Pennsylvania's 2006 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Where To Find Our Biggest Bucks

Pennsylvania's radical new buck management strategy is showing signs of success with more, bigger bucks harvested each season. Our expert has the story. (Nov 2006)

Virtually all deer hunters, including avowed "meat" hunters, will gladly shoot a big buck if the opportunity arises.

Certainly the odds for tagging a buck have declined over the past few years. In 2001, the last year before the new antler restrictions were imposed, Pennsylvania hunters took 203,247 antlered deer, for a rate of 5.11 general-hunting licenses sold per antlered deer harvested. By the 2004-05 hunting seasons, that rate had declined to 7.70.

But even the most critical opponents of the current deer-management philosophy will admit that the quality of bucks has improved.

Trophy buck records are maintained by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. Measuring sessions are normally held every three years. But due to budget limitations, this schedule has not been met.

Hunters who down a trophy buck can contact their regional Game Commission office, or may be able to get their trophy measured by an official Boone and Crockett (firearms) or Pope and Young (archery) scorer. They should then send a copy of both sides of the score sheet to the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Big Game Records department.

Minimum scores for the list of Pennsylvania Big Game Records are confusing. In the past, minimums have been 140 points for typical bucks taken by gun, 115 points for typical bucks taken by bow and arrow, 160 points for non-typical bucks taken by gun and 140 points for non-typical bucks taken by bow. However, the list currently on the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Web site includes bucks with lower scores.

There has been no official measuring session since 2001, so few recent bucks have been added to the lists. Presently, the highest-ranking typical buck taken by gun was a 161 5/8 trophy taken in 2005 by James Allen in Berks County.

SOUTHEAST REGION

There is great potential for trophy bucks in the Southeast Region, but there are glitches.

"Because access is an issue, deer are able to age," said Cheryl Trewella, Southeast Region Information and Education supervisor. "Our people who go to the deer processors are reporting some very large deer."

Trewella noted that the highly developed area surrounding Philadelphia has been the traditional hotspot for the region's biggest bucks. But as a result of the PGC's new antler restrictions, trophy-sized deer have been showing up elsewhere in the region.

Of course, the reason why bucks in the southeast corner of the commonwealth have time to grow big also makes it difficult for hunters to harvest these animals. There's strong anti-hunting sentiment among landowners in the area, and in many places, hunting is not practical for safety reasons. On most private lands where hunting is allowed, only family or select friends of landowners are given access.

There is very little public land, and that land is heavily hunted. This doesn't necessarily mean that there are no big bucks on public lands: Deer will wander in from surrounding private lands, especially during bowhunting season when the rut is peaking.

Most public land in the Southeast Region lies along the mountain ridges. The terrain makes much of this land difficult or at least daunting to access, which works to the benefit of serious trophy buck hunters.

Deer densities here have generally followed the same pattern as in the rest of the commonwealth.

"In some areas, the deer population is down; and in some areas, the population is still very high," said Trewella. "Access is always the issue. In areas of public ground where people can get in there easily, we have seen a difference."

Last year, hunters took 7,700 antlered deer from Wildlife Management Unit 5C, the third best among the 22 WMUs. Unit 5B ranked fourth, with a harvest of 7,400 antlered deer. This is a radical departure from traditional antlered deer harvests, a clear shift from the North-Central Region to the southern regions.

In the southeast portion of Pennsylvania, the bottom line is that hunting on the few tracts of public land is difficult. Hunters should seek permission to hunt on private land if they want to find trophy deer there.

NORTHEAST REGION

Hunters in the Northeast Region face similar problems with land access, but not nearly as limiting -- yet.

"With the human population explosion, we're losing more land. So we're going to have more problems in the future," said Tim Conway, Northeast Region Information and Education supervisor.

Many of the private lands where hunting is allowed have become hunting leases, which puts more pressure on the public hunting lands. But numerous state game lands and some state forestlands are open to hunting. Access is difficult in many places, due to either rugged terrain or wet ground. But this provides serious hunters with some degree of seclusion.

Last year, hunters took 5,800 antlered deer from WMU 3C, which ranked 10th in the state. Wildlife Management Unit 3D ranked 18th, with a tally of 3,900 antlered deer. From WMU 3B, which extends into the North-Central Region, hunters took 6,000 antlered deer, seventh among the units.

Over most of the commonwealth, natural food conditions since the new antler restrictions were implemented have not been favorable for good antler growth. Mast availability from the previous fall will affect antler growth this season. Also very important is the condition of deer coming out of the winter.

"Going into last winter, we had a decent acorn crop," Conway said. "The winter was also mild, with very little snow."

There were not many beechnuts, but soft mast, such as apples and berries, was in good supply. Plentiful soft mast and acorns, combined with the mild winter and lower deer density, means that the bucks were probably in good health during spring when their antler growth began. Under these conditions, more of the energy that deer consume can be diverted to antler growth.

