Nearly half of the deer harvested in New York last season were antlered bucks (deer with antlers over 3 inches in length), including good numbers of bona fide trophies taken in every zone using every legal technique allowed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
According to the DEC's 2014 deer harvest report, traditional firearms hunters produced the bulk of the trophy deer kill, with a calculated take of 74,883 animals, while bowhunters (24,426), muzzleloader hunters (6,011), Deer Management Permit hunters (2,995) and DMAP permittees (289) accounted for the remainder of the bucks tagged statewide last year.
Location, of course, often matters more than the method of taking, and there are destinations in New York that are definitely the place to be for hunters seeking mature trophy deer.
The number of trophy deer taken per square mile is one statistic that invariably catches the eye of trophy hunters, and New York's wildlife management units run the gamut from fewer than one buck per square mile (generally the northeastern portion of the state) to as high as six bucks per square mile (WMU 8R in the Finger Lakes region).
Of course, high numbers of bucks per square mile doesn't necessarily mean that all of those bucks are trophy-class animals, but it is interesting to note that many of New York's top-ranked trophy deer have come from the western region, where per-square-mile numbers are also among the highest in the state.
Also included in the DEC's annual deer harvest report is a Buck Take Density chart which indicates that the western portion of the state produces high numbers of bucks as well as high overall deer harvest numbers.
This is good information for deer hunters in general because it stands to reason that the odds for success should be highest in areas where more bucks (and more deer) are taken each season.
Even better news is that these harvest trends have been relatively stable for many years. Simple logic suggests that if a New York deer hunter wants to shoot a buck he should pick an area in the western portion of the state where buck harvests and densities are highest. If only it were that simple!
Few hunters would be satisfied with a juvenile buck unless it's their first deer, even though the DEC's deer managers consider any whitetail with antlers longer than 3 inches to be an adult male. Modern trophy hunters are looking for bucks with eight or more points, a wide spread, plenty of mass and a total antler score above the Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett minimums.
This means a buck with antlers netting in the 140 class or above, and this immediately disqualifies more than 90 percent of the bucks that are taken each year. Suddenly harvest ratios, densities and trends go out the window. If all you want is "a buck," New York is definitely the place to be in the Northeast, but hunters who won't settle for less than a trophy-class animal have their work cut out for them.
There is no question that New York has its share of trophy-class whitetails (the record books are full of them) but hunters who have their sights set on a truly impressive Empire State whitetail must shift their focus from mere statistics to more aggressive strategies and higher standards.
True trophy hunters must face that fact that holding out for incrementally bigger bucks (taking only deer with antlers bigger than the last one) inevitably means some seasons will end without a shot being fired.
For example, 20 years ago one hunter wrote to me after taking one of the state's biggest black bears on his very first hunt.
"That was easy," he joked. "Now I'm going after the state-record buck."
I haven't heard from him since.
If you think you are ready to enter the realm of the trophy whitetail hunter, however, here's how and where to do it in New York.
A CHANGE OF STRATEGY
If you want to kill the biggest buck of your life, as the legendary tracker Larry Benoit said, you have to be willing to pass up the smaller bucks. Not many hunters can let an average 8- or 10-point buck walk away, but this is just the first step in becoming a trophy hunter.
"Let them go, let them grow," is the trophy-seeker's mantra, but doing so requires a healthy dose of self-discipline. Understand and expect that you are going to see few deer that meet even minimum trophy standards.
And, you must be able to make evaluations and decisions based on quick glimpses that occur in mere seconds. You must decide prior to a hunt what kind of buck you are looking for and be able to quickly identify it as "the one."
None of this is easy. And, thanks to New York's traditionally thick cover and the reclusive nature of the state's biggest bucks, finding and evaluating a trophy-class deer is often an exercise in frustration. You'll know him when you see him, but don't expect to see a trophy buck on every trip, even when hunting private lands in the highest-rated WMUs in the state.
According to a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, 96 percent of deer hunters seek whitetails in their own state, and it's probably safe to say that the majority of those hunters target familiar areas each season.
