Pennsylvania still has a great number of deer in comparison to other states. Unlike past decades, though, hunters now hunt here with a realistic chance of collecting trophy bucks.
Here we will look at three examples of exceptional bucks taken by hunters during the 2016 deer hunting seasons. There is no reason why you cannot be in the same position this fall. Across the country deer hunters look toward genetics, nutrition and age as the components for producing the biggest bucks. Here in Pennsylvania, reverse that order. Age is the number one factor, followed by nutrition and genetics. Find a place where bucks may be getting old, typically because of difficult hunter access, and you will find big deer.
NEW NO. 4 NON-TYPICAL WITH RIFLE
Part of the assault on the Pennsylvania Big Game Records happened late on the first morning of the regular statewide deer season. This usually is the day when hunters take more deer than on any other day. Radio-telemetry research has shown that once deer season opens bucks retreat to remote, southeast-facing slopes where they can see anything approaching from below, and smell anything approaching from their rear.
Frank Cafardi, a 56-year-old resident of Pittsburgh, was hunting in Crawford County on the opening day of the 2016 regular deer season, Nov. 28, when his record-book moment came. He carried the same Remington Model 700, chambered for .30-06 Springfield, that he has carried for deer hunting since he was 13 years-old.
Tradition like his deer rifle is a rich part of the Pennsylvania deer hunting tradition. Some deer hunters carry rifles that have been passed along through generations of deer hunters.
Cafardi did not know for certain that the specific buck he would collect later that morning was as big as it really was. But he did know a big buck was in the area.
"I knew the deer was a big one. A couple friends of mine knew the deer was there that nobody was talking about."
The buck had been captured on a trail camera. But the image did not do the buck justice. Or was it a different buck?
"I thought it was around 150 inches," he said.
Just three years previously he had shot a very nice 8-point buck from the very same stand he used that morning.
"I guess I can say the antler restrictions are working in Pennsylvania," Cafardi said.
Cafardi got to his stand at about 5:30 on the morning of open day, leaving plenty of time for the woods to calm down after he walked in. Not much happened for a while.
"It was kind of slow," Cafardi said. "It was a quiet day, just a slight breeze, and it was warming up. Some does came in at 8:30 a.m. I watched them for a while."
Those does were only about 40 yards away. The cover was thick, so when those does bedded down he could hardly see them.
"A while later I heard a couple of grunts," Cafardi said.
The buck grunted twice, and a couple of the does stood. Then the buck started walking toward him, but through the thick brush Cafardi could not see how big it was. A couple of the does walked toward Cafardi, and the buck followed. He watched the buck walking through the thicket, but still could not get a good look at the antlers.
At a distance of 40-60 yards the buck stepped into an open shooting lane. When Cafardi's .30-06 cracked, the buck went down, and the woods came to life with numerous running deer.
"There were deer running all over the place, including two more bucks," Cafardi said.
Then the big buck he had shot rose to its feet. Cafardi fired again and the buck dropped. It was then 10:53 a.m. He looked at the animal through his binoculars, but still could not see how big it was.
"I quietly walked over and thoguht, 'Wow! What did I shoot, an elk?' "
It was not until he pulled the buck out of the brush that he finally could see exactly what he had.
"A friend called and asked, 'How many points?' I said I don't know, maybe 30."
His great buck scored 209 5/8 points, which made it the new No. 4 non-typical whitetail buck ever taken by a rifle hunter in Pennsylvania.
NEW NO. 36 NON-TYPICAL WITH A CROSSBOW
Robert Beimel, of Kersey, took to the woods with a Parker Cyclone Extreme crossbow on November 7, hunting with a cousin on the Allegheny National Forest. They knew a couple of big bucks were in the area because they had caught them on trail cameras. By day's end Beimel would demonstrate once again that there are record book bucks on public land.
"For the last five years, or so, we hunted almost all Allegheny National Forest and state Game lands. I love to hunt the Big Woods," 39-year-old Beimel said.
"The number of hunters is way down where we go, and the bucks are getting huge."
Allegheny National Forest boundaries surround about 750,000 acres, and about 500,000 acres of that is actually public land. Parts of four counties — McKean County, Elk County, Forest County and Warren County — are national forest, the only national forest in Pennsylvania. This area is part of the Allegheny Plateau. Slopes are steep, but not as high as those to the south in mountains. Cover is mainly hardwoods, with a good dose of hemlock and other conifers.
They hunted the big bucks that they were catching on trail cameras for a couple years. But Beimel's 2016 trophy buck did not appear to be one of those bucks. They are still out there somewhere.
