Pennsylvania's 2008 Deer Outlook Part 2: Where To Find Our Biggest Bucks

Keystone State deer hunters are slowly realizing that the new antler restrictions are producing more and bigger bucks statewide. Here's where to find your trophy of a lifetime this season. (November 2008)

Part 2 of our annual Pennsylvania Deer Outlook focuses specifically on trophy bucks.

The naysayers have their right to complain if they want to. But for a growing number of hunters who appreciate quality deer management, those who took the initiative to learn and understand the dynamics of how a healthy herd interacts with a healthy environment, this year looks downright exciting.

We're all looking forward to something most Pennsylvania deer hunters have never experienced: a true quality deer hunt.

The commonwealth's legendary deer hunting attracted hordes of red-plaid-clad hunters to the Big Woods of the Allegheny Highlands. In the early 1900s, the state had an overabundance of whitetails -- a herd that had grown up in a new forest that could support great numbers of deer.

By the time World War II ended, an army of men familiar with centerfire rifles streamed into the Pennsylvania forests. But the deer had already become too numerous for their habitat.

Things are a lot different now.

Though many hunters are still dreaming of that mythical time when herds of deer ran by everybody's stand at regular intervals, we must now consider some realities. For one thing, habitat is dynamic. When the habitat changes, so does its ability to support deer. What also changes is what the public is willing to accept.

Even non-hunters like to see deer when they take a drive through the countryside. But an environmentally educated society is not willing to accept deer numbers so dense that they decimate the very habitat required to sustain other wildlife, or deer numbers too high to allow a forest time to renew and regenerate itself.

People also understand that deer affect the economy. They affect the price of 2x4s and paneling. They affect the price of car insurance -- and even life insurance!

Perhaps a mandated appraisal of the Game Commission deer-management program will change the situation. Perhaps it will lead to more deer, but perhaps it will also lead to fewer deer: If you examine the trends in whitetail management across the country, the trend is toward fewer deer, but of better quality.

In the meantime, for those who love to hunt, a deer herd in balance with its environment results in bigger bucks. And better deer management means that a much greater percentage of the deer you'll see will be bucks, even though if, grudgingly, you may see fewer deer.

THE OUTLOOK FOR 2008
Dr. Chris Rosenberry is the Pennsylvania Game Commission's lead deer biologist. Just how does he view the coming season?

"We looked at last year's harvest and the way it was distributed, particularly during the firearms season," Rosenberry said, "and it was consistent with previous years. But the opening-day kill wasn't half of what it was the previous year.

"Many of those deer made it through the winter and are still out there. So looking at that, I would say that 2008 should be as good or better than last year."

Quaker State hunters took 109,200 antlered deer last year, a 19 percent drop from the year before. Hunters in wildlife management units 2E and 2F really took it on the chin with a 33 percent drop in the buck kill. WMU 4B dropped 30 percent, WMU 2G dropped 29 percent and WMU3D dropped 28 percent.

Rosenberry explained that last year's opening-day losses could have accounted for nearly all of the reduction in the harvest of antlered deer from 2006-07 to '07-08.

"In looking at the rest of the season, there were no days where this year's harvest exceeded report-card counts from last year. That indicates there was no way to make up for the loss on opening day. If you examined all of the numbers, I suspect that first day would account for a good chunk of the reduction in buck kill."

Rosenberry noted that hunting conditions on key days during the season can have a huge impact on the deer harvest. Nasty weather on opening day of the firearms season, or on the first Saturday, will create a drop in the harvest because fewer hunters venture out when the weather is bad.

In fact, only WMU 5A showed an increase (of 9 percent) in its antlered deer harvest. But that's a unit with a small buck harvest overall, and that 9 percent represented only 200 bucks.

WHY MEASURE THE BUCK HARVEST?
The buck harvest is probably the best indicator of trends in a deer population, so a harvest drop of 19 percent would seem to indicate a serious decline in Pennsylvania's deer population.

But aside from lower deer numbers, there might have been a couple of good reasons for the drop in buck kill. One possible culprit was the weather on opening day. This sounds like the same old excuse, but it's valid.

"Generally, the buck kill is one of the best indications of trends in the deer population," Rosenberry said.

"However, there are factors that can throw off any indicators. And last year, the weather was at least one of the factors. In many parts of the commonwealth, rainy weather discouraged hunter participation, and so the traditionally high opening-day harvest was down."

If we accept that hunting pressure on opening day is higher and therefore, results in more deer killed, then unfavorable weather conditions on that day could certainly skew any season's numbers.

And if Rosenberry's theory is true, it could mean good news for buck hunters this fall -- particularly for trophy buck hunters.