Staying local is not a bad idea because the more familiar you are with the area you hunt the better your odds for success. Scouting is critical to trophy deer hunting success and it is much more productive for a hunter to spend his time in habitat that is close to home.
Prior to the season, look for signs of trophy-class deer (large rubs and scrapes) in a number of areas and monitor those bucks' activities prior to the season using trail cams and/or frequent visits to the same areas. Undisturbed bucks with a core supply of does will not wander far from their home range, but don't be surprised if some target animals disappear or begin to show up miles away on other hunters' trail cams.
Conversely, be on the lookout for non-local rutting bucks that wander into your area as well. The window of opportunity for taking a trophy-class buck that is roaming far and wide in search of does may be just a few days, so consistent scouting is key to a successful hunt.
WHERE ARE THEY?
It's been well established that it takes a combination of elements to produce a trophy buck. Genetics top the list, followed by adequate food, water, and longevity. Some bucks will never grow trophy-sized antlers no matter how long they live or how beneficial the forage, and in high-density areas where nearly every legal-sized buck is shot the odds for taking a high-end buck are also very low.
One might be led to conclude that the biggest bucks will be found on private farmland where good nutrition is assured and public hunting opportunities are limited, but keep in mind that some of the biggest bucks in the state have been and continue to be taken in some unexpected places, such as super-developed Long Island, a destination that is rarely included on any trophy hunter's wish list.
Because the ingredients for a successful trophy hunt include time, room to roam and having a variety of options (because there is more than one trophy hunter in New York!), here's a sampling of best bets for Empire State trophy seekers to consider.
FINGER LAKES REGION
New York's Finger Lakes region (in DEC management Region 8) contains all of the necessary elements to produce trophy-class deer, and in fact has produced as many Boone and Crockett qualifiers as any other region of the state.
This region has the genetics required to produce trophy-class antlers and plenty of excellent nutrition to help those antlers grow. There is also plenty of public land where hunters will have more than enough room to operate as they focus on a particular buck.
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 to the area. Or, take state Route 436 to Shute Road, turn left, and then take the first left onto Walsworth Road, which leads to the area.
In deer-rich Steuben County, the Erwin WMA 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.
In Yates County, High Tor WMA provides hunters with 6,200 acres of upland and wetland habitat. From Rochester, go to Canandaigua and take Route 21 south to Naples. The WMA is immediately east of the village.
In Allegany County, also in western New York, Hanging Bog WMA is a good bet for trophy hunters looking for a bit of elbow room while in pursuit of a trophy-class buck.
Hanging Bog features 4,571 acres of upland and wetland habitat. This area is in the town of New Hudson. To get there from Exit 28 (Cuba) off the Route 17 expressway, follow Route 305 north to the New Hudson Road intersection and take the New Hudson Road north.
New York's Catskill and Adirondack parks are additional good bets for hunters seeking trophy-class whitetails, because a relatively high percentage of the deer that live there have a chance to get old enough to grow big antlers. But deer population numbers are substantially lower in these primarily forested areas, and trophy bucks are much more difficult to locate and pattern.
Portions of these public hunting areas that border residential areas and farms are likely to hold more deer (does) and therefore hold a big buck's interest longer, especially during the rut, but scouting is, as always, the key to a successful hunt.
Truth be told, trophy-class bucks exist in every corner of the state but they are not behind every tree. Research should include talking to local hunters, delivery people, sheriffs, DEC officers and others to help narrow the search, and then meet with local landowners to seek permission to hunt.
Diligence, focus and persistence are basic qualities every trophy hunter must possess. Consistent success on big bucks does not come easy, especially for hunters who want to do it all themselves. As Larry Benoit said over 40 years ago, "You must put 100 percent of everything you have into the hunt for a trophy buck, or you won't win."
For a copy of New York's detailed 2014 deer harvest report, maps and more information on New York's trophy deer hunting opportunities, log onto www.dec.ny.gov.