November is prime time for deer hunting in New York, especially for hunters who are seeking a trophy buck for the den or office wall.
Nearly half the annual harvest of whitetails in the Empire State consists of mature male deer, including some 114,716 antlered bucks taken in 2013. That number was similar to the 2012 harvest and New York Department of Environmental Conservation biologists expect the buck kill in 2014 to be consistent with long-term trends.
From 1997 to 2002 the buck harvest numbers were phenomenal, peaking at 140,857 in 2000. They then declined for a few years, but the numbers are slowly creeping back up again. More than 243,000 deer were taken last year, half of them antlered bucks, so hunters exercising patience and persistence should have a better-than-average chance of tagging a bragging-sized buck in 2014.
WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY
New York's deer hunters are fortunate that their DEC biologists produce one of the most comprehensive and detailed deer harvest reports each year. Not only do they provide the usual harvest totals, buck-to-doe ratios and per-county comparisons, they also offer a bucks-per-square-mile harvest breakdown that covers every county and every wildlife management unit. It's a simple matter to review the figures, pick out the areas with the highest antlered buck kills and then focus on nearby public lands.
Of course, no plan of action is guaranteed to produce a trophy-class whitetail — it's never going to be that easy. Big bucks exist statewide in some of the most unexpected places and no matter what part of the state you live in you have at least a chance of taking a trophy buck. However, it makes sense to hunt where the most bucks are being tagged. Not all of them will be wall hangers, but hunters who can resist shooting smaller bucks will greatly increase their odds for success.
Long-term trends put New York's western region at the top of the list for numbers of bucks taken annually. Perennial leaders include Steuben County (4,840 antlered bucks taken in 2013), Chautauqua (3,857), Cattaraugus (4,004), Allegheny (3,933) and Jefferson (3,668) counties, with Erie, Ontario, Otsego, Chenango and Oneida counties all producing 3,000 bucks last year.
It's no surprise that the wildlife management units (WMUs) with the highest bucks-per-square-mile harvest totals are also in the western region. Topping the list is WMU 8R with 6.1 bucks per square mile, followed closely by WMU 8N with 6.0. Close behind are WMUs 8H and 9H, each with 4.9 bucks per square mile, and WMUs 9M (4.5), 8F (4.1), 8X (4.1) and 9P (4.0). Other western-region WMUs are in the 3- to 3.9-range, while the rest of the state's WMUs produce less than half the number of bucks per square mile.
The difference in buck harvests can be attributed to two factors: Habitat quality and hunter access. It makes sense that western New York's hilly farm country would produce more deer and therefore more bucks, while the northern mountains produce fewer deer due to habitat and winter conditions while eastern region hunters are stymied by access issues. For example, some of the biggest bucks taken in New York each year are tagged on heavily-populated Long Island, where hunting opportunities are limited and permission to hunt is difficult to acquire. There are plenty of big bucks tagged in western New York, mostly because there is more public land in the region and more hunters can easily gain access to prime habitat.
Hunters who prefer to play the statistical odds may want to consider focusing their efforts on WMUs with the highest overall deer harvests each year. For example, hunters in WMU 8R killed 19 deer per square mile last year, which is more than the total deer population in many other areas! Close behind were WMUs 8N (17), 8H (14.1), 9H (12.1) 8G and 8F (11.8 and 11.1 respectively).
These numbers indicate that the WMUs with the highest total deer harvests also boast some of the highest antlered buck kills, suggesting that the most bucks are where the most antlerless deer exist. Factor in the various phases of the rut and a game plan begins to emerge: Find the most antlerless deer and the bucks will be right behind them.
THE TROPHY HUNTER'S MENTALITY
If you want to be a trophy hunter you are going to have to stop shooting deer. As crazy as that sounds, it's the only way to ensure that the buck you take each fall is the biggest and best of the lot. Shooting does is acceptable (even necessary) in many areas, but if you are not able to pass on immature 6- 8- and even 10-point bucks you will never score on what Larry Benoit called "the biggest buck of your life."
Merely seeing antlers is not enough to establish a trophy buck's potential. How wide are they? How high? How many points? What about mass and tine length? Are there stickers, kickers or drop tines? Is it typical or non-typical rack and how does it measure up to bucks you've already taken? These considerations and more are part of every trophy hunter's arsenal and in fact are more important than the caliber of rifle or type of bow he brings into the woods with him.
Set your own standards of what a "trophy buck" is and then stick to them. Plenty of does, fawns, immature bucks and average 8s and 10s will offer shots during the season, but if you stick to your plan and pass on inferior deer you will eventually have your chance.
None of this is easy to do and explains why of the 114,716 antlered bucks taken in New York last year only a handful qualified for the Northeast Big Bucks Club roster. Shoot does for meat and refrain from shooting anything other than the buck you want for your wall. It's as simple (and difficult) as that!
