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State ready for a fresh and exciting deer season opener

An early start, good spring and summer conditions and strong rumors of older bucks throughout the state have made this year’s firearms season one hunters are looking forward to, according to the state Game Commission.

The season opener, traditionally on the Monday following Thanksgiving, will be the Saturday following Thanksgiving this year. Regardless of when it is held, opening day of deer season is always one of the most popular, according to Travis Lau, a spokesman for the commission.

Last year’s opener on Nov. 26, a Monday, was a rainy one, according to Steve Travis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in State College. That rain led to a noticeable decrease in harvest numbers.

“The high last year was around 47 degrees and the low was around 31,” Travis said. “There was about 3 quarters of an inch of rain, so it was pretty rainy and a bit chillier than what we’re expecting this Saturday.”

Even with the rainy day, hunters made their way out into the drenched woods, taking 30 percent of the antlered deer of the entire season that day alone, Lau said.

Although it’s not expected to be a total washout Saturday, Travis said they are watching a storm approach that could hit this weekend, but are unsure of when.

“We’re keeping an eye on a storm system coming from the west,” Travis said. “It’s looking like a wintry mix. It could start out as snow or sleet and turn into rain, but we’re uncertain of the details. It could hit Saturday, it could hit Sunday, but there is a chance.”

High temperatures are expected to hit 40. The normal temperature for this time is a high of 45 and a low of 31.

This year’s opener is expected to set the stage for the rest of the season, which ends Dec. 14. The shift to an earlier opening day could change harvest numbers.

According to field reports of the commission’s Northcenteral region in early October, Lycoming County Game Warden Jonathan M. Wyant reported that deer populations were “way up” in the eastern end of Lycoming County. Many people who grow crops, either professionally or in a garden, have reported damage done by deer throughout the fall.

Precipitation through spring and summer has nurtured an exceptional supply of fall foods, Lau said. Grazing grass was available in early November.

“We expect the opening Saturday to become the biggest harvest day for bucks,” said Christopher Rosenberry, supervisor of the commission’s Deer and Elk Section. “The first Monday will play a lesser role, but how much less remains to be seen. The second Saturday, since it is concurrent with the start of antler-less season, will probably become the second-biggest harvest day for bucks.”

And there now is a third Saturday in the season, as well, since the season was expanded from 12 days to 13 to accommodate a Saturday opener in which more hunters likely will be able to participate.

Pennsylvania’s firearms season historically has drawn the biggest crowds of all hunting seasons and consequently has been the state’s principal deer-management tool for more than a century.

“Every deer hunter wants to be afield for the opener,” said Bryan Burhans, executive director of the commission. “They spend days and days, scouting, buying specialized gear and getting their packs ready. When they’re sitting in the dark, waiting for daylight and hoping for a big buck to come, most deer hunters couldn’t be happier, particularly if their son or granddaughter is joining them. It’s a fulfilling experience, regardless of what happens.”

Buck luck

Buck harvests were increasing at a steady rate the three years before the last season opener was drenched by rain, ruining the streak. But commission officials are predicting that there’s a carryover of older bucks from last season because of it.

“There’s no reason a new streak can’t start now,” Lau said in a release. “And when you consider the incredible size of some of those big boys, it’s easy to see why the coming season packs so much promise.”

Bucks that are larger and older have been making up more of the total deer harvest in recent years. According to Lau, 163,750 bucks were harvested two years ago, making it the second-largest buck harvest in the state since antler restriction were started in 2002. It was the 10th best all-time.

Last year, the overall harvest clocked in at 374,690 – 226,940 anterless and 147,750 bucks. Although that number decreased as far as buck numbers goes, 64 percent of bucks harvested were at least 2 1/2 years old. In previous years, that percentage averages around 56, Lau said.

“Despite the increased harvest in 2 1/2 year old and older bucks, the buck-age structure in Pennsylvania is not old,” Rosenberry noted. “However, it is older than before antler-point restrictions were started in 2002. Older, bigger-racked bucks are making up more of the buck harvest than they have for at least a couple decades. Hunters liken the bucks in Pennsylvania today to what many of them saw 30 years ago.”

A huge buck or not, Burhans said it’s important to remember that every deer matters.

“Whether it’s a young hunter’s first deer, or a big buck that fell to a hunter on a dark-to-dark sit, they all matter to these hunters, their families and the communities in which they live,” Burhans said. “Hunting deer has been an exciting Pennsylvania pastime for centuries, and it’s sure to remain that way for many generations to come.”

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