Many hunters are saying that the 'good old days' of Pennsylvania deer hunting are gone. Hunters have been griping about too few deer for the last half-century, at least. Hunters who just filled three deer tags will complain that the Game Commission is killing too many deer. When you really get right down to the nitty gritty of deer hunting in the Keystone State, it is what you make of it. Good hunters and lucky hunters will get deer. Unlucky hunters and those who spend most of their supposed 'hunting' time on their couches probably will not fill their deer tags.
Right now we are going to take one of the first important steps in making this year a good year for deer hunting. We are going to investigate some of the facts and figures, consider what some of the bona fide experts have to say, then try to determine some of the better places in Pennsylvania to hunt deer this year.
Last year Pennsylvania hunters harvested approximately 316,240 deer. That is a 2 percent increase from the previous year, demonstrating the stability in the deer population across most of the state.
Tim Conway, Information and Education Director for the Northeast Region, provided information about the deer outlook in his corner of the state.
"I'm going to start out up at the top: (WMU) 3C encompasses Susquehanna, Bradford, the northern part of our region. That's one of the areas where we've been doing some deer trapping. From what I've been told and what I've seen personally, there's quite a few deer there," Conway said.
WMU 3C ranked 3rd in the state, with a 32-percent success rate among hunters attempting to fill doe tags. This is a very good measure of deer hunting quality. But WMU 3D, which borders WMU 3C on the southeast, tied at 17 percent for the worst doe hunting success rate.
"In (WMU) 3D, which encompasses a lot of the Poconos- Monroe, Lackawanna, Pike, Carbon Counties, part of Luzerne County, the deer population, depending on where you are in that management unit, is also pretty good. There are some areas that are less populated, there's not as many. And that has to do with poor habitat."
A major obstacle to hunting on WMU 3D is a lot of posted land.
"(WMU's) 4C and 4E, which are on the southern part (of the region), is a lot of farmland. It's a good deer population there.
"(WMU) 3B is big, mountainous areas," Conway said. "We have quite a few of our game lands in that particular section. I'd say it's a really good deer population because of the terrain. But for the most part it's tough hunting."
According to Conway, the deer population is good in most of the Northeast Region. However, that does not mean that hunters do not need to be particular. It comes down to habitat. If the habitat is good then probably the deer population is good. If the habitat is poor in a given area, there will not be so many deer.
"Some of those areas include game lands," Conway said. "For example, you go into (WMU) 3D and you hunt on one of our big game lands, 127, you're not going to see a lot of deer there. The habitat isn't the greatest. There's no oak at all in most of that. "But you go a few miles further south into Monroe County, there's deer all over the place."
That part of Monroe County has a lot of development that deer can adapt to quite well.
No parts of the region are overly populated with deer, according to Conway.
"I don't think so," he said. "I think our population is pretty good, I think it's fairly stable generally overall. Some areas have decreased slightly."
The Southeast Region would be great deer habitat if not for the fact that it is the most heavily developed land in Pennsylvania. Still, much of the region has too many deer. Controlling deer numbers is very difficult here because hunters can not get access to much of the land. Public land is scarcer here than anywhere else in the state. For hunters whose primary goal in deer hunting is just filling tags, this probably is not the best choice as a hunting destination.
However, one wildlife management unit stands out as one of the most productive units in the state. WMU 5B has been one of the leading units for several years. In the most recent seasons, it ranked 5th for antlerless deer harvest, 4th for antlered deer harvest, and 4th for total harvest. Antlerless deer hunters filled 25 percent of their doe tags.
The Southcentral Region is another area that is not usually considered as a destination area for deer hunters. This may be a mistake. Though the region does not have a wildlife management unit that stands out as one of the most productive areas for hunting deer, overall the region is pretty good. Just about anywhere other than in Pennsylvania it would be called excellent for the chances of filling a deer tag.
"Generally, the deer population, in my estimation, is in pretty good shape, recognizing there are areas where there are considerably lower numbers than in other areas," said Rob Criswell, Land Management Supervisor for the Southcentral Region.
Habitat is the primary determining factor for determining the deer population, he explained.
"We have areas up on the Allegheny Front that haven't had a lot of cutting for years and years, and a lot of areas in cherry, the deer densities are low as you would expect," Criswell said. "There's not as much stuff on the ground. There's not a lot of hard mast as in some other areas. On game lands we're doing a lot of cutting to change those conditions. And generally as the cutting occurs, the conditions improve."
