Washington County used to be known for good deer hunting. In fact, the state record 31-point Hill Gould buck was shot in Washington County in 1910.
But in recent years, most Mainers would say that deer hunting, outside of southern Maine, isn’t as good as it used to be.
I grew up in Machias, but now I live, work and hunt in southern Maine. I have a lot of respect for Down East deer hunters; they work harder for it. The deer are fewer and there isn’t a food plot, cornfield or article of Sitka clothing to be seen. Hunters there wear Carhartt and cigarette smoke.
Though every hunter I know loves venison, Mainers living in one of the state’s poorest counties have a large financial incentive to be successful in the woods. They need the meat.
Down East folks may be conservative and old-fashioned, but we are pragmatic. Though my family doesn’t hunt or own guns, I was taught to handle firearms by friends’ fathers. It didn’t matter that my friend Whitney was a girl. She was the oldest child in her family, so her dad taught both of us to shoot his .306 rifle at soda cans.
When my friend Kelsey was old enough, her dad lectured us on firearm safety before we shot exploding targets off the deck of their camp. Shooting and properly handling guns was a life skill, as necessary as reading and writing.
I had never bagged a deer back home Down East, but always put Wildlife Management District 27 as my first choice for a doe tag. This year, under the state’s new antlerless permit system, I got a permit. I teased my mom about shooting one of the many does in her backyard, right in town.
In recent years, due to intentional feeding, there’s been an explosion in the number of does wandering the paved streets and bedding in backyards. At first, it was exciting to see so many deer — something I never saw while growing up — but recently, the deer had reached “nuisance” status for many. Residents can’t have gardens, and there’s been an increase in vehicle-deer collisions.
After I filled my buck tag in southern Maine in early November, I focused on my Down East doe tag. I texted a few of my childhood friends who still lived in the area and told them I would be home for Thanksgiving and had a doe tag. My friend Austin Roberts replied that he was all tagged out and he had land with does that I was welcome to hunt.
On Thanksgiving morning, Austin and I sat in his two-person tree stand, in the biting wind. We whispered about the deer he had shot from that stand the week prior and wiped our runny noses. Mid-morning, we surrendered to the wind and headed for the truck. On the ride back to my car, he pointed out the land he owned, showing me where I could hunt without him in the coming days.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving was the last day of the firearm season. I sat by myself near Foss Point in Kennebec, likely named for my ancestors who settled in the area in 1765. Eventually, a doe appeared about 80 yards away. I peered through my binoculars trying to judge her size. Lone does can be hard to judge. I studied its face. It didn’t look “chubby” like the face of a yearling or this year’s deer, so I decided it was a shooter.
Then four more does entered the field. They were all about the same size, and none stood out as being way larger or way smaller. I adjusted my shooting stick up and dialed in my scope. When the first doe was broadside, I took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger steadily on the exhale, just as Kelsey’s dad had taught me 20 years ago. The doe ran to the left and the other does ran to the right. It fell to the ground about 40 yards away, stone dead.
I called Austin on my cellphone, “I got a doe!”
“You did?! Can you load her up yourself? We gotta go help Leroy, he just shot a buck,” Austin replied.
“Yeah, I think so. I have my Jet Sled. I’ll meet you at your driveway,” I said.
I hustled and struggled to get the undressed doe into the sled, and then into my 4Runner, by myself.
Austin and I met up with our friend Matt Little, nicknamed Leroy, and he described what happened.
“He came out chasing a doe across the barrens, and since it’s the last day of the season I couldn’t be picky anymore,” he said.
I snapped a couple photos of Leroy with his 6-pointer and suddenly, we heard a single gunshot echo through the air.
“That’s Brent!” Austin said. “That shot came from the direction of his shack!”
We loaded up Leroy’s buck and drove the short distance to where Brent Hooper was hunting. We helped Brent track his deer and found the nice 8-pointer 100 yards away — even though it had been shot in the heart. I offered and gutted all three deer, because, after all, this was the community that raised me to believe girls could do everything boys could.
Deer hunting is usually a solo pursuit, but that late November day was full of shared excitement. We loaded our three deer into Austin’s truck, piled in ourselves and headed for the tagging station. The good ole days of Maine deer hunting may not be in the past after all.