September 22, 2010
As the sun peeked its head over the hardwood ridge, I could make out the unmistakable outline of the nearby McDonald's restaurant 600 feet away. Already I could hear the annoying drone of car tires on blacktop as hundreds of commuters battled their way down the highway on their way to work in busy Manhattan.
In the distance, a high-speed Amtrak train, making its daily run from Albany to downtown New York City, was blaring its horn at every grade crossing. Through it all I could hear the sound of Canada geese as they scolded each other on a nearby pond. No, hunting the outskirts of New York City is not a true wilderness experience, but if you're looking to hunt big unpressured bucks and you're willing to put up with the difficulties associated with hunting within the confines of an urban area, then read on. You may find this interesting!
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
Every big buck hunter is well aware of the value of hunting those special locations that direct a buck's movement into specific areas. The pinch points, funnels or bottlenecks of Iowa, Illinois and Kansas are usually the result of changes in land use, agriculture or topographic features. However, funnels for the urban hunter are usually the result of a subdivision, a shopping mall, a school, tennis courts or a major highway. When hunting suburbia, you have to take an entirely different approach while trying to determine the highest percentage spots to sit in a tree.
The urban area I hunt is just north of New York City. The entire area could be characterized as a bedroom community. The landscape is composed of subdivisions, commercial establishments and some very large mansions, and the majority of folks who live here work in the city. Interestingly, despite the high human population in the area, there are still many patches of woodland -- some as large as a couple of hundred acres -- and they are prime deer habitat.
John Van Buren, a bowhunting fanatic who lives 1 1/2 hours north of New York's Westchester County, makes the trip south many times each year in search of a truly huge whitetail. As you would expect, with such a high population base it can be difficult to find a place to hunt. But John always seems to find those special places. When I asked him how he finds his hunting spots, he replied, "Knocking on doors and asking permission just doesn't work. Rather, I look for small areas of open land where I can park my truck and enter the woods without having to cross a 'No trespassing' sign.
"The woods directly behind many shopping centers are often a kind of 'no man's land.'
The same holds true inside many subdivisions. Developers often construct new roads into wooded areas with the intent of future building, but sometimes that development doesn't materialize for several years and these areas are left un-posted. They are perfect places in which to park and legally enter the woods." (In New York, as in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, it's assumed that it's okay to hunt and fish urban properties that are not posted with the understanding that if the landowner asks you to leave, you must leave. However, there are many other metro areas where written permission to hunt is required. Always check your local regulations before you enter the woods.)
Mike Donohue lives in Westchester County and serves his community as a firefighter. He has a tough job, but one that affords him a lot of time to hit the woods. He is well aware of the value of unnatural funnels or bottlenecks, but he takes it one step further. He does much of his scouting by riding through local subdivisions at night looking for deer feeding on lawn trees and shrubs! In Westchester County, deer are the landscape contractor's best friend. If it grows around a house, a deer will eat it!
By determining which subdivisions hold the best bucks, Mike is able to eliminate some areas and concentrate on others. I asked Mike about hunting pressure, and he said, "I often go an entire season without seeing another hunter. Westchester is a 'bowhunting only' county, so you don't see the numbers of hunters you would if guys were hunting with guns. Furthermore, many hunters think that it is impossible to get permission to hunt this area, so they give up before they try. Actually, I have access to more land than I can hunt!"
LOTS OF DEER, LOTS OF OPPORTUNITIES
Hunting the suburbs of nearly any major metropolitan area presents problems to the hunter that may not exist in more rural areas, but they also offer opportunities to the resourceful hunter. I recall hunting along a busy thoroughfare one cold November morning. I was on a severe side hill, with a major highway downhill to my left and a large subdivision uphill to my right. The swath of woods was only about 200 yards wide and was a favored bedding area for deer after feeding on foundation plantings during the night.
As I slowly walked along the narrow strip of woods, it dawned on me that the road noise would suddenly stop -- only to resume a few minutes later! It didn't take me long to figure out that whenever the traffic lights were green I should move and then stop when the lights turned red. This is obviously a very unorthodox way to still-hunt, but I was rewarded with a nice fat doe that morning.
The overpopulation of deer in Westchester County was giving the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC) fits a few years ago. Property owners were complaining about deer damage to their valuable landscapes, and driving a car at night was often similar to a Saturday night demolition derby. Deer were everywhere! In an effort to gain control of the deer population problem, the DEC considered opening a short shotgun season but gave the idea up when they considered the dangers involved with houses so close to the woodlands.
They opted to change the hunting regulations to allow bowhunters an additional tag whenever they killed a doe. Whenever a hunter tagged a doe, that hunter was awarded another tag that could be used for another doe or a buck. The process would continue until the hunter took a buck on that extra tag.
The results demonstrated just how effective hunters could be in controlling a deer herd.
Westchester bowhunters started taking does in record numbers, and the numbers of complaints from property owners dropped significantly. Today there is still a pressing need to control deer numbers, but hunters now enjoy a much healthier and better-balanced deer herd.
AN EYE-OPENER OF A HUNT
Another real advantage to hunting urban areas is that these close-in areas often offer extended hunting seasons. In New York, for example, the regular bow season in the southern zone ends in mid-November. But Westchester County and several other areas allow hunting up to the end of the year.
As good as the hunting may be in heavily urbanized areas, it's not a wilderness experience, as already mentioned. Perhaps the most vivid example of this became apparent to me when I was hunting a very narrow hardwood funnel that ran between a large, open swamp and some multi-million-dollar homes. The funnel was only about 40 yards wide, and I was in a tree about 40 yards from a blacktopped road. Due to a slight rise in the ground I could not see the road. I was definitely hunting in close quarters. In fact, my hunting buddies jokingly said that I would probably set off the motion detector on a nearby garage as I slipped through the darkness to my stand!
Shortly after daylight, I could hear the sound of hooves on the road and then the rustle of leaves as a deer came my way. Suddenly a nice 8-pointer trotted by at less than 20 yards.
He was only a 2 1/2-year-old, so I let him walk. A few minutes later I again heard the rustle of leaves, and I grabbed my bow in anticipation. But this time it was a jogger, dressed up in his powder blue jogging suit, making his way toward me. Totally unaware of my presence, he stopped 10 yards in front of my tree and dropped his drawers. After he finished doing his business, he left the same way he came in. Again, it was not a wilderness experience!
PAYING THE PRICE, REAPING THE REWARDS
Some folks simply do not like hunting, or hunters. I've had my truck plastered with eggs -- brown, organic eggs, of course -- and once I had the air let out of two of my tires.
Sometimes folks yell things at you that you wouldn't say to your worst enemy, and even local merchants occasionally get a little huffy when they see guys dressed in camo enter their store.
There is definitely a price to pay when hunting the suburbs of major urban centers. After all, there are still folks who believe that Bambi and Thumper get together regularly to romp in the forest. But the fact is, the hunting can be fantastic. If you're willing to put in the effort to locate good hunting areas, you may be amazed at the quality of deer that live in the shadow of our nation's skyscrapers!