First in a series of three articles from Pennsylvania Deer Camp
COUDERSPORT, Pa. – Deer hunting in Potter County has seen better days, but it’s also never been better.
Old-timers said a day in the woods used to present numerous sightings – the place was just lousy with deer. Now, the average hunter is fortunate to see a deer, moreso if he’s presented a shot. The flip side is the size of the deer has increased.
“There are a lot fewer deer,” said Carl Criswell, 65, who’s been coming to the 5X5 camp since 1969. “If you got a buck that was more than 4 or 5 points in the old days, you did pretty well. Now you see very few, but you’re starting to see some pretty sizeable bucks.”
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Potter County remains a deer hunting mecca in a state that has an estimated 750,000 hunters hit its state game lands, woods and farms for the gun season opener, traditionally the first Monday after Thanksgiving. Licenses topped 1 million as few as 10 years ago. There were 943,583 sold in 2012.Tradition is a big part of Pennsylvania hunting. Camps like Criswell’s dot the hills in this region of the Allegheny Mountains near the New York border. “Flatlanders” and out-of-staters have inundated the area for decades on their midwinter getaways.
Deer season has always been a boon to businesses. The camp members come up on the weekend and usually hit the town of 2,552. On the eve of the hunt, Potter County Outfitters is among the shops doing brisk business.
At one point, about 150 hunters crowded the modest-sized outdoors store. Many browsed while others headed straight to the counter for ammunition. Salesmen Tadd Ostroski said they disappointed those looking for .243 caliber ammo, as it’s been nearly impossible to keep in stock.
Retired Philadelphia police officer Connie Noe, 73, visited the store with son, Dave, after dining at nearby Kaytee’s restaurant. Despite already tagging bucks in the south part of the state, they made their annual trip with fellow campers Tom and Henry Hover.
Noe, who’s hunted here since 1966, said things are more subdued now.
“It was like a wild west town up here,” he said. “The bars were always full. At the hotel on the corner, on Monday you’d see deer hanging from those balconies. There were cars driving around with deer laying on them, and people going in and out of the restaurants, at bars it was five deep, like a wild, west town. It was crazy.”
The deer population started decreasing when the Pennsylvania Game Commission moved what had been a separate doe hunt to opening day, and hunters could take either sex. It resulted in drop in deer numbers over the past decade, and many hunters have bashed the PGC.
“They also offered bonus tags; they got rid of a lot of the doe,” said Al Lacher, sports editor of the Potter Leader Enterprise. “The controversy is people think they took too many out.”
While admitting there are less deer, others have applauded management, including the new three-point rule, saying it has allowed deer to grow more impressive racks. The newspaper reported this year that the north central Pennsylvania deer herd is the largest of the century, and game managers expected some impressive bucks to be taken.
Lacher runs the newspaper’s Big Buck Contest, which has been held for 55 years. He measures and photographs deer brought in and puts together a special section comprised of trophy shots for the popular “Deer Roster.”
Fifty hunters entered their deer on the first day, from spike bucks for junior hunters to some impressive 8- and 10-pointers, even several 12s. Over the years, Lacher has kept records that show the bucks are indeed bigger of late.
“The deer are 20 pounds heavy,” he said. “We were getting little tiny 6 points, 4 points, now we’re getting 8s, 10s.”
Dave Noe began coming to his father’s camp in 1982 at age 12. He’s seen the change in his 31 years. He said his father’s era could shoot spike bucks as long as they had three inches of antler, but now one beam must have at least three points to legally take.
“It’s a lot different than it used to be,” he said. “The antler restrictions are a good thing, I think. The problem is with the number of does they’re taking. The deer population is down.”
Henry Hover jumped in. “Every time you shoot a doe, you kill three.”
Hunter numbers are also down, and that could coincide with the limited opportunites and subsequent difficultly in recruitment and retainment. There were some younger hunters taking part on opening day, most from the area, but Connie Noe said conditions aren’t ripe for hooking kids.
“When I brought (Dave) up here, there were deer all over the place,” Noe said. “When I took him out, he at least saw deer, and that got him excited. Today you bring a kid up hunting, you see a deer, you’re lucky.”
Connie Noe said that last year the same spike buck walked past him three times, and the year before a deer missing its right antler did the same.
“I haven’t seen anything else, no doe, no nothing,” he said, then relating his recent south Pennsylvania bow hunt where he and his son each took 8-pointers. “We saw seven bucks. Not a doe. Where’s all the doe?
“Up here we’re not seeing the deer like we’re used to seeing. You bring a young kid up, it’s hard. He’s cold, he’s shivering. They’re not there anymore.”
Connie Noe sees the recruitment dropping in his own family. The Noe campers have sons who hunt, but the next generation has been hit and miss. Noe has two grandsons and one used to come but a lack of action might have turned him off.
“His father, he just sat. He didn’t show him anything in the woods,” Connie said. “David, I showed him the deer droppings, the scrapes and the rubs. Keep him interested.”
Most hunters suggest moving doe season back to after the two-week buck season, when less people would be out, at least for several years so the numbers can rebound.
Tom Hover recalls that the first year that doe were on the opening day menu, the Noe camp took six. They were following the state’s lead.
“They said the forest was getting eaten away by all these deer,” Hover said. “Everybody knocked the hell out of the doe.”
Lacher said part of the reason for adding those doe tags was the land wasn’t able to sustain the large numbers in the herd. Criswell isn’t really buying that.
“They say the habitat can’t support the deer, but the habitat looks the same as I recall it for the last 40 years,” he said. “From a management aspect, you want trophy racks -- they’re around, but there’s not enough hunting pressure anymore to move the deer.
“A lot of guys are staying in southern Pennsylvania now to hunt; they have more and bigger deer. A lot of guys sit in a tree stand all day and they don’t move the deer. The end effect is you see fewer deer.”
The Criswell camp had been shut out for years until Mike Malave killed a 10-pointer on opening morning. Criswell had shot a 10-pointer years ago, but Malave’s dwarfed it and is the biggest ever at the property.
“That’s a big boy,” said Matt Cozart, 22, a nationally ranked trap shooter who’s been coming to Criswell’s since he was 4. “In northern Pennsylvania, you don’t often find deer with this heavy of an antler. The deer you see on trucks, they’re bigger now.”
Bigger is better, but it has come with lower success rates, which in turn has dropped hunter numbers. For men like Criswell, Deer Camp is a deep-seeded tradition.
“The management changed the complexion of the deer population. There’s no question about that,” he said. “Some people get discouraged when they hunt for three days and don’t see a deer. They don’t come back. When you get older, it’s tradition and you don’t really care to necessarily kill a buck as much as you did.”
Visiting the same Deer Camp the past 44 years keeps him driving the 200 miles from York, Pa., each fall no matter his chances.
“It’s a far way to drive for a mangy deer,” he said, “but it’s tradition.”
Next: Take a trip up the mountain to Criswell’s 5X5, a camp established in 1949.
Go to 2013 Deer Camp