Firearm season opens for Maine deer hunters Saturday, and biologists predict the prospect of tagging a deer will be better than in recent years because of a mild winter last year.

But the chances of getting a prized big buck may be limited for a few more years, until the herd is able to further rebound from the harsh winters in 2008 and 2009. Nonetheless, big buck hunters in Maine say they will still be searching for a monster whitetail, that big-game animal that has given Maine a far-reaching reputation.

The big bucks prized by hunters tend to be older, and living through more than one hunting season has given them survival skills that make bagging one more of a challenge.

For a big buck to qualify for entry into the Big Bucks in Maine Club, it must weigh more than 200 pounds.

“Some people get a big one once in a lifetime, maybe twice,” said Joe Saltalamachia of Unity. “I set out 13 years ago to try to get 10. I just decided I’m not shooting the little ones anymore. No more yearlings. So far I’ve shot five (big bucks).”

Hunters in Maine who tag a buck weighing more than 200 pounds are given the coveted club patch by The Maine Sportsman magazine, which keeps the club’s records. There are normally 350 to 500 hunters each year who make the club, which has existed for at least the past few decades, according to the magazine.

The regular firearm season for deer begins Saturday and ends Nov. 24 for Maine adult residents. Non-resident firearm season begins Oct. 29. The muzzleloader season ends statewide Dec. 1. All deer hunters – whether using bow and arrow, standard firearms or muzzleloaders – require a valid hunting license.

Last year’s harvest was one of the lowest in years with just 18,839 deer taken. State deer biologist Lee Kantar expects it to top 20,000 this year, still a long way from the 28,148 taken in 2005 or the 38,153 deer in 2002. He said the reason remains the harsh winters of 2008 and 2009 that decimated the state’s deer herd.

But Kantar believes another mild winter this year could continue to boost Maine’s deer harvest toward 30,000. And as the herd grows, the number of big bucks will also increase, Kantar said.

“There should be a lot of deer out there. Last winter was one of the mildest winters in 60-plus years,” Kantar said. “Obviously, that is huge for survival of all age classes. People are seeing a lot of deer, and that’s all good stuff.”

Kantar said Maine’s larger whitetail deer are a product of our more northerly climate. Maine’s whitetails are, on average, a few pounds heavier than those in the South, Kantar said.

“The bottom line is because we don’t have a high-density (deer population), we are able to grow big bucks. And the farther north you go with all animals, normally the bigger-bodied they are,” Kantar said.

Maine’s big bucks are a key reason that out-of-state hunters – as many as 30,000 to 40,000 – flock to Maine during deer season, said Al Cowperthwaite, director of the North Maine Woods, which operates the toll gates leading to the forestland in northern Maine.

“The big woods are known for large deer. During deer season, 20 percent of our visitors are from out of state,” Cowperthwaite said. “And we have anecdotal evidence from our staff and from camp owners that they are seeing more deer this fall than the last two to three years.”

That’s good for hunters like Dave McLaughlin of Old Town, who specifically targets the big bucks. McLaughlin has four patches from the Big Bucks in Maine Club after 50 years of hunting.

“I’m not seeing the big ones like I used to see,” McLaughlin said. “I attribute that to there being less deer than in the early ’80s. It will take some time. But I do think it is coming back.”

And Saltalamachia in Unity, who has his big buck hunting techniques down to a science that includes meticulous notes, thinks this could be his year – again.

“It’s never easy. But I am becoming more patient. I no longer mind ending the season with a zero. The year I got my 10-point buck, I passed on 14 bucks,” said Saltalamachia. “The legend is alive and well. I do think we still have big bucks in the Northeast.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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