Get in on some great late-season deer hunting on New York's southeast region public lands. Give these untapped December hotspots a try this season. (December 2005)
Photo by Billkenney.com
If they're playing "Jingle Bells" on the radio, it's time to get down to business on unfilled deer tags, particularly so, if you passed up an easy shot at a spike buck last month, or your doe permit is still in your wallet.
December hunts are not a problem for experienced hunters who understand changing whitetail patterns, and, in fact, some prefer the season-long challenge of outwitting a big buck they've spotted a couple of times. But now it is crunch time, and it's not only the calendar that's becoming an adversary: Uncertain weather is also a consideration.
Late-season pressures are always there, but the biggest adjustment hunters have had to make this year, and for the last couple of years, is declining deer numbers across the state. This season, approximately 320,000 Deer Management Permits (DMPs, also called antlerless tags) were available, 40 percent fewer than were issued last year. This change reflects lower deer numbers throughout most of the Southern Zone, according to Denise M. Sheehan, acting commissioner of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.
It was only three years ago that hunters tagged 308,000 whitetails, a new record, and DEC's deer management policies were aimed at reducing the deer population. Last year, hunters took slightly more than 208,000 deer, a drop of more than one-third from 2002. Clearly, the whitetail herd has been "controlled," with an assist from Mother Nature and a couple of tough winters.
Looking ahead, Sheehan reported that DEC biologists would use all the management techniques available to increase deer populations the next few years to achieve a better balance. The drastic reduction of DMPs this season is the first step in that direction.
"However, deer populations comparable to 2002 levels cannot be maintained without long-term negative consequences, such as damage to agriculture, forest regeneration, landscaping or vehicle accidents," she explained.
The most prominent regulation change this year was moving the opening day of the Southern Zone regular deer season from a Monday to a Saturday to allow opening day hunting opportunities for younger hunters and others who are unable to take time off during the week. A switch to a Saturday opening for the early archery season provided similar benefits for bowhunters. And the late archery and muzzleloader seasons were lengthened to nine days.
Of particular interest to southeast area hunters, an experimental program to produce heavier racks was inaugurated in Ulster County (WMUs 3C and 3J), requiring that bucks have at least 3 points on a side. This pilot antler restriction program is the result of strong local support from sportsmen's groups, according to Sheehan.
Here are the remaining season schedules for December as they apply to southeastern New York: The regular firearms season closes Dec. 11; the late archery and muzzleloader seasons run from Dec. 12-20; and the Westchester County and Suffolk County special archery seasons close Dec. 31.
Late-season hunters have some unique public-hunting opportunities in southeastern New York, and the following hotspots are good places to start.
CATSKILL PARK AND FOREST PRESERVE
The nearly 300,000 acres of state preserve land, so close to the population centers of metro New York City, the Hudson River valley and the Capital District, are a hunter's miracle in this age when posted private land is the rule rather than exception.
But there is a little confusion for visitors, because state land open to hunting in the Catskills comprises less than 40 percent of the Catskill Park and Forest Preserve, which encompasses the entire mountainous region spread across four counties, with 98 peaks over 3,000 feet in elevation. It's the preserve holdings that must remain "forever wild," and for that reason it retains the flavor of the ancient Catskills, offering hunters easy day hunts or rambling excursions through true wilderness.
While there are hundreds of miles of abandoned woods roads and trails throughout the preserve, its rugged terrain means tough going, especially as snow builds up at this time of year.
Hunting above 3,000 feet will eliminate most of the sights and sounds of civilization, and, usually, the tracks of other hunters, but during the late season, most of the deer have moved to lower elevations.
The preserve habitat is diverse, ranging from old-growth hemlock and northern hardwoods on steep slopes and remote valleys so inaccessible they avoided the axe and saw for 300 years, to mountaintop blueberry meadows maintained by intermittent wildfires. Extensive areas are covered by spruce-fir forests, especially at higher elevations.
In December, hunters should scout out mixed conifers and hardwoods where deer will be feeding in beech and oak stands. If you find a location with so many acorns on the ground it feels like you are walking on marbles, you're already halfway toward dragging out a deer.
A good tactic for preserve hunters is to seek out state property adjacent to where recent logging operations have been carried out on private land, where the forest has been opened up, creating more diverse habitat.
