Big bucks are a badge of honor for Maine deer hunters

 pressherald.com  11/22/2020 09:02:49 

Isaac Patry of Saco shot this 252-pound buck near Moosehead Lake. And it wasnt even the first deer over 200 pounds hes shot. Photo courtesy of Isaac Patry

In other parts of the country harvesting a deer with an enormous antler spread is the apex of hunting success. But in Maine, body size wins, especially with deer weighing more than 200 pounds. And nothing celebrates a big buck like the many contests and clubs held across the state.

Perhaps the oldest and most celebrated is the Biggest Bucks in Maine Club run by The Maine Sportsman magazine, which distributes the distinctive red patch that bares the club’s name to those who verify  usually at a tagging station  having harvested a deer weighing more than 200 pounds.

It’s definitely a case in the Midwest where I grew up where hunters are more focused on antler size, and here they are more focused on body mass, said Nathan Bieber, deer biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. I guess its just a cultural thing. Being a little farther north and an animal having a larger body weight, its a bit more unique.

The Biggest Bucks in Maine Club has been in existence at least since 1954, according to Will Lund, the editor of the magazine, which has a circulation in 45 states and Canada and has distributed the patch since the 1970s, when the magazine took the task of running the exclusive clubover from the state.

This year, at least one Facebook group joined the big-buck frenzy: the Maine Deer Hunters, which is holding a contest for the biggest deer posted. But every year convenience stores that serve as tagging stations also hold big-deer contests of their own.

At Four Corner Variety in Union, co-owners Wayne Kirpatrick and his wife, Corrie, have run a big-deer contest the past three years because it brings customers through the door. They first charged sportsmen and women $5 to enter the contest that awarded cash prizes. This year the couple donated the prize money: $250 for first place, $100 for second, and a $50 gift certificate to their store for the third largest deer.

A patch from the Biggest Bucks in Maine Club, circa 1954, shows the value Mainers put in big deer, rather than big antler spreads. Photo courtesy of The Maine Sportsman Magazine

So far this year, they have seen a dozen deer over 200 pounds  twice as many as last year, when they tagged 350 deer. The top deer as of Thursday was 238 pounds.

“Its been amazing. Every two to three days, we’ve seen one larger than 200 pounds, Kirkpatrick said.

Michele Morine was grateful for harvesting a 222-pound buck in Union. I think Ill get around 100 pounds of meat. That will last a long time, she said. Photo courtesy of Michele Morine

There is no state database recording the size of deer harvested in any given year, because hunters are not required to report weight when tagging a deer  and not all tagging stations weigh deer. But every year state biologists fan out across the state to inspect deer at tagging stations to gather biological data  and as a team they handle as many as 1,000 to 1,500 deer a season. In the past three years, Bieber said, the largest deer inspected by the team of biologists was a 265-pound buck in 2017, a 281-pound buck in 2018 and a 290-pound buck in 2019.

I am 180 pounds, Bieber said. Thats 100 pounds more than I weigh. I have a hard time even picturing an animal that size.

State biologists see bucks in northern Maine that weigh, on average, between 175 to 195 pounds. In southern Maine the bucks they handle generally weigh between 150 to 175 pounds. Deer in Maine tend to be larger the farther north you go because the body mass of a species tends to increase in colder climates. In addition, in northern Maine, the hunting pressure is far less, so it allows deer to grow older and larger.

But this year, massive bucks were tagged statewide in the first two weeks of the firearm season  even some right near the coast.

Seth Milliken of Jonesport was hunting with his father near their camp in Washington County, just 20 minutes from the Down East coast, where Milliken is a lobsterman. Since deer tend to be larger in northern Maine, the Milliken men were not expecting to see the huge buck that stepped into the blueberry field that they were driving through.

Milliken spotted the buck, told his father to stop the truck, and got out, loaded his rifle and got off two shots. It was the third deer the 24-year-old Milliken harvested since he started hunting at age 10  and by far the biggest.

Jonesport lobsterman Seth Milliken was jubilant after shooting a 202-pound buck in a blueberry field in Down East Maine. It was the first buck he harvested over 200 pounds. Photo courtesy of Seth Milliken

My dad has the patch, from a 232-pound deer he shot in that same area. Hes got the patch on his flannel jacket, Milliken said. It will be awesome to join the Biggest Bucks in Maine Club this year. I didnt think it would ever happen.

Michele Morine, a hunter of only four years, shot her fourth deer: a 222-pound buck. Morine, who was hunting on her land in Union with her 11-year-old granddaughter when she dropped the buck, didnt even know about the big-buck club and its patch. But she plans to send away for one.

I feel really blessed. Im thinking Ill get around 100 pounds of meat. That will last a long time. And I like to share it with other people, Morine said.

Then there are those who commit to the task of harvesting a huge buck  and find success.

Isaac Patry, 22, has been hunting more than half his life with his Saco family. This year, at their hunting camp near Moosehead Lake, Patry bagged a 252-pound buck. Last year in the same area, he harvested a 206-pound buck. He will apply for his second red patch.

Here they are way less concerned about the rack, which is really cool,” Patry said. “Its something thats been a part of the heritage here for a long time. There are people who have been looking to shoot a 200-pound deer their whole life.”

In the past five years, The Maine Sportsman has averaged more than 450 entries of big bucks, Lund said. Each year the largest deer entered approach 300 pounds. And this year appears no different.

Maine hunters display their red patches with pride, Lund said. Each year, we receive tattered old patches and requests for replacement patches, since Maine hunting involves pushing through raspberry whips that eventually cause jackets and patches to wear out.

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