Pennsylvania'™s 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 2

While the total number of antlered bucks was down last year, the quality of the bucks seems to be on the upswing.

If there is a simple answer for determining the best trophy buck hunting in Pennsylvania, it is staring us right in the face when we look at the deer hunting regulations.

"If you based it on antler growth in yearlings, certainly those four-point areas would represent the best part of the state," said Dr. Chris Rosenberry, "because the reason we have that four-point area out there is that's what was needed in order to protect half the yearlings from harvest based on their antler growth. So I think it would be fair to say that in the western part of the state, those units that are in the four-point units are some of the better areas to grow white-tailed deer."

Rosenberry, who has been with the Pennsylvania Game Commission five years, is head of the Deer Section.

Antler restrictions have almost precisely accomplished the goal of protecting half of the yearling bucks. Through the 2009-10 deer hunting seasons, 40 percent of the antlered bucks harvested were yearlings. Since 2003 the harvest has been between 49 and 56 percent.

According to Rosenberry, the four-point wildlife management units are our best deer habitat because of a combination of factors. These units, WMU 1B, WMU 1A, WMU 2D, WMU 2B and WMU 2A, are comparable to the habitat extending across the Upper Midwest: Habitat that has traditionally produced more trophy bucks than any other part of North America. Viewed from high above, this habitat has the characteristics of a patchwork quilt. The individual patches typically are crop fields, overgrown fields, wood lots, wetlands, and farms or small residential areas.

It is precisely this diversity that makes the four-point areas ideal for deer. Deer can almost always find something nutritious to eat.

Hunters typically consider trophy antlers to be the result of age, genetics and nutrition. In this initial assessment of our best trophy buck areas, age is not a consideration because the study of bucks for the purpose of determining antler restrictions looks strictly at 1 1/2-year-old animals.

Hunters often talk about genetics, even though relatively few of us have a deep understanding of the topic. Although genetics may be significant for owners of private deer herds, Rosenberry questions the importance of genetics where wild deer are concerned.

"In terms of trying to point to it regarding antler growth," he said, "I think it's difficult because there are so many uncontrollable variables out there. You look at the doe side, the females contributing genetics, there's no way to select for good does or bad does or anything like that, so you have that constant mixing of good and bad genes for antlers and there's not really a whole lot we can do on the female side to do anything about it.

"And on the buck side, the majority of our bucks get shot after the peak of the breeding season. That further dilutes any ability to try and alter the genetics in a wild deer herd."

Even though the wildlife management units with four-point antler restrictions are in the western part of the state, Rosenberry doubts that there is much difference in the gene pool between those units and in other parts of the state to the east.

This information tells us that the western tier of wildlife management units, plus WMU 2D, comprise the best habitat in Pennsylvania for production of trophy bucks. This is further validated by recent additions to the Pennsylvania list of record whitetails.

Nowhere is the deer hunting tradition more a part of the very fabric of the state than in Pennsylvania. However, this tradition was built upon having good numbers of deer, specifically in the north-central "Big Woods," particularly in the past when deer were scarce just about everywhere else. Pennsylvania has not been looked upon as a trophy buck state. Only 33 typical whitetails from Pennsylvania have scored more than 170 B&C points.

The trophy buck situation has been changing though. A large share of the best bucks ever taken in Pennsylvania, 13 of the 33 which scored at least 170 points, have been taken since 1990. Many reasons have been given for this. Perhaps the most likely reason is one not often mentioned: Deer have become more abundant in the areas which have the best habitat, particularly the western counties. Another telling figure is that 12 of the typical bucks which scored at least 170 points were taken by bowhunters, and seven of those have been taken since 2000, and seven have been taken in western four-point wildlife management units.

Although the buck harvest has fallen in Pennsylvania, hunting camps whose hunters work hard at patterning and hunting bucks can still put together a good-looking meat pole. Photo by Mike Bleech.

Your chances of getting a trophy buck in Pennsylvania have never been better than they are now.

Finding trophy bucks in the four-point wildlife management units is relatively easy when compared to any other large part of the state. However, none of the facts mentioned to this point mean that trophy bucks can not be found elsewhere, only that probably it will be more difficult to locate trophy bucks. Depending on what you want out of hunting, locating trophy bucks on the type of habitat that you prefer to hunt may be much more important than going where the odds are better. Maybe it is a simple matter of convenience or practicality: There are many advantages to hunting closer to home.

The southeastern wildlife management units, notably those with special regulations, have some excellent trophy buck habitat. Habitat is similar to that of the western four-point counties, though with fewer fields and more land under till. Wildlife Management Unit 5C had the second greatest antlered deer harvest among the WMUs last year.

A lot of the land is posted. Land posted against hunting acts as a game propagation area where bucks can survive long enough to reach their peak years for antler growth. It is often written that knocking on doors is a good way to get access to posted land. In truth, posted land in this part of Pennsylvania probably is either hunted strictly by family and close friends, leased to hunting clubs, or absolutely does not allow any hunting.