SLIDE MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS
The only efficient way of hunting the vast Catskill Park and Preserve lands is to tackle small segments using established trails and roadways leading to the backcountry. Some relatively short hiking trails do not penetrate the wilderness, but these are handy for half-day hunts. There are others that go on for miles leading to seemingly endless peaks and ridges.
Maps and some deep woods experience are strongly recommended if you plan to hunt the Catskill country.
Slide Mountain is a specially designated tract with more than 47,500 acres in northwest Ulster County, offering the complete Catskill hunting experience.
Located west of Kingston and south of the hamlets of Big Indian, Shandakan and Phoenicia, this crescent-shaped area extends down to Frost Valley on the west border and Ashokan Reservoir on the east.
A 35-mile trail system at Slide Mountain offers access points from all sides. The Woodland Valley-Denning Trail, for example, starts at the Woodland Valley State Campground. To get there, take the Woodland Valley Road south from Phoenicia for about five miles. The 9.8-mile trail has yellow markers, follows an old carriage road and provides acc
ess to other trails. There are several other marked trails through Slide Mountain and most are interconnected. A hiking-trail map will be necessary for extended hunts.
Trailheads and parking lots are south of Big Indian on county Route 47. Access is also provided from Route 28 on the north and east, and from Route 42 on the south side.
WILLOWEMOC WILD FOREST
The Willowemoc Wild Forest is another specially designated area of nearly 15,000 acres within the preserve that is nine miles northeast of Livingston Manor in Sullivan County. The area surrounds Mongaup Pond State Campground and abuts the Big Indian Wilderness, also part of the preserve.
Similar to Slide Mountain in terrain and habitat, Willowemoc is also laced with over 40 miles of maintained trails with several access points.
To reach this area, take Exit 96 from state Route 17, and then proceed northeast on routes 81 and 82 to the hamlet of Debruce. Turn left on Fish Hatchery Road for three miles to the campground. A day-use fee is charged if the campground is open.
Some of the maintained trails of interest to December hunters here are Long Pond off Flugertown Road, three miles northeast of the hamlet of Willowemoc; Black Bear Road, two miles northeast of Claryville; and Waneta Lake, about five miles north of Livingston Manor on county Route 151, also known as Johnson Hill Road.
CHERRY VALLEY STATE FOREST
When several tracts of state forestland are grouped close together, they're managed as a single unit by the DEC, and that is the case with Cherry Valley State Forest. Its seven properties total nearly 7,400 acres in eastern Otsego County.
The topography here is typical hilly Appalachian Plateau stretching all the way west to Lake Erie. The great difference between this and the Catskill country is that these gentle ridges and valleys are interspersed with dairy farms and crop fields, providing deer with diverse and plentiful food supplies.
The management plan for Cherry Valley is designed to provide recreational opportunities and timber crops while protecting wildlife habitat, water quality and scenic vistas.
Over the course of a year, deer hunters are the most numerous visitors to Cherry Valley, even though the state-owned properties can be difficult to find. Parcels are scattered through the towns of Cherry Valley, Middlefield, Roseboom, Decatur and Westford, with routes 165 and 166 providing access to the area.
To get there, take Exit 20 from Interstate Route 88 and proceed to the northwest. It will take some exploring on local roads to find the forest boundary signs. The usual maintenance roads and trails are provided, and hunters may pull off public roads at various locations.
A free brochure on Cherry Valley, with a location map, is available from the DEC's Stamford office at (607) 652-7365. (Similar informational leaflets on the following state forests are also available from the same office.)
EAST BRANCH STATE FOREST
East Branch State Forest is a two-tract forest north of the Pepacton Reservoir, which was formed by damming the East Branch Delaware River. Both (Plattekill and Murphy Hill) were named prior to the development of a combined management plan. East Branch, totaling 2,400 acres, is in the hill country of eastern Delaware County, an area containing excellent deer habitat.
The two properties are separated by about 12 miles as the crow flies, a greater distance than most jointly managed state forests. Also, both forests have oddly-shaped boundaries that snake along the ridgetops, making it difficult to know where state land starts and stops. The good news is that these difficulties weed out some hunters, making these forests even more attractive to hunters determined to get a deer in their sights this season.
