More hunters are discovering that Gary Alt was right when he said antler restrictions will mean bigger bucks. Here's a look at how it works and how things are shaping up for the 2009 hunting season. (November 2009)
Keystone State deer hunters may have some legitimate gripes when it comes to finding deer in general, but when it comes down to locating trophy bucks it takes a real sourpuss to deny that there are plenty of bucks available today.
The likelihood of encountering bigger bucks has improved in every wildlife management unit, but where are the very best trophy bucks in Pennsylvania?
Believe it or not, some of the best trophy buck hunting occurs in the Special Regulations wildlife management units, the areas around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
"I would say there's certainly some very impressive animals coming out of those areas," said Dr. Christopher Rosenberry, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Deer Management Section supervisor.
"I think what you have in many of those areas is that combination of lack of access to hunt, areas where deer can get away from hunters and get older, and decent nutrition for those deer in those areas. Put the combination of food and age on a buck and you can expect to see bigger racks."
By the standard used to determine habitat health -- forested land --these wildlife management units look poor. Forest is not a major element here, nor in many of the top trophy buck areas around the country.
"Unit 5C actually has a fair amount of agriculture. There's an awful lot of development, but there's still agriculture, and when people develop things, there's food available there as well. Deer health in those units is not an issue. We see good reproduction in those units, so somehow they're getting plenty of food despite the developed nature of those units."
However, not many hunters view these areas as desirable destinations -- yet! There is extremely little public land, and what there is gets very heavy hunting pressure, at least on the edges.
"It depends on what kind of effort hunters are willing to make," Rosenberry said. "That unit is 99 percent private land. If hunters go down there and contact landowners, make an effort to gain access, they should have good luck. Hunters from outside the unit are going to have to do a little bit of work ahead of time to gain access to prime private land."
Even though nutrition in the region is good, deer managers are trying to lower deer densities in the Special Regulations units. This is more of a social factor than anything to do with deer health.
"In Unit 2B around Pittsburgh and Unit 5B, which is the immediate vicinity around the city of Philadelphia, the objective is to reduce the deer population, but allocations did not increase in those units because we're not selling the tags that are out there," Rosenberry explained. "We've come close, but we've never sold out in any of those units, so it really doesn't make any sense to say we're bumping up the allocations, when in fact there's no evidence right now that the allocation that we have right now will get used. That's the big difference between Unit 5C and those two. In those other two, the demand for antlerless licenses is not there, but it is there for Unit 5C."
Looking at the Pennsylvania Big Game Records, many of the entries made since and including the year 2000 came from Special Regulations areas. However, the records indicate the counties where a buck was taken, not the wildlife management unit.
OUR TOP COUNTY?
There is no question that the top trophy buck county in Pennsylvania is Allegheny County. The second-highest scoring buck in the 2000s scored 178 2/8 points and was taken from Allegheny County. Among the top 100 typical bucks taken by rifle, nine were taken during the 2000s and two of these came from Allegheny County, the only county to add two to this list.
Among the top 100 typical bucks taken by archers in the 2000s, three came from Allegheny County, again leading the list. Among all bucks in the record books taken by archers in the 2000s, Allegheny County led with five. Overall, Allegheny County led with two non-typical bucks taken by rifle and 10 taken by bow. No other county had more than three in the latter category.
Counties surrounding Allegheny also have very good trophy buck potential. Indiana County, Butler County and Beaver County all put bucks high into the records during the 2000s. Westmoreland County also contributed.
A similar situation is taking place in the Special Regulations areas surrounding Philadelphia, including Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County and Philadelphia County. These counties certainly do not rival Allegheny County in trophy buck production; however, this is due to a great extent to the lack of hunting area.
These counties are largely urban areas. The difference is that in Allegheny County there is one state game lands, municipal parks where hunting is allowed and several private tracts where hunting is allowed on a limited basis.
Bucks County had one entry during the 2000s in the top 100 bucks taken by rifle (a typical rack), two in the top typical bucks taken by bow, one non-typical taken by rifle, and two non-typical bucks taken by bow.
Chester County added four typical bucks taken by bow. Montgomery County added one to the list of typical bucks taken by bow.
Bowhunters have a big advantage in these Special Regulations counties. They are sometimes allowed to hunt deer where rifle hunters are not. On private lands in the southeastern region, Special Regulations counties deer hunters may use bait. Safety zones for bowhunters are 50 yards versus 150 yards for firearms hunters, except that archery must abide by 150-yard safety zones around schools, day-care centers, nursery schools and playgrounds.
Neighboring counties that are in Wildlife Management Unit 5C also have good track records for producing trophy bucks. Berks County, which extends into Wildlife Management Unit 5B and Wildlife Management Unit 4C, produced two of the top typical bucks taken by rifle that were taken during the 2000s, one that scored 163 2/8 and another that scored 161 5/8 and five new typical bucks taken by rifle, second only to Allegheny County. In the non-typical buck category, it placed one each taken by rifle and bow.
