By J. Michael Kelly
If at this moment you are among the roughly 80 percent of New York deer hunters who haven’t managed to fill their 2004 buck tags yet, don’t despair, for the last days of the season often are the best days.
Doubt it? Consider the story of Cazenovia resident Gene Benedetti, who downed a trophy whitetail while hunting last Dec. 10 in Onondaga County.
His buck sported a wide 9-point rack, and dressed out at 165 pounds.
Benedetti, a building contractor, killed the buck while hunting on a customer’s property with his uncle, Albert Andalora of Syracuse. It was the first day of the late weeklong blackpowder hunt, which follows the regular firearms season in the state’s Southern Zone hunting area.
Andalora was the first to spot the deer, bedded with several does in a stand of pines about 200 yards from where he stood. Unfortunately, the buck was staring back at him across an open field. Rather than risk spooking the animal by walking any closer, Andalora decided to retreat and consult with his nephew first.
The two agreed that Benedetti would circle around to approach the bedded whitetails from the rear. He would climb into a tree stand he had put up earlier in the season and wait as Andalora attempted to flush the deer in his direction. It took Benedetti about half an hour to hike 800 yards through calf-deep snow to reach his stand. Then Andalora began walking slowly toward the pines.
“When my uncle got to maybe 150 yards away from the deer, the buck got up,” Benedetti said. “My uncle took a shot, but missed, and the deer came in my direction. I shot it with my .50-caliber muzzleloader at about 110 yards. It didn’t go 20 feet from there.”
A majority of all deer taken in the Empire State in a typical year are felled on the opening day of the Southern Zone firearms season, and 75 percent of the season’s buck tally is recorded within the first week of the same hunt. Yet late-season prospects are better than most Empire State sportsmen realize.
Just ask Benedetti.
“I like December better than early in the season,” he said. “The hunting pressure has really died down and there are still plenty of deer out there.”
His assessment holds true for public land as well as private property. No matter where they live, deer go into high alert when the firearms season begins, then gradually revert to old habits as the blaze orange traffic dies down. Consequently, hunters who have the patience to watch remote game trails or conduct slow, methodical drives through overlooked pockets of cover stand an excellent chance of ending the season on a high note.
To help you fill your unused tags, here’s a review of some of the better spots for a December deer hunt in New York, starting with Long Island and working north and west across the state.
Because Suffolk County is a densely populated, highly developed piece of suburban real estate, its deer hunting is tightly regulated. Skip to another region if you’re not prepared to jump through some bureaucratic hoops in order to acquire your venison supply. But before you give up, consider that some of New York’s highest-scoring trophy bucks each season are taken on Long Island.
Except for a written-permission-only shotgun season in January, all deer hunting on Long Island is done with bow and arrow. The archery-only regular season runs from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31. In 2003, Suffolk County hunters bagged 2,456 deer, including 759 bucks.
The county has about 20,000 acres of public-hunting lands, including the 5,800-acre Rocky Point Natural Resources Management Area, the 4,000-acre East Hampton Cooperative Hunting Area and the 4,000-acre Otis G. Pike Preserve.
All of these areas are subject to daily sign-in requirements or reservation procedures or both.
At the Rocky Point Natural Resources Management Area, for example, hunters must sign in at a Department of Environmental Conservation check station. A limited number of daily permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis, although spots may also be reserved by telephone. Weekend passes, even in December, are by reservation only.
Rocky Point is near Riverhead. To find it, take Route 495 to Exit 67 north and then go north on Route 21 for about six miles. Turn right on Whiskey Road and proceed to the main entrance of the management area.
A brochure detailing Long Island’s public access opportunities can be obtained by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Deer Information, NYSDEC, SUNY Bldg. 40, Room 226, Stony Brook, NY 11790-2356. For more details, call the Region 1 office at (631) 444-0310.
Although deer herds in DEC regions 3 and 4 have been battered by two rugged winters in a row, local hunters and the many metropolitan New York City residents who seek their venison supply in the lower Hudson Valley or the Catskills should have decent prospects this month.
In planning their 2004 hunts, southeastern New Yorkers should be aware that the Southern Zone regular firearms season ends at sunset on Tuesday, Dec. 14. The subsequent special muzzleloading season runs from Dec. 15-21, while the late archery season runs from Dec. 15-19.
One of the up-and-coming hunting areas in the region is the West Point Military Reservation in Orange County, where 10,000 acres of hilly, wooded uplands are open to the public on a daily check-in basis. Last season was typically productive, with hunters killing 105 antlered bucks and a grand total of 237 deer on the premises.