A few rather small state parks allow deer hunting. You might get access to hunt only through a drawing, or there may be other special regu

lations. Some of the smaller state parks have potential for producing big deer. Be sure to check the park headquarters for information as long before hunting season as possible, even if hunting is not listed among park activities.

One of the larger tracts of public land in the southeastern corner of the commonwealth is French Creek State Park, which is on the border of Berks County and Chester County. Approximately 7,000 acres are open to hunting. Cabins are available for rental, though you will probably have to reserve these long in advance. Also there is a campground with showers -- pretty good accommodations for deer hunting.

State Game Lands No. 43 lies to the immediate southwest of the park.

Access to public lands has been one of the more common complaints heard from deer hunters. Those who hunt specifically for larger bucks should not complain. Instead they might consider protesting the unlocking of gates or the building of new roads. Inaccessibility is the best thing going for them, the best factor in producing older, larger bucks.

"In terms of antlers, the way I would look at it would be, you can discount genetics because we can't do a whole lot with that," Rosenberry said, "but I would look at age as a factor, and some of that would be getting into areas that have less hunting pressure where those bucks can make it through a couple of hunting seasons to get some age on them.

"A couple years ago we pulled teeth out of adult bucks and found the oldest buck in the state over the course of two years that we checked was a 10 1/2-year-old buck that was taken in 2G on public land. That buck had survived many hunting seasons until somebody finally shot him at 10 1/2. He obviously wasn't in his prime by that time. So if I were looking for a big buck I would look for areas where other hunters might not be getting into, or that access was a little more difficult."

Wildlife Management Unit 2G has been declining as a deer hunting destination for a few decades. This is the Big Woods of the Northcentral Region. With fewer hunters coming here, the odds of deer eluding hunters have improved.

Food, cover and a chance to get old enough to grow a decent rack: those are the critical elements for growing bigger bucks in the Keystone State. Photo by Mike Bleech.

And of course this unit has more remote land than any other unit. Recent studies utilizing hunters carrying GPS units indicated that very few hunters are getting into the more remote areas; remote in this sense meaning both farther from roads and more difficult terrain to traverse. Some deer might go through a deer season without seeing a hunter, a concept that would have seemed very odd during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when hunters still considered this the Pennsylvania deer woods. Deer camps were filled with hunters, and game poles beside the camps were filled with deer. Typical bucks then were spikes and fork-horns.

For the past 10 years a 70,000-acre section in western McKean County, a part of the Big Woods, has been involved in a cutting-edge project called the Kinzua Quality Deep Cooperative. Goals of the project include improving the habitat and the deer quality, the latter basically translating as healthier deer.

It would be a stretch to claim that the KQDC is a great place to hunt trophy bucks. However, the project has proven that by lowering deer density the habitat will start to recover, and the deer do grow larger. These bucks may not match farm country bucks, but this area provides a good opportunity to see nice Big Woods bucks.

Here is a tip that most hunters are usually ignoring. The best hunting on the KQDC is on the private land sections. Most hunters stay on Allegheny National Forest land. Maps are available at the web site. www.kqdc.com.

Moving eastward, the most remote ridges on the state forests are home to unseen big bucks. State forests within, or largely within, WMU 2G are Elk, Sproul, Susquehannock, Tioga, Tiadaghton, Moshannon, and Bald Eagle. The combined area of these state forests is 1,246,323 acres. Little wonder this area is known as the Big Woods. It includes some of the most rugged, most remote land in the state.

A good example of the kind of remote country where bucks can grow old is State Game Lands No. 75, a 27,438-acre tract that borders the eastern side of Tiadaghton State Forest. Elevations rise from under 900 feet at English Center to more than 1,900 feet on a ridge top less than a mile to the east, and to over 2,100 feet to the north a few miles. A large part of this state game lands is relatively gentle terrain, in comparison to adjacent terrain, though some of it is very steep. In some places there are several miles of rough terrain separating access roads. There are hunters here, but you can walk away from all but a rare few. Of course getting a big buck out is not easy.

SGL No. 75 is north from Jersey Shore by way of PA Route 287 at Larry's Creek.

Mast crops, particularly acorns, are important to antler development in the Big Woods, more so than in areas with mixed habitat.

"It has a bigger impact on yearlings than it does on adults. You would expect to see a few more points on the yearlings, a point or so on a yearling buck, and some larger mass on the adults depending on how the rest of the year played out."

Hunting has become difficult in much of the Pocono area because most private land is locked up by no-hunting posters and private hunting clubs. Nonetheless, a fair number of big bucks are dragged off public land because of the size of, and swampy habitat on, state game lands.

State Game Lands No. 127 is one such tract. It adjoins Gouldsboro State Park, which in turn borders Tobyhanna State Park, which borders State Game Lands No. 312 to form one large block of public land, 36,474 acres, with numerous wetlands on relatively flat terrain. I-380 separates most of SGL No. 127 from the other state lands.

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