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Thrills (and spills) of the regular season deer opener

All good things come to an end … or so the saying goes.

This year’s Southern Zone regular-season big-game opener found the Hilts clan once again chasing deer (and bear) in and around the hills of Greenwood in Steuben County with an abbreviated crew of hunters. This year’s group consisted of Bill Hilts Sr. (Dad) of Sanborn and Rick Hilts (brother) of North Tonawanda along with me. It was a far cry from the nine hunters we had last year, but life got in the way with work, school and illness.

After a quick lunch at JC’s Café in Hornell on Friday, we drove to Rock Creek State Forest to set up our base of operations in the woods off the seasonal road. It wasn’t going to be easy on Dad with the cold conditions expected for the weekend. He would probably be spending most of his time in the car to keep warm.

As we walked down the south side of the hill, a flood of memories came rushing through. There was the hemlock where Dad hunted for more than 50 years. However, it had changed because someone had used it as a ground blind for the archery season and it was brushed in from all sides. It was too much work to change it back to the way it was.

Rick cleared out his spot, adjacent to a tree where I connected with my first buck ever. Actually, my first two bucks on back-to-back days. This needs explaining before someone reports me for a violation of the Environmental Conservation Law. It was my first year for hunting on my own away from an adult and a 6-pointer surprised me. One quick shot and the buck charged downhill. While still in sight, another hunter decked out in camouflage was sitting below me and fired away. I never saw him. By the time I walked down the hill, the hunter was already field dressing the deer. As I looked closely at the buck, there was my shot perfectly placed in the shoulder. He never hit the deer, but claimed it as his own. He was the adult and I never questioned him.

The next day I moved to a different tree nearby and thoroughly checked out the woods. That morning I shot another 6-pointer and my first official deer. It was the same tree where my brother, Dave, would also take his first deer years later. It’s funny how things happen sometimes.

The Fox Hunting camp in Hartsville. Young 15-year-old Jesse Fox of Lewiston took his first buck and his first coyote opening weekend. His dad, Mike, is behind him and Rick Hilts of North Tonawanda is pulling a peek-a-buck. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

Opening morning this year found me near those same memorable trees, very easy to recognize. There was a problem, though. As I stood under a hemlock, I could see another hunter walking through the woods. He stopped, waved to acknowledge my presence and then pulled out his chair to sit less than 75 yards away. Not cool with 704 acres of land in this state forest.

I moved to a secondary spot, near a favorite location of a good friend (Don Starkey of Lockport) who passed away a few years ago. There were more memories and fond thoughts of good times gone by. Because it was a cold morning, the leaves were especially crunchy on the forest floor. It wasn’t long before I could hear something coming, and my heart started to race. It wasn’t a squirrel.

I knelt into position and picked my spot as a white-tailed deer came walking up the hill. It was a doe, and it appeared to be by itself. The iron sights on my Remington 870 pump zeroed in and I squeezed the trigger. It was a hit.

Catches and hunts of the week (Dec. 5) Thu, Dec 5, 2019

Submissions can be emailed to and should include name, hometown and particulars of the catch. One photo will be selected Catch of the Week and be published on the Thursday Outdoors page.

Scattershots (Dec. 4, 2019) Wed, Dec 4, 2019

Brother Rick came along as we trailed the animal. After a good lesson in tracking, we were able to fill out our Deer Management Permit tag. We were so far down the hill, though, it was going to be easier to drag it down to the main road then to drag the deer up. Since Dad was at the car (and without a cellphone), Rick offered to walk up top, grab the car and meet me at the bottom.

I made it to the main road without a problem. It wasn’t the first time that’s happened, recalling past tales of successful hunts that found us dragging deer down a steep section of terrain, instead of up.

The phone rang. Rick’s voice sounded shaky. “I don’t know where I am,” he said. "I fell and hit my head. I feel a bit dizzy and I could be a bit dehydrated. I ran into another hunter and he said that I was going the wrong way to Rock Creek and that I was in Erskin Hollow.”

“Erskin Hollow,” I said, “is on the north side of our hill. How did you miss our road?” He was clearly confused. We would come to find out that the hunter didn’t know where he was, adding to the problem. What could I do?

An opening day doe. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

It was around lunchtime and I knew that Mike George of Niagara Falls would be in the camp of Mike Fox of Lewiston for a meal in nearby Hartsville. He answered the phone right away. As luck would have it, Fox’s son, Jesse, 15, had just shot his first buck ever and they were back in camp, too. The three of them headed over to pick me up on Route 248 at Rock Creek. They were there in 15 minutes.

We circled around and when we arrived back up top, I ran over to Dad and told him we were looking for Rick. He asked me to turn the car on for him because he was cold. Running accessories in the car all morning, though, left us with a dead battery. That would have to wait.

We drove along the road sounding our horn as I had Rick on the phone. No luck. We opted for one shot with Rick’s firearm and we determined he was close. Within 10 minutes we were giving Rick a bottle of water and helping him carry his gear.

Meanwhile, back at our staging area, Mike, Mike and Jesse were jumping my car while I headed down to pick up the rest of our gear. Dad was colder than he needed to be right then and couldn’t wait to get back into a heated vehicle. Rick and I went back out hunting for the last hour while Dad thawed out.

That night, dear old Dad, who is going to be 88 next month, finally admitted that he just wasn’t enjoying himself any more. This was going to be his last hunt. He told stories about how he came to hunt in Greenwood at Rock Creek State Forest. Local forest ranger (at the time) Bob Bailey had suggested it and he had even created a pull-off for a Scotty Travel Trailer that Dad used to haul down hunting every fall. That hunting tradition continued for more than five decades.

There were lots of people and lots of memories through the years as he traveled down the long and winding road. It’s the end of an era for Dad, but we “kids” still have a few more in us. He will continue to lead in spirit. Out with the old and in with the new. It’s good to see that Jesse is on the hunting bandwagon.

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