As is the case in most states with 200,000-plus annual whitetail harvests, there’s no doubt that New York’s deer-hunting contingent will find plenty of opportunities for success in 2018.
A combination of variables including weather conditions, hunter participation, moon phases and old-fashioned luck create fluctuations in harvest numbers each year.
State deer biologists can control only the season dates and bag limits statewide, so hunters are at the mercy of all of the above plus local conditions, deer populations and whether or not they hunt public or private land.
With all things considered, New York’s deer hunters have little to worry about despite the annual rise and fall of harvest totals. For example, in 2017 the statewide kill total was estimated at 203,427 bucks, does and fawns compared to 2016’s total of 213, 061, a decline of 4.5 percent. However, the five-year average for the period was 228,246 whitetails, suggesting that there are plenty of deer in the woods and that factors other than a population decline are responsible for slight dips in the total harvest.
For example, last year’s Youth Deer Hunt harvest (935) declined nearly 20 percent compared to 2016. Considering that the youth hunt occurs when the deer population should be at its seasonal highest, it’s likely that a reduction in hunter participation, not a decline in deer numbers, was the most logical explanation.
Similarly, New York’s crossbow hunters took 11,758 deer in 2017, a 25 percent jump from the previous year. Does this mean there were more deer available to crossbow hunters, or did interest in crossbow hunting increase due to the growing popularity of the sport nationally? Statistics can be misleading in the short term. For example, bowhunters took 43,708 deer in 2017, a 6.5 percent drop from 2016 yet the five-year average is 38,541 whitetails, or some 5,000 fewer deer than archers tagged last year.
Even casual students of New York’s deer-hunting scene know and understand that deer populations fluctuate statewide and locally based on habitat conditions, winter weather, predation, disease and other factors. In other words, it’s less than reasonable to expect deer numbers and harvests to remain constant decade after decade. While it is rare to see deer numbers decline precipitously in any locale, it is normal for whitetail herds to expand, contract, increase and decrease incrementally over time.
Habitat changes are, for the most part, gradual and natural, beginning with early successional growth and large numbers of deer evolving into mature forest with fewer whitetails per square mile. Fortunately, most of the traditional “best” deer counties in New York maintain a stable mix of farmland, open fields, wetlands, forest and sapling cover which provides textbook-quality living conditions for deer in those areas. The difference is clearly obvious in the heavily-forested northeast portion of the state where extensive climax forest provides more of a “wilderness” feel that some hunters prefer but contains vastly fewer deer.
As experienced hunters soon discover, New York’s best deer hunting occurs in the state’s farming communities, where habitat conditions are more amenable to whitetails and in urban counties where subdivision gardens and lawns attract and hold deer in surprising numbers.
If more proof is needed that habitat is key to whitetail production, take a look at heavily-developed Long Island, which has a higher per-square-mile human population than most of the rest of the state yet produces some of the biggest bucks in New York season after season. If those big bucks can learn to adapt to life amid Long Island’s busy human population, imagine the opportunities awaiting hunters in the Finger Lakes Region, Cherry Valley, the Catskills and the Hudson River corridor.
As the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) noted in its 2017 forecast, deer hunting has been changing in New York, with more hunters opting to voluntarily pass up shots at young, small-antlered bucks. As a result, hunters are now taking more older bucks than ever before, but this also means there are fewer deer being tagged, as indicated by recent statewide harvest trends.
DEC biologists say this is “good news” for New York hunters and their families noting that the average 2-year-old buck generally yields 25 to 30 percent more meat and carries antlers twice as large as the average yearling. Buck harvests are now comprised of roughly 50 percent yearling (1.5-year-old) and 50 percent older bucks. Hunters can continue to push the harvest ratio solidly toward older bucks simply by choosing to let younger bucks grow and encouraging hunting partners to do the same.
For the 2017-18 deer hunting seasons, the DEC expected the statewide buck harvest to be similar or slightly higher than 2016 and to see a minor increase in antlerless harvest. As it turned out, the 2017 buck harvest increased just 0.7 percent while the antlerless harvest jumped by 13 percent.
The allocation of Deer Management Permits (DMPs or antlerless tags) was reduced by roughly 11 percent from 2016, but last year the DMP harvest dropped about 9 percent. The increase in DMP availability reflected a general expectation that deer populations were poised to grow following two mild winters in a row. That expectation may well carry over into the 2018 season.
In many Wildlife Management Units (WMUs), including a broad area along Interstate Route 90 through central and western New York, population growth is undesirable. The DEC continues to liberalize opportunities to harvest antlerless deer in these areas and encourages hunters to take does early in the season and to opt for a doe for meat instead of taking a young or immature buck.
In other WMUs, particularly in southern portions of Region 8 and Region 9, parts of southeastern New York, the western Adirondacks and the western Catskills, the DEC is expected to continue with its conservative antlerless harvest goals. The DEC may even decrease target harvests in some units to foster population growth toward desired levels. Limited harvesting of does is appropriate in these areas, just not to the same degree as elsewhere.
WHERE TO HUNT IN 2018
DEC biologists encourage hunters seeking solitude and freedom to try the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York and the Catskill Mountains in southeastern New York, which offer thousands of square miles of undeveloped wilderness hunting.
Hunters who want to maximize their success should explore the western Finger Lakes Region or seek access to hunt public or private lands in and suburban areas throughout the state.
Hunters seeking the greatest prospects for large antlered bucks are encouraged to spend their time in the Lake Ontario Plains of western New York as a good option.
Hunters seeking to extend their time afield should keep in mind that the deer hunting season runs through the end of December in Westchester County (bow only) and through January in Suffolk County.
To help hunters choose new hunting locations the DEC’s regional big game biologists have prepared summaries for their respective WMUs. Visit dec.ny.gov and select the report for the desired portion of the state. Hunters will also be able to view a unit-by-unit forecast for the upcoming season.
CROSSBOW USE CONTINUES TO RISE
Crossbows have been a topic of controversy in New York for decades, with both sides adamantly defending their positions. At one point there was an anti-crossbow organization in New York that fought for a ban on crossbow hunting for several years.
Crossbows recently were approved for deer hunting statewide and the response has been phenomenal. In 2015 the increase in crossbow hunters was 35 percent and that number is expected to continue to grow. A total of 7,469 deer were taken by horizontal bowhunters in 2015.
In 2016 there were 9,439 deer taken with crossbows, a jump of over 26 percent, and in 2017 the crossbow harvest increased to 11,758 whitetails, another 24.6 percent increase. Crossbows are especially popular among women, children and older hunters with medical issues, handicaps or disabilities that preclude them from using traditional recurve or compound bows.
Crossbows have several advantages. While they provide hunters with only one shot, they may be pre-loaded. They are designed to be fired from the shoulder using specially-designed scopes that are generally calibrated from 10 to 50 yards to ensure accurate shooting.
Crossbows are relatively lightweight and are easy to maneuver inside a blind or while sitting in a tree stand. Some crossbows are capable of being used for spot-and-stalking or still-hunting.
For more information about New York’s crossbow hunting regulations, restrictions and licensing, visit dec.ny.gov.