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The scouting, target shooting and -- for some hunts -- the required courses are completed. Now, it's game time. Three major hunting seasons open within a one-week span and forecasts look good for each:

Big-game archery season opened Wednesday at sunrise for western region archers, and both numbers of buck deer and antler growth are up this year.

Russ Biss, Department of Environmental Conservation senior wildlife biologist at Olean, credits a previous mild winter and solid acorn growth this summer for the good deer prospects. Even with a lower growth rate for apples, deer should be out in openings feeding on alfalfa until heavy frosts kill off that crop, Biss said.

Archers, more so than gun hunters later in the season, often have to move and reset as farmers cut corn and grass crops on which deer are feeding.

Early archery kills should include at least a few trophy bucks.

The first half of the split duck season starts today and runs through Nov. 28 in Western New York.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife surveys indicate an all-time record flight for the entire North American continent (about 92 million ducks) heading south this fall. These high numbers include more than a million birds lost to an outbreak this summer of avian botulism, a fatal disease caused by a bacterial toxin. To date, all of the reported losses were in Saskatchewan, Utah, the Dakotas and other sites west of the Mississippi River system.

Heavy flights come as good news to Ken Zolnowski of Cheektowaga, expert duck caller and waterfowl identification instructor. Zolnowski is looking forward to good hunting in both halves of the split season. He should have a few extra hunting days this season, having recently announced his "retirement" from area duck calling competitions following his sixth consecutive win in the New York State duck calling event. He likes both the variety of birds moving through area flyways and the dates set for both halves of the season.

Blinds at Iroquois are predrawn and have already been assigned for opening day and the first two Saturdays (Oct. 16, 18 and 25), but state blinds along the Niagara River usually can be gotten regularly, especially during the first half of the season. This year, all hunters signing on for state-run blinds along the Niagara River must have proof of successfully completing a waterfowl ID course.

Fall Turkey hunting (sunrise to sunset daily) opens Monday in DEC wildlife management units 34, 35 and 36. These units include southern Erie, Genesee, Livingston, Ontario and Yeats Counties and all of Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Allegany and Steuben Counties. One turkey of either sex can be taken during the season, which ends Nov. 16.

Turkey food sources are plentiful, says Tom Jurczak, DEC senior wildlife biologist. Red oaks, dogwood berries and black cherry are abundant, which should keep the flocks dispersed, Jurczak noted. Despite poor hatching conditions in Western New York last spring, adult populations are still good, and a well-fed male poult (jake) could weigh in as high as 12 pounds, he added. Hunters fared well in Southern Tier counties last spring. The numbers harvested, which were on a par with last year's totals, were: Allegany, 278; Cattaraugus, 371; Chautauqua 391; and Steuben, 350.

Fall turkey hunting may call for more moving and scouting than last spring, but the usual precautions should be taken: Avoid stalking and wear orange when walking.

Now is a good time to plan for the opening of shotgun (Nov. 17) and muzzleloader (Dec. 10) seasons. Target shooting to pattern slug brands and make range adjustments for scope sights is critical, writes Ken Williams, range coordinator at Evans Rod and Gun Club. Williams has some sound advice, including the necessity for a clean barrel when slug or muzzleload shooting. Evans Rod and Gun Club, on Cain Road between Routes 5 and 20 in Angola, offers its ninth Sight-In Days on Nov. 8 and 9. It's a great opportunity for shooters to pick up tips from Williams and other experts assisting on the range.

A major part of the excitement of all season openers is knowing how to safely handle accurate and effective shooting gear.

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