Western Pennsylvania leads the state in deer harvest numbers in every category. Plus, nearly one-half million acres of public land are available. This is definitely the place to be this month!
Pennsylvania deer hunters can find some great December hunting in the Keystone State's western region.
Some of the highest ridges in the state cross through the southwest corner. Ice Age glaciers leveled off the northwestern tip, creating rich soils that have sustained a successful agricultural area. Between these are rugged, forested highlands, swamps and a patchwork of small farms, wood lots, overgrown fields and residential areas. This mix of habitat has resulted in some of the best deer hunting in the state.
Last year, the Southwest Region led the six Pennsylvania Game Commission regions with a total harvest of 105,604 deer. The Southwest Region also led the state with 63,634 antlerless deer, but the total figure was not inflated by high antlerless license allocations. The Southwest Region also led the buck harvest. (The Northwest Region was second at 89,399 total deer.)
Both Northwest and Southwest region hunters can look forward to good deer hunting this fall.
"It should be good because we didn't get the antlerless kill that we wanted last year," said Shayne Hoachlander, land management supervisor for the Northwest Region.
Hoachlander added that the mast crop might not be as good this fall as last year because of spring frosts. This might make it tougher on deer this winter, but it should mean easier hunting this fall because deer will be easier to pattern with the less abundant mast.
Hunters throughout western Pennsylvania can enjoy good deer hunting on state game lands. In the two western regions, there are at least 132 state game lands. The total area of these state game lands is currently listed as 363,588 acres (186,363 acres in the Northwest Region and 177,225 acres in the Southwest Region), but recent additions have increased those numbers.
Good deer hunting during December often depends on finding areas where deer have been pushed by hunting pressure. The larger state game lands are usually good places to look for deer. Hunters should target places where hunting pressure is light. The most successful hunters walk farther, up the steepest slopes, into swamps and thick cover, and the deer will be there.
Western region hunters can expect cold and snow this month, but the odds of tagging a buck are highest in this part of the state. Photo by Mike Bleech
Washington County For its proximity to Pittsburgh, it is hard to beat State Game Lands 117 and Hillman State Park, which is managed for hunting by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Both are situated near the intersection of state Route 18 and U.S. Route 22 in the northwestern corner of Washington County. This is the largest state game lands that is literally within minutes of the city. SGL 117 contains 3,977 acres, while Hillman State Park holds 3,654 acres.
Both SGL 117 and the park were strip-mined in the past, and the terrain is rolling to moderately rugged. The park has been reclaimed, so a good deal of the property is open brush land, but there is also plenty of hardwood forest. This game lands has a good mix of quaking aspen, multiflora rose and other low cover. This habitat has been augmented with warm season grasses, autumn olive and other plants that are beneficial to wildlife.
As is common anywhere near the city on public land, heavy hunting pressure tends to push deer onto surrounding private lands. Hunters should pay close attention to the deepest hollows and the densest cover. Older deer have learned not to venture through the more open areas. Surprisingly, thanks to good habitat and the surrounding private lands that act as refuges, there are some very nice bucks here.
A good case could be stated for naming Washington County as the best in the state for deer hunting. However, other than SGL 117 and Hillman State Park, public lands here are relatively small. Try to hunt on weekdays, when there is not so much hunting pressure. Plan to be there at dawn, and scout for routes that deer use to leave the state game lands when the shooting starts.
For information on services, contact the Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency, 273 South Main Street, Washington, PA 15301, or call (800) 531-4114.
Called the 'Jumbo Woods' because it is the largest block of forest in an otherwise agricultural area, State Game Lands 101 is unusual by Pennsylvania standards. Over its 5,050 acres, the elevation does not vary by more than 60 feet. Only in the extreme northwestern and southwestern edges of the state can you find land as flat. Without landmarks for guidance, few hunters venture deep into the Jumbo Woods. This creates interesting possibilities in an area that has produced some of the biggest deer ever seen in this state.
The flatness of the land, which makes it slow to drain, and relatively heavy rainfall and snowfall here, make this a very wet place, further discouraging deep intrusions by deer hunters. The wet terrain makes dragging deer difficult, but one of the best ways to ease this chore is to take a plastic sled into the woods. The sled can transport a tree stand on the way in, a good idea because some of the thickest areas are best hunted from the trees.
