-6686; www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw

NEW YORK: 518-402-8924; www.dec.state.ny.us/website/dfwmr

PENNSYLVANIA: 717-787-4250; www.pgc.state.pa.us

RHODE ISLAND: 401-789-0281; www.state.ri.us/dem

VERMONT: 802-241-3600; www.anr.state.vt.us

WEST VIRGINIA: 304-558-2771; www.wvdnr.gov

For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/destinations

ROAD TRIP TO NANTUCKET ISLAND

When it comes to unique deer-hunting opportunities, few places in the East can match Massachusetts' Nantucket Island.

Located 20 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, Nantucket offers great hunting in some very unusual whitetail country--scrub oaks, pitch pine barrens, bogs and windswept beaches. MassWildlife estimates Nantucket is home to 40 to 50 whitetails per square mile, the highest density in the state. Finding a place to hunt isn't hard, since the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, which owns 29 percent of the island, has much of its 8,700 acres open to deer hunting.

Although Nantucket is home to good numbers of whitetails, including some 140- and 150-class bucks, its unique topography makes pursuing them a challenge.

"I've hunted throughout the United States and Canada," says Ted Godfrey, charter member and former secretary of the Nantucket Hunting Association. "People always talk about how thick the cover is elsewhere, but I've never seen anyplace where the cover is as thick as it is in Nantucket."

In archery season, bowhunters do well by taking a stand to the densest terrain they can find. Come shotgun time, drives are the way to go, especially when looking for a big buck.

Since it's an island, arranging a Nantucket visit takes some planning. Auto ferry service is available via the Steamship Authority (www.steamshipauthority.com; 508-477-8600) and lodging information can be obtained from the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce (www.nantucketchamber.org; 508-228-1700). For information on hunting Nantucket Conservation Foundation lands, call 508-228-2884.