As the regular big game hunting season shifts into full gear, North Country hunters are again learning how to deal with unexpectedly warm weather patterns that have limited the supply of any appreciable snow cover.
Without any snow cover to illustrate deer movements, the hunt becomes a guessing game that's based on previous experience, knowledge of terrain and the availability of food sources. It can be a frustrating experience for both veteran and novice hunters alike.
Despite the variations in weather, deer are going to continue to seek food, of which there appears to be plenty due to a healthy mast crop of beechnuts and acorns.
Jim Cronin poses next to a buck that he shot last weekend to end a long personal drought.
(Photo — Joe Hackett)
Although snow cover still caps the upper elevations of the High Peaks region, the valleys and foothills remain brown, with just the stark skeletons of the hardwoods offering evidence of the bare forests.
And while deer appear to be scarce, hunters have been seeing plenty of bear. The bear population continues to grow even after last year's harvest, which was the third-highest take on record, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
A total of 1,337 bears were killed during the archery, regular gun and muzzleloader seasons, a slight increase over 2011 and better than the five-year average of 1,244. While harvest totals dropped in the southeastern (Catskill) region and central-western region, it returned to a more normal level in the Adirondacks where the black bear population is greatest.
A total of 606 bears were taken in the Adirondacks last year, up from 275 the previous year. Most of the bears were harvested in the early season (mid-September to mid-October) thanks to a hot summer that reduced the availability of natural foods and made the bears more active and drew them closer to human food sources like corn fields. New York's 2012 black bear harvest was the third-highest on record, the DEC reported.
National hunters survey
A recent survey of American sportsmen and women indicates that while more than 75 percent of the nation's population supports hunting, less than 7 percent of the population actually gets out in the field.
The hunting population remains primarily a white male domain (89 percent), and fairly well educated, with more than half of all sportsmen and women having attended college.
A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, which is conducted every five years, indicates the number of hunters and anglers age 16 and older rose from 33.9 million in 2006 to 37.4 million in 2011.
Nationally, 33.1 million people fished and 13.7 million hunted.
The national survey reaffirms that hunters and anglers are still a small portion of the overall population, about 6 percent nationally. There are about 38 million Americans who continue to hunt and fish annually.
The hunting population is heavily male (89 percent) and white (only 6 percent of hunters declared themselves non-white).
According to the most recent survey, hunting is most popular among those ages 45 to 54 (3.1 million), closely followed by the next age group, 55 to 64 (2.8 million). Together, those two groups make up 43 percent of the U.S. hunting population.
The heavy representation of older men does not bode well for hunting's future.
Due to burgeoning metropolitan and suburban populations, more than two out of three sportsmen now live in a metropolitan environment where their children grow up less familiar with fish and game populations, firearms, fishing poles and without any daily contact with fields and streams.
As a result, a majority of today's kids are uncomfortable with the pursuit of fish and game as sport, and yet nearly one in five Americans claim to be a sportsmen or women.
Why do we hunt and fish?
For those who do not care to participate in outdoor sporting pursuits, there is little understanding of what motivates a sportsman or woman to sit for hours in the cold waiting for an opportunity to harvest a deer, turkey or a goose.
However, even for those who are willing to spend time on the hunt or in the water with a rod in hand, the reasons vary widely. Some claim they pursue such opportunities for the thrill, the challenge or for the chance to foster a reconnection with their past.
A recent national and state-level research project conducted by Responsive Management reveals the single objective of obtaining meat is an increasingly important motivation for American hunters to go afield.
While research reveals there are several reasons for the significant growth in the segment of sportsmen and women who prefer to hunt and fish for utilitarian reasons, the studies make it clear the trend is widespread and unmistakable.
The top states to experience an increase in resident hunting participation between 2006 and 2011, according to the national survey, were Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, Idaho, Mississippi, New York and South Dakota.
New York, which is best known for its large urban centers, was considered a real surprise by the researchers.
In a 2013 nationwide scientific telephone survey measuring hunting participation among Americans 18 years old and older, hunters were asked about their single-most important reason for hunting in the prior year.
Respondents were asked to choose from a list of potential reasons, including being with family and friends, being close to nature, for the sport/recreation, for the meat or for a trophy.
In response, more than a third of hunters (35 percent) chose "for the meat" as the most important reason for their recent hunting participation. However, what is most noteworthy is the substantial increase in the percentage of hunters giving this answer. The last time the question was asked - in a similar nationwide survey conducted in 2006 - just 22 percent of American adult hunters named "for the meat" as their most important reason for going hunting.
While the percentages of hunters naming one of the other reasons either remained stable or declined between 2006 and 2013, those who named the meat as the most important reason for their hunting participation increased by 13 percentage points.
The 2011 national survey of fishing, hunting and wildlife-associated recreation also confirmed a 9 percent increase in national hunting participation from 2006 to 2011.
When hunters were read a list of factors that potentially influenced them to go hunting, the top factor rated as a major or minor influence was interest in hunting as a source of local, natural or "green" food, with 68 percent of hunters claiming it was a main influence.
Life in camp
This is the time of year when many local residents retire to the woods for a spell. Fortunately, I'm one of them.
As discussed above, the reasons are many and the benefits are as well.
We go to camp for the camaraderie, the renewal of relationships, the thrill of the hunt, the time away from the common cares and concerns of the world and, of course, the potential for food.
For one member of our camp, it's been mostly the camaraderie and relationships that have kept him coming back, until recently.
Jim Cronin, aka Poppy, has been a regular member of our hunting crew for more than 20 years. Until last weekend, he had been suffering through a decade-long whitetail drought.
However, it finally ended as he took a heavy crotch-horn buck with a single off-hand shot through the open hardwoods at a distance of more than 80 yards.
His luck changed on the first hunt of the day, when he caught the glimpse of the buck on the run. He was our only designated watcher for the morning hunt as
the rest of the crew spread out with plans to converge at his location.
It was a cool morning with a heavy frost and the woods were very crunchy. As the drivers set off in different directions, Jim took a watch on a low ridge that overlooks a hardwood draw and a small stream.
It was only a few minutes into the hunt, and the drivers had hardly even disbursed when the shot rang out. We all waited and, as is our custom, a second shot soon sounded to signal the deer was down.
I was the first to arrive on the scene and got the report from Jim as he explained. "I saw him come running from across the stream. I think the other guys must have pushed him up. He was running about 70 yards out when I put the scope on him, and I saw the bones.
"He was looking back behind from where he came, and I took the shot. He ran just over there, and he was done."
It was a great off-hand shot that took out the lungs and nicked the heart. The deer was dressed, dragged and hung up in camp before the morning's pot of coffee even had a chance to cool.
It doesn't happen that way often, but when it does we've learned to enjoy it. Now that it's over, we can hunt with a bit less pressure, which is always a lot more fun.