Pennsylvania's new antler restrictions are starting to show dividends for patient hunters who can wait for a trophy buck to pass by. Here's how things are shaping up for the 2007 season near you. (November 2007)
Photo by Ralph Hensley.
Deer numbers are down in Pennsylvania, and most hunters are not happy about that. But our herds have improved in quality, and a majority of hunters are very happy about that. Thanks to new antler restrictions, it's now possible to harvest trophy-class bucks in the Keystone State.
Across most of the Commonwealth, bucks are growing older and larger, on average, than they have been in many years.
Looking at our deer from a quality perspective, the prospects are encouraging.
Sound data is the key to effective deer management, and this data can be gained only through research.
When Pennsylvania embarked on its new deer management program, some significant data was missing. The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) has addressed this lack of data as quickly as possible through cutting-edge research projects.
"Evaluation of Biological Effects and Social Acceptance of New Antler Restrictions for White-tailed Deer Hunting Season in Pennsylvania" is one such study, begun in 2001 in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Penn State University.
The study includes buck survival rates, causes of mortality and movement patterns. This is key research in determining the effectiveness of antler restrictions and in determining whether or not these restrictions should be adjusted.
This study may be the largest radio-telemetry dispersal study of white-tailed deer ever conducted in the nation. Among other primary goals, it will determine the survival of bucks from six months to 30 months of age. This information will be combined with the two-year fawn mortality study to create a better picture of mortality causes for deer.
Monitoring the movements of bucks should indicate how far bucks disperse, when they disperse, and how many disperse.
Perhaps of most interest to hunters will be the changes in the age structure of our bucks due to antler restrictions. This phase of the study will attempt to determine how age affects antler size and how breeding behavior changes.
Research in other states has already shown that bucks grow their largest antlers between the ages of 4 and 8 years; and that age and habitat quality, along with genetics, play significant roles in antler development.
Finally, this study will evaluate hunter satisfaction with antler restrictions.
There are two study areas, one in a 4-points-on-a-side wildlife management unit (WMU) in Armstrong County, and another in Centre County, which lies in a 3-points-on-a-side WMU. Bucks are captured, have radio collars attached, and then are released. They are then tracked from the ground and from the air.
Opponents of antler restrictions frequently mistake the motive behind them as being solely to produce trophy bucks. In fact, big antlers are just a secondary benefit. The actual goal of antler restrictions is to improve the age-structure of the buck population and to restore it to a more natural balance, which should promote a healthier, heartier deer population.
Another study, titled "Reproductive Characteristics of White-Tailed Deer in Pennsylvania," should answer some of the most frequent questions asked by deer hunters. Conducted since 2000, it will look into the timing of the rut and when fawns are born. Wildlife conservation officers are gathering data by studying road-killed deer.
Over the first four years of this study, 3,180 does were examined. It was determined that 91 percent of adult does and 26 percent of female fawns were pregnant.
Only 17 percent of pregnant fawns carried twins or triplets. Among 2-year-old does, 67 percent had twins or triplets. Among 3-year-old does, 78 percent had twins or triplets.
Among adult does, 90 percent gave birth between May 12 and June 27, while 90 percent of fawns gave birth from May 22 through August 4.
Fawns born earlier stand a better chance of survival through their first year.
Prior to the new regulations, one problem with Pennsylvania's deer population was the imbalance of does to bucks, which led to many fawns being born late.
The portion of adult does bearing embryos and fawns carrying embryos is very revealing. Pregnancy rates based on embryos per 100 females shows a much lower rate in poor habitats, but a markedly better rate in the better habitats.
It should no surprise that the lower rates are found in the big woods of the north-central highlands, or that the higher rates are in the western and southeastern counties.
Hunters have three seasons for buck hunting. They start with the statewide archery season, which begins Sept. 29 and runs through Nov. 10, then resumes for a late season from Dec. 26 through Jan. 12.
With relatively low hunting pressure, bowhunters can seek out particular bucks with less interference from other hunters. Also the standards are lower for entry into the archery record book.
There have been 32 changes in the top 100 list of typical bucks taken by bowhunters during the 2000s, and six new entries in the top 10. These include the No. 1 typical buck. Nine of 33 bucks on the list of non-typicals were taken by bowhunters, including three of the top 10.
The regular statewide antlered deer season runs from Nov. 26 through Dec. 8. This year, the odds of seeing trophy bucks is certainly better than it has been in the memory of most hunters. But getting onto the record lists for deer taken by rifle is still a long shot. We must drop back to the No. 13 buck to find one taken since 1990, and all of the way back to No. 50 to find one taken in 2000. Only four of the top 100 bucks have been taken during the 2000s.
However, the non-typical list is a different story. The No. 2 non-typical buck taken by rifle was taken in Lawrence County in 2001. Among non-typicals, four of the top 10, and 13 of the top 100, were taken during the 2000s.
Almost certainly, one significant factor is holding back new entries onto the record lists. Pennsylvania Big Game Records are a joint project b
y the Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. But funding comes through the Game Commission.
