Glory be, it is finally getting to be deer hunting season. Months of waiting have Pennsylvania deer hunters' enthusiasm piqued. Now, though, it is time for some serious planning. Our goal here is to provide as much information as possible to help you in this planning. We will be examining information that points to the best deer hunting in the commonwealth, and in every corner of the commonwealth.
In general terms, the outlook for the 2014/15 deer hunting seasons are encouraging, if maybe not quite "great."
"I would say it's comparable to what we've seen in the past," said Dr. Christopher Rosenberry, head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission Deer Section. "Most units are stable. Generally hunters can expect to see numbers similar to what they've seen in the past."
Of course, a large number of Pennsylvania deer hunters have been complaining about seeing too few deer over the past several years. There is no arguing that we do not have as many deer as we did during the peak years for the deer population. This mirrors what has been going on throughout most of the white-tailed deer range. Deer managers in this range were well aware that deer were so numerous they were damaging their habitat.
Very clearly, Pennsylvania deer hunting has been improving. Recent deer harvests tell this story. During the 2013/14 deer hunting seasons, total harvest, 352,920 deer, represented a 3 percent increase over the previous year. In fact, over the five most recent deer hunting seasons total deer harvests have increased each year.
Harvests over the past five years averaged 331,478 total deer. Over the past three years harvests have averaged 344,077 total deer, an increase of nearly 4 percent. This may not appear to be a huge improvement, but it can be translated to hunters seeing more deer.
Looking at individual Wildlife Management Units, 12 of the 22 WMUs accounted for a greater total deer harvest than the previous year. The larger increases were in WMU 2E, WMU 1A, WMU 1E and WMU 4D, in that order.
What those statistics mean is debatable. It could mean that those harvest increases brought the WMUs into compliance with management goals. This would not indicate that the harvest will increase this year, and could mean a small decrease might be anticipated.
"In general, where we are right now, except for the CWD situation, we're about where we want to be," Rosenberry said.
Deer are healthy. The impact of deer on the habitat is acceptable.
"This year we have more units with good regeneration than we've had in the past," Rosenberry said.
As a result, the antlerless deer kill is not expected to increase this year.
"The allocation is lower than last year. Allocations were lowered in most units," Rosenberry said. "This is the first time we've ever not made recommendations to increase a unit."
One fly in the ointment is that two more units have been added to the 7-day concurrent antlerless deer season. The problem with this is that fewer does are harvested than with longer antlerless seasons.
Overall, about 25 percent of antlerless deer tags are filled. Shortening antlerless deer seasons interferes with this rate.
The age structure of the 2013/14 antlerless deer hunting seasons was 62 percent adult does, 21 percent immature bucks and 18 percent immature does.
"There are no units where the deer population is decreasing in the state," Rosenberry said.
There are WMUs where the total deer harvest from the 2012/13 season to the 2013/14 season went down. The largest declines were in WMU 3D, down 16 percent, and WMU 3A, down 13 percent. And there were WMUs where the total deer harvest increased significantly over the same seasons: WMU 4E, at 26 percent, WMU 2E, at 24 percent, WMU 5D, at 20 percent, WMU 2G, at 19 percent and WMU 4D at 17 percent. But since recent deer management has been aimed at stabilizing deer populations, these increases and decreases should not be considered important in locating where the best deer hunting will be found.
Antlerless deer harvests vary much more than antlered deer harvests because they are connected to antlerless deer license and Deer Management Permit allocations. These allocations, and whether they are increased or decreased, account for virtually all large increases or decreases in total deer harvests.
Increases or decreases in antlerless deer harvests demonstrate this. In WMU 4E, where the total deer harvest increased 26 percent, the antlerless deer harvest increased 26 percent; in WMU 2E where total deer harvest increased 24 percent, the antlerless deer harvest increased 43 percent. This latter statistic may be one of the more telling statistics of all. It might indicate that the buck population is down.
In WMU 3D where the total deer harvest dropped 16 percent, the antlerless deer harvest dropped 17 percent, and in WMU 3A where the total deer harvest fell 13 percent, the antlerless deer harvest fell 19 percent.
Differences between antlerless deer harvests and total deer harvests are significant in this search for the best places to fill a deer tag. Antlerless deer numbers have stabilized. The most important factor for hunters trying to fill a tag for the freezer is the number of antlerless deer license and Deer Management Permit allocations. Lower allocations mean fewer opportunities to kill deer.
However, if you are one of the hunters who has been complaining about seeing too few deer while hunting, lowering antlerless deer harvests should not be objectionable. Lower antlerless harvests mean more does survive, and more does eventually mean a bigger deer herd.
Four WMUs do have seen increasing deer population trends: WMU 1A, WMU 2D, WMU 5A and WMU 3B.
"Antlerless deer harvests have not been what we need to have stable populations. The recommendations are for those units to have stable populations," Rosenberry said.
"In 1A, I think that's just where the antlerless deer population has been down in recent years. And 5A, that's one where the population has been creeping up. There have been no major changes in those units."
Archery deer season is our first deer hunting season. Statistics from bowhunters probably are not as indicative of deer hunting potential in a given area as general-season deer hunters are.
