Hotspots For Western Whitetail
October 05, 2010
These proven public lands offer some great "old school" hunting for big bucks in rough country. Are you up to the challenge?
If we overlook the declining deer harvests of the past few years, we still see that western Pennsylvania is still a great place for deer hunting -- at least on a comparative basis.
Between the Northwest Region and the Southwest Region, there's a great variety of deer-hunting options with plenty of public land.
For several years, the Southwest Region has been the hot corner of Pennsylvania deer hunting, even though some area residents still prefer to head north into the traditional highlands for deer season.
Last fall, some parts of the Southwest Region were affected by epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). Not to be confused with chronic wasting disease (CWD), EHD is a somewhat rare invader, carried north into Pennsylvania by windblown insects.
This disease will not persist here because it cannot survive our cold winters. Areas affected by EHD can be expected to rebound quickly.
"Greene and Washington counties, which have had real high deer harvest over the past four or five years, have come down some," said Barry Zaffuto, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Southwest Region land management supervisor.
"Deer on State Game Lands No. 302 were hit by EHD, and other areas were also affected, so the deer numbers are down. As the 2008 hunting season begins, hunters might want to avoid SGL No. 302. But give it a year, and you probably won't notice the difference.
"Deer may suffer high mortality through disease in one area, and yet in the next run over, there's no effect." Hunters, Zaffuto said, "were able to make their adjustments in the affected areas of Green and Washington counties."
Even with some mortality from EHD, that area still is one of the better places in Pennsylvania to hunt deer. Visiting hunters may want to avoid Washington and Greene counties, but locals who have time to scout and who know where there were problems last year should have no problems finding deer.
STATE GAME LANDS NO. 223
Last fall, one state game lands that attracted the attention of hunters was SGL No. 223.
"Hunter satisfaction seemed to be fairly good," Zaffuto observed, "because they were seeing deer. But hunting pressure was higher than it would have been in a normal year.
"The PGC deputies that I was with in those areas believe that mostly private lands were hit by EHD. Those people were looking for different areas to hunt and so, they were spending more time on the game lands."
SGL No. 223 lies along both sides of the Enlow Fork of Wheeling Creek. Terrain and habitat are a mix of creek bottom, steep hillsides and deep gullies dropping into the creek.
"State Game Lands 223 is characteristic of Greene County, which is all up-and-down terrain," Zaffuto said. "There isn't much level land here.
"The game lands here are big, but in weird configurations. They have thousands of acres, but they cover several townships.
"One game lands of 10,000 acres may be spread over six townships -- which is good for hunting."
That's a pretty good description of SGL No. 223, which sprawls all over the southeastern corner of Green County. Get inside a large block of land between Interstate Route 79, state routes 21 and 88 and the West Virginia border, and you'll be close to at least some of SGL No. 223.
SGL No. 223's total area of 7,224 acres is broken into seven separate tracts, each of which is irregularly shaped. (Cont'd)
"The deer habitat there is excellent," Zaffuto said. "It features broken, diverse forests, early successional cover, mast trees, thickets and some thick greenbrier.
"We have food plots and herbaceous openings on the game lands, intermixed with orchards, clearcuts and reverting vegetation."
Perhaps the best deer hunting in western Pennsylvania -- rivaling any in the country, by some standards -- is in wildlife management units 2A and 2B. There are plenty of deer in this area, which includes the most productive trophy buck habitat in Pennsylvania.
However, it's not a good destination for traveling hunters. WMA 2B lies in Allegheny County near Pittsburgh. If you live here, you might be able to find places to hunt. But they will be hunted hard.
WMA 2A is a bit more hospitable.
According to biologist Zaffuto, "WMA 2A has game lands in it and unposted land."
Surprisingly -- almost shockingly -- hunting pressure is not heavy, at least not for an area close enough for Pittsburgh hunters to go for an after-work hunt.
