Biologists: State may see an increase in buck harvest for 3rd year

Pennsylvania’s coming firearms deer season packs promise for hundreds of thousands of hunters as they await its opener the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Unseasonably warm weather and an abundance of fall mast made it more challenging to pattern deer movements throughout the statewide six-week archery season, which concluded Nov. 11. Now “rifle season” offers the next opportunity to hunt deer in Penn’s Woods.

Most of Pennsylvania’s deer harvest comes from hunters participating in the firearms season. It has been the Commonwealth’s principal tool for managing deer for more than a century. It is the season that draws the largest crowd. The season for which some rural schools still close their doors on the opener to allow their students and teachers to hunt.

The firearms season opener is the day every deer hunter wants to be afield. It’s almost always the most exciting day of the season and therefore usually offers the greatest opportunity. About a quarter of the season’s buck harvest occurs on the opener.

But this firearms season — not just its opening day — has the potential to be something special.

“Agency deer biologists believe there’s a chance we’ll see the state’s buck harvest increase for the third consecutive year,” said state Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “It’s an exciting possibility that banks on last year’s massive acorn crop and a mild winter paving the way for big bucks to get bigger and for more young bucks grow into legal racks.

“There’s no doubt something special is happening,” Burhans continued. “For the past few months, hunters have been sending us trail-cam photos of amazing bucks, maybe even new state records. Our field officers also are seeing plenty of bucks from farm country to the big woods. Some are real wall-hangers out there.”

Larger-racked — and older — bucks are making up more of the deer harvest with each passing year. Last year, 149,460 bucks were taken by hunters, making it the second-largest buck harvest in Pennsylvania since antler restrictions were started in 2002.

“Older, bigger-racked bucks are more of the norm in the forests of Pennsylvania than they have been for at least a couple decades,” said Chris Rosenberry, who supervises the Game Commission’s Deer and Elk Section. “There’s no doubt antler restrictions paved the way. It was a big step forward 15 years ago, and today we’re seeing the results for protecting young bucks.”

Every year, Pennsylvania hunters are taking once-in-a-lifetime bucks. Some are “book bucks,” antlered deer that make the Pennsylvania Big Game Records book or Boone & Crockett Club rankings. Others simply win neighborhood bragging rights.

But bucks don’t have to be big to be special.

“A buck that eludes hunters for years and years on a mountain or in a farming valley is just as special as the big boys that make the books,” emphasized Burhans. “The elusive ones might even be more meaningful to the hunters who pursue them because sometimes those chases go on for years, and involve hunting camps, families or groups of friends.”

The statewide general firearms season runs from Nov. 27 to Dec. 9. In most areas, hunters may take only antlered deer during the season’s first five days, with the antlerless and antlered seasons then running concurrently from Dec. 2 to the season’s close.

In WMUs 2B, 5C and 5D, however, properly licensed hunters may take either antlered or antlerless deer at any time during the season.

Rules regarding the number of points a legal buck must have on one antler also differ in different parts of the state, and young hunters statewide follow separate guidelines.

For a complete breakdown of antler restrictions, WMU boundaries and other regulations, consult the 2017-18 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which is available online at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov.

One very important regulation that applies statewide is the requirement for all hunters to wear at all times a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on their head, chest and back combined. An orange hat and vest will satisfy the requirement. And for safety’s sake, it’s a good idea for nonhunters who might be afield during the deer season and other hunting seasons to consider wearing orange, as well.

Field Conditions for Deer Season

Precipitation through spring and summer have fostered an exceptional supply of fall foods in Penn’s Woods. Trees held their leaves longer. Grazing grass continued to grow. Soft and hard mast crops have been remarkably plentiful.

These conditions have made deer movements tough to sort out. Often, there isn’t a pattern. Deer are keying on food sources within good cover and staying there. That makes hunting more challenging, especially if you don’t scout to confirm deer are using the area you plan to hunt.

“There were regional bumper crops of red-oak acorns last year, and we sort of expected lower production this fall,” explained Dave Gustafson, Forestry Division chief in the Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management. “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.”

White-oak acorn yields have been a little less predictable, but hunters who find acorns beneath white and chestnut oaks are likely to find other oak trees in that area producing acorns in good numbers, Gustafson said.