There have been no official measuring sessions in several years because of budget constraints by the Game Commission. New entries can be made if bucks are measured by official Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young scorers.
With trophy potential improving, however, Pennsylvania needs an independent record-keeping organization. And there may be one on the way. (See the Aug. 2007 issue of Pennsylvania Game & Fish for details on a new trophy buck club that's in the works.)
The flintlock season, which runs from Dec. 26 through Jan. 12, could be viewed as a poor opportunity for hunting trophy bucks. But a little secret is slowly getting around. Because antler restrictions force hunters to scrutinize bucks very carefully, many more legal bucks are making it through the firearms season, giving flintlock hunters additional opportunities at larger bucks.
Here's a look at the trophy buck potential in your region:
"Hunters are harvesting bucks that are much larger than I've ever seen," said Tim Conway, the Northeast Region's Information and Education supervisor. "I never thought we'd see racks like we're seeing now. Will it continue? I don't know."
It's no mystery why antler quality is improving.
"The animals' average body size is bigger, the mass of their antlers are much greater, the tines are longer and the spreads are wider. We obviously have the genetics, and the mast is out there to sustain them."
Deer densities have been lowered in most areas, but are still not down to goal levels everywhere.
"In some areas they're going to be up, and in some areas they're going to be down -- noticeably down. You're going to have to work for them. It's making us all better hunters."
Probably the best chances for tagging trophy bucks on public land in this region is on the state game lands that contain swampy habitat.
Relatively few hunters venture into this type of habitat. But those who do get away from the roads are seeing bigger deer.
No doubt, some of the better trophy buck hunting in Pennsylvania is in the heavily populated Southeast Region. But there is a hitch. Virtually all the better trophy-buck habitat lies on private lands where access is difficult.
Bowhunters and crossbow hunters might have better chances of getting permission to hunt private lands.
The big woods counties are seldom mentioned for their trophy buck potential, but McKean County has historically been one of the leading contributors to the upper end of the record lists.
"Deer weights are up and antler size is better now than what was usually found over the past 20 years," according to John Dzemyan, Land Management Group supervisor for McKean County and Elk County.
Dzemyan is seeing better bucks, and better bucks are being harvested. But he stopped short of saying there are "a lot" of big bucks in the North- Central Region.
"To be accurate, there are a higher percentage of larger bucks in the remaining deer population than there used to be -- for sure.
Opponents of antler restrictions frequently mistake the motive behind them as being solely to produce trophy bucks. In fact, big antlers are just a secondary benefit.
"It used to be, a hunter could hunt a few days and see 10, 20, 30 deer and maybe see no bucks, or only one or two bucks. Now, in many areas a hunter may hunt a few days and see only five or 10 deer total. But two or three of them are often bucks with a nice rack of 8 points or more."
Dzemyan is realistic about deer densities in the region. Yet he is optimistic.
"If the weather cooperates this deer season, and with a bit of snow on the ground, hunters will find more deer in Elk and McKean counties in most areas than they did in 2005 or 2006.
"If more hunters show up, they will move more deer around."
Perhaps the South-Central Region is not a top destination for trophy bucks. Yet local hunters who devote time to scouting should be able to locate some respectable animals. As elsewhere, the better bucks tend to be on private farmlands. These bucks can often be ambushed as they move back and forth between state game lands or state forestlands and farms.
Public lands along the ridges are often used as bedding areas for bucks that feed on farms in the valleys.
The Northwest Region probably ranks second only to the Southwest Region for trophy-buck hunting opportunities. And in some ways, it might be even better. Several state game lands, particularly in the western tier of counties, have excellent trophy buck potential.
WMUs 1A and 1B comprise some of the better trophy-buck habitat in Pennsylvania. Buck quality has improved considerably on WMU 2F, and this is a fine place to look for an older big-woods buck. But judging by antler size alone, it doesn't compare with the agricultural areas.
"Deer appeared to come through the winter pretty well," according to Barry Zaffuto, Southwest Region Land Management Group supervisor. "You're going to see some pretty nice bucks."
In this corner of the Commonwealth, that is really saying something. For many years, this region has dominated the record buck lists. Four of the top 10 typical bucks taken by bow came out of this region, three of them during the 2000s. On the state's trophy whitetail list, an amazing 24 of the top 50 bucks came from the Southwest Region.
If there's any downside, it would be that the best bucks tend to spend a lot of time on private land. However, there have been more additions to the state game lands here than in any other region.
Hunters seeking bigger bucks may want to look into Indiana, Westmoreland, Washington and Greene counties for some of the top trophy hunting on public lands.
Serious trophy hunters know that they must wait for the right buck to show up. Let the smaller deer go, even though it may mean ending the season without filling your tag.
For more information about deer hunting in Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797. Phone (717) 787-4250, or check the agency's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us .
Find more about Pennsylvania fishing and hunting at: www.pagameandfish.com