The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake-management projects include plenty of land that's open for deer hunting, often with little competition. Here's how you can get in on the action. (December 2008)
No matter whether the overall deer population is up or down, the best deer hunting right now is in Pennsylvania's western region. It's been this way for what's now getting to be many years. Folks in the North Central highlands may remember when they lived in the commonwealth's "real" deer country. But those days are ancient history.
For now, at least, the west is best.
Of course, it can be tough to find public land in the Southwest Region that isn't getting heavy hunting pressure. But if you put in some thought and are willing to try something different, you can enjoy a productive hunt.
U.S. CORPS OF ENGINEERS WATERS
Many hunters forget about the flood-control reservoirs owned by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. These lands provide opportunities to hunt areas that are best accessed by boat, which cuts down considerably on hunting pressure and adds to the element of adventure.
But before you plan any boat-hunting trip, think about safety. A dunking can be fatal during deer season. This is a time of year when many tragic boating accidents occur, and most of them could have -- and should have -- been prevented.
Probably the one safety rule that deer hunters ignore most often is not to overload boats. They seem to forget that while dressed in hunting clothes, you weigh considerably more than while standing naked on the bathroom scales. When you're carrying other gear -- and add a deer or two to the load -- you have a disaster waiting to happen.
Know your boat's weight capacity and never exceed it.
Of course, you should wear a personal flotation device. Even while wearing a life jacket, your odds of surviving in icy water diminish quickly with each passing second.
If you do bag a deer or two, make extra trips rather than risk overloading the boat. And don't even contemplate using a small boat for hunting. During deer season, weather conditions tend to be nasty. It's often windy in December, so your boat must be capable of handling rough water.
To avoid needless discomfort and prevent hypothermia or frostbite, carry spare clothes in your vehicle. If you do get wet, immediately change into dry clothes.
Upstream from Pittsburgh, there's a cluster of U.S. Corps of Engineers flood-control reservoirs, designed to diminish the effects of flooding in the Pittsburgh area and downstream.
Crooked Creek Reservoir
One Corps property with plenty of land that you can access by boat is Crooked Creek Reservoir, about 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The project area covers 2,664 acres.
Much of it is available to hunters, except for developed areas and in areas posted for no hunting.
The Robbs Fording Access Area, off Robbs Fording Road on the lake's southern shore, is an accessible hunting area open to everyone, and special permits are not necessary for access.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers' land is surrounded by ideal deer country. A checkerboard of varied habitat includes agriculture, residential, woodlots and overgrown farmland.
At normal summer pool, the lake's surface area is 350 acres and 5.25 miles in length. But during deer season, it will probably be drawn down considerably and will cover less area.
You may hunt this area without a boat, yet a boat can increase your mobility, improving your chances for success. You can also use a boat to plan drives -- or as I prefer to call them, nudges.
Nudges, as opposed to drives, tend to get deer walking rather than running, and that lends a significant advantage when you want to scrutinize antlers carefully.
The key to hunting Corps land by boat is a good topographic map, which helps you look for natural features that might funnel deer movements. You should be able to make reasonably accurate guesses about deer movements, so also use these maps to plan drives.
Crooked Creek Lake lies in central Armstrong County, south of U.S. Route 422 and Ford City. Take state Route 28 north from Pittsburgh, and turn east on state Route 356. Then turn north on state Route 66, which follows the western border of the public land surrounding the lake.
For more information, contact the Crooked Creek Lake office, 114 Park Main Road, Ford City, PA 16226-8815. Or phone (724) 763-3161.
Get daily lake and recreation information by calling (724) 763-2764.
The government land around flood-control reservoirs tends to lie along the rivers and creeks that feed those reservoirs. But this can be an advantage: Those greenbelts often run through more developed land and are heavily used by deer.
Such government tracts are generally not very wide, but tend to be long. At Crooked Creek Lake, the federal land stretches more than six miles along the valley of Crooked Creek and almost as far along the valley of North Branch Crooked Creek.