Bowhunter harvests show a different priority pattern from deer hunters in general. Bowhunters last year harvested a total of 50,040 antlered deer and 50,570 antlerless deer, an almost even split. Three units, WMU 2B, WMU 5C and WMU 5D more than accounted for the slightly higher total antlerless deer harvest. While the statewide difference between antlered and antlerless harvests was just 530 in favor of antlerless deer, those three units had 9,850 more antlerless deer harvested than antlered deer harvested.
WMU 2B, WMU 5C and WMU 5D make up the most developed parts of Pennsylvania, where antlerless deer permits were available in large numbers.
Compare that with deer hunters as a whole, who took 134,280 antlered deer and 218,640 antlerless deer. Clearly bowhunters tend to concentrate more on bucks than the general deer hunting population, even when antlerless permits are widely available.
Muzzleloader season harvests are heavily slanted toward antlerless deer harvest, with a 2013/14 harvest if 1,160 antlered deer and 26,140 antlerless deer. This is easy to understand since part of the muzzleloader season is antlerless only, and the Flintlock muzzleloader season follows all of the other deer seasons, at a point when buck numbers are as low as they will be at any time in the season.
Plus it is easy to understand that flintlock hunters who were in the woods from Christmas into January during one of the most miserable winters in memory, might have wanted to take the first deer they saw.
Chronic Wasting Disease is having an increasing impact on Pennsylvania deer. Somehow we avoided this plague on deer for several years while neighboring states were infected. When it was found in a West Virginia deer within a few miles of the Pennsylvania border, its spread into Pennsylvania was all but certain. Then in the fall of 2012 CWD was detected in a captive deer farm in Adams County.
The following spring, three wild deer harvested in the 2012 hunting season in Bedford County and Blair County were found to be infected with CWD. Those deer were part of a Game Commission program of testing hunter harvested deer. Also, a road killed deer infected with CWD was detected in December, 2013, by the same program. That deer was in Bedford County. Testing continues.
One of the bigger problems about CWD is that it lasts for years in the soil. Once established, it is part of the system.
CWD affects the brain and nervous system of members of the deer family. Damage becomes severe enough to cause death.
"It's a concern for us. Any time there's a disease out there on the landscape it's a reason for concern," Rosenberry said.
Game Commission response to CWD began even before it was found in Pennsylvania. An Inter-Agency CWD Task Force was established in 2003/ It consists of the Game Commission, the Department of Health, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Their task was establishing a strategic program for the prevention and early detection of CWD in free-range and domestic deer.
Pennsylvania has the second-largest deer family industry in the U.S., with more than 1,000 deer family breeding farms, hobby farms and shooting preserves. Movement of deer and deer family members, which is done often in the captive deer industry, is a significant risk factor for the spread of CWD.
A 'Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan' was released in July, 2011. Following the detection of deer affected with CWD in the commonwealth, an executive order was issued establishing Disease Management Areas.
Within the Disease Management Areas the use of deer attractants which contain deer urine are prohibited. Feeding free-ranging deer is prohibited.
Hunter cooperation with the Game Commission on this CWD problem is essential. Deer carcasses and high risk parts should never be disposed of on the landscape. They should be disposed of by depositing them in garbage which will end up in a landfill. Removing high risk deer parts from a Disease Management Area is prohibited, except for taking them to locations which are approved by the Game Commission.
High risk parts include the head, spinal cord, spleen, skull plate with attached antlers if visible brain or spinal cord material is present, the cape if visible brain or spinal cord material is present, upper canine teeth if root structure or other soft material is present, any object or article containing visible brain or spinal cord material and brain-tanned hide.
If you see a deer or elk that appears to be sick, document the location and immediately contact the nearest Game Commission regional office. Do not kill, attempt to remove or disturb the animal.
If you want to be certain your deer is tested for CWD, contact the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture at 1-717-787-8808 and make arrangements for delivery and payment to have the deer tested.
Extensive information on CWD can be found on the Game Commission web site. Click on the picture of a deer above CWD Information on the home page. Information can be found at the Department of Agriculture web site, www.agriculture.state.pa.us.
Considering all, where are the most likely places in Pennsylvania to fill a deer tag?
The leading WMUs for total deer harvest are in two clusters. The larger area is in the west and consists of WMU 1A, WMU 2D and WMU 2A. The other is in the southeast and includes WMU 5B and WMU 5C. All had total harvests for the 2013/14 deer seasons of more than 20,000 deer, led by WMU 2D, where hunters took a total of 35,300 deer.
The WMU total harvest range of 14,000 deer to 19,999 deer finished out the two layers of western WMUs, WMU 1B, WMU 2F, WMU 2B and WMU 2C. The other connecting cluster goes from the center of the commonwealth to the northeastern corner, WMU 4D, WMU 3B and WMU 3C.
More information about deer and deer hunting can be found at the Pennsylvania Game Commission web site, www.pgc.state.pa.us.
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'good luck tree. '
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell's giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it's just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost's wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail's Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'chip-shot. ' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it's a good thing he didn't.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson's persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp's Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'I've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to. '
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran's Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who'd spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won't forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'Big Daddy ' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he'd squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he'd hit, but couldn't find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand. '