Pennsylvania’s coming firearms deer season packs promise for hundreds of thousands of hunters as they await its opener the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Unseasonably warm weather and an abundance of fall mast made it more challenging to pattern deer movements throughout the statewide six-week archery season, which concluded Nov. 11. Now “rifle season” offers the next opportunity to hunt deer in Penn’s Woods.
Most of Pennsylvania’s deer harvest comes from hunters participating in the firearms season. It has been the Commonwealth’s principal tool for managing deer for more than a century. It is the season that draws the largest crowd. The season for which some rural schools still close their doors on the opener to allow their students — and teachers — to hunt.
The firearms season opener is the day every deer hunter wants to be afield. It’s almost always the most exciting day of the season and therefore usually offers the greatest opportunity. About a quarter of the season’s buck harvest occurs on the opener.
But this firearms season — not just its opening day — has the potential to be something special.
“Agency deer biologists believe there’s a chance we’ll see the state’s buck harvest increase for the third consecutive year,” explained Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “It’s an exciting possibility that banks on last year’s massive acorn crop and a mild winter paving the way for big bucks to get bigger and for more young bucks to grow into legal racks.
“There’s no doubt something special is happening,” Burhans continued. “For the past few months, hunters have been sending us trail-cam photos of amazing bucks, maybe even new state records. Our field officers also are seeing plenty of bucks from farm country to the big woods. Some are real wall-hangers out there.”
According to reports from the northeast region, deer numbers are plentiful in many areas.
And that includes quite a few big bucks.
“A lot of reports out of the agricultural areas and the game lands of some bucks with large racks. That’s usually the case in most of the farm areas, but even on the game lands in Sullivan and Bradford counties, hunters that get back into the woods will see big bucks,” said Bill Williams, the information and education supervisor for the PGC’s Northeast Region.
Larger-racked – and older – bucks are making up more of the deer harvest with each passing year. Last year, 149,460 bucks were taken by hunters, making it the second-largest buck harvest in Pennsylvania since antler restrictions were started in 2002.
In 2016, 56 percent of the antlered buck harvest was made up of bucks 2½ years old or older, said Chris Rosenberry, who supervises the Game Commission’s Deer and Elk Section. The rest were 1½ years old.
“Older, bigger-racked bucks are more of the norm in the forests of Pennsylvania than they have been for at least a couple decades,” Rosenberry said. “There’s no doubt antler restrictions paved the way. It was a big step forward 15 years ago, and today we’re seeing the results for protecting young bucks.”
Every year, Pennsylvania hunters are taking once-in-a-lifetime bucks. Some are “book bucks,” antlered deer that make the Pennsylvania Big Game Records book or Boone & Crockett Club rankings. Others simply win neighborhood bragging rights.
But bucks don’t have to be big to be special.
“A buck that eludes hunters for years and years on a mountain or in a farming valley is just as special as the big boys that make the books,” emphasized Burhans. “The elusive ones might even be more meaningful to the hunters who pursue them because sometimes those chases go on for years, and involve hunting camps, families or groups of friends.”
Williams said even though the season is a week away, plenty of hunters are expressing their anticipation for opening day.
“The fact that there is a lot of large bucks around, and a lot of deer, gets hunters excited,” he said. “Antler restrictions have worked and over the years the bar has been raised for what constitutes a big buck.”