Rich Hoppe stopped by Gateway Variety in Ashland on Monday morning to check out the action at the state’s busiest moose-tagging station.
He wasn’t disappointed, as plenty of hunters filled their tags despite the warm weather.
During a break in the action, the longtime regional wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said that moose aren’t the only game in town, though.
Come the middle of next week, in fact, he expects lots of other visitors to head to Ashland in order to take advantage of another fantastic hunting opportunity that exists just beyond the nearby North Maine Woods gate.
“I’m getting two, three calls a day over the last two, three weeks on birds, ruffed grouse hunting, [or] ‘partridge,’ for us up here,” Hoppe said. “It’s becoming quite a game species where very specific people who have dogs and want to hunt these birds, to get the numbers like we have in northern Maine, they can’t go anywhere else.”
Add in the locals who enjoy bird hunting, whether while riding the roads or with well-trained bird dogs, and the vast North Maine Woods lands get plenty of action. Many make an annual trip, and check in regularly with Hoppe to see what kind of hunting they might expect.
“I have guys that I’ve been talking to for 15 years now, who call every year and then come up,” he said. “And they tell other people about it. I’m pretty excited that so many people are getting an interest in this.”
A couple weeks back, DIF&W game bird biologist Kelsey Sullivan explained that the logging practices in the North Maine Woods have created parcels of perfect grouse habitat that don’t typically exist in other parts of the state.
“Grouse prefer really dense cover. Predation is the reason [and they need] good cover for them and their young,” Sullivan explained. “The forest structure [that] is generally preferable for them is a young forest, where things are just kind of regenerating and there’s a lot of small saplings.”
And where do you find habitat like that? In working forests like those in the North Maine Woods.
“That happens because of the forest practices in northern Maine. There’s continuous rotational cutting,” Sullivan said. “So there’s continuous regeneration of habitat … in southern Maine there isn’t as much of that available. Forests are basically maturing and they’re losing that young, dense structure.”
Hoppe said he has seen evidence that indicates this fall will be another banner year for grouse in northern Maine.
“It looks like our brood survivorship for grouse season is going to be just tremendous,” Hoppe said. “We’re looking at anywhere from five to seven [chicks] with the hen,” he said.
That report likely won’t surprise his colleague, Sullivan.
“What we’ve always maintained is that if there’s habitat there, grouse will be there,” Sullivan said.
A personal report: Though BDN visuals editor Brian Feulner and I didn’t venture beyond Six Mile Gate on Monday, we did ride American Realty Road and a few spur roads on Monday, looking for moose hunters. We saw a couple of plump grouse crossing the roads, and saw a lot of spots that looked particularly “birdy.”
How about the deer?
Hoppe was full of good news on Monday, including one nugget that was a bit unexpected.
The biologist said that despite a harsh winter, he expects northern Maine deer hunters to be pleasantly surprised this year.
“Even I’m surprised [the deer population[ did as well as it did, knowing how March shaped up last year, with so much snow,” Hoppe said. “But it’s going to be a great deer season up here, too.”
Another personal report: Feulner and I were already talking about deer before our encounter with Hoppe. While driving through Masardis, my colleague spotted a group of six or seven deer standing in a field not far from the road.
Anecdotal report? Sure. But encouraging, given the struggle the northern Maine deer herd has faced over the past half decade? You bet.