"No," said Zaffuto, "you just can't get people to go where they don't normally hunt. We're getting more people shifted down there. Basically what I'm seeing happen is Pittsburgh always went your way (north). Well, as you get individual places, sport shows, phone calls and TV broadcasts, you try to encourage them to go down to 2A now, 2A, 2C -- down that way because there's more deer.
"It's always been our experience that the game lands have not been utilized to their fullest extent in other open areas. And whenever we get people to go there, they like it and they don't go north anymore.
"I've had people call last year who said, 'I just wanted to let you know that we went over to Washington County's Game Lands No. 245 instead of going up north every year, and that's where we're heading now.' "
SGL No. 245 lies in the southwestern corner of Washington County. Four separate tracts make up this game lands, totaling 3,654 acres, which may include some of the best deer habitat in the Commonwealth.
The terrain is moderately hilly. Like just about everywhere in Washington County, it is reverting farmland. Some secondary-growth oak stands produce mast every other year.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission maintains apple orchards for productivity. Warm-season grasses add to the richness of the deer habitat.
SGL No. 245 is easily accessible from Pittsburgh through Washington. Take I-79 south to Washington, exit onto I-70 west toward Claysville and then take Route 231 south.
The Southwest Region provides some of the finest mountain deer hunting in Pennsylvania, including the highest land in the Commonwealth and some of the most rugged habitat along the Appalachian Mountain ridges. However, this is not the type of hunting for those who want to do things the easy way.
"The harvest numbers on the game lands in our mountainous areas in Somerset, Westmoreland, Indiana and Cambria counties are steady," Zaffuto said, "but at lower levels than they have been over past years."
By design, deer densities along the ridges have been lowered. Deer numbers had been so high that hungry whitetails devastated their habitat.
Of course, many hunters would disagree with this analysis. But along the ridges, soils are thin and very acidic. This is not rich habitat.
Now, after letting the PGC's deer-management program begin to do its work, signs of progress are showing.
"The health of the deer has been very good for two or three years now. Again, as I probably told you last year, the butcher shops were pretty much talking about the larger size of deer in general. That is definitely a trend, and we noticed that two years ago. They reiterated it last year and this year, it's kind of common knowledge they're that size."
If you want to take a mature mountain buck -- one of the greatest, most honorable prizes in all of deer hunting -- this is the time, and the mountainous section of the Southwest Region is the place. No, probably you will not see many deer. No, it won't be easy. Your chances for success are not high. But if it were easy and the odds for success were high, then the prize wouldn't be as great. You might as well go to a commercial deer hunting operation and buy a buck.
This isn't for hunters who need an easy kill. This is for hunters who really enjoy the hunt, who can have a great time without even seeing a deer, just knowing that there is a mature buck around.
When this kind of a hunt excites you, then you are an elite deer hunter.]Perhaps you will see more deer in the northern mountains than in the southern mountains, although this is not a great difference.
"Area 2E -- and again, this is personal observation -- seems to have a higher density of deer, generally speaking, than 2C," Zaffuto said, "based on hunters' observations and our guys."
Through the past several years, state game lands have expanded in northern Indiana County. This can be some of the better deer hunting in western Pennsylvania.
"The game lands are made up of portions of reclaimed strip mines, usually the hilltops or hillsides. That area is just beautiful," Zaffuto said. "It's deep hemlock valleys, grapevine hillsides and openings from the past strip mining that are reclaimed. Very diverse, very nice."
The Game Commission is currently inventorying this area and doing extensive habitat work.
"SGL No. 2E is sort of a northern forest broken into small farms plots, that kind of stuff. Northern Indiana, remnants of the North Central Region coming down from the top, mountainous area and the remnants of the ridges coming from the south -- they all just sort of converge there on 2E, rugged river valleys, kind of nice area to hunt. Most of it's in Clearfield County, Indiana and Cambria."
There are 14 state game lands to scout in WMU 2E.
