It's not easy to define "best" when it comes to Keystone State bowhunting. But our expert took the plunge and came up with an excellent prospect for odds-on action this fall. (August 2006)
Photo by Marc Murrell.
At Pennsylvania Game & Fish, we're about a lot more than numbers. We care about where you can find deer and where you can hunt them on public land -- for free, whenever you have the time to go. We feature places where any serious bowhunter can have a great adventure without traveling out of state or spending a fortune.
Pennsylvania's top archery deer counties could be Allegheny, Berks, Westmoreland and York, which typically lead the state with more than 1,000 bucks per county harvested by bowhunters each year.
These are the top four counties for bucks harvested by bowhunters on average during the three most recent years when the Pennsylvania Game Commission released bowhunter deer harvests by county (from 2001-'03). Since the 2003 seasons, archery deer harvests have been reported only by wildlife management units.
With rare exceptions, however, hunters need permission to hunt on private land in any of these counties. All those high numbers really indicate areas where there are more bowhunters. They are all urban-suburban areas with lots of people. They get to hunt there, but you and I may not.
AND THE WINNER IS . . .
Forest County could appear to be marginal for archery-hunting, if numbers told the entire story. For those same years, the average bowhunter harvest was just 209 bucks per year. That ranked way down the list.
But this doesn't tell the true story. If you examine a state archery deer harvest map, you should observe that bowhunter harvests go down as you move further away from the larger metropolitan areas. It's all about the number of bowhunters, not about the number of deer, nor even about the quality of the hunt. Statistics say that bowhunters tend to hunt close to home, and there aren't many bowhunters living in Forest County.
During the 2004-'05 seasons, just 422 licenses were sold in Forest County, versus 15,408 in Allegheny County. Of course, where licenses are sold doesn't necessarily indicate where hunters spent their time. Still, this gives a better indication of the situation than do harvest figures alone.
In Allegheny County, bowhunters harvest roughly 0.166 bucks per each archery license sold, whereas in Forest County the rate is about 0.50 bucks per license sold. This makes bowhunting three times more likely to be successful in Forest County than in the county with the greatest harvest totals.
This sort of kitchen-table figuring is far from scientific, but you get the idea. Forest County is a great place for a bowhunting adventure, however, and here are some more substantial reasons.
ROOM TO ROAM
One of our smallest counties, Forest County covers 275,840 acres. A large share of it is public land. But, within Forest County are 118,615 acres of Allegheny National Forest, roughly 1,500 acres of Cook Forest State Park, 2,268 acres of state forestland and 6,177 acres of state game lands. That's about 128,560 acres of public land, or 47 percent of the total area for this small county. This fact alone makes Forest County a perfect destination for bowhunters.
Need more room? A lot of private land is open to public hunting. Collins Pine Company-Kane Hardwoods keeps about 55,400 acres open to hunters. This figure brings the land in the county open to public hunting up to 67 percent.
Forest County is the least populated county in Pennsylvania, with 4,946 residents in the 2000 census. There is a lot of room to roam, even in such a small county -- with only 11.6 people per square mile, versus an average of 274 people per square mile for the commonwealth. It was long advertised that Forest County had more deer than people, and that still holds true today.
Forest County is within the Allegheny Highlands, an ancient, highly eroded plateau covered by dense, mostly hardwood forest. This is some of the more rugged territory in Pennsylvania. It is characteristic of the impression people get of Pennsylvania when they drive along Interstate Route 80 -- you are either going up, or you're going down. The land is a series of steep valleys and ridgetops.
Many slopes are very steep, and deer are practical creatures. They don't expend any more effort than necessary to accomplish their goals, avoiding steep slopes whenever possible. What steep slopes they do use, are often revealed by well-cut trails.
Scout for those deer trails along benches, narrow and fairly level interruptions in the slopes. Deer, especially bucks, tend to walk along ridge points to reach lower ground. They often cross ridges over saddles, low spots in the ridges connecting the valleys or hollows on either side.
During the fall bowhunting season, Forest County deer feed heavily on mast crops, primarily acorns, beechnuts and apples. This was some of the area where apple trees were spread by the legendary Johnny Appleseed (actual name John Chapman), who had his original apple tree nursery in neighboring Warren County. Small apple orchards are still scattered all through Forest County. Many have been shaded out by mature hardwoods. Some of them have been "released" by the Game Commission and others to promote apple growth production.
ALLEGHENY NATIONAL FOREST
Campgrounds are operated on the Allegheny National Forest and along Tionesta Lake. Sites along the lake are accessible by boat. In addition to developed campgrounds, random camping is allowed on the national forest land, with some limitations.
Allegheny National Forest contains one boat-access campground at Tionesta Lake, which is open year-round. The U.S. Corps of Engineers maintains a boat launch area close to Tionesta Dam. Take state Route 36 south from Tionesta to the entrance drive.
Two primitive campgrounds, Beaver Meadows and Minister Creek, are open through Oct. 30. To reach Beaver Meadows, take North Forest Street (forest Road 128) north out of Marienville four miles, and then turn right onto forest Road 282. Minister Creek is 14.7 miles southwest of Sheffield along state Route 666.
Dispersed camping is allowed almost anywhere in Allegheny National Forest. Campsites may not be set up on the shores or within 1,500 feet inland of the timberline around the shore of Tionesta Lake, except in the developed campground area designated for such use.
Numerous roads normally gated are opened to deer hunters. Check the Allegheny National Forest's Web page for a listin
g of these roads.
Just about anything you want to know about Allegheny National Forest can be found at their Web site: www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/allegheny.
You can also write to Allegheny National Forest, P.O. Box 847, Warren, PA 16365; or call (814) 723-5150.
SGL NO. 24
For bowhunting in Forest County, one of the better areas is State Game Lands No. 24, which lies in the southern part of the county midway between Marienville and Tionesta. Muzette Road (state Route 3004) runs through the northern tip of the game lands between Roses, which is south of Marienville on state Route 66 and Newmansville, which is south of Tionesta on state Route 36. A few back roads touch the edges of this game land. Allow at least a half day to scout these roads. The interior is accessible only on foot or by mountain bike.
SGL No. 24 is heavily forested with hardwoods, with several hemlock thickets along moist slopes. It covers about 8,389 acres.
Maps are available on the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Web site, www.pgc.state.pa.us. Click on "State Game Lands," then on "pdf maps."
COOK STATE FOREST
Perhaps the county's best camping option is at Cook Forest State Park. If you approach from the east on I-80, exit onto state Route 36 and follow it to the park. Coming from the west on I-80, exit onto state Route 66. Follow it north to state Route 36, and then into the park.
Get more park information by contacting the Cook Forest State Park office, P.O. Box 120, Cooksburg, PA 16217. You can call (814) 744-8407; or check the agency's Web site at www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/cookforest/aspx.
To learn more about bowhunting in Forest County, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Northwest Region office, P.O. Box 31, Franklin 16323; or call (814) 432-3188.
Local information is available from Northwest Pennsylvania's Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, 175 Main Street, Brookville, PA 15825; or call 1-800-348-9393.