To hunt at West Point, one must possess a deer management permit (doe permit) for Wildlife Management Unit 3P. The permit must be used on one of the military reservation’s antlerless whitetails before the holder can take an Army buck. For details on West Point rules, call Jim Beemer, the post’s fish and wildlife manager, at (845) 938-3857.
Another hotspot in Orange County is the 5,300-acre Stewart State Forest, which was carved out of the old Stewart Airport property a couple of years ago. Stewart is about halfway between Newburgh and Maybrook off Route 207. It sometimes produces more than 200 deer in a season.
For details on check-in requirements at Stewart State Forest, call the DEC Region 3 office in New Paltz at (914) 256-3098. The same office offers a booklet, Region 3 State Forests and Wildlife Management Areas, which includes maps of Stewart and 25 other public-hunting grounds.
With more than 290,000 acres of State Forest Preserve lands in just six medium-size counties (Delaware, Sullivan, Schoharie, Ulster, Greene and Orange), the Catskill region abounds in hunting opportunities. Among the better prospects is the 7,400-acre Bear Spring Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Delaware County.
Bear Spring is about five miles southeast of Walton off Route 206. Intersected by East and West Trout Brook roads and has numerous trails hunters can use to get farther from parking areas and closer to deer. Expect to find steep, wooded slopes when you get there, as well as a few scattered clearings and old apple orchards.
Among other public lands in Delaware County, readers should check out the 10,000-acre Masonville State Forest near Sidney and the 2,800-acre East Branch forest near Stamford.
The DEC Region 4 office in Stamford, (607) 652-7367, has maps of both.
Most of what is usually considered to be northern New York falls within the Northern Zone hunting area where this year’s regular firearms season ends on Dec. 5. While a large majority of the whitetails taken in the region are generally harvested well before Thanksgiving, the right sort of weather – snow, but not too much snow – can make for some memorable hunts inside the boundaries of the Adirondack Park.
“Real Adirondacks hunters like the last week of the season best of all,” Wayne Masters said. He’s a DEC Region 7 fish and wildlife technician who has made many hunting pilgrimages to the rugged woods of Essex and Warren counties.
In the latter part of the Northern Zone season, he notes, does begin to work their way toward lowland wintering areas. Bucks are slower to “yard up,” but in December they often leave their ridgetop bedding areas to look for unbred does. The Adirondacks hunter who comes across a single, big track headed down from a hillside thicket is probably looking at the tracks of a nice buck, Masters said.
Because deer densities are low throughout the three-million-acre Adirondack Park, it’s not easy to recommend a particular spot. Hunters new to the region can get a good taste of it by following any of the hundreds of well-marked hiking trails from the roadside with map and compass in hand, meanwhile looking for fresh tracks, droppings and other deer sign.
Good hunting opportunities are also available in early December in the lowland fringes of the Northern Zone’s Lake Champlain and St. Lawrence River valleys. The latter, especially, is worth serious consideration until the curtain falls on the season, for St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties have become amazingly reliable venison producers in recent seasons. In 2003, for example, St. Lawrence County hunters downed 4,516 bucks and 9,070 total deer. Those were the fourth-largest buck-kill and fifth-biggest total-deer numbers in the state.
Likely spots to catch up with a St. Lawrence deer at this time of year include the flat, heavily wooded Clear Pond wild forest, which takes in 9,000 acres in the town of Parishville, and the upland portions of the Upper and Lower Lakes Wildlife Management Area east of Rensselaer Falls.
Deer hunting areas in Jefferson County include the upland fringes of the Ashland Flats, Perch River and French Creek wildlife management areas. The DEC Region 6 office in Watertown, at (315) 785-2261, has free brochures pinpointing all three.
Gene Benedetti’s fine buck was just one of many impressive whitetails taken late last season in central New York, which, for the purposes of this article, includes the nine counties of DEC Region 7 and the Finger Lakes portion of DEC Region 8.
Another dandy was Erieville resident Jim Brady’s Madison County 12-pointer, slain with a shotgun on Dec. 4.
Madison County is a great place to fill a deer tag at the last minute because it has ample public land, including the 3,600-acre Tioughnioga WMA off Damon Road in New Woodstock, the 9,400-acre Charles E. Baker State Forest in the town of Brookfield and the 3,090-acre Muller Hill State Forest in the town of DeRuyter. The precise locations of these public-hunting lands can be gleaned from a book of maps, Region 7 State Forests and Wildlife Management Areas, that’s available from the DEC’s Cortland office by calling (607) 753-3095.
