LAUREL -- It took Lou Becker all of 90 minutes on Sunday to get off to a good start for Montana's 2012 general hunting season, which kicked off over the weekend.
On Sunday morning, he headed out to his favorite whitetail deer hunting spot -- south of Belfry -- from his home near Worden. He hadn't been searching for more than an hour and a half when he spotted the buck laying near some bushes.
"He just looked up at me and I looked at him and shot him," Becker said. "Neither of us really even had to get up for breakfast for it."
He brought the 5-year-old, 3-by-3-point mule buck to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game check station at Riverside Park in Laurel, where wildlife research specialist Jay Watson checked the buck and Becker's paperwork over to make sure everything was legal and in order.
While Becker started the season off, data collected by Watson shows it might have been a slower weekend for many other hunters. Of the 100 who came through the Laurel checkpoint, only 23 were successful in bringing home a deer or elk.
Watson said he's seen that number as high as 70 percent in the past, but that the FWP expected a slower start to the season this year.
While he hadn't tallied Sunday's numbers yet, Watson predicted the number of animals he sees to double by the end of the day.
"If I check 40 to 50 deer this weekend, that's about what I'd expect," he said.
In late September, the FWP announced that deer populations remained low in Eastern Montana, while central Montana's Region 5, which includes the Billings area, had better numbers. Some areas in the region even saw population upswings leading up to the start of the season, although the mountainous areas south of the Yellowstone River saw a fall in mule deer numbers.
Becker, who's been hunting in the area south of Belfry for five or six years, said the lower numbers didn't seem to deter hunters.
"It seemed like there were a lot more people hunting there this year," he said. "I saw a lot more than usual and I don't know why."
Watson said that it's important for successful hunters and those returning empty-handed alike to stop at the closest check station because it lets the FWP gather more data -- which is then added to information from surveys and other questioning -- on where they're hunting and what they've seen in the area.
"A lot of it is really to get me and the other biologists a feel for what's out there," he said.
Officials with the FWP expect the 2012 season to look pretty similar to the previous one, with good elk numbers mostly on private land and in sometimes tough-to-reach areas to go along with the deer numbers.
Despite the fairly quiet day at the check station, Watson said he expected to see numbers increase as the season wears on, with cooler temperatures, more snow and the annual rut still ahead.
The season ends the weekend after Thanksgiving.
"We expect a similar season as last year, although we're seeing improvement in some areas," Watson said.