The hunters entered the woods early enough to walk to their stands and get set up by daybreak.
"It was a grueling walk in carrying those climbers," Beimel said.
That is what it takes to get away from most hunting pressure. Getting away from other hunters may be the most significant factor in hunting Big Woods trophy bucks. Bucks cannot grow trophy antlers until they live at least 3 1/2 years. Beimel's trophy was 4 1/2 years old. It was extremely unusual for a buck to live so long during the decades when there were many more hunters, and the only antler restriction was a minimum of a 3-inch spike. Seeing a buck so old is uncommon even now, except for hunters who do considerable scouting in the right places using trail cameras.
Once in his stand, Beimel started what has become his usual calling routine. He had not done much calling until a couple of years ago. The routine consists of rattling every hour, or so, and grunting about every 15 minutes. He has confidence in a grunt-wheeze call. If a deer responds to grunting but does not come in, he will rattle just a little bit.
"A couple minutes after I rattled a small buck came in. About 10 minutes later this thing came in. I couldn't see him. I could hear him walking."
He could finally see that it was a big buck when the openings between brush lined up. It was then about 8 a.m. Beimel was patient. The buck kept walking toward his stand.
Beimel let his bolt fly when the buck was just 5 yards away, virtually beneath his tree stand. The buck dropped immediately.
Beimel had done what any trophy buck hunter should do. He concentrated on his aim point rather than on the antlers. Obviously it was a very nice buck. But it was not until he climbed to the ground and dragged the animal out of thick brush that he finally grasped what he had done.
"It looked a lot bigger when I walked up to him than it did from my tree stand," he said.
Now, isn't that a switch?
NEW NO. 27 ARCHERY TYPICAL BUCK
Melanie Cerny's trail to whitetail hunting stardom took some turns through the two decades since her first hunting license. Those turns may have seemed to lead away from tagging a record book buck. For one thing, she hates loud noises, like the sound of the rifle her husband, John, bought for her soon after they met. Three shots at targets were the only shots she fired through the rifle.
Not too discouraged, husband John bought a compound bow for her. This was much more to her liking. She bagged a 7-point buck with it in 1994.
But for a mother of two children, the time she could devote to practicing with the bow became increasingly scarce. As a responsible hunter, Cerny did not do a lot of bowhunting, and she did not even buy a hunting license for the 2015 seasons.
Husband John tried another option. He bought her a Horton Express crossbow as a Christmas present. This, of course called for practicing, but not as much practicing as she felt she needed with the compound bow. Sighting it in then practicing until she could shoot tight groups took relatively little time.
All that remained of the deer season was Late Archery and Flintlock Season. That would be plenty of time.
On January 2 Cerny and husband John made the short walk from their home to one of the permanent tree stands on their Fayette County land. Only a couple hours of hunting time remained in the day. But on the plus side, it was unseasonably warm.
It so happened that there was extra incentive to hunt then. Cerny said, "We saw this particular buck three times prior on our game camera."
She is not a trophy hunter. But what deer hunter is not impressed by a great set of antlers. What deer hunter, given the opportunity to shoot a trophy buck would not eagerly take the shot?
Waiting for a big buck you hope to see, no matter how short the wait, is one of the things about deer hunting that is at the same time both agonizing and exhilarating. Inside the protection of their covered stand they did a little whispering, a sign of anxiety. Less than half of their hunting time remained.
Melanie Cerny was first to see the big buck approaching. And it continued to approach, but not at a good angle for taking a shot. It was about 4:50 p.m. when her opportunity came. The buck was about 22 yards from the stand. It appeared that the buck was not aware of their presence. The shot did not need to be rushed. Husband John was calmly coaching her when Melanie sent the bolt on its way, aiming just behind the shoulder.
All bowhunters who have been successful can relate to the next things that happened. The shot appeared to have been good. But appearances can be deceiving in the flurry of action that typically happens when a bolt, arrow or bullet is loosed toward a deer. Excitement level is off the scale. The buck had disappeared uphill.
The Cerneys waited a few minutes to regain composure, then climbed out of the tree stand. There where the buck had stood they found blood. Uphill where they had last seen the buck, frothy red blood indicated a lung shot. They waited about 15 minutes before again taking up the trail.
Only about 50 yards farther, husband John spotted the buck.
Cerny's trophy buck scored 162.5 points. That placed it at No. 27 on the all-time list of Pennsylvania trophy whitetails taken by bow. And it was the largest typical buck in any category to be added to the Pennsylvania Book of Big Game Records that year.