Countdown to deer
While more than 120,000 hunters will be hitting the woods Monday morning for the opener of the annual three-day black bear hunting season, it pales in comparison to the more than 1 1/2-million orange-clad hunters that will take part in the Nov. 29 opening day of the two-week firearm deer season.
If ever a hunting event were considered to be a state holiday, the two-week deer-hunting season would warrant that status.
The vast majority of schools across Pennsylvania and in the Alle-Kiski Valley will not open their doors on the first day of deer season.
Shortly after the Gulf War ended, General Norman Schwarzkopf noted that nowhere else in the world could more firepower be found in one place that rivaled the first day of deer season in Pennsylvania.
Being a grand, traditional hunting state, it is no surprise that Pennsylvania's annual two-week firearm deer-hunting season targets the most popular big game animal among the Commonwealth's sportsmen.
Pennsylvania Game Commission statistics show that last year 110,140 of the 142,270 bucks harvested had been taken in the firearms deer season.
In all, last year, hunters took 464,890 deer -- including 322,620 antlerless and 142,270 antlered -- during the slate of deer seasons that ran from Oct. 4, 2003, through Jan. 10.
During the 2002-03 season, hunters harvested an all-time record of 517,529 deer. Other record years were 2000-01 (504,600), 2001-02 (486,014) and 1995-96 (430,583).
"Our deer hunters have every right to be excited about the upcoming season," said Game Commission executive director Vern Ross. "We're in the third year of antler restrictions for bucks, and some real wall-hangers are being seen in just about every county.
"What's more, hunters should have good opportunities to harvest antlerless deer in the still relatively new two-week rifle season for both antlered and antlerless deer, the additional licenses provided by the Deer Management Assistance Program and, of course, the additional hunting territory provided by restructured Wildlife Management Units," Ross said.
"Although our statewide statistics and research results indicate we should anticipate good deer hunting, that does not mean it will be a great season for all hunters," said Gary Alt, who supervises the agency's Deer Management Section.
"Local distribution and abundance of fall foods, weather conditions, hunter distribution and pressure, and other factors can have enormous impacts on what individual hunters will see. And don't forget that after tough winters -- like Pennsylvania's last two -- deer can become more concentrated in areas where they were forced to move into to survive winter and less likely to return to the areas they left. Hunters often see changes in the number of deer they observe, but due to many factors, these changes often do not reflect the actual number of deer that are available," Alt said
The 2004-05 hunting season marks the third year of a three-year plan that requires statewide antler restrictions.
Antler restrictions will limit the taking of antlered deer in all counties in the upcoming firearms season. They were implemented in 2002 to reduce the problem of overharvesting young bucks and to improve long-standing imbalances in the sex ratio of the state's deer populations.
Antler restrictions for the state are the same as last year: at least four points to one antler in five western wildlife management units -- WMUs 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B and 2D -- that comprise all or parts of 18 counties.
In the remaining WMUs and counties they encompass, at least three points to an antler still will be the rule for adult hunters.
There are, however, three groups of hunters statewide who are not required to follow antler restrictions, but they must take antlered deer hat have at least one spike three inches or longer, or an antler with at least two points.
The exceptions to the rule include hunters who are junior license holders, disabled hunters with a permit to use a vehicle and also Pennsylvania residents on active-duty in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Best hunting is local
The southwest region has led the state's deer harvest totals for nearly a decade -- and this season should be no exception.
The north central "Big Woods" counties traditionally had been the place to go for the best deer hunting opportunities, but over time, that has changed.
The southwestern corner of the state holds more white-tailed deer and larger-racked bucks than any other area of the state.
"I fully expect this year to be another banner year for deer hunters in the southwest, and we'll also probably lead the state's deer harvest on a regional basis," Pennsylvania Game Commission southwest regional field office spokesman, Mel Schake said.
"I have deer everywhere. There isn't an area that I go that I don't see deer," Allegheny County WCO Beth Fife said.
Land Management Supervisor Doug Dunkerley, who works in Allegheny, Beaver, Greene and Washington counties, said, "The deer are numerous and they are big. The payoff from the last two years of antler restrictions looks to be lots of big bucks."
In Armstrong County, WCO Barry Seth points hunters to private lands for the best deer hunting.
"Overall, deer populations on open public lands are down," Seth said. ""Reports from local sportsmen out scouting and spotlighting are not seeing many doe, and the ones they are seeing have only one fawn with them."
"There are some big bucks in the district, but mostly on private lands or along borders of public lands and game land properties where the deer will be pushed into the privately owned land. This would be a great time to talk with landowners to get permission to deer hunt on their properties," Seth said.
Butler County WCO Randy Pilarcik said, "Deer populations are very high in the southern part of the county and hunters with permission to hunt on private property should enjoy increased success."
Also in Butler, WCO Chip Brunst said, "More and more larger-sized antlered racks are being observed."
"Many large bucks have been reported. Antlerless deer, too, appear to be in good quantities," Indiana County WCO Jack Lucas said.
"As always the deer numbers are high here," Westmoreland County WCO Gary Toward said. "The forecast for white-tailed deer in northern Westmoreland County is excellent."
Toward said deer hunting should be good on public and private lands.