Fewer deer hunters hit the woods searching for whitetails in the final weeks of the season, so your hunts can be just between you and the deer.
Late-season deer hunting in Pennsylvania, anytime from the second week of the regular firearms season through the late flintlock and archery season, is a different proposition from opening day hunting.
In fact, even the second day of the regular firearms season is much different than opening day. This is all the longer it takes for deer to react to the influx of hunters into deer habitat.
Deer hunting might even get a little easier in the late flintlock and archery season since whitetails have had a couple weeks to get back to normalcy after the firearms season.
However, very few hunters are still hunting in the late season, so no one will be pushing deer by you. In this regard, the second week of the regular firearms season has the advantage.
The number of hunters afield drops after the first few days of the regular firearms season, but not nearly so low as during the late season.
Several very important things are happening during December and January.
Maybe most interesting of these things is that you can count on a second rut peak during December, about a month after the first and most intensive rut peak.
Probably this second peak will happen after the regular firearms season ends. But the “rut peak” is just the time when the greatest number of breeding tends to take place. The rut does not all take place during a rut peak.
Watching trail cameras can give a hunter a much better understanding of the period for rutting, if enough trail cameras are used, and if they are spread over a fairly broad area.
By watching the periods when bucks are most active, especially during daylight hours, you get an approximation of the rut peak.
But what becomes most interesting is that these periods of maximum buck activity do not all take place at the same time, varying by a day to a few days from one area to the next, even on trail cameras that are no more than 5 miles apart.
What this means in practical hunting terms is that bucks are attracted to does whenever they come into estrous. This makes the use of rut-related hunting tactics possibly useful through the second week of the regular firearms season.
There could even be some rutting activity during the late deer season. But by this time feeding probably will have more to do with deer activities than rutting.
In the agricultural parts of the southeastern counties, watch for signs of whitetails feeding in harvested fields. Do not pay too much attention to deer tracks that are just going in a general direction unless there are several tracks made at different times.
This would indicate a regular route. More important is an area that is trampled or dug, where deer have been feeding. From there you can backtrack to wherever the deer are bedding.
But be very careful to avoid the bedding area since intruding on it might cause the deer to change to a new bedding area.
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Finding somewhere you can sneak into a stand without being detected by deer may be the most challenging part of this late-season hunting strategy.
The stand has to be where you may intercept deer moving toward a feeding area. And the stand has to have a concealed approach, be it ever so slight. Look for fences, depressions, brush, anything that might conceal a hunter.
The same strategy works well in other agricultural parts of the state. Even better, perhaps, because most areas outside the southeastern corner have more uneven terrain, more wind rows and fence rows, more overgrown fields that provide hunters with approach cover.
The glaciated northwest corner of the state is quite similar to the southeast corner in topography and large agricultural fields. Public land is the biggest difference as far as deer hunters are concerned.
That and the weather. It snows and blows on a regular basis, with temperatures frequently in the teens. Combine 15 degrees with 20 mph wind and you get a wind chill factor temperature of minus 2 degrees. That’ll make your ears red.
Ice Age glaciers scoured what is now Erie County, northwest Warren County, Crawford County and the northwestern slice of Venango County into a flat to gently rolling terrain.
It is roughly defined as Wildlife Management Unit 1B. A large share of this land is agricultural, with numerous wood lots, wetlands and overgrown fields. This is about the same rich whitetail habitat as that which stretches through Ohio, Indiana, lower Michigan and the upper Midwest. It is sometimes called “checkerboard” habitat.
Not much of this area is public land. The larger state game lands are SGL No. 314 (3,178 acres), SGL No. 101 (5,050 acres), SGL No. 214 (5,398 acres), SGL No. 213 (5,598 acres) and SGL No. 69 (4,496 acres). Smaller state game lands like SGL No. 167 (627 acres) are more typical of the area.
Much more of these state game lands are wood lots and wetlands than elsewhere in the area. These provide whitetails with bedding and refuge areas.
Several of these state game lands are superb deer hunting lands for visiting hunters. Hunting pressure tends to be relatively light since a large share of local hunters have access to private land. Trophy buck potential is relatively good.
One interesting hunt is on SGL No. 306 in the northwest corner of Warren County. This is a large swamp where deer can die of old age.
Though just a small state game land (949 acres), the interior is deceivingly remote.
A note of caution
Spending time in a tree stand in this cruel climate takes a toll on the body. Wear layers of insulated clothing with a windproof outer shell. Carry hand warmers and body warmers, a hot beverage and snacks.
Take care to prevent hypothermia. Climbing out of a tree stand with hypothermia may be difficult to dangerous to impossible.
