Even folks who claim to be “meat hunters” would love to bag a trophy whitetail buck. And to do it in Pennsylvania, where the deer hunting tradition runs long and deep, is a special accomplishment. Nowhere in Pennsylvania is deer hunting tradition deeper than north of Interstate Route 80, or “I-80” as it is usually called. The traditional deer hunting territory in Pennsylvania lies north of I-80, but the fortunes of deer hunting here changed, at least in relative terms.
Southwestern Pennsylvania particularly, but also most of the commonwealth has seen big increases in deer populations. And the deer in those counties south of I-80 tended to grow larger antlers. North of I-80 became synonymous with small deer. Also, I-80 tends to be a borderline for weather conditions and for mast crop abundance.
For several years, though, deer biologist Chris Rosenberry has been telling hunters that bucks are growing old in the Big Woods. GPS studies by Penn State show that very few hunters venture far from roads. Here are some hunters who proved there are giant bucks north of I-80.
STIMMELL BOW BUCK
Mike Stimmell hunts in the Big Woods on the Allegheny National Forest in Warren County. Not traditionally known as trophy buck country, this is one of the places where improving habitat conditions have transformed the deer population for the better.
For the past 15 years, or so, Stimmell has made a habit of bagging nice bucks with his bow. One year, he even harvested a deer using a bow and arrows he built himself. So, it was not a big surprise when he jumped into the Pennsylvania Big Game Records.
Of course, scouting is a big part of his successful hunting strategy. Stimmell lives on the Allegheny National Forest and spends all of the time he can allow in the woods — hunting, fishing, hunting shed antlers, often in the company of his wife and daughters.
Even though he’s in the woods often, he had no idea the buck he took last fall was even in the area. “I was looking for somewhere off the beaten path where I’d found a lot of sheds; I figured it would be a good spot to set a stand,” Stimmell said.
He set up the stand the same day he killed his trophy buck, getting into the woods at about 3:00 p.m. By 4:00 he located the tree he chose for his climbing stand. It seemed he had picked the right tree from the start. Within 15 minutes in the stand he started seeing does. “I was set up on the edge of a bench so I could look down the hill. And it was all part of a funnel,” Stimmell said.
Stimmell understands that bucks and does often use different trails. The funnel is the equalizer, where all trails, buck, doe, turkey and bear, all converge in a relatively narrow area. “The does all came through first,” he said “There were three groups of four does that came through. Then nothing for about an hour.”
“Then off in the distance one buck came out of a thicket. Two more bucks followed. They all appeared to be shooters. Two bounded off the other way. The last one came my way, checking and refreshing scrapes along the way. It was really cool to watch.”
Stimmell continued, “The problem was, he was taking his time and I was running out of shooting light. And he was still a long way away.” Finally, the buck reached a spot where Stimmell had noted before getting into the stand as being within shooting range.
Many things raced through his mind as the big buck stood at the edge of his comfort zone. But Stimmell knew he could make the shot if the deer did not move, and this was precisely the problem, it was not moving. He knew if he waited any longer it would be past legal shooting time. And he knew that this opportunity at such a good buck probably would not happen again. Not the same buck anyway.
The buck was presenting Stimmell with a quartering away shot. This angle has long been touted as the ideal shot for an arrow, but really it is not. It leaves very little room for error, and the slightest movement by the animal will result in a miss, or worse —- a poor hit.
When things seemed right, Stimmell released the arrow. “By the way the buck acted when I shot, I knew I hit it where I aimed.” By the time he waited an appropriate amount of time the woods were dark. Stimmell didn’t want to get down to quickly so he waited so not to spook a wounded deer. An official B&C measurer scored Stimmell’s bow buck at 134 inches. After field dressing, the deer weighed 178 pounds.
LETIZIA CROSSBOW BUCK
Raymond Letizia hunts from a camp in Cameron County. The 155-inch buck he dropped with his crossbow on October 25th resulted from a long-term hunt. He had been watching this particular buck through the use of hunting technology.
“I have trail cams out and I’ve gotten pictures of this buck for two years,” Letizia said. “I recognized the deer after I got it from my pictures.” Letizia had seen this deer before in person. The previous year, he had walked within 60 yards of his stand. However, Letizia didn’t consider that a reasonable shooting distance for his crossbow. Letizia limits his shots to 40-yards or closer although he practices beyond that distance. “There’s a big difference between a crossbow target and a live target that can move,” says Letizia.
Luckily, Letizia has the woods mostly to himself as hunting pressure is very light in his hunting area. This small county is in the heart of the traditional deer woods. Like other counties in this area north of I-80, hunters have largely abandoned Cameron County. “In archery season I never see anyone there,” Letizia said.