Mahoning Creek Lake
Some of the federal lands around the commonwealth's flood-control reservoirs are managed for wildlife through agreements or leases with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
One example of this situation is at Mahoning Creek Lake. The project area is 2,967 acres, meandering in a Y-shape along Mahoning Creek and Little Mahoning Creek. The federal land sprawls through Armstrong, Jefferson and Indiana counties. The PGC leases 1,280 acres in Indiana County.
Along this lake, steep forested slopes are surrounded by mixed habitat. A big advantage of hunting by boat here is that nearly all your drags will be downhill. This allows or encourages hunting in remote areas that other hunters would avoid.
These areas may be remote not in terms of miles, but of topography. Few hunters will climb up a hill and then down to the shores of a lake, knowing that if they harvest any deer, they'll have to drag it back up that hill, which can often be very steep.
Nowhere is this more obvious than along the almost cliff-like slopes approaching Mahoning Creek Dam.
Mahoning Creek Lake lies about 12 miles southwest of New Bethlehem and seven miles northwest of Dayton. Signs mark th
e way approaching from either direction. The upper end of the lake is off to the west side of state Route 839 between these towns.
A boat launch is at the Sportsman's Area, which is an access area close to the dam on the south side.
Information about this project is available from Mahoning Creek Lake, 145 Dam Site Road, New Bethlehem, PA 15242-9603.
Or phone (814) 257-8811. Daily lake and recreation information is available by calling (814) 257-8017.
Conemaugh River Lake
In the Pittsburgh District, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's leasing of federal lands around flood-control projects is more the rule than the exception. At Conemaugh River Lake, the PGC's lease includes some 7,000 acres of the 9,000 acres of federal land.
The area leased to the PGC is the Virginia Farms hunting area. Hunting is also allowed at the Bow Ridge Recreation Area, but this is open only to hunters confined to wheelchairs, who must get permits from the resource manager. Bow Ridge is a narrow ridge inside of a tight meander in the river, toward the lower end of the lake on the southern side. Slopes along the side of this ridge are somewhat steep, but still gentle in comparison to other areas by the lake.
Parts of the Virginia Farms are also reserved for physically challenged hunters with permits. However, most of this area is open to any licensed hunter.
In shape, Conemaugh River Lake is similar to Crooked Creek Lake. Public land stretches along Conemaugh River and Blacklick Creek, the two major tributaries to the reservoir.
Spurs of land follow several smaller streams. The terrain around the lake varies considerably, from extremely steep forested slopes on the north side close to the dam to much gentler slopes in many areas. This lake has no improved boat-launch ramp, so only canoes or cartop boats can be used.
This lake is smaller, with only 500 acres at normal summer pool and likely to be smaller during deer season. Most of this area is easily accessible from local roads, but a canoe opens up still more possible hunting strategies.
For more information about Conemaugh River Lake, call (724) 639-9013, or visit the office at 1665 Auen Road STE A, in Saltsburg.
Daily recreation information may be obtained by phoning (724) 639-3785.
Conemaugh River Lake lies in northern Westmoreland County east of U.S. Route 119.
Just a few miles southwest of Conemaugh River Lake -- also west of U.S. Route 119 -- is Loyalhanna Lake.
The PGC leases 2,894 acres of Corps land for wildlife management. Hunting is allowed on all 3,722 acres of the project land, except for developed recreation areas and other posted areas.
Loyalhanna Lake is a small lake at 400 surface acres, but it is much more developed than Conemaugh River Lake. The project land is almost 12 miles in length, but very narrow. As in most of Pennsylvania, its topography is hilly with some very steep slopes. There are several access areas.
For information about this project area, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 440 Loyalhanna Dam Road, Saltsburg, PA 15681-9302. Or phone (724) 639-9013.
Woodcock Creek Lake
To the north in Crawford County, a few miles north from Meadville by way of state Route 86, Woodcock Creek Lake is an excellent deer-hunting area. A special wheelchair-accessible trail was completed last summer.