The Murphy Hill property is east of Downsville. Take the BWS Road 1 from the dam around an arm of Pepacton Reservoir to Murphy Hill Road, which leads to signs marking the state boundary.
The Plattekill tract is east of Delhi and may be reached by taking state Route 28 to Route 6, turning north through the hamlet of Bovina Center, and taking Mountain Brook Road for about a mile to state land.
EMINENCE STATE FOREST
Schoharie County's Eminence State Forest is south of Cobleskill and west of Middleburgh in the midst of some of the best deer-hunting country in the state. A cluster of six tracts of state land comprises Eminence, with a total of more than 12,000 acres. A free brochure and map greatly assists visitors in locating these properties --call the DEC number listed above for more information.
Farmers abandoned these ridgetops many years ago and the first state management plan was to reforest the fields with spruce and pine plantings. Now, Eminence is managed for pulp and lumber production, wildlife habitat improvement and watershed protection. In addition to deer, the forest harbors wild turkeys.
Camp Summit, a minimum-security prison, is within the forest, and inmates provide much of the labor for tree planting, road and trail maintenance, and other improvement tasks.
To reach these public hunting spots, take Exit 20 off I-88 and proceed south on state Route 10 to the hamlet of Summit. Turn onto Route 20 east to the state land. Burnt Hill Road also crosses portions of the forest.
MT. PISGAH STATE FOREST
With 4,260 acres, this trio of state forests in the highlands along the Schoharie-Greene county line provides hunters with the feel of a Catskill hunt but with more maintenance roads and trails for better foot access. Also, periodic logging operations and selective cuttings provide more varied habitat.
This is the deep woods, make no mistake about that, with steep, rugged terrain covered with large blocks of forest, primarily mixed hardwoods. Stands of oaks may be found on some of the ridges and slopes, where deer will be found searching for acorns at this time of year.
These public-hunting parcels are named for Mt. Pisgah, one of several named mountains along the wavy ridgeline forming the county boundary. Several of these peaks are in the state land, including Huntersfield, Richland and Richtmyer. An observatory was once located on the top of Mt. Pisgah, and the remains of an old access road provides a footpath to the summit.
Popular with Capital District hunters, the Mt. Pisgah properties are close to the southwest corner of Albany County. The best approach to these three backcountry parcels is via state Route 145 south through Middleburgh to the hamlet of Durham in Greene County. Turn right (west) on Route 20, which leads to the easternmost property. Local roads in the area provide access to other segments of the forest, including Cook Road, South Mountain Road and CCC Road.
ROCKY POINT AREA
Deer hunting on Long Island is definitely a change of pace from the remote Catskill Park a
nd Preserve and the steep hills of the Appalachian Plateau. However, archers who work their way through the required permit procedures may hunt throughout December and should have a good chance at the special firearms season in January.
Suffolk County is overpopulated with deer, so the chances for a late-season deer are better here than anywhere else in the state. Also, bonus tags are available once a DMP is filled.
The Rocky Point Natural Resources Management Area, including the Longwood Property, consists of more than 5,700 acres in the town of Brookhaven south of the village of Rocky Point. Longwood is a small parcel in the same area along the William Floyd Parkway. The habitat here is predominantly thick oak and pine forest, although there are several meadows and some small grassy openings.
Formerly an RCA communications center, Rocky Point is one of the most productive deer-hunting areas on the island. While the scrubby growth is dense in most locations, a trail network is maintained.
Daily hunter access permits are required, hunting locations are assigned and the number of hunters is limited each day. Reservations are required to hunt on weekends and holidays in December.
Hunters may obtain complete details about reservations, the procedures for issuing bonus tags, and associated special rules and regulations by calling the DEC's field office at (631) 924-3156.
To reach Rocky Point, use Exit 66 off I-495, take Route 101 north to Route 21, and continue north for six miles to the main parking lot on the west side of the road.
For more information on deer hunting in southeast New York, contact the DEC's Stamford office at (607) 652-7367.
For inquiries and brochures pertaining to New York's state forests, call (607) 652-7365.
General maps and travel information may be obtained from the New York State tourism office at (800) 225-5697.