Pennsylvania deer season could be good, challenging or both
It has been two good years in a row when it comes to Pennsylvania deer hunting. That's especially true in regards to whitetails sporting antlers.
Hunters killed 137,580 bucks in 2015-16. That was an increase of 15 percent over the year before. They took even more, 149,460 — the most since 2002 — in 2016-17.
There's potential for this year to be special, too.
But that comes with a caveat.
If it's true there are more deer out there than in the recent past, it's also true — this year anyway — there's an abundance of food out there, as well.
Pennsylvania's statewide general firearms season runs from Monday to Dec. 9. In most areas, hunting is for bucks only the first five days, with bucks and does legal thereafter. The exceptions are wildlife management 2B, 5C and 5D, where bucks and does are legal throughout.
What hunters will find is all that spring and summer rain transformed into lots of hard and soft mast, said Dave Gustafson, chief of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's forestry division.
“There were regional bumper crops of red-oak acorns last year, and we sort of expected lower production this fall,” he said. “But even the areas reporting bumper crops last year are seeing at least decent red-oak acorn crops this year. And many areas that didn't see red-oak acorns last year have a better-than-average crop this year.”
Beechnuts are plentiful, too, he said, as are crabapples and other soft mast.
All of that is great for deer. But it can make things tough on hunters.
Deer with so many options can be hard to locate and pattern, Gustafson said.
He suggested looking for food, then checking to see if there's evidence of deer there, from raked-up leaves to droppings to partially eaten mast.
If rifle hunters have one thing going for them, it's that archery season — especially in the early going — was kind of slow.
“It picked up as we got into late October, the closer we got to the rut,” said Matt Lucas, the commission's wildlife conservation officer in southern Westmoreland County.
“But I didn't check a lot of deer.Especially in the early part of the season, it seemed the really warm weather chased a lot of guys out of the woods.”
The same was true in his portion of Allegheny County, said wildlife conservation officer Dan Puhala.
The season was “slow and steady,” with some nice bucks taken, including an 8-point that weighed about 250 pounds, he said.
But archers didn't get them all, he added.
“I've seen a few nice ones still running around, chasing does,” Puhala said. “So there are still some out there.”
Indeed, really nice bucks are becoming the norm more than ever.
Last year, 56 percent of the bucks killed by hunters were 2½ years old or older, said Chris Rosenberry, supervisor of the commission's deer and elk section. The rest were 1½ years old.
He credited that to antler restrictions in place for 15 years now.
“Older, bigger-racked bucks are more of the norm in the forests of Pennsylvania than they have been for at least a couple decades,” Rosenberry said.
Bryan Burhans, executive director of the commission, said there are indications plenty of big bucks are roaming again this year.
“There's no doubt something special is happening,” Burhans said.
To be legal, bucks must have three points on one side in some places. There, brow tines count as a point.
In other places, though, there is a “three up” rule, meaning bucks must have at least three points on a side, but brow tines don't count.
A complete breakdown of the rules – including those for young hunters – is available online at pgc.pa.gov.
As for deer numbers overall, they vary.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease really did a number on deer populations in many places. Beaver County is one example. Puhala said he saw some of that — though not nearly to the same extent — in Allegheny.
Western Westmoreland County – Murrysville and Penn and North Huntingdon townships – likely had some, too, Lucas said.
“We'll see if that has any bearing on numbers,” he said.
But elsewhere, things are looking up.
Shawn Barron, the commission's wildlife conservation officer in southern Somerset County, said deer numbers there and through much of wildlife management unit 2C seem to be on the upswing.
“If you ask any of the farmers in the county, they're saying there's more deer than at any time since the early 2000s,” Barron said. “And all of our game lands will hold good populations of deer.”
There won't be as many hunters out there as was the case decades ago.
At one time, opening day brought about one million people to the woods. These days, with hunter numbers down overall and more hunters than ever tagging out in archery season, that figure will be closer to 700,000.
But opening day remains special. And that's reason to be excited, Burhans said.
“Remember, the firearms deer season opener is like no other. It is hands-down that one day when your chances of taking a buck are the greatest. Everyone heads afield hoping for a big buck,” he said. “And for many, that wish comes true.”