Even deer hunters who are self-described 'meat hunters' get excited by the sighting of a nice buck. Although Pennsylvania has not traditionally been known as a trophy buck state, that image is changing. It appears that, while many hunters still do not like current deer management, an increasing percentage of Pennsylvania deer hunters are appreciating our improving opportunities for bagging big bucks.
Dr. Christopher Rosenberry, head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Deer Section, provided what can be considered the best overview of trophy buck hunting in Pennsylvania.
"In the last 10 years there's been more bucks added to the record book than in previous years. We've definitely seen more bucks in the record books, especially at the top."
"Especially at the top" is a most interesting statement. It explains why the image of Pennsylvania deer hunting is changing. As this situation develops, we may well see a new kind of out-of-state deer hunter coming here. Meanwhile, more resident deer hunters are passing on smaller bucks, even if they are legal bucks.
Determining what makes up a trophy buck is a personal decision. No hunter's standards are superior to any other hunters' opinions. To some trophy status is purely a matter of scoring, usually by the Boone & Crockett Club method. This provides a manner of comparison with bucks taken anywhere across North America, and is most likely to draw attention to a set of antlers.
Other hunters may consider any older buck with good antlers to be the standard of trophy buck status. For pure trophy hunting, this probably has more merit than any scoring method because it means taking a buck that has eluded hunters for the longest time.
A very special trophy buck standard is taking a large, old Big Woods buck. Hunting deer in the Big Woods, be it in Pennsylvania, Maine, Canada, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or the Adirondack Mountains, has mystical charms. Nowhere else can a hunter feel more one on one with deer, nor more involved with nature.
Bowhunters appear to be most likely — more likely than rifle hunters — to wait for a trophy buck. There may be several reasons for this. No doubt a couple of the major reasons are that bowhunters get to hunt for relatively undisturbed deer, and bowhunters get to hunt the rut and pre-rut.
Another interesting observation of bowhunter behavior is that in WMU 1A, WMU 1B and WMU 2A, which are some of our better trophy buck hunting units, bowhunters took more bucks than does. Probably a large majority hesitate to spoil a day of hunting by taking a doe, at least during what they consider to be the part of the season when they are most likely to have a shot at a buck. And many hunters probably do not want to add the wrong odors around a good stand by killing a doe.
An interesting study would be comparing the average weight of does taken by bowhunters vs. rifle hunters, and comparing the percentage of button bucks taken by the two groups. Regardless of the results, one factor that probably would heavily influence results would be that bowhunters tend to get much better looks at deer, by waiting for closer shots and because so many more hunt from tree stands than rifle hunters.
Rifle hunters certainly are not immune to the big buck bug. Many are buying antlerless licenses or Deer Management Permit tags just so they can hold out for a nice buck and still enjoy venison by taking a doe.
One thing that should be understood about buck hunting is that the buck population is considerably more stable than the doe population. Doe populations in the WMUs go up or down in line with antlerless deer license allocations and DMAP allocations, which may, or may not, reflect trends in the doe population, or overall deer population. Buck harvests are more stable, and reflect a more accurate picture of deer population trends.
Buck hunters who complain about too many button bucks being killed using antlerless tags are rightly concerned. Antlerless and DMAP tags affect buck populations by the number of immature 'button' bucks taken during the antlerless deer hunting opportunities. Last year the hunter harvest in antlerless deer seasons consisted of 21 percent button bucks. This is a significant number. Only hunters can lower the number of immature bucks killed by more closely scrutinizing deer before shooting.
In WMU 2E where total deer harvest increased 24 percent, the antlerless deer harvest increased 43 percent. This latter statistic may be one of the more telling statistics of all. The antlered deer harvest rose just 2 percent. So the total deer harvest increase is misleading without looking at the antlered deer harvest.
In WMU 3D where the total deer harvest dropped 16 percent and the antlerless deer harvest dropped 17 percent, the antlered deer harvest dropped 15 percent. In WMU 3A where the total deer harvest dropped 13 percent and the antlerless deer harvest dropped 19 percent, the antlered deer harvest declined just 2 percent. So we can see that antlerless deer harvests and total deer harvests do not provide much of an indication of buck harvests, and maybe not of total deer population trends.
Rosenberry points out that, "There's always going to be some variation" in the buck population over time.
We can expect that variation, however, to be less dramatic than might be indicated by antlerless deer harvest figures. Buck hunters need look only at antlered deer harvest figures to determine the potential of taking legal bucks.
Those figures, of course, do not factor in food availability or winter mortality. But with deer now more in balance with habitat, winter mortality is less likely to have a large effect on deer population.
Why are we seeing better bucks, both in antler size and in body weight in Pennsylvania?
"I think most likely it's due to antler restrictions," Rosenberry said.
This answer is characteristic of biologists. Most hunters probably would consider that to be an understatement. Biologists are much more inclined to wait for more data and research to back up the point. Hunters are more inclined to jump to conclusions.
