Whitetail deer: the original Adirondack attraction

Although Indian Summer weather has been hanging on well into the autumn months, Adirondack residents know that the weather can turn ugly at any moment. In the mountains, it is not unusual for an unexpected snow squall to interrupt a beautiful bluebird day during the heart of autumn.

In fact, it is an occasion that many whitetail hunters look forward to, especially with the opening of muzzleloading season (aka smokepole season) arriving this weekend.

A fresh snow always helps to reveal both the signs and trails of wandering whitetails, providing a contrasting backdrop that no longer allows deer to blend so easily into the scenery. Fresh snow also provides hunters with a bit of encouragement, as it serves to highlight deer tracks and illustrate their travels.

Even when there’s nothing to hang on the meat pole, starving hunters can always collect enough snow to make a good broth of “track soup.”

Experienced hunters also know that snow and foul weather helps them to pattern deer behavior. Typically, whitetails will lay low during a storm, but after the storm has passed they will be up again to feed.

Currently, the fall forests have been slow to shed their leafy cover, even though the season has already passed into the mellow yellow stage, where just the bland yellow leaves of aspen, beech and birch remain.

Gone now are the fire engine reds and brilliant orange leaves of the maples, which typically provide such a brilliant contrast to the evergreen background. As usual, beech whips continue to retain their leaves well into the season and provide ideal cover to help conceal the wandering whitetails.

Whitetail deer were once a primary source for food, shelter, tools and clothing for the original residents of the Adirondacks: the Mohawks, Algonquians and Abanaki. In recent years, research has revealed the full extent of the relationship between the eastern woodland nations and the whitetail deer.

The area wasn’t formally named as the Adirondacks until 1837. Prior to this time, an English map from 1761 labeled it simply as “Deer Hunting Country.”

Researchers explain that “No single game animal played as great a role in the economy of the Indian population of ancient New York as the Virginia (whitetail) deer.”

In many ways to the eastern woodlands nations, “Virginia” or whitetail deer were the equivalent of what buffalo were to the Plains Peoples in terms of providing for food, shelter, clothing, weapons and tools from a single source.

The earliest known law regulating the taking of deer was enacted in 1705 in New York State. The law prohibited the killing of deer, except between Aug. 1 and Jan. 1 in certain counties.

New York later established a restricted hunting season for whitetails as early as 1788, but there remained little enforcement of the regulations until game protectors were introduced over a century later in 1880.

By 1886, New York restricted the deer take to just three deer per season, which was widely violated as the jacklighting of deer remained a common practice. It wasn’t until 1897 that the practice of floating or “jacking” deer and the hounding of deer were finally prohibited.

Following a five-year prohibition, the practice of hounding was permanently banned in 1901. Prior to that time, guideboat builders commonly constructed deck caps on the bow of their boats with a hole that was intended to accommodate a jacklight. Often, the presence of a jacklight hole in the bow deck is used to verify the age of older guideboats.

The timeframe between 1865 and 1900 was known as the “Heydays of the Adirondacks.” It was also the “Heydays of the Hunt,” as Americans vacated the cities (and coined the term, vacation) to travel north by rail to engage in activities that are known today as adventure travel.

At the time, lightweight camping items mixed with ultralight canvas canoes and wooden guideboats to help open up the interior of the park.

The Wild West was still in the process of being tamed just as the Adirondacks were being discovered. In fact, as the Golden Spike was hammered into place in 1869 to signify the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the rails had still not penetrated the park. It would be another decade before the first train reached the interior of the Adirondacks.

Sporting journals were the hottest commodity on the newsstand with over 40 weekly and monthly publications available that were devoted to the consumptive sports of hunting and fishing.

National celebrities such as Buffalo Bill, Teddy Roosevelt and Annie Oakley had brought shooting and outdoor sports into the public eye. At the turn of the 19th century, there was also a popular back-to-nature movement, the likes of which wouldn’t appear again until the 1970s, when the backpacking craze exploded on the scene.

A list of turn of the century sporting publications includes such well known names as Forest and Stream, The American Sportsman, The American Field, Outdoor Life, Recreation, Outing, and Sports Afield. Several of these publications remain in print to this day.

Overlooked, underutilized hunting grounds

Throughout the Adirondack region, there are numerous pine plantations, some of which were planted during the Great Depression era when the Civilian Conservation Corps was established to help put the unemployed to work in the woods.

Many of these vast pine plantations were established to help recover lands where forests had been burned. There are more than 10,000 acres of pine plantations in the Adirondacks, with an orderly combination of red pine, Norway spruce, white pine and Scots pine.

Locally, pine plantations can be found on the outskirts of Lake Placid, stretching nearly four miles into Ray Brook.

There are also plantations in Coreys, Chestertown, Lewis and elsewhere. You’ll rarely find a lot of other hunters in these locations, as people tend to avoid these symmetrical forests for whatever reason.

Although most people consider these orderly hedgerows of same growth pines to be biological wastelands in terms of birds and game animals, it is often just the opposite. Between the wind-rows of trees, there are often berry bushes and small streams, occasional fruit trees and lots of buck brush (witchobble) and other types of food that whitetails just love to eat.

These vast plantations are rarely targeted by hunters, even though they provide ideal cover for deer that are pressured out of the hardwoods during the heat of the season.

The orderly nature of these plantations also provides excellent wind breaks, as well as long lines of vision, which provide ideal conditions for both hunters and the game they seek, especially when it is snowing.

The long, evenly spaced rows provide excellent opportunities for long-distance vision, especially when utilizing a tree stand. It is important to set up a stand that is facing into the prevailing winds.

Selection of a location to establish a stand is key to success, and it is often easy to determine where the heaviest travel corridors exist, since pine needle cover reveals game trails readily.

Ground blinds are not as effective as tree stands, since distant vision is often limited due to both undergrowth and terrain. Hills will still be hills, even when the trees that grow upon them are neatly aligned. A tree stand helps to eliminate this disadvantage.