Our Top Archery Deer County?

Determining which New York county is best for archery deer hunting is no easy matter, as our expert explains, but his efforts should make your bowhunting decisions easier this season.

Photo by BillKinney.com

By J. Michael Kelly

When the editor of New York Game & Fish assigned me to write an article on the Empire State's best county for bowhunting deer, I nearly swooned, and not from excitement. This was, to say the least, a challenging task. Writing about five or 10 great archery counties in the state is one thing. Choosing just one, and labeling it as our very best, is something quite different. In fact, it seemed like a fool's errand.

NO EASY TASK!

How would I go about it? What criteria should I use? And how many hunters would I offend by selecting their home county - or somebody else's?

I began the chore by reaching for a pen and a legal pad and jotting down some characteristics that experienced archers might take into account while selecting a prime bowhunting area.

Obviously, any county that merited serious consideration would have to be home to large numbers of deer, as evidenced by a consistent pattern of hunter success. Therefore, I decided to take careful note of county-by-county deer kills in recent big-game seasons. I might have focused on bowhunting stats only, but decided that gun and bow kills combined would be a better barometer of a county's venison-producing potential.

Along with deer-kill trends, it seemed to me that deer densities were important to consider. Because archers must get extremely close to deer in order to be confident of a killing shot, it is to their advantage to place stands in areas that are crossed by streams of whitetail traffic.

One of the best indicators of an area's deer density is its annual buck kill per square mile. Since the Department of Environmental Conservation happens to list that ratio for all counties as part of its annual analysis of the preceding deer season, I resolved to incorporate it in my own deliberations.

Naturally, I couldn't do justice to any county without evaluating its trophy potential. Although fat does look lovely when sliced, ground and stacked in the freezer, most hunters prefer something with horns that are high, wide and handsome.

In fact, for the last decade or so, bowhunters have been accounting for a majority of the monster whitetails recently added to the annals of the New York State Big Buck Club. I decided to pore over the 12th edition of the club's record book, line by line, to tally the numbers of trophies taken by archers in candidate counties.

WHAT DOES 'BEST' MEAN?

In the process of taking the above steps, I quickly realized that several counties that had large deer populations, reasonably high buck-kill densities and impressive trophy counts also had extremely limited public hunting acreage. And that created a dilemma. Would it be fair to crown a county that is essentially off-limits to outsiders? That would be like telling Game & Fish readers about a party they couldn't attend!

Reluctantly, I opted to cross any county with little or no public access off my list. I say "reluctantly" because the decision resulted in the elimination of three of the state's five top producers of bow-killed trophies.

By the end of the 2002 deer season, Westchester County hunters had put an amazing 163 archery trophies in the Big Buck Club listings. However, Westchester County has no public hunting land, not a single acre. Local hunters work hard to gain permission to hunt on the private estates in the county, and it is virtually impossible for a visiting sportsman to find a spot to hunt.

According to the 12th edition of the record book, Monroe County is second in the archery trophy standings with 138 deer. Suffolk County ranks third at 132, Livingston County is in fourth place at 93, and Erie County stands fifth at 83.

Using the criteria of reasonable access as a guide, I felt compelled to delete Monroe and Erie counties as well.

Aside from Irondequoit Park, where resident deer are managed in part by limited participation bow hunts, Monroe County has only one significant public hunting ground, the Braddock Bay Wildlife Management Area. That unit has some upland cover but consists mainly of wetlands that are ill suited to bowhunting.

I was forced to give Erie County the heave-ho as well. That move really hurt, for the county produced the state's 10th-largest buck kill last fall and has put 51 bow trophies in the Big Buck Club's record book since 1996. One of the latter deer also happens to be the state's all-time largest archery non-typical, a huge buck arrowed by Mark Surdi on Grand Island.

Unfortunately, the only public hunting acreage traveling hunters will find in Erie County is in the Zoar Valley Wildlife Management Area, which has narrow bands of cover overlooking a precipitous river gorge.

With Westchester, Monroe and Erie deemed ineligible for consideration, I continued the selection process by nominating worthy candidates from among the remaining counties.

My nominees were, in no particular order, Suffolk, Livingston, Steuben, Cattaraugus, Allegany, Ontario and Tompkins counties. Before we select the winner, let's review each candidate's attributes.