Because of things often discussed on television programs or magazine articles about deer hunting, deer hunters like to talk about genetics first, and nutrition second as the major factors influencing antlers. But those things do not have a lot to do with bucks in truly wild situations such as we have in Pennsylvania's fair chase conditions.
This does not mean that hunters can not have a positive influence on antler size by planting food plots. But this must be combined with allowing deer to live longer to have a really large impact on antlers. Unless a hunter, or group of hunters, is able to control a large area, other hunters are hunting the same bucks and probably will not pass those nice 2 1/2-year-old bucks that may be 16-inch-wide 8-points.
So what is the primary factor influencing antler size in Pennsylvania?
"I'd say the biggest one is age," Rosenberry said. "Since antler restrictions, more of those bucks are making it to 2 1/2 years, and some are getting older."
But age is not the only factor influencing antler growth.
"The difference in habitat across the state influences antler growth," Rosenberry said.
Improvements of habitat resulting from reduced deer numbers have played a large part in the better antlers deer hunters have been seeing across the commonwealth. However, the habitat factor, which is synonymous with nutrition, still points to specific parts of Pennsylvania as being the top areas for producing big bucks.
Two things we may accept with a high degree of confidence. Trophy bucks are available in most, if not all, areas. And there are certain areas where big bucks are more likely to be found.
Bucks grow old by being able to avoid hunters. More likely than being 'wise old bucks', old bucks have individual characteristics that allow them to be more elusive. One of these characteristics may be using better cover and remaining hidden rather than running, which is an almost certain way of attracting attention. Or the buck may be more nocturnal. A very common factor is that a buck spends a lot of time on posted or safety-zone land.
Figuring out a hunting strategy which defeats those characteristics can be a big part of a trophy-buck hunting plan.
Rosenberry suggested that the units where legal bucks must have three points on a side (not counting the brow tine) probably have the best trophy buck habitat in Pennsylvania.
"Certainly the potential is there as you move toward the Ohio border," he said.
Rosenberry also suggested the southwest part of Pennsylvania. Record book entries bear this out.
"A lot of that has to do with access," Rosenberry said.
More area has been added to the state game lands in the Southwest Region than in any other region. Still, there is not a lot of public land open to hunting in the southwest corner. Gaining access might not be as difficult as getting onto private land in the Southeast Region, but it is getting to be harder to do.
Agricultural parts of the Southeast Region hold plenty of big bucks. Soils are good, food for deer is generally plentiful and varied. The problem is getting onto the land. Access is available only to a small portion of private lands. Some local deer hunters get access. But this is not much of a destination area for deer hunters without local contacts.
"The north-central part of the state would be a good unit to look at," Rosenberry suggested.
WMU 2G and WMU 2H make up the core of the north-central Big Woods. This combined area contains all or large parts of seven state forests and several large state game lands. Finding a good place to hunt is simple, but getting in and out of that place may not be.
"It's not going to be an easy hunt," Rosenberry said.
Terrain in the Big Woods is mostly steep. Finding the oldest bucks may call for long hikes over that steep terrain. This obviously would include a difficult drag for successful hunters. It is necessary for hunters to have good wild-area hunting skills, including the ability to use maps, compass and GPS to find a way in, then the way out. In most cases hunters are on their own in finding a buck. No one else will push one to you unless you hunt in the company of other hunters.
But Rosenberry added that there are some older bucks in that area.
Once known as 'the Pennsylvania deer woods', where hunters flocked from other parts of the state, and from other states, deer numbers increased elsewhere and declined here. This does not really mean low deer numbers, just low in comparison to the deer numbers found in the Big Woods through the second half of the 20th Century.
Another way to examine buck hunting, though not necessarily trophy bucks, is by looking at buck harvest trends. Buck harvests over the past few years have been up and down in most wildlife management units. But three have shown steadily rising trends.
WMU 1A has had increasing buck harvests each year from 5,900 in 2010 to 6,400 in 2013; WMU 2B from 4,000 in 2010 to 5,600 in 2013; and WMU 5D from 1,100 in 2010 to 1,600 in 2013.
Another interesting statistic is that the total buck harvest, not including bucks taken from unknown locations, rose from 122,800 in 2010 to 132,700 in 2013, although the 2012 harvest was just slightly higher than the harvest from the most recent season.
Last winter was long and severe in most of Pennsylvania. This might have had a negative impact on antler sizes. Most indicators, though, point to a good buck harvest this year.
More information about deer hunting in Pennsylvania is available from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797, web site www.pgc.state.pa.us.
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'good luck tree. '
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell's giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it's just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost's wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail's Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'chip-shot. ' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it's a good thing he didn't.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson's persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp's Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'I've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to. '
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran's Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who'd spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won't forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'Big Daddy ' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he'd squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he'd hit, but couldn't find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand. '