"Since it appears that some of the reduction in last season's buck harvest was due to a lower deer kill on opening day, those whitetails that weren't harvested will be a year older," Rosenberry said. "Therefore, I suspect that there's a good chance that 2008 could be a pretty good season. There will be more older bucks out there with larger antlers."

DISEASE A FACTOR?
Another reason for fewer bucks being taken last year --in the Southwest Region specifically -- was the unexpectedly high outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD).

This is particularly significant because the Southwest is the commonwealth's top deer-hunting region. And so, those losses will have a greater imp

act on Pennsylvania's total deer harvest.

This deadly cervid disease is borne by insects and is much more widespread in southern states.

Last year's prolonged southerly winds and other conditions carried the disease farther north, affecting record numbers of deer.

Do not confuse EHD with chronic wasting disease (CWD). Though fatal, EHD does not pose the same threat to the deer population as CWD does. Cold weather kills the insects that carry EHD, and the disease dies out with them. It is not passed from deer to deer, nor can it be spread on the ground. Nonetheless, it had a noteworthy impact on hunter behavior and deer harvest numbers during the 2007-08 hunting seasons.

According to Rosenberry, EHD discouraged a significant number of hunters from venturing into the area of the outbreak. It also discouraged some of those who did hunt there from harvesting deer.

Might this mean that a few more deer survived the hunting season?

Perhaps last year's bit of bad luck will lead to a better season this year. And since it happened in the Southwest Region -- always the state's top producer of trophy bucks -- 2008 may produce an unusually good harvest of exceptional whitetails.

BEST YEAR YET?
For everyone but that minuscule percentage of Pennsylvania hunters who hunted the state back before World War II, 2008 might offer the best chance ever to tag a trophy buck.

As always, hunters who do their scouting early will best stand the best chances of tagging a trophy.

Whitetails will always be whitetails, and they have never been "easy" to harvest. Hunters who make the effort to acquire maps, walk public land boundaries and find fresh signs of deer activity will have the best "luck" this season.

Also, hunters who pass up smaller legal bucks will have a better chance of tagging a trophy-class one. Remember, you don't have to shoot your buck on opening day!

"Across much of the state, there was generally a mild winter," Rosenberry noted. "So there wasn't a lot of winter stress on the animals, compared to colder years accompanied by ice, heavy snow and rain.

"Overall, I would say this season is probably not going to be much different than last year. Thanks to the reduced harvest in 2007, there may be more bigger bucks."

A study recently completed in Pennsylvania, now being used as a model by other states, essentially proved that most of those bucks that survive the hunting season will live until the next hunting season.

That study began at roughly the same time that the new antler restrictions were imposed.

"I think one of the key results we saw there was that the antler restrictions were doing just what we intended them to do -- protect most of the yearlings from harvest, and then make most of the older bucks available for harvest," said Rosenberry.

"Based on our study, that's exactly what happened."

It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that many of the 2 1/2-year-old bucks that escaped the hunters last season will be 3 1/2 years old this fall -- with even bigger antlers.

"The other thing we saw in the study was that Pennsylvania hunters were willing to be abide by the antler restrictions and adapt to them," Rosenberry said.

WHERE TO HUNT?
So where should you expect to find the biggest bucks and the biggest racks this fall?

"Other than the traditional areas in Pennsylvania, the 4-point area obviously shows better antler growth than any other part of the state," Rosenberry said.

"That's the reason why it's the 4-point area. The Southeast Region is one place in the state that should have some larger bucks.

"That area that has had some better antler growth as well."

Though the Pittsburgh region comprises only a small part of the Special Regulations Area, it has yielded the greatest number of bucks on Pennsylvania's record list. Also, a lot of record-list bucks that have been taken in the Southwest Region come from outside the Special Regulations Area.

"That's a 4-point area, so it's an area where you expect better antler growth," Rosenberry said. "And also, the Allegheny County area is probably part of an access issue.

"More deer in that area are getting older than they would in areas where hunters might have better opportunities or more public land."

Also, a lot of bucks made it through the last hunting season because hunters chose to not kill deer in the EHD outbreak area.

"I would say that has to do with the fact that the animals are getting older in the western region than they would in other places.

"Plus, that is a 4-point area, so a lot of bucks are missed or passed. That's why we have the 4-point restrictions, versus the 3-point."

Hunters looking for the best public lands for hunting big bucks should consider state game lands in the Southwest Region, west of the main mountain ridges.

For more information about deer hunting in the Quaker State, you contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797. Or call (717) 787-4250, or check the agency's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.

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