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Will Elliott’s Outdoors column: Results bear out change in hunting patterns

At sunset on Tuesday the last of the big-game hunting seasons end in all areas of Western New York. Boaters on Lake Erie can still comfortably search for perch – when winds and waves allow access to open-water areas of the lake.

Deer and bear hunts

Bow hunters, including those with a crossbow, and muzzleloaders can take whitetail deer and black bears in all areas open to hunting except the 9C area surrounding Buffalo.

New this season, a regulation limiting harvests to antlerless deer-only Oct. 1 to 15 and during the late season in many northwestern areas of Western New York has received considerable criticism from bow and gun hunters.

While deer are the main target of big-game hunters each fall, regulations opening bear season to virtually all areas of counties in the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Southern Zone and the harvesting of at least two 500-pound bears in Western New York made bruins the big story this big-game season.

Additions of three more counties allowing the use of rifles altered the action heard afield. In Genesee County we heard fewer shots fired opening day, which may or may not account for the lower harvest count reported during archery and the earlier firearms season.

DEC predictors projected a slightly lower deer take this year, and after two full weeks of the firearms season area hunters reported numbers down everywhere from slightly to greatly lower. Wildlife Biologist Emilio Rende has pegged an approximate 5 percent dip below last year’s deer. Counts varied among processors; the DEC final tally of deer harvests usually comes out in late January.

Many a veteran, diehard deer hunter successful in previous years has seen and harvested below their former takes. For example, Mark Irlbacher at Doc’s Archery in North Tonawanda has bow successes virtually every archery season.

Irlbacher wrote of his season so far, “Worst year ever for me in 46 years deer hunting. Saw very few deer and almost no decent bucks.”

Taxidermists and hide processors say the same thing, varying from on par with last year to as much as 50 percent below last year’s count.

Big-game deer reports on this page have been highlighted with numerous bear taggings hunters made while deer hunting.

Austin Zwelling, 14, of Wheatfield has experienced his first year of big-game hunting with harvests that will be difficult to repeat. Hunting with his dad, Andrew Zwelling, in box blinds in Angelica and other sites, Austin took a doe during the Youth Hunt with his rifle. He then went on to take another doe with a shotgun and a spike buck with a rifle during the regular firearms season.

On the last day of that season (Dec. 13), Austin, dad and his brother Ethan, 12, went out at 6 a.m. Austin set up with a .50-caliber CVA muzzleloader in search of another deer. Not seeing anything by noon on a sunny warm day, the family stuck it out and Austin was rewarded at 12:30 p.m.

As with so many deer hunters earlier this year, the next big game animal for Austin was a mature boar bear that presented a shot at 75 yards. That bear, after being dressed out, weighed in at 237 pounds.

For deer hunters, feeding and bedding patterns have been mainly during nighttime hours since the start of gun season. But the last two days of bow and smoke-pole season might have some promise. Many hunters have noted that the more mature fawn doe deer are coming into rut, which may increase buck sightings during daylight hours.

Boat fishing not iced

On Wednesday crews began installing the Ice Boom, which goes in either when Lake Erie’s water temperature drops to 40 degrees or during the Ides of December. The Ides have it this season.

That Wednesday afternoon, partner Ted Malota and I, acting on the many reports of limit catches of jumbo perch off Sturgeon Point, pulled out of the marina at noon and headed out to a half-dozen boats anchored over 55-foot depths just west of Sturgeon Point.

Southeast winds knocked down the 5-to-6-foot rollers that built up in a northwest wind the day before. For us it was a personal latest to have a boat hull on Erie waters. Veterans such as Barry Ball of Lancaster and Herb Schultz of Hamburg have had outings in previous years closer to Santa’s arrival.

We enjoyed the afternoon on the water, cruised with bottom-reading sonar at work for nearly two hours, fished about three hours and finished with one round goby and one 12-inch perch. Proof, once again, for calling it fishing rather than catching.

Look for a detailed accounting of Erie’s perch fishery and other year-end observations on next Sunday’s Outdoors page.