Best Big Buck States for 2014: Pennsylvania
October 31, 2014
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.