For trophy buck potential, it’s hard to top the Tompkins-Cayuga Cooperative Hunting Area located between Auburn and Ithaca overlooking the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake.
The co-op, consisting of about 5,000 acres of private lands in northern Tompkins and southern Cayuga counties, is administered for hunting purposes by the DEC’s Region 7 staff. Hunters must sign in at a check station on Route 90 north of King Ferry and are assigned a specific piece of ground for the day.
What makes the co-op particularly intriguing is the fact that parts of it are included in an experimental Quality Deer Management Area, in which hunters are required to pass on bucks with antlers of a specified minimum. As a result of the new rule, the co-op contains more yearling and 2-year-old bucks in late season than it used to.
Some of New York’s highest deer densities occur in the Finger Lakes region, specifically in Schuyler, Ontario and Yates counties.
One of the larger public-hunting areas in the region is the 16,000-acre Finger Lakes National Forest. It’s spread checkerboard-fashion across southern Seneca and northern Schuyler counties. Because the national forest land is interspersed with private properties, its deer are not unduly pressured and stand a good chance of surviving the early-season fireworks.
The number at the Finger Lakes forest ranger’s office, about four miles north of Watkins Glen on Route 414, is (607) 546-4470.
Hi Tor WMA, with 6,100 acres around the south end of Canandaigua Lake, is part of WMU 8N, where hunters killed a state-leading seven bucks per square mile in 2003. Situated off routes 245 and 21 near Naples in Ontario and Yates counties, Hi Tor has a variety of cover, from steep wooded ridges to a cattail-clogged river bottom. The DEC Region 8 office in Avon, (585) 226-2466, has a free map-brochure.
A few miles east of Hi Tor is the 1,900-acre Italy Hill State Forest in the town of Italy in Yates County. The two spots are so close that an organized group of hunters could carry out productive drives at both prime areas in the same day.
Year after year, a quartet of western New York counties along the Pennsylvania border – Chautauqua,
Cattaraugus, Allegany and Steuben – pile up the four biggest deer kills in the state.
The perennial chart-topper, of course, is Steuben County, which led all the rest in 2003 with 6,242 antlered bucks and 17,768 total deer. While a substantial majority of those deer were downed on private land, Steuben does have about 30,000 acres of public-hunting areas that are worth exploring this month, including the 2,500-acre Erwin WMA five miles west of Corning and Cameron State Forest, which comprises 1,900 acres north of the village of Cameron.
A booklet put out by the DEC’s Avon office, State Land of Region 8, includes maps of these and other Steuben County spots.
The other three counties in the Southern Tier quartet fall under the purview of the DEC Region 9 office in Allegany at (716) 372-0645.
Cattaraugus County’s 100,000 acres of public-hunting areas include the 65,000-acre Allegany State Park off U.S. Route 86 near Salamanca, the 3,110-acre McCarty Hill and 2,905-acre Rock City state forests, both of which are southwest of Ellicottville in the towns of Little Valley, Great Valley and Mansfield. In 2003, Cattaraugus was right behind Steuben County in the statewide standings with a total kill of 15,606 bucks, does and fawns.
Although New York’s record typical and non-typical whitetails were taken within its borders, Allegany County these days is better known for deer numbers than trophy-class animals. Both state-record bucks were shot in 1939, when regulated deer hunting was resumed in the county after a long hiatus.
In 2003, Allegany County’s harvest of 14,680 deer was the third highest in the state, and there’s no reason not to expect similar productivity this season.
Likely locations to hunt in the county this month include the 4,751-acre Hanging Bog WMA north of Cuba in the town of New Hudson, the 4,744-acre Turnpike State Forest in the town of West Almond and the Bully Hill State Forest, which covers 3,500 acres in the town of Almond.
Last but not least in the Southern Tier foursome is Chautauqua County, which ranked fourth in New York with a 2003 kill of 10,628 deer. Its worthwhile hunting grounds include the 2,181-acre Canadaway Creek WMA in the town of Arkwright and more than 17,000 acres of state forests, the biggest of which is the 2,900-acre Boutwell Hill tract in the town of Charlotte.
All of the public-hunting areas in Chautauqua, Allegany and Cattaraugus counties are clearly identified on a folding map available from the DEC Region 9 office, titled State Forests of Southwestern New York.
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