SUFFOLK COUNTY

In 2002, Suffolk County hunters bagged 2,148 deer, including 691 bucks. Last year, both figures increased to 2,456 deer and 759 bucks. The year-to-year increase is a point in the county's favor, given that most counties in the state went in the other direction last fall.

Suffolk County's trophy output is impressive, and getting better, rather than worse. From 1996 through 2002, the county added an astonishing 57 wallhangers to the Big Buck Club.

A long bow season, spanning Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, also makes a Suffolk County trip tempting.

The factors working against the county's claim to be No. 1, in my opinion, are its overall access situation and its low buck-kill density.

While the eastern half of Long Island offers about 20,000 acres of public hunting areas, some of that land is open to local residents only. Much of the remainder is made available on a daily permit basis, and the two largest public parcels - the 5,800-acre Rocky Point Natural Management Area and the 4,000-acre Otis G. Pike Preserve - are available to a limited number of hunters by reservation only on openin

g day, weekends and holidays. The bottom line is, while visitors can find a place to hunt on Long Island, it's not easy.

Last year, island hunters killed bucks at the rate of 0.8 per square mile, one of the lower densities in the state.

LIVINGSTON COUNTY

Situated in the midst of the Finger Lakes, just a few miles north of the deer-rich Southern Tier, Livingston County has many things going for it from a bowhunter's perspective.

Last fall, hunters killed 7,664 whitetails in the county. Only six counties had a bigger venison harvest. Livingston County's total included 2,586 bucks, which works out to four bucks per square mile. That's the highest bucks-per-mile ratio in the state.

As for trophy potential, Livingston County archers put 54 bucks in the book in the seven-year span from 1996 to 2002.

Access opportunities in the county are fair at best. Options for visiting hunters include part of the Rattlesnake Hill Wildlife Management Area, the Conesus Inlet WMA and Letchworth State Park, which has some worthwhile hunting along the rim of the its famous Genesee River canyon.

STEUBEN COUNTY

In sheer numerical terms, Steuben County stands out year after year. It is the perennial state leader in total deer and buck kills. Last fall was no exception, as hunters piled up 17,768 deer, including 6,242 antlered bucks. The buck kill per mile was 4.4, which was sixth best in the state.

Steuben County's trophy reputation is solid, too. Through 2002, it had contributed 82 bow kills to the Big Buck Club's roster, and 37 of those entries were taken after 1996.

The county contains about 28,000 acres of public hunting areas spread among four WMAs and 22 state forest parcels.

CATTARAUGUS COUNTY

Often a bridesmaid, never the bride, Cattaraugus County produced the state's second-best total deer and buck kills in 2003. The county almost always finishes either second or third in both categories.

Deer densities in the county are above average. Last year's buck tally worked out to 4.1 per square mile.

Ample public hunting grounds have a lot to do with Cattaraugus County's consistency. For starters, most of the 65,000 acres of hilly woodlands in Allegany State Park are open to deer hunting. The county also has 33,685 acres of state forests and three small WMAs.

As for horn-hunting prospects, Cattaraugus County has 70 bow-killed bucks in the state record book - 'nuff said.

ALLEGANY COUNTY

Ranking right behind its next-door neighbor, Cattaraugus County, in last season's deer-kill totals, Allegany County has much to recommend it as a bowhunting destination.

Its 2003 kill of 5,263 bucks amounted to five per square mile, second only to tiny Yates County.

Allegany County has more than 46,000 acres of state forests, plus two wildlife management areas and part of a third. Through 2002, it had 58 archery bucks on the Big Buck Club list, the biggest of them a 155 7/8 Pope and Young 12-pointer arrowed in 2001 by Norbert Schnorr.

ONTARIO COUNTY

One of New York's steadiest producers of big bucks in modern times, Ontario County hunters have placed 76 archery bucks in the record book. Forty-two of those deer were entered between 1996 and 2002.

Meat hunting is outstanding in Ontario County, too. Last fall, its hunters collected 8,322 deer, including 2,968 bucks.

Ontario County hunters killed bucks at the rate of 4.6 per square mile during the 2003 season.

Public-hunting opportunities, unfortunately, are relatively limited. About one-fourth of the 6,500-acre Hi Tor WMA is within the county. So is the 760-acre Stid Hill WMA and the 717-acre Honeoye Creek WMA. Hunting is also allowed on some of the city of Rochester-owned acreage around Canadice and Hemlock lakes, but that's about it.

