Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By BOB HUMPHREY
The big event, the regular firearms season on deer, still lies a couple weeks away, but this coming Saturday represents a very important precursor.
On Maine's youth deer day, hunters between the ages of 10 and 16 will team up with parent/guardian sponsors to get a first crack at what's expected to be a rejuvenated deer herd, and more importantly, to carry on the hunting tradition.
To an avid deer hunter, this day arrives with all the excitement and import of Christmas morning. Weeks of planning, scouting and preparing lead up to it. Kids and adults alike retire to a sleepless night, anticipating a day of great unknowns filled with limitless potential.
To the first-time hunter it is a rite of passage. For years, they've watched mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, older siblings, cousins and friends leave for the hunt. It may only be a morning, a day or a week, but there's a special excitement when they return.
Whether successful or not the hunters always bring home tales of the hunt to be told and retold in a tradition that spans millennia. As they grow a little older, some youngsters may go along as observers, but this will be the first time they are true participants.
Following the example of other states, Maine first proposed giving young hunters a day of their own nearly a decade ago. Surprisingly, some folks actually opposed the idea, either out of concern the additional mortality would have too much of an impact on Maine's deer population, or simply because the added competition would make it harder for them to get "their" deer.
Eight years of youth hunts have since proven the impact is negligible, accounting for only about 2 percent of the total deer harvest each year.
Whether successful or not, each and every kid will have a story to tell. Some will be recognized at the local game registration station when they check in their deer. Saturday evening conversations at home or at camp will center around kill shots, misses or mere deer sightings. And the buzz will all start up again Monday morning when the kids return to school.
In a bittersweet irony, those kids who were successful will be done for the season, while those who were not may continue to hunt. Currently, firearms hunters are permitted to take only one deer per season. Another proposal that, so far, has yet to gain acceptance would permit successful youth day hunters to continue hunting and take another deer during the regular firearms season.
With a youth hunter success rate at less than 10 percent, that might amount to another 1 percent of the annual deer harvest, bringing the total to around 3 or perhaps a whopping 4 percent. That's a pretty small impact, especially when you consider that encouraging youth hunters is the single most important factor in ensuring the future of hunting in Maine.
While the impact on the deer herd may be negligible, the impact on Maine's economy and the future of wildlife conservation is not. Deer hunting is the keystone of Maine's wildlife management program.
Last year, more than 200,000 deer hunters accounted for an estimated 1.08 million hunter-days of effort pursuing deer over Maine's 79 days of deer hunting, contributing millions of dollars to Maine's economy. The majority of that effort is attributable to the regular firearms season, which attracts over 170,000 participants.
Maine has seen a decline in hunter numbers in recent years. There are numerous contributing factors, such as an increasingly urbanized society and a lack of adult mentors. Fortunately, there are opportunities like youth deer, turkey and waterfowl days.
I feel truly fortunate to live in a small town in a still largely rural state. My neighbors understand the concept of community, they appreciate hard work and they haven't lost their connection to the land. Walk into a convenience store or a diner wearing camo or hunter orange and you're greeted with a smile, especially if you have a kid in tow.
It may be because they think it's quaint, or more likely because they, at least, understand that these kids are learning respect and responsibility at a young age.
They're not playing video games, vandalizing a cemetery or taking drugs. They are in the great outdoors, observing, appreciating and being a part of nature, and carrying on a tradition we can hope they will be able to pass along to their children.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: