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Remembering that “slow” big-game opener … or was it?

A distant shot echoed through the woods last Saturday morning – a starting gun signifying opening day of the Southern Zone big game regular season. The forecast called for massive amounts of rain with wind and we hoped the weather predictions were wrong. It was in the 30s temperature-wise and we wondered if there was a chance we would see snow instead of rain. That would be better. Time would tell.

Once again, we assumed our positions on the hills of Greenwood, Steuben County after a tasty breakfast in JC’s Café in Hornell. Our hunting haunts were focused around Rock Creek State Forest, offering up over 700 acres of public land. I’ve been part of the opening day experience since 1964. I was 8 years old at the time, hunting with my grandfather, Irvin Hilts. Opening day was on a Monday back then and it meant a day off school. No one questioned it. I carried a BB gun and we “hunted” only for the day. However, it still left an impact on me that is permanently ingrained, a memory of a very special “first-time.”

My father, Bill, Sr., hunted Rock Creek out of a Scotty travel trailer even before I was part of the crew – a trailer sold to him by his parents. Scotty was the name brand they carried out of their home in Sanborn. His hunting partners were Jim Capolupo from Grand Island, Art Hartley from Niagara Falls and Jack Livermore of Niagara Falls from what I remembered. I was there the last year the trailer made the trip, too. With 3 feet of snow on the ground, we couldn’t make it up the hill with Dad’s Pontiac station wagon. We had to camp at a farm near the main road because conditions were too bad. It was so cold that a glass of tomato juice spilled and it froze immediately on the floor ... where I slept. We could still make it up to hunt though.

That was the year Art Hartley shot a nice buck in some very difficult terrain. With all the snow on the ground, there was only one option – drag the deer down the big hill to the main road, a trek that would extend a couple of miles at least. I was elected to help (although I don’t remember ever having a vote). On the way down we encountered another big buck. Hartley needed just one shot. We found out that the buck was going to die anyway. It had a broken leg, wedged between two trees. It wasn’t going anyplace. I still remember the look on Dad’s face when we emerged from the woods at the base of the hill a couple hours later dragging two bucks. And, one way or another, these more memorable stories are told every year.

There just wasn't as much buck sign as previous years in our area, like this fresh buck rub.

This year my nephew Kiel Davignon was hunting for the first time at 21. He had always wanted to be part of the hunting team but time was always an issue. He made the time this year. As I explained to him how the state forest was set-up, he asked the question about how far it was down to the main road. It was a perfect segue into our hunting history. Also along this year were brothers Rick from North Tonawanda and Dave from Burt. Dad was back, just a month shy of his 86th birthday. Kiel brought along a hunting friend, Erik Domin of North Tonawanda to complete the band of hunting brothers. Finally, some new blood mixed in with the old.

Through the years, many of the hunters in our group moved on. Some stopped hunting. Some went to other camps. Some moved away. Some passed on. One of those people no longer with us was Don Starkey of Lockport. I grew up with Don, playing baseball and softball along the way. We graduated from Starpoint in 1974, hunting a long time together – over four decades. My tribute this third opening day without him was to stand watch over his favorite hemlock, hoping to connect with the big buck that eluded him on this hill. This was not the year. In fact, not one person in our group saw even a tail. My highlight was a close encounter with a fisher, less than 15 feet from me. It did make my heart skip a beat when I saw the flash of black in the distance. We had seen some bear signs the day before.

Our hunting gang this year - Front row (L to R): Kiel Davignon from N. Tonawanda, Rick Hilts, N. Tonawanda; Back row (L to R): Bill Hilts, Sr. from Sanborn, Bill Hilts, Jr. from Lockport, Erik Domin, N. Tonawanda, Dave Hilts from Burt.

With limited hunting pressure in the area and terrible weather, opening weekend numbers had to be way down, right? According to Megan Gollwitzer with the Office of Communications for Region 9 DEC, the check station in Holland evaluated 60 deer on Saturday and 98 on Sunday. They also checked one bear. Last year, the deer numbers were 58 and 76 respectively – another bad weekend weather-wise. Cabela’s in Cheektowaga was a check station on Sunday and they saw eight deer and one bear. Last year the store checked three deer. There were also 10 deer checked at Allegany State Park.

Ryan Rockefeller, Wildlife Biologist out of the Allegany office, commented that deer harvest numbers appear to be up slightly when compared with last year. “We also saw an increase in the archery take so far, too,” said Rockefeller. The archery take could be up as high as 25 percent this fall. In addition, the bear harvest appears to be up significantly as well based on early reports. This is all preliminary of course. And make sure you report your harvest. It's important.

This small buck bid me farewell as I was leaving to drive down to the Southern Tier. It wasn't the first time I saw more deer at home than at our hunting destination. (Bill Hilts Jr.)

Notable deer takes: Some sportsmen have reached out to let me know about a friend, a family member or someone they hunted with to acknowledge a particular harvest. Always remember that a “trophy” is in the eye of the beholder. For example, Jeff Heeb from North Tonawanda was hunting in the Town of Porter when he connected with a big 12-point buck that was his largest so far. What made it special is that it was an atypical rack, something very unusual. He was in his stand all of 20 minutes, finding his mark 40 yards out. We have the picture – check it out online next week … Dr. John Syracuse of

Newfane managed to take a dandy 8-pointer hunting the Hume/Fillmore area, Allegany County, on opening morning. He needed two shots at 65 yards with his .30-06 rifle to take his biggest deer to date … Scott Cindrick of the Town of Niagara was the only successful hunter we knew about in our particular area of Greenwood, connecting with a big-bodied 10-pointer that tipped the scales near 200 pounds … Gary DeBacco of Niagara Falls scored again on another nice 8-point archery buck the Tuesday prior to the regular-season opener. He threaded the needle with a tough shot at 25 yards. The buck, taken in Cameron, Steuben County, field-dressed out at 170 pounds … According to Kyle Crosby at Cabela’s, James Pazderski of Depew was the lucky winner of the $400 deer processing package with a personal best 4-point buck he took in Java. It was one of the eight deer checked.

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