With its abundant (and healthy) whitetail deer population Pennsylvania bowhunting is some of the best you'll find. Here's how to plan and execute an enjoyable, productive archery season.
By Stephen D. Carpenteri
Last year some 109,250 whitetails were taken by Keystone State archers, which is the highest total in the Northeast, more than the six-state New England harvest combined and three times the number of deer taken by archers in neighboring New York.
The total statewide deer harvest was over 353,000 animals, which at the very least suggests a stable and healthy herd statewide. There's no doubt that Pennsylvania's bowhunters will once again tag their share of whitetails this season.
Pennsylvania's 2017 archery season begins Sept. 16, when weather conditions are comfortable and whitetail populations are at their peak. Plus, deer are still in "summer mode," moving throughout the day while taking advantage of the region's abundance of browse, mast and succulent forage.
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Foliage is still thick and green, which gives deer more confidence as they meander through areas where they would not feel safe come November or December. Finally, bowhunting is, by nature, a solitary and silent sport, which means deer are less likely to be as alert and suspicious as they will become once the firearms seasons open later in the year.
All of this means more opportunities for Pennsylvania's dedicated contingent of bowhunters. However, there is more to successful archery hunting than merely standing in the woods with a bow or crossbow in hand.
To be consistently successful hunters must know their quarry, its habitat and behavior. No one can outsmart every deer every time in every situation, but knowledge is power when it comes to whitetails and the best hunters become avid students of the sport early on.
HABITAT IS THE KEY
When it comes to hunting Pennsylvania's whitetails, habitat is always the key to success. Deer thrive in cover that includes a mix of woodland, brush, sapling stands and small openings where a wide variety of browse may be found. A good mix of cover types guarantees that whitetails will find critical bedding and escape cover as well as different foods available throughout the year.
Within this basic recipe of various habitats is a mosaic of travel routes and "edge" cover that, when studied, scouted and analyzed, reveals where deer are most likely to be during daylight hours. At this time of year whitetails are active most often at dawn and dusk, so it makes sense to find likely feeding and bedding areas and the travel routes that connect them.
Hunters should not expect that deer will feed and bed in exactly the same areas day after day, nor will they use the same travel routes consistently.
Viewed from the air, whitetail habitat and trails resembles a gigantic spider's web, with pockets of cover connected by myriad trails and crossings.
Only the deer know for sure which way they will go and what their final destination may be. Tracks and trails offer proof that these areas are being used by deer but it's up to the hunter to add up the numbers, consider the odds and then make his best move.
Weather conditions, wind, deteriorating habitat, food availability and the onset of the rut all affect deer movements as the season progresses. Any and all of these can change, sometimes daily, forcing the hunter to tweak his approach pattern and change his strategy while juggling all of these nebulous variables. Study the signs, be alert to subtle shifts in deer behavior and habitat conditions and be willing to make the appropriate changes as conditions dictate.
THE LOCAL ANGLE
Pennsylvania offers a fascinating hodge-podge of whitetail habitat ranging from riverine grasslands to steep, rugged mountain terrain — and some tremendous bucks are taken in the "wilds" adjacent to Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and even Philadelphia. To be sure, the fewest deer will be found in these areas of extremely fragmented habitat but they will take advantage of pockets of dense cover that only the most dedicated of bowhunters will bother to explore.
In between are rolling hills, swampy valleys, farmlands, wetlands and brushy slopes where most of the state's whitetails will be found during the open season. The highest numbers of deer will be found where the habitat and topography mix is most varied. An amalgam of cover types gives whitetails more options for feeding, bedding and travel and they will use them all as hunting pressure increases each fall.
One need not go far to find good deer habitat in Pennsylvania but regional differences will affect where and how an area should be hunted. The most logical approach is to study the cover and topography of the zones or district you intend to hunt and tailor your hunts to existing conditions.
For example, in wetland areas deer are most likely to be found on high ground in woodland strips, dense brush and on gradual slopes where saplings and mature trees provide cover and food.
In farmland, look for deer activity at the border of orchards, clear-cuts, crop, pasture or hay fields and in adjacent woodlands where natural funnels provide access to ready food sources. Avoid disturbing deer within their safe havens (bedding or feeding areas) but do plan to ambush them as they move between these areas.
TAKE A HIKE
On primarily wooded lands such as state and national forestlands, state parks, designated wilderness and state game lands, hunters should seek the most likely travel routes (funnels, saddles, ridge tops and water courses) that deer naturally use to get from place to place.
Look high and low but also scout the slopes between the lowest creek bottoms and the highest ridges. Deer often use trails above the low ground and below the ridges as safe travel routes.
STICK TO THE EDGES
In most cases bowhunters will arrow few deer in the middle of open fields or vast wood lots. The majority of whitetails spend their time in the thick, sometimes impenetrable "edge" cover that casual hunters tend to avoid. After all it is tight, thick and dark in there, and seeing a deer or getting a shot at one in such cover is almost impossible. From the deer's point of view, that's exactly the point.
This is why so many whitetails, especially the older, wiser bucks, rarely leave these haunts, particularly during daylight hours. Don't try to cover the entire woods but focus your efforts on a small portion of it.