Lehigh County placed two new non-typical bucks and two typical bucks, all taken by bow.
Forest health is rated as poor in WMU 5C; however, according to Dr. Rosenberry, deer have good nutrition.
A great tip for trophy buck hunters is to look at the areas where 4-point antler restrictions are in effect, but not for the reason that some might expect.
"What we were trying to achieve by putting the 4-point regulation out is protecting half of the yearling bucks from harvest in those areas because, before antler restrictions, those areas were showing better antler development among yearling bucks compared to the 3-point areas," Rosenberry said. "The history was already there, the bucks showed faster antler development in those areas and as a result they got the 4-point restrictions. So, I would say if you're seeing bigger bucks in those areas, more than likely it's a result of the areas rather than the 4-point antler restriction."
The actual relationship between habitat and buck quality might seem obvious. However, from a scientific point of view, more research is needed to draw conclusions.
When asked whether one could equate habitat type to hunter success or to big bucks, Rosenberry said, "It could be related. I don't know if it's real clear."
No matter how often it is explained, hunters, many of them opponents of Pennsylvania Game Commission deer management methods, do not understand the reasoning behind antler restrictions. Producing trophy bucks is not a management goal and has nothing to do with the reasoning behind antler restrictions.
Rosenberry will offer tips for locating the better bucks.
"In general, I would say that any place where there is decent nutrition should be a good area," he said. "The other factor is anyplace a buck can get old. If they can get some age on them, that's a big benefit. If there's good nutrition in the area, that makes it even better."
One excellent example of this situation is Erie County. Although dominated by one of the largest cities in Pennsylvania, there still is plenty of agricultural activity. The land is some of the richest in the Commonwealth. In fact, Erie County accounted for one of the best bow-taken typical bucks and non-typical bucks taken by bow and rifle during the 2000s.
With several state game lands, Erie County is one of the best destinations for trophy buck hunters.
It would seem likely that bucks live longest in suburban areas because these are the places where hunters are taking the most record-book bucks. But here is an interesting bit of information.
"During data collection a couple of years ago, we pulled teeth out of adult bucks, and our oldest adult buck came out of Wildlife Management Unit 2G, which is the north-central unit with all its public lands, including state forests and state game lands. That buck was 10 1/2 years old.
It seems odd that our oldest buck would come from an area that is 50 percent public land, Rosenberry noted.
This would appear to add credence to what deer managers have been telling us, that hunters are not often getting into the more remote, more rugged parts of the north-central highland forest.
Backing this up, the second-best typical buck taken by rifle during the 2000s scored 171 4/8 and was taken in Forest County.
The third-best typical buck taken by rifle came from Jefferson County, as was the largest typical buck entered into the Pennsylvania records during the 2000s, scoring 190 0/8. That buck was taken by a bowhunter. Jefferson County also added a non-typical buck taken by rifle to the list.
Another "Big Woods" area, Lycoming County, produced the third-largest typical buck taken by bow during the 2000s, plus three others on the list.
An intangible factor should also be considered. A north country Big Woods trophy buck is something very special to Pennsylvania's hunters. Hunting wary old bucks in the Big Woods is extremely challenging and bagging one is immensely satisfying. To some hunters, this is the top trophy in whitetail hunting no matter what the score.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Distasteful as this may be to many deer hunters, one way to improve the quality of Big Woods bucks is to lower the deer density so that nutrition availability improves. Or we can create more clearcuts to provide food for deer.
One place where a cutting-edge experiment has been taking place for about nine years is the Kinzua Quality Deer Cooperative. A coalition of public and private landowners in cooperation with the state tourism association and hunters has lowered the deer density in the area, and the habitat is slowly recovering. Constant monitoring of the harvest has shown that the herd is improving in quality.
The 74,000-acre KQDC, all of which is open to public hunting, is in western McKean County between Bradford and the Allegheny Reservoir.
Check the KQDC's Web site, www.kqdc.com, for more information, including tips on finding the areas where deer are most numerous.
The bottom line to our search for trophy bucks in Pennsylvania is that while there are specific areas that are more likely to produce big bucks, just about any hunter is reasonably close to local trophy bucks no matter where he hunts.
Bucks grow old because they have habits that make them less likely to be seen. While hunting one of the areas where deer have the best nutrition is a good strategy, effective scouting is the most important factor, beyond luck, for finding a trophy buck. This may mean spending more time where other hunters rarely go, targeting interior areas where there are fewer deer but fewer hunters as well.
For more information about deer hunting in the Keystone State, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797; call (717) 787-4250, or check the agency's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.