With all this in mind, here's a look at some of the best places to go for odds-on big buck hunting on public land in New York in 2014. We've selected public hunting areas with plenty of room for trophy buck hunters to scout and hunt with minimal distractions and competition.
Hunters in central and western New York kill the majority of deer and the highest number of bucks per square mile in the state. The perfect combination of habitat, access and deer numbers makes this portion of the state the ideal region to consider when looking for big bucks on public land.
Hanging Bog WMA
Hanging Bog WMA is located approximately six miles north of the village of Cuba in the town of New Hudson in Allegany County. The landscape is made up of rolling hills, extensive forests and small fields.
Hanging Bog covers 4,571 acres, giving hunters plenty of space to scout for roving bucks before and during the rut. Spend some time cruising the wooded hillsides, saddles and stream bottoms for scrapes, rubs and other signs of rutting activity. Get well away from roads and trails to avoid conflicts with other hunters and hikers.
Northern Montezuma WMA
The Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area, formally known as Howland Island Wildlife Management Area, is in north central Cayuga County three miles northwest of Port Byron and approximately 25 miles west of Syracuse. The area can be reached via state Route 31 west (from Thruway Exit 40 at Weedsport) to state Route 38 in Port Byron and then two miles north to Howland Island Road.
The area consists of approximately 3,600 acres, which is divided into three units. Area topography rises from low-lying flood plains to gently rolling hills and steep drumlins. Vegetation consists of a second-growth mixture of hardwoods including maple, ash, willow, basswood, black locust, oak and hickory. Old fields, meadow, farm fields, wetlands, impoundments and hardwoods provide a diversity of habitat for hunters seeking trophy-class bucks.
Scout well away from easy-access areas (roads, trails and shoreline cover) to find big, reclusive bucks. Pockets of early-successional habitat will draw and hold breeding-aged does, which will attract rutting bucks from miles around.
In deer-rich Steuben County, try the Erwin WMA, which covers 2,500 acres in the town of Erwin, approximately five miles west of the city of Corning. From the north, the area may be accessed from Smith Hill Road off the Coopers Plains exit of Route 17. From the south, the area may be accessed from Weaver Hollow Road off the Gang Mills exit of Route 15.
Management projects creating wildlife openings, marsh ponds, and tree and shrub plantations have enhanced wildlife habitat on Erwin WMA. Area vegetation is primarily second-growth hardwoods intermixed with softwoods and a variety of other browse species.
Look for well-used trails, funnels and other travel lanes that big bucks may use during the rut period. Remember that Steuben County produces more deer and more bucks per square mile than most other Empire State counties. Hunting activity is usually high, especially on weekends and holidays, so plan to be on hand early and stay late to take advantage of the "push" created by other hunters entering and leaving the woods throughout the day.
Rattlesnake Hill WMA
Rattlesnake Hill WMA covers 5,150 acres approximately eight miles west of Dansville in Allegany and Livingston counties. From Dansville, take state Route 436 to the intersection with county Route 9, which leads directly into the area.
This area offers an interesting blend of upland habitat including mature woodland, overgrown fields, conifer plantations, old growth apple orchards and open meadows.
Situated adjacent to Rattlesnake Hill WMA on the southeast are two parcels of state forest totaling approximately 2,600 acres. The two areas are similar to Rattlesnake Hill in habitat types with the exception of having fewer natural and maintained openings. These areas are also open to public hunting.
Hunters should consider scouting the WMA as well as the adjacent state forestlands to develop several "Plan B" options, especially on weekends, holidays and other peak-use periods. Find the remote, quiet areas where big bucks will slip into when hunter activity increases. Find those pockets of impenetrable cover and have faith in the whitetail's survival instincts.
Perch River WMA
Covering 7,862 acres, the Perch River WMA has plenty of habitat for rutting bucks among its many acres of wetland cover. From Watertown, take Interstate Route 81 north to Exit 47. Turn left onto Route 12 north. Travel about six miles to the WMA signs and parking areas.
Perch River is dominated by wetland and open water habitats but also offers mature woodlands, early-successional habitat and grassland cover.
Industrious hunters will look for pockets of upland habitat where big bucks will spend their time between bouts of chasing does. Once the hunting season gets into full swing, look for thick, dense cover that few other hunters will venture into. Remember that deer pattern hunters, too! Enter and exit the woods at different locations each day and change stand sites frequently (at least every three days) to keep shooter bucks guessing.
These are just a few of the best public hunting areas in New York's high-density buck areas. Great public hunting areas exist statewide but the basic strategy remains the same: Scout persistently, don't shoot smaller bucks and always have an alternate plan in mind. Good luck out there this season!