Before Trenton’s fire department began hosting the town’s annual hunters’ breakfast, hunters gathered at the local elementary school. That tradition ended with an ordinance against firearms in school, but the hunters’ breakfast tradition Down East lives on.

In fact, while licenses that permit deer hunting in Maine have dropped the past decade from 231,888 in 2000 to 199,666 in 2010, the age-old hunters’ breakfast welcomes November in Maine in small towns statewide.

“The school used to do it as the eighth-grade class trip. Things change a lot,” said Richard Gray, the town’s fire chief.

The traditional gathering heralds in firearm season for deer in Maine, which begins for all Maine residents on Saturday. But today the meal of eggs, sausage and biscuits is as much about bringing communities together as it is feeding hunters.

“A lot of older people, some of them (who) don’t even hunt anymore still go to the breakfast,” Gray said. “Hunting in the area is not as strong as it used to be. But that’s because of the posted land. I used to hunt behind my father’s house; now there are houses there.”

The Rangeley Region Guides and Sportsmen’s Association, the state’s oldest local sporting club, at 116 years old, has continued the hunters’ breakfast tradition with a focus on the youth ranks. But the kid-focused affair is open to the public, and club vice president Kevin Sinnett said it’s popular with the older hunters.

“We get anywhere from 15 to five. The staff cooks breakfast to order, they get a hunter orange hat, it’s all free for the kids,” Sinnett said.

“It’s turned into a social event for the older folks. It’s fun that way as they tell stories to the kids during breakfast. We want to keep the local kids interested in hunting, not because we’ve seen the numbers go down, but offering this to kids makes sense in this part of the state.”

About 10 miles from Old Town in Greenbush, the hunters’ breakfast tradition has changed into a special gathering for the next generation.

Word of declining hunter license numbers doesn’t seem to have reached these parts, where a youth hunters’ breakfast draws 50 to 60.

“Really, the town pulls together. There is a lot of tradition because there are a lot of hunting families here, but it’s become a community event,” said Jennifer Nevells, the event director.

In Presque Isle, the sportsmen’s club claims to have the state’s longest-standing hunter’s breakfast, continuing for 62 years.

And in East Millinocket, the hunters’ breakfast has been held at the town fire department for at least 29 years, said firefighter John Miner.

In these northern parts of the state, the spirit of hunting has not diminished. Yes, the deer herd has dwindled in the past four years, but hunters in the remote corners of the state say the celebratory kickoff to the traditional hunting season has not changed.

“We are still doing 250 hunters. I’d say 60 to 79 percent are hunters, and still a number of them are the traditional Maine deer hunter. They take a week vacation and hunt the weekend and any chance they have off,” said Nick Archer, vice president of the Presque Isle Fish and Game Club.

And hunters’ breakfasts in Maine are also about hope.

In Presque Isle, Archer believes the deer herd is in the process of bouncing back. After the past two mild snowfall winters in the North Country, they’re seeing more deer, he said.

“If we get a good, average snowfall winter, the numbers will come back. We are starting to see recovery. There are does and fawns on the side of the road. I’m overly optimistic. But we’re seeing good average numbers. It’s a beginning. We’re seeing signs,” Archer said.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: Flemingpph