Whitetail Deer

Associated Press

A group of whitetail deer graze in the woods.

Pennsylvania’s upcoming firearms deer season will start with a bang. For the first time in the Game Commission’s history, deer hunters will have a Saturday-Sunday opening weekend. Hunters in 10 Wildlife Management Units also will have concurrent antlered/antlerless hunting throughout the 14-day firearms deer season.

The firearms season also packs another new twist that will generate excitement afield. It’s a regulatory change that allows hunters to attempt to harvest a second deer before tagging the first, so long as they have the appropriate harvest tags for the deer they attempt to harvest, and no attempt is made to move a deer before it’s tagged.

Pennsylvania hunters in 2019 racked up the highest overall deer harvest in 15 years when they took 389,431 deer during the state’s 2019-20 hunting seasons. It topped the 2018-19 harvest by about 4 percent. The last time the total deer harvest exceeded this season’s total was in 2004-05, when 409,320 whitetails were taken.

The 2019-20 statewide buck harvest saw a generous bump of 10 percent, coming in at 163,240. In the 2018-19 seasons, 147,750 bucks were taken.

“The size and quality of bucks running in Penn’s Woods right now, probably hasn’t been duplicated in the Commonwealth in over 150 years,” noted Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “The number of record-book bucks being taken is incredible. In fact, it’s beginning to look like no rack sitting atop record-book listings is unapproachable.

“If you haven’t hunted whitetails in some time, now’s the time to get back into it,” Burhans emphasized. “You won’t believe what’s running around in Penn’s Woods!”

Deer hunters continue to experience antlered-buck-harvest-success levels comparable to historic highs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, about 22 percent of all hunters have harvested an antlered deer, and we look for this trend to continue.

The 2019-20 antlerless deer harvest was 226,191, which included 10,461 taken with chronic wasting disease Deer Management Assistance Program permits, was similar to the 2018-19 overall antlerless deer harvest of 226,940. In 2017-18 seasons, the antlerless harvest was 203,409.

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. And it’s widely anticipated by hunters.

“Every deer hunter wants to be afield for the opener,” noted Burhans. “They spend days and days scouting, checking their 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.”

The season always is worth the wait.

BUCK LUCK

Deer hunters had seen the statewide buck harvest increase for three consecutive years until the 2018-19 firearms season’s opening-day soaker led to a broken streak. But last season, hunters resumed the uptick in buck harvest. They also caused an increase in the percentage of 2½-year-old bucks in the deer harvest.

In the 2019-20 seasons, 2½-year-old and older bucks comprised 66 percent of the buck harvest, up from 64 percent in the 2018-19 seasons. Over the previous four years, the percentage of 2½-year-old and older bucks in the annual deer harvest was between 56 and 59 percent.

Every year, Pennsylvania hunters are taking huge 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 it’s important to remember, every deer harvest hold special memories.

“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,” emphasized Burhans. “Hunting deer has been an exciting Pennsylvania pastime for centuries, and it’s sure to remain that way for many generations to come.”

FIELD CONDITIONS

Drought and late-spring frosts have impacted fall foods in some areas of Penn’s Woods. Warmer-than-seasonal temperatures this fall have made grazing grass available in many places. Soft and hard mast crops have been remarkably plentiful in many areas, spotty in others.

Deer typically key on food sources within good cover. And, in the case of cornfields, they might never leave them until the corn comes down. So, hunters are urged to confirm deer activity in areas they plan to hunt before they commit to them.

“Scouting is important to every hunt,” Burhans explained. “Deer like to hang out where food is the easiest to obtain. But hunter pressure and other disturbances can inspire their selection.”

Deer usually make a mess wherever they eat, so it shouldn’t be 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 weather 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 position overlooking a feeding area fails to bring deer, the movements of other hunters might chase deer your way.

“Expect the unexpected on the firearms deer season opener,” Burhans noted. “It is hands-down that one day when you never know if or when that buck is coming. You must be ready to take it. Don’t let that buck of a lifetime catch you playing with your smartphone!”

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 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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