SGL No. 262 is one of those that have been enlarged through the addition of reclaimed strip mines and where the habitat has been extensively improved. It's situated in northeastern Indiana County between U.S. Route 119 and U.S. Route 219, across a sprawling area of broken, irregular tracts roughly between Hillsdale, Rochester Mills, Smithport, Glen Campbell and Gipsy. It has a total area of 5,415 acres.
The Northwestern Region also holds some of the better deer hunting in Pennsylvania, but with a lot of habitat quite unlike anywhere else in the Commonwealth. This area, like the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, was scoured by Ice Age glaciers, but the results are very different.
As in the northeast, there are numerous swamps, ponds and small lakes, but the soil here is richer. This is some of the better farmland in Pennsylvania -- perhaps as rich as the southeast, but with a much shorter growing season.
Due to the rich soils, this glaciated area, which consists of WMUs 1A and 1B, gives ups some of the better trophy bucks in Pennsylvania.
Though access to private lands is somewhat better than in the Southwest Region, it's still the state game lands where visiting hunters should look for more consistent hunting opportunities. WMU 1B in particular has plenty of public land tracts, with 34 state game lands ranging in size from several small tracts to 5,050-acre SGL No. 101 on the Erie County/Crawford County border.
Located close to the Ohio border, SGL No. 101 -- known as Jumbo Woods -- has some of the flattest land in Pennsylvania. There is only 60 feet difference in elevation. The habitat is reverting vegetation, with trees in various stages of growth and maintained openings. The ground is very wet. Do not even consider hunting in here without waterproof boots.
Though managed intensively for small game -- including woodcock, grouse and pheasant -- this is very good big buck habitat.
Another interesting public tract is SGL No. 277, a 972-acre tract that lies along French Creek bottomland.
Surrounded by agricultural lands and reverting farmland, thick cover on this state game land makes a great retreat for deer.
SGL No. 277 is situated just outside Cambridge Springs, along U.S. Route 6 in northern Crawford County.
In sharp contrast, the eastern side of the Northwest Region lies on the Allegheny Highlands, mostly WMU 2F and the Allegheny National Forest that stretches into the North Central Region. Some of the most severe cuts in deer density have occurred on WMU 2F. The trick to locating the better concentrations of deer is looking for recently timbered areas and for white oak acorns.
Probably the best hunting is along the edges of the Allegheny Highlands where you'll find farms and reverting farmland. SGL No. 282 is one likely bet. Better known as Akeley Swamp, this 435-acre tract lies in the Conewango Creek valley.
A large part of it is artificial swamp; virtually all of it is wet. Local hunters are more likely to think of it during waterfowl seasons than during deer-hunting seasons.
Most hunters access SGL No. 282 by way of an old railroad grade that forms the artificial swamp. But you can also reach it by boat, launching from a township access off U.S. Route 62 just north from the bridge at Akeley.
ompletely different in nature is SGL No. 86, which lies just west of the Allegheny River between Irvine and Tidioute. This is a huge state game lands of 14,271 acres. The terrain is extremely steep, almost cliff-like in some stretches of the valley.
But along the uphill western side, there's a lot of reverting farmland and some active farmland.
SGL No. 86 is old-fashioned Big Woods hunting-camp country. Come deer season, hunting is the main business in and around Tidioute.
Very few hunters climb the steep river ridges from the bottom. But a few steep valleys provide somewhat easier access from this side.
Anyone who shoots a deer partway down the river ridge and drags any direction other than downhill is mighty energetic!
No matter what anyone might tell you, those steep ridges don't get a lot of hunting pressure except the ones close to camps. Between Dunns Eddy and Cobham Station, there are places where a deer could lie along a steep slope all through the season and never have to move for a hunter.
For more about deer hunting in the Keystone State, contact that Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797.
Or phone (717) 787-4250, or check their web site, www.pgc.state.pa.us.
For more information about traveling, contact the Pennsylvania Office of Tourism, Room 404, Forum Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120. Or phone 1-800-VISIT-PA (847-4872), or visit www.visitPA.com.