Deer hunting is about a lot more than killing a deer

I saw about 30 deer last season and chose not to shoot one. I need to tell Ralph Sabin this, because in response to my last column on deer hunting and any-deer permits, Ralph wrote, “Most people work for a living and don’t have time to bag their deer every year George… once again I shake my head.”

In that column, posted here on May 18, I noted that I “got my deer” nearly every year for the past 40 years. And that is true. But it set Ralph off, so I need to set the record straight. I enjoy everything about deer hunting, and look forward to spending a lot of time in the woods in November and December every year. I especially enjoy the muzzle-loading season, mostly because there are far fewer hunters in the woods.

In the May 18 column, I reported that Maine hunters harvested 22,490 deer in 2014, about the same number as the previous year, but any deer permits for 2015 will nevertheless be slashed by 23 percent. In my district 16, permits have been reduced from 28,000 two years ago to just 16,000 this year. I believe the deer herd is up substantially in this district, and can’t understand the dramatic decrease.

Kyle Ravana, the lead deer biologist for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said, “By decreasing the number of any deer permits available, we can offset some of the impact of the now two consecutive harsh winters.”

But in the June edition of The Maine Sportsman, I read a column by Nicole Bellerose, who works each winter for DIF&W as a Deer Research Technician, that “the model indicates a need to reduce permits due to a severe winter, however, the 40 collared does are all alive and healthy in the spring, proving does survived the severe winter in better shape than originally thought.”

Why We Hunt

In my May 18 column on deer, I noted that 150,000 deer hunters didn’t get a deer last year, and some never or hardly ever get a deer. And I invited hunters in that category to let me know why they still hunt. Turns out, they still hunt for the same reasons I hunt. Deer hunting is about a whole lot more than shooting a deer. Here are some of the comments I received.

As a family we see north of 50 deer a year during the firearms season and choose not to shoot. Harvesting does or immature bucks isn’t a challenge. By letting them go by you get to hunt the entire season in hopes of next
year harvesting a mature buck. Our family land owner doe permits are considered saving does. – Nikki Smith

I enjoy going to deer camp with longtime friends. Usually one out of the six of us will get one. I also enjoy walking in the woods tracking deer and enjoying nature. I’m sorry your only goal is to “get your deer”. – Ted Wright – NOTE TO TED – My only goal is not to “get my deer” but I’ve been fortunate to get one most years.

The old Maine ways are gone, posted land, food plots, and super pack bonuses. It’s like DIF&W has created more anti-hunters than they have hunters . And a lot of old timers are giving up, cause it is not even hunting – it is an ego money thing instead of the tradition it once was. The thread that connected you to nature, family, and ancestors who trod the woods that are now posted. – David Bubier – NOTE TO DAVE – I don’t think, and I surely hope, you are wrong.

Well George I am one of those hunters who has not gotten a deer since 1980’s and I blame that on Wheelchair Hunting is rather limited, and time in woods not like it used to be. Like last year snow in woods means No Go for a wheelchair. But even holding an any deer permit I still want Mr. Buck… Sorry I turn down many shots every year. Don Simoneau. NOTE TO DON – Good for you!

I hunt in the woods with my dad, using my grandfather’s gun and I put in long hours of prep work year round to build good habitat for the local herd. I have been a pretty successful hunter (I was one of those hunters who shot a buck last year) and I would argue that for people who are complaining about the loss of heritage – do something about it and get the younger generation out into the woods. Shoot a deer or not, if you teach someone how to track, look for sign and what is good habitat, that can go further than throwing complaints up on a FB post. Get involved with rod & gun clubs or other outdoor organizations. Most of them have a youth program. – Erin Merrill


I was born a Maine hunter and had the privilege of hunting with my Dad, Ezra Smith, for 53 years. Just before he died in the Togus Hospice Unit last fall, I had a story published in Down East magazine about hunting with Dad for those 53 years.

Dad died the day before the rifle season on deer opened, and that made last year’s hunting season a little tough for me. I put a chair out on our woodlot, where we enjoyed so many great days, with a photo of Dad taped on it, and told him to direct a big buck my way.

