The afternoon sun was just seconds away from dropping behind the magnificent Catskill Mountains in southern New York when Bernie Antal spotted movement in a heavy clump of mountain laurel. Even in the rapidly fading light, he could see antlers on one of the deer. From its actions, Bernie determined he was looking at a buck tending a doe. With legal shooting time coming to a close, he reluctantly watched as the deer slowly moved deeper into the stand of mountain laurel. There was no doubt in his mind that he'd be back there before the next morning's first light!
It was Nov. 20, 2007. Bernie was hunting in Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) 3H, one of four such units that make up the Pilot Antler Restriction Program in the Southern Catskills. The experimental program is the result of a small number of ardent deer hunters coming up with a cohesive proposal and presenting it to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for their approval and implementation. After gaining overwhelming support from the local deer hunting community, the program began in WMUs 3C and 3J in 2005. The next year it was expanded to include units 3H and 3K.
PROTECTING THOSE YEARLINGS
The program was designed to last for three hunting seasons in each unit, and DEC biologists were to monitor the deer take within the units to obtain valuable biological data. The program requires that bucks taken within the designated units have at least one antler with 3 points or more that are at least 1 inch long. The rationale behind this is simple. Since most yearling bucks in the Catskills are either spikes or forkies, adherence to the program would allow bucks to reach 2€‚1/2 years of age before being taken. An exception to this regulation is that hunters under 17 years of age may take any buck that has at least one antler that is 3 inches in length or longer.
So what's been going on in these WMUs? In terms of protecting yearling bucks, the program has been an overwhelming success. Prior to 2005 in WMU 3C, yearling bucks constituted 58 percent of the buck take. They now represent only 23 percent. The harvest of 2€‚1/2-year-olds has increased from a historical average of 31 percent to 42 percent.
What's even more interesting is the fact that the take of 3€‚1/2-year-old and older bucks has gone from 11 percent to a whopping 35 percent. This means that over one-third of the bucks being harvested in these study areas are 3€‚1/2 years old or older. That's unprecedented in New York. The data is very much the same in the other WMUs, with the exception being that slightly fewer older bucks were taken in units 3H and 3J.
THE PROGRAM WORKS!
Looking at the data from a statewide perspective, we see that yearlings still amount to 64 percent of the total take, 2€‚1/2-year-olds account for 25 percent, and bucks that are 3€‚1/2 years old or older account for a mere 12 percent. It's obvious that the antler restriction program is working!
One of the ways the DEC measures the buck population is by the number of bucks taken per square mile. Prior to the start of the program, the average number of bucks taken per square mile within the study units was 2.5. Following the 2007 season, the number dropped to 1.8 bucks per square mile. This was a decrease for sure, but not nearly as significant as one would expect when you consider that, historically, over 70 percent of the bucks in the woods were yearlings when the hunting season opened.
Another measure of the success of this program is the average number of antler points on the bucks taken. Across all four WMUs, the average number of points prior to the study was 4.6. In just three years, the average number of antler points has increase to nearly 7 in two of the study units. In two other units, the average number of antler points increased to 7 in just two years!
The Antler Restriction Program is not without its critics. Anytime change is suggested within the hunting community, there are going to be those who vehemently oppose it, but so far the hunters affected by the program have been very supportive. New York's Cornell University has been studying the effects of the program with specific emphasis on gauging deer hunters' satisfaction.
FAVORABLE RESPONSE FROM HUNTERS
When hunters in WMUs 3C and 3J were asked if the program should be continued, 66 percent responded favorably. Hunters in WMUs 3H and 3K supported the program 8-to-1. However, hunters in the units that have had three years' experience with the program are becoming somewhat less enchanted with the Antler Restriction Program. Perhaps this is due to their inability to harvest a buck in the past few years. Overall, though, when asked if they supported protecting yearling bucks, 60 percent were in favor, with 42 percent offering strong support for the program. Only 20 percent of the hunters surveyed strongly opposed the program.
The DEC has been very supportive of the program and has noted that in just three years, the primary objective of the study to reduce the harvesting of yearling bucks has been achieved. The evaluation of hunter satisfaction is an ongoing study, and data will continue to be collected over time .
BERNIE'S NEXT-DAY HUNT
True to his promise, Bernie Antal was back in the same spot early the next morning. Before the first rays of the sun began to warm the eastern sky, he had taken a position along a stone wall that ran through his parents' property. Bernie had been hunting the property for 17 years, and he knew that when the sun lit up the forest floor, he'd be looking directly into the mountain laurel thicket where he had seen the buck disappear the evening before.
The sun was still hidden behind the top of the Catskills when Bernie noticed movement along the edge of the laurel. He could see a doe slowly feeding in his direction, and the buck he had spotted the night before was close behind her. The deer were about 150 yards away, yet he could easily make out the buck's antlers. Despite Bernie's knowledge of the area, he had set up directly behind thick brush that ran along the far side of the stone wall and he had no shot!
As quietly as possible, he slipped along the wall with his eyes constantly on the buck. After several long and agonizing minutes, he finally reached an area that offered him a clear shot at the big buck. The buck was becoming increasingly nervous and Bernie feared that he might bolt at any minute. Bernie raised his Remington Model 700 to his shoulder. He aimed and fired. With the shot, both deer crashed into the nearby mountain laurel thicket and disappeared.
Bernie immediately began to run toward the spot where the buck had been standing. As he jumped the stone wall, he could see the doe running directly at him, with the buck close behind. The hunter again raised his rifle, but a second shot proved unnecessary. As he searched for a clear shot, the buck piled up right in front of him.
Bernie still had no idea how big his buck was. As he cautiously approached the downed animal, he marveled at how high the rack lay off the ground. As he later stated, "All I could see were antlers!"
Bernie's buck turned out to be a magnificent main-frame 8-pointer with a 19€‚4/8-inch inside spread. With 26-inch main beams, the mountain bruiser green-scored 147€‚5/8 inches. That's a heck of an 8-pointer, particularly for southeastern New York State. The buck had a dressed weight of 176 pounds.
A WINNING STRATEGY ALL THE WAY AROUND
Bernie's buck is a perfect example of the old Quality Deer Management Association's slogan: "Let 'em go. Let 'em grow." It only takes a couple of years to produce truly magnificent bucks, and during this time the entire herd is benefiting from a more mature age structure. As long as New York's hunters support programs such as the Pilot Antler Restriction Program, we will continue to see the health, vigor and quality of our deer herd improve.
The 2007 deer season is surely one that Bernie Antal will not soon forget, and he's already plotting and planning for the future. He excitedly told me about a huge drop-tine buck in his area that survived the 2007 hunting season. And if I know Bernie, he might already have that critter figured out!