There are easier places to hunt than these rugged hills. With so few hunters in the woods moving deer, just seeing deer can be a challenge. Hunting successfully here, especially with a crossbow, calls for dedication.
Letizia focuses his attention to clear-cuts along a mountain side, choosing to place his stands in hemlock trees. He looks specifically for hemlock trees when placing his stand as they provide good cover throughout the deer season, both in front of and behind a hiding hunter. Letizia chooses to hunt relatively low, so cover is very important.
“I’d seen that buck on trail cam, but not in this area where there’s a perfect funnel.” Letizia hunted the stand the previous day when a buck came in behind him checking scrapes, but it did not offer a shot.
He was in the stand about an hour before daylight on the morning of October 25th. It had been windy the day before, but the wind had died down. The temperature was about 30 degrees. One buck passed the stand early, well before shooting light. Then at around 8:00 a.m., a nice 8-point came close to the stand. Letizia set his sights for something bigger, though, so he let the 8-point walk.
“You’ve got to hunt hard and be very lucky to shoot a giant deer,” Letizia said. “I hunt every day,” Letizia said. “But basically, the first two weeks I’m putting my time in. Age is making me a better hunter because I’m less aggressive, more patient.”
His trophy buck showed up at about 8:20 a.m., presenting himself at about 40 yards. The buck was standing broadside, offering a very large target for Letizia to settle his crosshairs. Letizia took a deep breath and centered his arrow on the lungs as he gently squeezed the trigger. After double-lunging him, the buck laid down in his tracks. The giant scored an impressive 155 inches and was estimated to weigh in excess of 260 pounds.
Kinney Crossbow Buck
Craig Kinney began hunting with his dad, grandfather and brother when he was 16 years old. He hunts in both archery and rifle seasons, but on this particular hunt, he used a crossbow. Kinney, now 28, resides in Port Allegany, and typically hunts all over McKean and Potter Counties. In addition to deer, he enjoys hunting pheasants, grouse and snowshoe hare. He is especially fond of hunting snowshoe hare.
He hunted in McKean County on state game lands in 2017 was he harvested his giant buck, gravitating to the big woods, where there are plenty of mature oaks which provide mast. Kinney scouts using trail cameras often, and although he did not get a photo of the particular trophy buck he killed last fall, he did get photos of a larger 15-point buck. So, needless to say, he had plenty of reasons to be excited about the area he was hunting.
Kinney bird hunts the area quite a bit, and was seeing some bucks while doing so. After seeing several, he put trail cameras out, and got a picture of the big deer. As most familiar with the area know, McKean and Potter Counties are mostly rugged, forested hills --— often not the easiest place for walking. So, Kinney relies on his trail cameras.
Kinney went to the woods after work, sometime between 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., on the day he took his record book buck. It was a pleasant, cool day, and Kinney decided to hunt from a stand.
The big buck, presumably the one he had captured on trail camera, approached first. But it was in dense cover where there was no shooting opportunity. It turned and left before walking into his shooting lanes. Luckily, the rut was in full swing, so bucks were on the move in search of hot does.
A half-hour passed between seeing that first buck, and the buck he would soon call his own, which came within about 10 yards from Kinney’s stand.
When Kinney saw the deer, it surprised him, as it was walking right at him. “It was coming right at me, closing the gap quickly,” Kinney said. “I decided I wasn’t going to shoot until he turned its head.” As the buck walked within shooting distance, Kinney gently squeezed the trigger on his crossbow and his arrow found its mark.
Kinney decided to let the deer lay for a while, to make sure he didn’t jump it up. So, he went home and brought back his wife — together they found the prized buck. But to their chagrin, the big buck wasn’t dead yet. When they saw it, it stood up, walked 10 yards and dropped dead.
We can only imagine the exhilaration the Kinney’s felt with the big buck finally secured. For anyone who hunts knows, any deer harvested is a trophy. But no trophy whitetail is more respected than a Big Woods buck.
“It was the biggest buck I ever got,” Kinney said. “Before the antler restrictions I would get a spike. Now there may not seem to be as many deer, but the antlers certainly are bigger.”
Kinney’s thoughts are becoming increasingly the prevailing feelings among a majority of Pennsylvania deer hunters, at least among successful buck hunters.
This is a big shift from the early 2000s when the prevailing opinion among northern tier deer hunters was staunchly opposed to antler restrictions, and the other new deer regulations put into effect at the same time as the antler restrictions. Most of these hunters understand that a significant reason behind seeing fewer deer is less hunting pressure.
All the Pennsylvania trophy buck hunters out there should take note. When checking the latest version of the “Pennsylvania Big Game Records,” you will notice that a large number of the new record book entries from last year came from counties north of I-80.