Heavily insulated boots made for this kind of hunting are relatively cumbersome and can make climbing difficult. Consider using a ground blind instead of a tree stand.
Dressing properly is one of the most important factors in winter deer hunting. Pay special attention to boots, especially if you hunt away from your home territory. Match boots to your hunting strategy.
Stand hunting requires much more bulky boots than still hunting or driving deer. Winter boots for McKean County are very different from winter boots for Berks County.
Public land hunters who like forest habitat will find a half-million acres of public hunting land on the Allegheny National Forest. It covers large parts of Warren County, Forest County, McKean County and Elk County.
This is a big hunk of land with countless places for deer to hide. Spend some time driving the back roads with a good map.
Watch for deer tracks that cross or follow the roads, and mark locations on the map. This should give you a good estimation of where deer are most numerous.
Terrain is up and down. The only nearly level walking is along the top of the old, deeply eroded plateau. In some places thick ground cover, fallen trees or boulders further complicate walking, although the scenery more than makes up for it.
This is a large area where hunters can get away from almost all hunting pressure even though there are few places that are farther than a mile from the nearest road.
Hunters can be as rugged or as pampered as they please. There are campgrounds on the Allegheny National Forest, and dispersed camping is allowed in many areas. Local communities have motels and hotels.
One of the more unusual deer hunts on the Allegheny National Forest is float-hunting the Allegheny River between Buckaloons and Tionesta. Along this stretch, seven large islands have been federally designated the Allegheny Islands Wilderness.
This is the smallest wilderness in the National Wilderness System. Yet it provides plenty of good deer hunting. Deer often seek refuge from hunters on the islands. Cover is very thick in most places.
Primitive camping is allowed on the wilderness islands. Maps of the wilderness islands are available at Allegheny National Forest Headquarters, in North Warren.
Life jackets must be worn at all times while hunting deer since this is during the designated cold water period. And deer may not be hunted in any boat that is under power other than manual power.
Some very nice bucks have been coming out of the Hickory Creek Wilderness. Within these 8,663 acres, deer hunters can find the solitude that is so scarce in the Eastern States. This area basically is the upper drainage basin of East Hickory Creek. Successful hunters can avoid strenuous uphill drags by dragging deer downstream to Forest Road 119.
Another adventurous hunt with good potential is the Tracy Ridge area, which lies along the shore of the sprawling Allegheny Reservoir.
It is the largest roadless area on the Allegheny National Forest. Since it slopes quite steeply into the reservoir, some hunters access the area by boat during the regular firearms season. By the time of the late archery and flintlock season, the reservoir often is covered by ice.
State game lands and state forests tend to be along mountain ridges in the south-central counties. Towns and farms are in the valleys.
If you bag a deer in this area, unless you have access to private land, it is a great advantage to drop deer near the ridge tops where the dragging is on fairly level ground, often on gated roads.
Still hunting is a pleasant approach to hunting along the ridges. Difficult, but great fun. Without leaf cover there are some splendid views. Seldom will you see another hunter. Snow makes it easy to read animal signs.
And here is something that, surprisingly, is not often discussed. White camouflage with a snowy background is much more effective than just about any other camouflage without snow cover.
Keep your face covered, which is not a bad idea anyway in cold conditions, especially on top of wind swept ridges.
Hunting the ridge tops in twos or threes may be more productive.
Keep one hunter still hunting near the ridge top while the other one or two hunters still hunt along the sides of the ridge with the hope of “encouraging” deer to cross the ridge top at less than full speed. This is what separates this strategy from a deer drive.
Coordinated still hunts can be effective on any of our forested areas. One down side to this strategy is that the more hunters in any given area, the more skittish deer will likely become.
After doing a coordinated still hunt, give that area a few days of rest. Your best chance to tag any deer, and especially older deer, is before it knows you are in the area.
Deer are less likely to be too upset by seeing hunters in farm country and anywhere people are a part of their daily world.
Hopefully you have noticed that most of the tactics discussed here can be applied to most other parts of the state so long as the basic elements are the same, or similar enough.
In the late season it is more critical that hunters should be in harmony with normal deer activities, and constantly alert for any reasons to alter hunting tactics. Look at even a 7 1/2-minute topographic map and you are no more than a pin prick on that map.
Deer can be anywhere else, including in the middle of a road. And if you still are hunting this late in the season, you love it.
Get more information about deer hunting at the Pennsylvania Game Commission web site, www.pgc.state.pa.us. Detailed maps of state game lands can be found here.
Maps of state forests and state parks are available from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.