Stefan Hard / Staff Photo A chart registering deer checked in at Flanders Market in Chelsea shows plenty of large bucks taken in the area in the first week of rifle season.
Chatting with deer hunters this rifle season in Vermont, there’s a clear consensus out there about what isn’t out there: deer, and hunters.
Hunters I spoke with on opening and closing weekends of rifle season weren’t complaining about not seeing a lot of other hunters. And while they were unhappy with how few deer they were seeing in the woods, they were impressed with the size of deer being taken during this two-week rifle season.
A quick look at the deer charts and deer pool entries at a few big game reporting stations in Barre, Chelsea, and East Randolph revealed a healthy number of deer topping 140 pounds, with many above 160 pounds and a fair number approaching 190 pounds. Deer I saw on scales and in the back of pickup trucks were filled out, with heavy, dense fur, thick necks and heavy musculature.
Peter Chap of Royalton would agree. Last rifle season, he saw only one deer even though he hunted every day of the season, including three weekends. This season, he saw only two deer, but the second was a large buck rubbing its ample antlers on a tree on a mountainside in Chittenden. Chap took the deer down with his rifle in a furious snow squall and dragged it back to his truck in Pittsfield. The seven-point buck tipped the scales at 186 pounds when checked in at Locust Creek Country Store in Bethel.
“This year it seems the deer aren’t in their usual patterns,” said Chap. Like other hunters I spoke with, Chap thinks poor availability of deer’s usual late fall food sources like crabapples, beech nuts and hickory nuts has caused the deer to forage further afar in new areas. Some hunters also mentioned reports of large rodent populations competing for many of those same food sources.
Several hunters spoke of the need to limit the number of deer taken during youth hunting season, a short season that precedes rifle season.
Eric Johnson of Randolph said youth hunters should be allowed no more than three deer in youth season; then they would have to hunt during the normal rifle season. He also said he believes doe hunting should be sharply restricted during rifle season in light of the fact that many doe are impregnated during that time and a doe killed may really be two deer eliminated from the herd if the doe taken is pregnant.
Avid hunter Mike Doyle of Washington said he’s seen about 200 doe this rifle season, most from his vehicle driving down the road. He’s seen only two bucks — both leaping away at a distance without an opportunity to get off a shot. Like many hunters, he credits a tightening of restrictions on the taking of spikehorn bucks (they must have a fork on at least one of their antlers) for allowing deer to mature to larger size, but he would like to see the requirement extended to a minimum of three points on one side. He would also like to see a lottery to issue deer tags for December rifle hunting.
Jeff Small of Randolph said he hasn’t seen many deer this season. He thinks some deer are limited genetically to their mature antler size, and may remain spikehorns well into maturity. He thinks the spikehorn restrictions should be based on a minimum length of the antler on one side to account for the genetic variations. He said his brother had to pass up a good-sized spikhorn but was able to bag a 122-lb. five-pointer in Randolph.
Chap also spoke of genetics influencing the deer herd, and noted that Vermont’s deer herd varies greatly depending on what part of Vermont you’re hunting, due to those genetic variations and different terrain and food source abundance. He wonders if deer rules should vary between regions within the state.
Jeff Mugford of Berlin said he has seen very few deer this year in his usual hunting grounds in Berlin, Middlesex, and Chelsea.
“This is the worst rifle season ever for me,” said Mugford, who worries that youth hunting is “pounding” the deer herd too early in the calendar, and he advocates only a small number of doe tags be issued for rifle season.
A couple of hunters said they are seeing more deer in mixed residential and rural areas this year, than in the contiguous wooded areas where rifle hunters traditionally seek the big bucks.
Statistics from the state Fish and Wildlife Department will eventually prove the quality and distribution of the deer harvest from rifle season. Anecdotal evidence, however, points to a trend of fewer deer, but larger bucks.
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