High, chilling winds greeted deer hunters across Western New York at sunrise on Monday, and those winds continued until well after dark. Brief patches of direct sunlight showing between heavy, snow-laden clouds added a shade or two more of red on exposed skin of stalwart shotgunners facing whatever the weather would offer while bagging a buck or downing a doe.
Successful hunters during this first day of New York State shotgun deer season stood with quiet pride next to their deer as Department of Environmental Conservation biologists checked for that deer's age, kill site and overall condition.
DEC check stations have been set up opening day each year south of Springville on Route 219 and south of Holland on Route 16. There, biologists get a head count and a view of how well or poorly deer do in the wilds. Most deer checked here come from hunting sites along the Southern Tier, as hunters head north with their harvests.
Jim Snider, senior wildlife biologist and supervisor at the Springville site, started his Monday afternoon stint with some concern, as first-day arrivals began slowly showing early that afternoon. Vehicles pulled into the check station with much less frequency than they had during first-day deer checks last year.
This year, good snowfall throughout the region and solidly holding snow cover as temperatures rose above freezing should have given hunters a good view of moving deer. But bitterly cold winds pinned down both deer and hunters as that 7:10 a.m. shooting time arrived. In some areas near the Pennsylvania state line, high winds made treestand climbing dangerous, often toppling poorly rooted or dead trees.
Last year, deer check stations received an early burst of hunters returning home with deer for processing, as summer-like temperatures held though the first three days of shotgun season. The year before, in 2000, the infamous storm on Nov. 20 sent hunters home early for fear of being snowbound somewhere along the Southern Tier.
"With starters like these, it's hard to predict deer takes based on first day tallies," said Russ Biss, Region 9 wildlife manager, who was manning the Route 16 check station on Monday evening.
First day results saw some perceivable trends, along with the usual number of exceptional bucks and harvest rates higher than most days of the season. Hunters, with all the Deer Management Permits (antlerless licenses) issued and deer biologists' insistence on taking antlerless animals, have shown up each year with an increasing number of deer without headgear.
Buck takers brought in some nice racks, but the count was well below the exceptional harvest of 5-year-old bucks seen in 2000.
Sometimes big-buck kills take time. For Mike Reilly of Orchard Park, it took 23 years of taking an occasional doe before he finally bagged a nice eight-pointer in Ellicottville. Tim Spierto, fish and wildlife biologist, checked Reilly's deer as a 2 1/2 -year old with a nicely symmetrical rack.
Sometimes it takes the right opportunity. Tom Scheeler, 16, of Orchard Park, on his first day of big-game hunting, used his 20-gauge Mossburg to down a nice eight-point buck in Ellicottville. Mom drove Tom to the check station Monday afternoon.
East Otto provided cover for big bucks and Tim Ulinger, area resident, found an impressive 10-pointer at 8:15 opening morning. Mike Hanel traveled to East Otto from Niagara Falls to bring home a hefty eight-pointer at the same time as Hanel's take that day.
Bob Piendel of Sloan was able to climb his treestand in Little Valley and get a 60-yard shot at a 13-point, 4 1/2 -year-old buck with a hefty, wide rack.
John Curtiss, wildlife technician, checked kills of a husband-and-wife team, noting that the wife showed a keen awareness of deer dynamics: food plots, bedding areas and changing trail patterns.
Both DEC check stations closed Saturday evening, and final tallies should be earlier than usual this year, due to a phone-in report system replacing those mail-in report cards required in previous big-game hunting seasons.
Three generations of Thies family members, plus an in-law, downed their deer on opening day this year.
Anthony S. Theis, formerly of South Wales, returns to Western New York from his home in Houston to hunt deer during the shotgun season each year. This year, he took a doe, his son Anthony H. took a doe and his grandson, Noah D., 19, bagged an eight-point buck, his eighth deer taken with bow and gun.
Son-in-law Mike Zientek of Houston also took a doe. All kills came during late-morning hours when deer -- and deer hunters -- finally began moving in that southeastern corner of Erie County opening morning. That Houston contingent of the Thies family will stay until Dec. 5 to fill their remaining permits.
Shotgun deer season continues in Western New York (the statewide Southern Zone) until Dec. 10.