SGL 101 straddles the Erie-Crawford county border close to Ohio. It can be reached by taking Griffey Road south from state Route 226 or by taking Beaver Road north from either U.S. Route 6 or state Route 198. All three of these highways have exits off Interstate Route 79. Griffey Road, which is in Erie County, and Beaver Road, which is in Crawford County, is the same road; it just changes names at the county line. This is the only road to cut through the heart of this SGL. A few other roads provide access to the edges of the game lands.
This area contains a lot of pole timber, mostly red maple, which does not offer much for deer to eat, and the trees here do not produce much mast. However, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Ruffed Grouse Society and Safari Club International have donated funds toward habitat improvements including numerous forest openings, which have benefited deer.
Erie County Most state game lands in Erie County are small, but many are not hunted as heavily as Washington County state game lands. Several of these Erie County state game lands are swampy, providing deer with cover that few hunters bother to enter. Also, there are fewer hunters on public land here because many of them have access to private lands.
For information about lo
cal services, contact the Area Convention & Visitors Bureau 109 Boston Store Place, Erie, PA 16501-2312; phone (800) 524-3743.
Crawford County has over 25,000 acres of state game lands, both large and small. Like Erie County, many of them are swampy and have excellent cover. The surrounding land is generally agricultural, and deer tend to be larger here than in most other areas of the state.
State Game Lands 199 in the northeast corner of Crawford County is moderate in size, at 1,132 acres. It typifies Crawford County habitat with a mix of wetlands, overgrown fields, pole timber and some maturing timber. The terrain is gently rolling and is completely surrounded by farms. This state game lands is large enough to hold deer through the hunting season, and in fact, unlike many other state game lands, hunting pressure on surrounding private farms tends to push deer into better cover on the state game lands.
The major route to SGL 199 is state Route 77. You can hunt from a parking lot on this highway, or turn onto Taylor Station Road. Other connecting dirt roads also pass through the public land.
For information on area services, contact the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 211 Chestnut Street, Meadville PA 16335, or call (800) 332-2338.
Warren County Looking for a traditional Allegheny Highlands deer hunt? One exciting possibility is State Game Lands 29 in central Warren County. With 9,363 acres almost completely surrounded by other public lands, it is virtually inaccessible except by walking. Motorized travel is not allowed on any road that passes through this area. The habitat is mostly mature hardwood forest except for a narrow savannah along the West Branch Tionesta Creek and Wildcat Run.
SGL 29 can be reached by taking Chapman Dam Road west off U.S. Route 6 at Clarendon. Go to Chapman State Park, stay on the park entrance road to a dirt road at the end of the farthest parking lot, and follow it onto the state game lands. Stop at the park office for a map of the park.
Another access is a gated road opposite forest Road 116 at the intersection with Hearts Content Road. Take state Route 337 south about 14 miles from U.S. routes 6 and 62 at Warren to Hearts Content Road. The large Allegheny National Forest map, which costs $5, will help hunters navigate around this area on its many back roads.
Camping is not allowed on state game lands; however, there is a developed campground at Chapman State Park, which borders the northeast corner of SGL 29. Camping is allowed on Allegheny National Forest, which surrounds SGL 29 and Chapman State Park.
For more information on the park, contact the Chapman State Park office, R.R. 2, Box 1610, Clarendon, PA 16313-9607, or call (814) 723-0250. For national forest information, contact the Allegheny National Forest office at P.O. Box 847, Warren, PA 16365, or call (814) 723-5150. For more about local services, contact the Northern Alleghenies Vacation Region, 315 Second Avenue, P.O. Box 804, Warren Co., PA 16365; call (800) 224-7802.
Forest County A similar situation exists on State Game Lands 24 in Forest County. Nearly all of its 6,177 acres consists of dense, mature forest with oak, cherry and hemlock on moist slopes. There is abundant dense cover along Coon Creek. Tiny Forest County has no four-lane highways or traffic lights, and there are more deer than people; so, it gets hidden in the deer harvest statistics. The county's harvest numbers are modest until the area of the county is factored. Actually, this county, per area, has consistently had one of the best deer harvests in the state.