One morning I checked on Dad’s chair, and right behind it, just 2 feet away, was a huge buck scrape! Dad, I said, you were supposed to direct that buck down to my stand.

I have written many stories and columns about our hunts, and some of those are in my book, A Life Lived Outdoors, published last year by Islandport Press in Yarmouth. Here is one of those stories, which explains what hunting means to me.

Hunting Is My Heritage

The canoe paddle dips silently into the calm waters of Hopkins Stream, mist hiding the shoreline ahead, allowing us to sneak up to three Buffleheads that take off in surprise.  A muskrat slowly meanders toward shore, in no hurry to get away.  He steps up on land and gazes out at us.

We quietly exit the canoe, quickly glancing at the oak knoll in front of us where deer have been feeding heavily.  Fresh deer sign is everywhere as we trudge three hundred yards to our ground blind on the top of a small ridge overlooking the oaks.

This morning Dad and I choose to sit together.  He looks one way, I look the other.  It’s quiet, comforting, cleansing for the mind and body.  I’ve been known to nap in the woods during deer season. We enjoy coffee and muffins, content to sit in anticipation.

Anticipation that a deer may appear at any moment is the very best part of the hunt, and we do a lot of anticipating.  This particular morning, that’s all we do.  No deer appear, although later in the morning I jump one in a thick fir stand, hearing the crack and commotion of an escaping Whitetail without casting my eyes on the critter.

I pause to enjoy the smell of the firs, the cushion of the mossy forest floor, the skittering of red squirrels, and the sharp taste of my fresh Maine apple.  A chickadee alights two feet from my face, unafraid.  I remember the time an ermine ran up my leg and arm while I sat on the ground leaning against a tree.  Last year I was mesmerized by two fisher cavorting along through my woodlot.  They never saw me.  You see amazing things while hunting.

As I move into an open area with a parcel of standing dead trees, a magnificent Pileated woodpecker cries out, then lands thirty yards away.  Wow!  What a bird!

This morning, I am thinking about a letter in yesterday’s Kennebec Journal, criticizing the paper for printing photographs of young hunters with their deer.

“Children should not be taught that it is their privilege to hunt and kill.  If killing a defenseless animal for ‘sport’ is your bonding time with a child, you may want to take a look at the negative impact this may have on your child.  In time, it will destroy the child’s ability to show empathy for wildlife,” wrote this gentleman.

I’m sure glad Dad didn’t think this way when I was growing up.  He raised me to be a Maine sportsman and my times spent hunting and fishing with Dad are my most memorable childhood experiences.  Fortunately, we’re still doing that today.

I am living proof that hunting does not destroy the “ability to show empathy for wildlife.”  I love the critters in the forest, all of them, and spend thousands of hours every year watching them.  A few I shoot and eat, respectful of them and what they contribute to my life and my table.  I am not a killer.  I am a hunter.  And I do understand the difference.

Regretfully, there is no way to convey this to those who believe hunting is, as this letter writer reported, “shameful.” Yet we have so much in common.  “For me,” he writes, “the sighting of a deer is a marvel of God’s existence.”  Me too!

I meander into a stand of tall hemlocks, taking a seat on an old stump, pondering what specifically God would expect of me these days.  What does He expect me to eat?  How does He expect me to get that food?

Alas, I am not nearly wise enough to have the answers.  It must be nice to have all the answers.  I seek them, oftentimes in the solitude of the woods, but few are provided to me.

Later that night, about 10 pm, a doe and lamb eat grass on our front lawn, and I get within ten feet of them, only the wall and window separating us.  I watch them for 20 minutes, captivated.  I have no interest in shooting them.  They seem to know that.  They stare back at me unafraid.

Perhaps this is the answer.  I know when to shoot, and when not to shoot.  I do not kill indiscriminately, but only with purpose, with legal right, with respect for the animal.  Perhaps this is what God would expect. I can only hope so.  Because I can no more stop hunting than I can stop breathing.


George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.