Pennsylvania has long been known in the world of whitetail hunting as a great place to hunt — but not such a good place to see top end bucks, the great bucks that land in the Boone & Crockett records. But with deer hunting having taken a new direction in the 21st Century, more and more Pennsylvania deer hunters are taking a deeper look at the much-improved potential for collecting a trophy buck.
We have been told for many years that the most significant factor in growing trophy antlers in Pennsylvania is age. Nutrition matters. Genetics matter too. But the genetics of Pennsylvania deer seems to be well mixed. Huge racks have been showing up all over the state. But where are the best places in the state to score a record book buck?
This may, or may not come as surprises to readers. When the deer experts at Game & Fish headquarters in some tiny, out of the way Southern village knocked heads with the fine gentlemen at Boone & Crockett Club, they came up with a list of the top typical Pennsylvania bucks that have scored at least 170 B&Cs. Only five counties had more than one. Beaver County had three and Westmoreland, Mercer, Crawford and Clarion counties each had two. There is considerably more to this story, though.
BEAVER COUNTY ALONG WITH ALLEGHENY, WASHINGTON AND WESTMORELAND COUNTIES
Remember that age is the most significant factor in growing trophy size Pennsylvania bucks? This is the urban/suburban area in and around the City of Pittsburgh. There is scant public land where hunting is allowed in these four counties. What public hunting land there is gets a lot of hunting pressure — an inordinate amount of hunting pressure.
First, we take a look at Beaver County, “the” honey hole in the hot bed for top end bucks. This area certainly possesses some of the key elements for producing trophy bucks. First the age thing; there is a lot of private property where deer can escape hunting pressure.
Beaver County has two state game lands, SGL 285, which is situated near the Ohio border west from West Mayfield. The total area encompasses some 2,609 acres. Secondly, SGL 173 is close to the Ohio border at Ohioville. This is a small state game lands, totaling a scant 1,063 acres. Like most state game lands, the land has been enhanced for wildlife which includes food plots.
The third and largest of the Beaver County public lands is Raccoon Creek State Park. More than 7,000 acres are open to hunting in the park. The park has 10 modern cabins to rent year-round, and the Sioux Rustic Campground is also open year-round. Get information about making reservations at the web site dcnr.pa.gov.
Beaver County and Washington County border Allegheny County, Pittsburgh, from northwest to southwest, along the Ohio border and the West Virginia border. The similarity between this area and Ohio to the immediate west is significant, as Ohio is a great state for trophy bucks.
Westmoreland County is situated on the east side of Pittsburgh. Suburban sprawl has eaten into a lot of the land here. However, there are ample state parks and state game lands in the mountainous area in the eastern Park of the county. Ohiopyle State Park, Laurel Ridge State Park, Laurel Summit State Park, Forbes State Forest and State Game Lands No. 42 all lie along Laurel Ridge at the eastern edge of the county.
The keys to getting a shot at a trophy buck is getting permission to hunt private land. Find places other hunters avoid. In the mountains, climb early and climb hard. If you can walk higher than other hunters, you have an edge.
Crawford County is unlike other counties, with it’s gently rolling terrain, interspersed with some flat areas. It has the kind of “checkerboard habitat” characteristic of the upper Midwest states which produce a high portion of the best bucks. Agriculture dominates much of the rich soils here, with wood lots varying in size from small patches of trees to “forests” of tens-of-acres. Complicating things, though considered a blessing by most hunters, are the numerous wetlands.
Although Crawford County is dominated by agricultural lands, there are several state game lands. SGL No. 101 is shared with Erie County in the northwest corner. And consists of flat terrain with large parcels of wetlands. Surrounded by large open areas, the state game land is mostly forest in various stages of regeneration.
SGL No. 213 surrounds Conneaut Outlet, with a surface area of 5,598 acres. A lot of this is water. This state game land is more often thought of for its waterfowl or fishing. Just such a place could be where a huge, old buck is hiding. Being dominated by water, this is a great place to hunt by boat or canoe.
SGL No. 69 is in the southeast part of the county. This also has a good deal of wetlands with a land mass totaling 4,496 acres. SGL No. 214 extends south from the Sanctuary portion of Pymatuning Lake and consists of 5,398 acres.
At least 10 other small state game lands are scattered around Crawford County. This brings total state game lands area in Crawford County of about 7,045 acres. These smaller state game lands generally are populated by the same deer that populate neighboring farmland, so hunters get that same age advantage and also benefit from surrounding agricultural crops.
Erie National Wildlife Refuge should not be overlooked. This area is wet-rich and has some very dense cover, allowing plenty of areas for deer to hide while growing big. Admittedly, the area can be a difficult place to hunt, but hopefully no one told you fair chase trophy buck hunting is easy.The refuge is two separate divisions, the Sugar Lake Division is located near Guys Mills and the Seneca Division is located east of Cambridge Springs.
For more information visit fws.gov.refuge/erie.
Lastly, Crawford County is a place where knocking on some doors might earn you access to private farmland. If you have the time to knock on doors until you get access, then do adequate scouting, this may be your best chance for scoring a record book buck.
Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.
At first glance, Clarion County does not seem to fit the mold for top end trophy buck hunting. To begin with, it is near the middle of the state. This is not where we should expect to find good trophy buck hunting. It is largely wooded, though with considerable farmland in parts of the county.
Clarion County is the home of Cook Forest State Park. Renowned for its tall, old growth forest, it is also known for numerous, but small, whitetails. This situation has changed somewhat since that reputation was earned, but still, this is not where a trophy buck hunter should focus.
When stalking a trophy buck here, take a close look at the farmland areas. Several mid-size state game lands are scattered in the northern part of the county. Two are shared with other counties. SGL No. 24 is shared on the northern border of the county with Forest County. SGL No. 45 is shared along the stair-step northeastern border with Venango County. Like most Clarion County state game lands, it lies alongside U.S. Route 322. Starting at the eastern county border these are SGL No. 74, SGL No. 72, SGL No. 63 and SGL No. 45.
SGL No. 330, is one of only two Clarion County state game lands south of Interstate Route 80. SGL 330 has an area of 2,255 acres of reclaimed strip mines. This situation has created some of the finest state game lands. SGL No. 266 is just 496 acres.
Combined state game lands area for those in or partly in Clarion County is about 24,800 acres. The advantage of having several smaller state game lands is that they become parts of surrounding landscapes with intermingling deer.
This is a county where a visiting hunter may be able to gain access to private land. All it takes is knocking on doors and asking politely and making a positive impression.
Unfortunately, on the downside, there is a dark side to hunting deer in Clarion County. CWD has been detected in a neighboring county. The southeast corner of Clarion County is now in Disease Management Area 3. It is imperative that hunters who take deer in Clarion County in that small corner east of Route 28 follow proper procedures. Check the Pennsylvania Game Commission web site for details at pgc.pa.gov.