Special material was used to make a path suitable for wheelchairs that connects a small parking area to the old section of Route 86, which was abandoned when the lake was filled.
Combined, the path and the road give wheelchairs about a mile of access to reach Crooked Creek at the upper end of the reservoir.
The project was a cooperative effort involving the National Wild Turkey Federation, the PGC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Along the wheelchair-access trail, the terrain is quite flat, varying to very small hills with gentle slopes.
Habitat includes some mature timber and thick brush. Like the other flood-control projects we mentioned, this one lies in the Western Region's famed big buck country.
State Game Lands No. 435 is situated at the eastern end of the flood-control project land.
This is no real opportunity here for hunting by boat. Although it could be done, there would be no advantage and might even be a disadvantage. By the time deer-hunting season rolls around, what remains of the drawn-down 333-acre lake does not extend very far into hunting territory.
Information about this project is available by contacting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 22079 State Highway 198, Saegertown, PA 16433-0629. Or call (814) 763-4422.
Erie National Wildlife Refuge
Erie National Wildlife Refuge lies close to Woodcock Creek Lake and is composed of two separate tracts. One is between state Route 86 and state Route 77 near Cambridge Springs. The other lies south of Route 77 and is intersected by state Route 27 near Guys Mills. Together, they cover an area of approximately 2,500 acres. A large share of this area is wetland habitat.
Some special regulations contribute to reduce hunting pressure on this public land. A Refuge Hunt Permit is required and can be obtained by phoning (814) 789-3585.
A refuge Vehicle Permit must be clearly displayed in the windshield while your vehicle is parked on the refuge. On some parts of the refuge, organized deer drives are prohibited.
Information about the refuge is available from Erie National Wildlife Refuge, 11296 Wood Duck Lane, Guys Mills, PA 16327-9499. Or call (814) 789-3585, or visit the agency's Web site, www.fws.gov/northeast/erie.
Of course, one big advantage to any of these lakes is that you can combine hunting with some fishing. If one hunter in your group has filled his deer tags, he may then serve boat operator, maintaining contact with hunters by cell phone. He can angle on the water while waiting to hear from hunters ready to be move on to new areas or who have bagged deer that must be hauled out.
But keep in mind that such portable communication devices may not be used to trace the movement of game.
Farther north on the New York border, along the Allegheny Reservoir, one of the greatest hunting adventures in Pennsylvania awaits you.
There's a lot of territory here. The most remote territory on the Allegheny National Forest is the Tracy Ridge area. Deer densities are qui
te low, but there are some nice old bucks in that area.
The expanse between Willow Bay on the north, Sugar Bay on the south and state Route 321 on the east is the largest roadless area on the Allegheny National Forest. It is about seven miles from north to south and more than two miles from state Route 321 to the shore of the reservoir. There are good numbers of oaks in here, and they can be the key to locating deer.
There are boat-access campgrounds in this area. Dispersed camping is allowed, following specific rules that are available through the Allegheny National Forest's Web site.
It's important to understand what "changes in water level" mean. Some boat launch ramps may not be usable when the lake level has fallen. The last one that remains useful at the Allegheny Reservoir is the up-lake ramp at the Elijah Run Boat Access.
Use the wrong ramp, and your trailer will drop off the end of the ramp. That can be a problem!
Land surrounding the reservoir is part of the Allegheny National Forest. For information, contact the Bradford Ranger District, 29 Forest Service Drive, Bradford, PA 16701. Or you can phone (814) 362-4613, or log on to www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/allegheny.
The forest headquarters in Warren has just moved, but their new address should be available by the time you read this.
For more about December deer hunting on U.S. Corps of Engineers project lands in Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission at 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797. Or call (717) 787-4250, or check the PGC's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.
For more information about traveling in the Keystone State, contact the Pennsylvania Office of Tourism, Room 404, Forum Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120. Phone 1-800-VISIT-PA (numerically, 847-4872), or visit their Web site, www.visitPA.com.