"The antler restrictions have kicked in, based on the antlers that we saw last year," Conway said. He notes that main-beam averages were larger and there were more points than in the past.

"The deer population is definitely lower than what it used to be, but when I say 'used to be,' there was a time

when there were way too many deer," Conway added.

Hunters who truly enjoy hunting for larger bucks, as opposed to those who just want to get a deer -- will adapt to the current situation.

"We are definitely seeing a big difference in the racks that are being harvested," Conway said. "Our crews who are out there doing the aging are seeing a difference in the 2 1/2-year-olds, the 3 1/2-year-olds across the Northeast Region and in some of the big-woods areas."

The decline in deer densities is most noticeable across the North-Central Region, the famed big woods of the Allegheny Highlands, which for many decades was the place to hunt deer. Through those decades of whitetail overabundance, deer quality declined.

Bucks were abundant, but almost all were spikes and forkhorns. Few bucks survived long enough to grow trophy racks. Even the few bucks in secluded areas that did reach maturity sported relatively modest antlers.

Antler restrictions and lower deer densities have led to some improvement in trophy potential, but not enough to gain the acceptance of many hunters. The fabled Big Woods is no longer the great Mecca of Keystone State deer hunters.

Last year, hunters harvested 5,000 antlered deer in WMU 2G, which is the heart of the North-Central Region. To the north in WMU 3A (along the New York border), hunters took 4,000 antlered deer.

In WMU 4D, the mountainous central part of the commonwealth, hunters took 5,600 antlered deer last year. The kill in WMU 4A was 3,700 antlered deer. In WMU 4B the harvest was 3,600 antlered deer, and in WMU 5A hunters took 2,400 antlered deer.

Wildlife Management Unit 4B has some of the lowest deer densities in Pennsylvania, and is one of the few areas where the deer population will intentionally be allowed to increase through antlerless license allocations.

According to Jerry Feaser, Pennsylvania Game Commission press secretary, the condition of 1 1/2-year-old deer is only satisfactory. But for 2 1/2-year-olds and 3 1/2-year-olds, the diagnosis is good.

"What that means is that the 2 1/2-year-old and 3 1/2-year-old deer are getting sufficient nutrition to reproduce at a healthy rate."

For trophy buck hunters in the South-Central Region, prospects are promising for quality, if not quantity.

SOUTHWEST REGION

The Southwest Region has been and will continue to be Pennsylvania's top region for trophy buck hunting. This can be seen most clearly in the current list of bowhunting record bucks.

The No. 1 typical buck taken by bow and arrow, scoring 178 2/8 points, was taken in 2004 from Allegheny County in WMU 2B. On the list of typical bucks taken by bow and arrow, there are approximately 701 entries meeting a minimum score of 115 points. Allegheny County produced 84 of these entries, or 12 percent of the total.

Now take a look at the top bucks on the list. Among the 127 record-book deer scoring at least 140 points, 20 percent were taken in Allegheny County, and every one of them since 1984.

Of the top 127 bucks, seven were taken from neighboring Westmoreland County and three from neighboring Beaver County. The No. 3 typical bow-and-arrow buck was taken in 1986 from Butler County, the No. 5 buck from Allegheny County, the No. 6 from Beaver County, the No. 7 from Westmoreland County, the No. 10 from Lawrence County, and numbers 11 and 12 from Allegheny County.

Allegheny County bucks also comprise 16 percent of the Pennsylvania list of non-typical bucks taken by bow and arrow, while Westmoreland County accounts for 12 percent.

Overall, buck-hunting statistics in this region also leads the commonwealth. Wildlife Management Unit 2D led the state last year with a harvest of 10,000 antlered deer, and WMU 2A was second, with 8,500 antlered deer.

NORTHWEST REGION

The Northwest Region also has good trophy buck potential, particularly in Crawford County and Erie County. Wildlife Management Unit 1B, which includes all of Erie County and most of Crawford County, was sixth in the commonwealth last year, with a harvest of 6,400 antlered deer. In these counties, considerable farmland provides deer with excellent nutrition. The top non-typical buck ever taken in Pennsylvania, scoring 238 6/8 points, was killed in 1946 in Erie County.

This region includes a large portion of the leading unit, WMU 2D.

The Northwest Region is an area of sharp habitat contrasts. East of the glaciated, agricultural WMU 1B lies WMU 2F, which consists largely of Allegheny National Forest, an area of rugged hills.

As in most of the commonwealth, the deer population has been reduced. Last year, the unit ranked eighth with a harvest of 6,000 antlered deer.

For more about trophy deer hunting in Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg PA 17110-9797; or call (717) 787-4250.

For travel information in Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Office of Tourism, Room 404, Forum Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120; or call (717) 232-8880 or 1-800-VISIT-PA.

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