TOMPKINS COUNTY

My final candidate, Tompkins County, deserves serious consideration because of its ample public hunting opportunities, steady venison output and above-average trophy prospects.

Tompkins County has about two-thirds of the 11,000-acre Connecticut Hill WMA and approximately 18,000 acres of state forests within its borders. In addition, bowhunting is allowed at several state parks in the county.

Last season, Tompkins County hunters killed 2,196 bucks. That's 4.5 per mile, tied for fifth in the state. A total of 5,402 deer were bagged in the county.

Over the years, archers have put 59 Tompkins County trophies in the state record book.

Wow! That's quite a bunch of deer-hunting destinations, don't you think? Picking the best was even harder than I thought, but ultimately, one stood out from the rest.

AND THE WINNER IS . . .

Allegany County! Yes, in terms of overall attractiveness to traveling hunters, Allegany County is the best our state has to offer, better than even the runner-ups, Steuben and Cattaraugus counties.

Here's how I arrived at my choice. First, I listed my seven nominees, then put four columns across the top of the page for last year's total deer kill, buck-kill density, number of bow trophies in the record book through 2002, and approximate number of acres of public hunting lands. Because ready access is so important to non-resident hunters, I resolved to give extra credit for that category.

Next, I went down the columns, ranking each county one through seven, and then added up the numbers, with the lowest score winning, For example, because Suffolk was seventh in deer killed, eighth in buck kill density, first in total trophies and fifth in public acres, its attributes total 7 plus 8 plus 1 plus 5, or a total of 21 points.

Using this method but not yet factoring in any extra credit, I ranked Steuben County first with 11 total points, Allegany second with 12 points, and Cattaraugus third at 13 points. Then I subtracted one "extra credit" point from Allegany as a result of its having approximately twice as many public hunting acres as Steuben, and lowered Cattaraugus' score by two for having twice as much public land as Allegany. That resulted in a three-way tie.

The tiebreaker, in my mind, was Allegany County's best-in-state buck-kill ratio, which happened to be recorded in a season that saw the statewide buck harvest decline by almost 17 percent.

You may disagree with my methodology, but none can dispute that

Allegany County is a superb place to go bowhunting.

Among the best hunting grounds in the county is Hanging Bog WMA, which takes in 4,571 acres in the town of New Hudson about four miles north of Cuba. It consists mostly of upland cover with a rich mix of hardwood and conifer forests, rolling hills, overgrown farms and small marshes.

Look for the area's boundary markers off routes 305 and 49.

Another likely location is the 600-acre Keaney Swamp WMA and the adjoining 2,400-acre Keaney Swamp State Forest. Both lie between Birdsall and Canaseraga in the town of Birdsall off town routes 15A, 15B and 16.

Allegany County also shares the 5,100-acre Rattlesnake Hill WMA with neighboring Livingston County. Rattlesnake Hill is in the northeast corner of the county. You can find it by taking Route 70 west from Canaseraga and turning right onto England Hill Road.

Rattlesnake Hill also has a variety of cover types on moderately steep terrain. For a first hunt there, you might set up a stand near the cluster of small potholes off England Hill Road, or perhaps in one of the old orchards in the interior of the property.

Of the 23 state forests in the county, Turnpike Forest is one of the most promising. It covers 4,744 acres in the towns of Almond and West Almond. Hunters take more than 250 bucks in each of those townships during a typical autumn. The forest is south and east of the village of Almond off Route 17 and Turnpike Road. South Road slices through the middle of the hilly tract, which consists of both hardwood and conifer stands.

Readers can find these spots and pinpoint the other public lands in the county by studying a map called State Forests of Southwestern New York, available free from the DEC's Region 9 office in Allegany at (716) 372-0645.

Although visitors to Allegany County who have a knack for scouting and stand placement can reasonably expect to see several deer or even several dozen per day, one is unlikely to meet up with a record-class buck without first putting in lots of time or being downright lucky.

Speaking of "lucky," I almost forgot to mention that the two biggest bucks ever killed by hunters in New York State came from Allegany County. Amazingly, Roosevelt Luckey's typical 198 2/8 Boone and Crockett monster and Homer Boylan's 244 2/8 non-typical were shot within a few miles of each other in 1939. I doubt that any bowhunter would be discouraged knowing that Luckey and Boylan downed their trophies during the firearms season.

Readers interested in making an overnight trip to Allegany County can get some advice on accommodations from the county tourism office at (716) 268-9229.



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