State Route 36 nips the southwest corner of SGL 24, the portion in Clarion County. To reach the northern tip, take Oak Woods Road east off state Route 66 south of Marienville toward Muzette.
Clarion County How about a float-hunt? State Game Lands 283 is a huge, rugged forest. Most of it, 5,385 acres, is in Clarion County, primarily the Clarion River valley. The remaining 2,085 acres is in Jefferson County, along Cathers Run.
The deer population is high, yet hunting pressure is relatively light due to the region's very steep, remote hillsides. This is a dense, mature forest consisting mostly of hardwoods, but there is a lot of hemlock and pine.
One of the better ways to hunt this state game lands is to get into the heart of it via johnboat or canoe, and then pull ashore and hunt up the steep hillsides. Should you be successful, the celebratory drag will be downhill and quite short.
Hunters may launch at Cook Forest State Park at the state Route 36 bridge at Cooksburg. The park borders the state game lands. At the end of the float, pull out at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's access at Mill Creek. Turn north off U.S. Route 322 at Strattanville onto Mill Creek Road to reach this access point.
A few narrow roads provide access to the tops of the hills, but a successful hunt usually results in difficult uphill drags.
There is camping available, including cabins, at Cook Forest State Park. For information, contact Cook Forest State Park, P.O. Box 120, Cooksburg, PA 16217, or call (814) 744-8407.
For local services in Forest, Clarion and Jefferson counties, contact the Northwest Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, 175 Main Street, Brookville, PA 15825, or call (800) 348-9393.
Westmoreland County State Game Lands 42, most of it in eastern Westmoreland County, is along the Laurel Ridge. With 12,501 acres in Westmoreland County, 1,891 acres in Somerset County and 226 acres in Cambria County, plus thousands of acres of adjoining state forestland, this is a place where hunters can easily get lost.
The terrain is very steep - elevations vary by more than 1,500 feet. Hunters can start out at the bottom of the ridges, but after early-season hunting pressure takes effect, you will probably find more deer by climbing up the mountainsides. Hunt with partners to push deer out of the laurel thickets. There are some big bucks up there that will make this extra effort worthwhile.
Use the area's steep slopes to your advantage. There are some well-worn trails here, perfect for stand hunting. Look for areas where trails converge, or where trails lead into and out of thick cover. If you prefer to still-hunt, target the finger ridges off the sides of the mountain. Deer bed in these places during the day, with the wind at their backs and where they can see danger approaching from downhill. Catching deer in their beds is difficult, but it can be done by moving slowly and taking steps to minimize the human odors on your clothes and gear.
SGL 42 stretches along Laurel Ridge in a few separated tracts between U.S. Route 30 and U.S. Route 22. State Route 271 cuts between the largest tracts of the state game lands. It is bordered on the north and south, and the t
wo largest tracts are separated by Laurel Ridge State Park. The main access to all of this area is the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. Narrow roads provide access to the lower elevations.
A very useful map for hunters in this area is the Gallitzin State Forest map, available at the forest district headquarters, 131 Hillcrest Drive, Ebensburg, PA 15931. It shows most of the surrounding area, including minor roads and trails.
For information on local services, contact the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau, 120 East Main Street, Ligonier, PA 15658, or call (800) 333-5661.
Greene County Another contender for best deer hunting county in the state, Greene County has just three state game lands. The largest, State Game Lands 223, covers 7,223 acres on various separate tracts. Several Farm Game Projects in the surrounding farmland add considerably to hunting potential and make it unlikely that deer will be pushed out of huntable ground.
The terrain is gently rolling. A good share of the habitat is reverting farmland. Also, mature timber including oaks, cherry and some beech are present. Cover is thick in areas where timber has been harvested. Warm season grasses and food plots, intended more for small game, improve the area's deer habitat.
To get there, take Exit 2 at Kirby and drive east to SGL 223. For local information, contact the Greene County Tourist Promotion Agency, 107 Fairgrounds Road, Waynesburg, PA 15320, or call (724) 627-8687.
Maps of most state game lands are available on the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Web site. For more information about these state game lands, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Northwest Region Headquarters, P.O. Box 31, Franklin 16323, or call (877) 877-0299. Contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Southwest Region office, P.O. Box A, Ligonier 15658, or call (877) 877-7137.
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