The name "Northeast Kingdom" is thought to have been first used in a 1949 speech by George D. Aiken, former governor of Vermont and a U.S. senator at the time. The "Kingdom" is loosely defined as Essex, Orleans and Caledonia counties. It covers 2,027 square miles, encompasses 56 towns and is about 21 percent of the state of Vermont. As of 1997, the last year for which there are statistics, 80 percent of it was covered by forest. Of that, 59 percent was northern hardwood, 29 percent spruce or fir. No doubt the percentage of forested land is even higher today.
The Northeast Kingdom has been listed in the North American and international editions of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and in 2006, the National Geographic Society named it the most desirable place to visit in the country and the ninth-most desirable place to visit in the world.
It has a rich history as a haven for hippies, religious cults and anybody else wanting to be left alone. Any visit here is like walking though a hole in the time-space continuum and stepping into a place time forgot.
For many years it was the region that produced the vast majority of trophy whitetail bucks in Vermont. A "trophy" buck in Vermont is not judged by the antlers, but rather by the body weight. The magic number is 200 pounds, dressed weight. If a buck passes that number on the scale, he is considered a trophy. The reason the Kingdom produced so many of them is that the bucks, like the residents, want to be left alone. The vast tracts of wilderness allow the savviest bucks to avoid most hunters and to live long and prosper. But those few hunters capable of finding such deer bring in trophies year after year.
The Northeast Kingdom is special for me, as I spent a lot of summers on some of its most pristine lakes. I also spent October hunting grouse, moose and black bear here, and the winters exploring it on a snowmobile. But the region is particularly special because I spent the Novembers of my formative years here chasing whitetails. It was here that I first tracked a deer successfully. It didn't matter that it turned out to be a big doe. While I may have needed to work on track identification skills, it told me that following hoofprints in the snow could indeed result in my putting sights on a deer.
Things have changed a bit here, and throughout Vermont. Other parts of the Green Mountains are producing more trophy bucks while the Kingdom's deer hunting has faded a bit. With hoards of invading "flatlanders" moving in from other places, attitudes have changed about laws, regulations, taxes and land ownership, and therefore land management.
This far north, the whitetail population for any given area is determined by the winter habitat. The deer need winter yards to survive, and when the deer yards started to change, so did the deer population. The current global warming hysteria has not touched the Northeast Kingdom, and some of the most recent winters have been very severe. With fewer acres of viable winter range, coupled with those recent severe winters, the deer herd numbers are reduced.
Other factors also are in play. Forced changes in land management by those who legislate by emotion rather than science has reduced the viable habitat and available food supplies throughout the year, which keeps populations lower. Also, the influx of the Eastern coyote, now well-established, adds a level of predation that keeps deer numbers low. With little change in these policies or the coyote population in sight, the best years for deer hunting in the Northeast Kingdom may be behind us.
However, that said, it is still the best bet for a trophy buck in Vermont. In fact, in terms of trophy quality there may have never been a better time. The "no-spikes" law has been in effect for several years and has resulted in a larger population of older bucks. The Kingdom still has the most wilderness and more big pieces of land between roads than any other part of Vermont, so the deer can escape hunting pressure with distance. Hunter numbers are down because of fewer deer sightings, so discouraged folks travel to other areas of the state with higher concentrations of deer.
The terrain here is more favorable to foot travel than other areas of Vermont. Much of the other wilderness and wild areas are in the Green Mountains, which means a lot of steep ridges and mountains. However, much of the Kingdom is flatter, with vast basins and lower ridges. This makes tracking a buck a lot easier.
If you expect to hang a treestand and wait to shoot a trophy buck, odds are you will be disappointed. You might succeed, but don't bet the farm on it. Just as it has always been, the most productive way to hunt whitetails in the Northeast Kingdom is by tracking. Tracking ensures that there is a deer in front of you at all times, usually a buck. No other method does that. But this is not a hunt for the faint of heart. You will need to penetrate deep into the wilderness where those bucks live. They are there because man is not, so you must abandon the hunting methods of mortal men and do the unexpected. You will need to be comfortable being alone deep in the wilderness. Bring a GPS, a lunch and a lot of determination.