Remember, the archer's window is only 40 yards, which is essentially 1 acre. Some public lands encompass thousands of acres, and Pennsylvania's Game Commission manages over 1.5 million acres of game lands. Successful hunters narrow their focus to good ambush points where deer have reason to come within bow range.
Scout these habitat edges with an eye for subtle changes in density or elevation. Look for small openings, exposed trail segments, abrupt twists and turns where a deer would have to stop, slow down, jump an obstacle or otherwise expose itself momentarily before continuing into the thick stuff. Consider the wind, sun angle and elevation at dawn or dusk and then plan to be on the scene in a blind or climbing stand the next morning or afternoon.
Make note of several such openings and then come up with a list of alternate plans based on wind and sun direction. Don't be afraid to move from a morning site to an evening site as conditions warrant.
When hunting on windy, gusty days, for example, it's not unheard of for a bowhunter to move three or four times in a morning. When things begin to settle down in late afternoon he may be required to move yet again in order to take advantage of the prevailing evening winds.
One of the biggest mistakes early-season archers make is to put up a stand in one place and then proceed to hunt exclusively from that stand for the remainder of the season.
Certainly the odds are that a deer will show up in range eventually, but remember that whitetails change their habits as fall progresses, often to the point that they no longer use trails and runs that were active just a few weeks earlier.
Be aware of changing habitat conditions and deer movements and then make stand adjustments as necessary. Moving a stand just 50 yards upwind or downwind of the original site can make all the difference.
Keep in mind that deer will stick to the thickest cover they can find, especially later in the season. As the autumn leaf drop progresses bowhunters will find fewer whitetails in areas where cover is thin or non-existent.
As habitat continues to degrade they no longer utilize trails that take them into open cover, instead opting for travel routes that take them out of sight and well off course compared to their early fall meanderings. For this reason hunters should be prepared to move with the deer and get away from the wide-open spaces that were so appealing on opening day.
SCOUT HARD, SCOUT OFTEN
One of the sad facts of life is that while deer are still plentiful on public and private lands in Pennsylvania, not all of that land is comprised of ideal whitetail habitat. In fact, it's more accurate to say that there are pockets of prime cover within vast stands of empty woods because so much of the state consists of mature forest.
Unfortunately, deer do not eat trees. It's more accurate to say that about 20 percent, or less, of Pennsylvania's state forests and game lands can be considered ideal habitat for whitetails. Hunters should plan on spending as much time in the woods as possible prior to the season. Finding good cover can often prove more challenging than finding a deer to shoot at, but once the connection is made the hard part is over.
The best way to shorten the search for good habitat on public land is to consult with the appropriate forester or game lands manager.
He should be able to provide maps and advice on where recent logging operations have created clear-cuts, bush-hogged areas, plantings and other new growth that will be most attractive to deer.
Areas that have been cut in the last five to 10 years will be most attractive to whitetails. In many cases these cutover areas will be well away from popular (human) travel routes because, sadly, tourists don't like to see logged areas.
So, foresters try to confine their logging to areas where there is little human traffic — which is good for bowhunters and good for deer, too! Pennsylvania has over one million acres in state game lands but only about 1 percent of those acres (15,000 acres statewide) are slated for habitat improvement projects annually.
That sounds like a lot of acres until you go into the woods and try to find them!
Keep in mind that there are also likely to be plenty of other hunters focused on the same general areas, particularly on public lands, which means more than one bowhunter may be dreaming about the same "secret spot."
Knowing this, it makes sense to have several destinations in mind. Competition on public lands can be reduced by choosing areas that are remote, far from roads and not easy to get to, all of which can be determined by frequent scouting trips.
Stay away from established parking areas, trails, hiking paths and any other "easy" means of access. There are plenty of deer in the woods and plenty of places to hunt them, so take the time to scout areas only the most determined hunters will enter. Even then, always have a Plan B in mind in case the original strategy goes awry.
HUNT THE BORDERS
For every acre of public land in Pennsylvania there are thousands of acres of private land where hunting is prohibited or restricted to those who own the land. Posted properties adjacent to public lands give intrepid archers the opportunity to "milk" those private-land sanctuaries by hunting just inside the public lands' boundaries.
Once again, scouting will reveal areas where deer are crossing into or using public lands via neighboring private holdings. Sometimes these clandestine crossings occur in the most remote areas where boundaries meet saddles, funnels, rivers, streams or other wetland habitat, effectively diverting deer into areas where hunting is allowed.
Study state game lands or state forest maps and look for sudden, jagged changes in boundary markings, which often indicate rough or uneven terrain — perfect places for deer to cross from private lands into public property.
Consider the situation and decide where best to place a stand or blind and then, using GPS coordinates, find the easiest way into and out of the woods.
It may require a considerable hike to reach these border crossings but the more difficult they are to find the less likely there will be other hunters in contention for the same hotspots, especially as the season progresses.
These border crossings often make an excellent Plan B or a good afternoon alternative when the morning action is slow or competition is stiff closer to the road.
PUT YOUR TIME IN
Bowhunting season is short and ideal conditions exist for only a few weeks. Up the odds for success by staying in Penn's Woods longer and going more often. The deer are out there year-round regardless of conditions, and as long as it is deer season you should be there, too!
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