The Game Commission does a lot of habitat work on state game lands, and even though there are some large state game lands in the Southcentral Region, they are not large enough to affect their wildlife management unit as a whole.
The ridge and valley area is the better deer habitat in the Southcentral Region, according to Criswell. Ridges have chestnut oaks and scrub oaks which have grown outstanding acorn crops the past couple of years. Last year in particular there was an excellent crop of acorns. This has a big influence on deer surviving through winter in good condition. A higher survival rate and better deer health in general should show up this fall because does will have produced plenty of fawns when they came out of winter in good condition.
Like many Pennsylvania deer hunters, before he worked with the Pennsylvania Game Commission Criswell went to the northcentral highlands to hunt deer.
"My dad belonged to a camp in the Susquehannock (State Forest), in Potter County, and when I hunted up there with him as a juvenile and young adult there were deer everywhere."
Habitat has changed considerably since then, although because it happened slowly some hunters hardly noticed the changes.
"I went through there a couple of years ago and I wouldn't even think about hunting deer up there," Criswell said. "It's just all pole stuff and the densities are what you would expect."
Again, habitat is the key to deer hunting wherever you hunt. In some areas other factors may be more important, but without good habitat there can not be a good deer population.
According to Game Commission figures, the deer population has been much less stable than anywhere else in the state in WMU 2G and the eastern part of WMU 2F, which make up the lion's share of the 'Big Woods' of the Northcentral Region. Antlerless deer license allocations have declined considerably since highs in 2003 and 2004, yet there still have been relatively big ups and downs in the population.
Antlerless harvest rates have been good: 26 percent of tags are filled in WMU 2F, and 24 percent are filled in WMU 2G.
Nowhere else do hunters lament the decline of the deer herd as much. To hear some hunters talk you could get the impression that deer have been wiped out. And indeed, some areas have very low deer densities because of poor habitat. But there are also some places with reasonably good deer densities. Preseason scouting is maybe more important here than anywhere else in the state.
One interesting part of the Northcentral Region is the Kinzua Quality Deer Cooperative, a 74,000 area in western McKean County where the Allegheny National Forest, private landowners and hunters have banded together in an attempt to improve both the forest health and the deer herd health. To some extent they have been successful. The forest is not recovering as quickly as had been hoped. Deer, though, quickly showed improvements in all regards. Antlers are larger, fawns and other age classes are heavier.
WMU 2F, which includes the KQDC, is a three-points-on-a-side area; however, David deCalesta, consulting wildlife biologist on the KQDC, would like at least the KQDC to change to four points on a side, or three on top. This would allow hunters to see more bucks and have the opportunity to harvest larger bucks.
The Northwest Region is one of the better destination areas for deer hunters. The Allegheny National Forest, in WMU 2F, provides plenty of public hunting land, about 500,000 acres. Scouting is very important in this area, however, because there are areas with very low deer density.
The antlerless deer harvest in WMU was in the bottom half of the wildlife management units. However, the 26 percent success rate for filling antlerless tags, which is probably much more significant, ranks among the best.
WMU 2D had the second highest antlerless harvest last year, and the highest harvest of antlered deer. The only problem is that there is not a lot of public land. Hunters who want to hunt this area must spent time getting permission to hunt private land.
The situation is the same in WMU 1A and WMU 1B, which lie along the Ohio border.
For several years the Southwest Region has taken the role of the top deer hunting area in Pennsylvania. More land has been added to the state game lands system than in any other region.
"In most of or region it should be good," Tom Fazi, Information and Education Director in the Southwest Region, replied to the question of the general deer outlook for his region this fall.
"I would assume you would have pockets within wildlife management units where the population may be a little higher or lower than other pockets, but overall our region looks pretty good," said Fazi.
The mast crop was excellent last year so winter survival was good, and does should have produced a lot of fawns.
"Wildlife Management Unit 2A is pretty good as far as numbers go," Fazi said. "(WMU) 2B, of course, has an over-population."
WMU 2B is basically the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. There is one small state game land, otherwise hunting land is precious. Controlling deer numbers is virtually impossible, as indicated by the numerous dead deer along Interstate 79.
"(WMU) 2C, that's where you get a little bit of variety depending on where you are. There are parts of 2C where the numbers definitely are lower, like southern Cambria County is not as high as maybe Westmoreland County in the same management unit.
"And then Wildlife Management Unit 2D, our part of 2D, has a pretty good population," Fazi said.
You can get more information about deer hunting from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797, web site www.pgc,state.pa.us.