“Even on specific ridges, the acorn – and beechnut – crop can vary by elevation or slope,” Gustafson said. “Down low, it might vary from woodlot to woodlot, or by tree size.”

When the forest is full of food, and corn remains standing in farming areas, hunters have more work to do to find deer. In these years – like this year – it often takes considerable field time to pinpoint areas whitetails are using.

Deer generally go where the easiest – and often, most nutritious – meal is available. But preferences and hunter pressure can inspire their selection.

This fall, there are abundant crops of acorns – types vary – and beechnuts. Crabapples and other soft mast also are plentiful. So, focus on areas that have sizable yields and see if whitetails are filling up there.

Deer make a mess wherever they eat, so it isn’t hard to sort out whether they’re using an area. Look for raked up leaves, droppings and partially eaten mast for confirmation.

When setting up a hunting stand, it’s also a good idea to use the prevailing wind to your advantage. Wherever you hunt, the prevailing wind should blow from where you expect to see deer to your location. Then, dress for the cold and sit tight.

Remember you’re not alone while you’re afield. Other hunters also are waiting on stand, still-hunting or driving for deer in groups. So, even if your stand over food fails to bring deer, the movements of other hunters might chase deer your way.

“Remember, the firearms deer season opener is like no other,” Burhans noted. “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. And for many, that wish comes true.”

Proper licensing

Hunters during the statewide firearms season can harvest antlered deer if they possess a valid general hunting license, which costs $20.90 for adult residents and $101.90 for adult nonresidents.

Each hunter between the ages of 12 and 16 must possess a junior license, which costs $6.90 for residents and $41.90 for nonresidents.

Hunters younger than 12 must possess a valid mentored youth hunting permit and be accompanied at all times by a properly licensed adult mentor, as well as follow other regulations.

Mentored-hunting opportunities also are available for adults, but only antlerless deer may be taken by mentored adult hunters.

Those holding senior lifetime licenses are reminded they must obtain a new antlered deer harvest tag each year, free of charge, to participate in the season.

To take an antlerless deer, a hunter must possess either a valid antlerless deer license or a valid permit. In the case of mentored hunters, the mentor must possess a valid tag that can be transferred to the mentored hunter at the time of harvest.

In addition to regular antlerless licenses, Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) permits can be used to take antlerless deer. A DMAP permit can be used throughout the 12-day firearms season, but only on the specific property for which it is issued.

Regular antlerless deer licenses may be used only within the wildlife management unit for which they’re issued, in most cases starting on Saturday, Dec. 2. WMUs 2B, 5C and 5D offer concurrent antlered and antlerless deer hunting throughout the statewide firearms deer season.

DMAP permits for some properties might still be available, but at the time of this release, antlerless licenses were sold out in all units but WMUs 2A and 2B.

General hunting licenses can be purchased online, but as the season nears, hunters might find it better to purchase licenses in person. Deer licenses purchased online are mailed, meaning they might not arrive in time if purchased too close to the start of the season.

Hunters are reminded the field possession of expired licenses or tags, or another hunter’s licenses or tags is unlawful.

Tagging and Reporting

A valid tag must be affixed to the ear of each deer harvested before that deer is moved. The tag must be filled out with a ball-point pen by the hunter.

Within 10 days of a harvest, a successful hunter is required to make a report to the Game Commission. Harvests can be reported online at the Game Commission’s website – www.pgc.pa.gov – by clicking on the “Report a Harvest” button on the home page. Reporting online not only is the quickest way to report a harvest, it’s the most cost-effective for the Game Commission.

Harvests also can be reported by mailing in the postage-paid cards that are provided when licenses are purchased, or successful hunters can call 1-855-PAHUNT1 (1-855-724-8681) to report by phone. Those reporting by phone are asked to have their license number and other information about the harvest ready at the time they call.

Mentored youth hunters are required to report deer harvests within five days. And hunters with DMAP or Disease Management Area 2 permits must report on their hunting success, regardless of whether they harvest deer.

By reporting their deer harvests, hunters play a key role in providing information used to estimate harvests and the deer population within each WMU. Estimates are key to managing deer populations, and hunters are asked to do their part in this important process.

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