HARRISBURG, PA - 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 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.”
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.”
The statewide general firearms season runs from Nov. 27 to Dec. 9. In most areas, hunters may take only antlered deer during the season’s first five days, with the antlerless and antlered seasons then running concurrently from the first Saturday, Dec. 2, to the season’s close. In WMUs 2B, 5C and 5D, however, properly licensed hunters may take either antlered or antlerless deer at any time during the season.
Rules regarding the number of points a legal buck must have on one antler also differ in different parts of the state, and young hunters statewide follow separate guidelines.
For a complete breakdown of antler restrictions, WMU boundaries and other regulations, consult the 2017-18 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which is available online at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov.
One very important regulation that applies statewide is the requirement for all hunters to wear at all times a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on their head, chest and back combined. An orange hat and vest will satisfy the requirement. And for safety’s sake, it’s a good idea for nonhunters who might be afield during the deer season and other hunting seasons to consider wearing orange, as well.
Field Conditions for Deer Season
Precipitation through spring and summer have fostered an exceptional supply of fall foods in Penn’s Woods. Trees held their leaves longer. Grazing grass continued to grow. Soft and hard mast crops have been remarkably plentiful.
These conditions have made deer movements tough to sort out. Often, there isn’t a pattern. Deer are keying on food sources within good cover and staying there. That makes hunting more challenging, especially if you don’t scout to confirm deer are using the area you plan to hunt.
“There were regional bumper crops of red-oak acorns last year, and we sort of expected lower production this fall,” explained Dave Gustafson, Forestry Division chief in the Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management. “But even the areas reporting bumper crops last year are seeing at least decent red-oak acorn crops this year. And many areas that didn’t see red-oak acorns last year have a better-than-average crop this year.”
White-oak acorn yields have been a little less predictable, but hunters who find acorns beneath white and chestnut oaks are likely to find other oak trees in that area producing acorns in good numbers, Gustafson said.
“Even on specific ridges, the acorn – and beechnut – crop can vary by elevation or slope,” Gustafson said. “Down low, it might vary from woodlot to woodlot, or by tree size.”
When the forest is full of food, and corn remains standing in farming areas, hunters have more work to do to find deer. In these years – like this year – it often takes considerable field time to pinpoint areas whitetails are using.
Deer generally go where the easiest – and often, most nutritious – meal is available. But preferences and hunter pressure can inspire their selection.
This fall, there are abundant crops of acorns – types vary – and beechnuts. Crabapples and other soft mast also are plentiful. So, focus on areas that have sizable yields and see if whitetails are filling up there.
Deer make a mess wherever they eat, so it isn’t hard to sort out whether they’re using an area. Look for raked up leaves, droppings and partially eaten mast for confirmation.
When setting up a hunting stand, it’s also a good idea to use the prevailing wind to your advantage. Wherever you hunt, the prevailing wind should blow from where you expect to see deer to your location. Then, dress for the cold and sit tight.
Remember you’re not alone while you’re afield. Other hunters also are waiting on stand, still-hunting or driving for deer in groups. So, even if your stand over food fails to bring deer, the movements of other hunters might chase deer your way.
“Remember, the firearms deer season opener is like no other,” Burhans noted. “It is hands-down that one day when your chances of taking a buck are the greatest. Everyone heads afield hoping for a big buck. And for many, that wish comes true.”
Hunters during the statewide firearms season can harvest antlered deer if they possess a valid general hunting license, which costs $20.90 for adult residents and $101.90 for adult nonresidents.
Each hunter between the ages of 12 and 16 must possess a junior license, which costs $6.90 for residents and $41.90 for nonresidents.
Hunters younger than 12 must possess a valid mentored youth hunting permit and be accompanied at all times by a properly licensed adult mentor, as well as follow other regulations.
Mentored-hunting opportunities also are available for adults, but only antlerless deer may be taken by mentored adult hunters.
Those holding senior lifetime licenses are reminded they must obtain a new antlered deer harvest tag each year, free of charge, to participate in the season.
To take an antlerless deer, a hunter must possess either a valid antlerless deer license or a valid permit. In the case of mentored hunters, the mentor must possess a valid tag that can be transferred to the mentored hunter at the time of harvest.
In addition to regular antlerless licenses, Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) permits can be used to take antlerless deer. A DMAP permit can be used throughout the 12-day firearms season, but only on the specific property for which it is issued.
Regular antlerless deer licenses may be used only within the wildlife management unit for which they’re issued, in most cases starting on Saturday, Dec. 2. WMUs 2B, 5C and 5D offer concurrent antlered and antlerless deer hunting throughout the statewide firearms deer season.
DMAP permits for some properties might still be available, but at the time of this release, antlerless licenses were sold out in all units but WMUs 2A and 2B.
General hunting licenses can be purchased online, but as the season nears, hunters might find it better to purchase licenses in person. Deer licenses purchased online are mailed, meaning they might not arrive in time if purchased too close to the start of the season.
Hunters are reminded the field possession of expired licenses or tags, or another hunter’s licenses or tags is unlawful.
Tagging and Reporting
A valid tag must be affixed to the ear of each deer harvested before that deer is moved. The tag must be filled out with a ball-point pen by the hunter.
Within 10 days of a harvest, a successful hunter is required to make a report to the Game Commission. Harvests can be reported online at the Game Commission’s website – www.pgc.pa.gov – by clicking on the “Report a Harvest” button on the home page. Reporting online not only is the quickest way to report a harvest, it’s the most cost-effective for the Game Commission.
Harvests also can be reported by mailing in the postage-paid cards that are provided when licenses are purchased, or successful hunters can call 1-855-PAHUNT1 (1-855-724-8681) to report by phone. Those reporting by phone are asked to have their license number and other information about the harvest ready at the time they call.
Mentored youth hunters are required to report deer harvests within five days. And hunters with DMAP or Disease Management Area 2 permits must report on their hunting success, regardless of whether they harvest deer.
By reporting their deer harvests, hunters play a key role in providing information used to estimate harvests and the deer population within each WMU. Estimates are key to managing deer populations, and hunters are asked to do their part in this important process.
Chronic Wasting Disease
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been detected in three areas of Pennsylvania, and special rules apply to hunters within the state’s two Disease Management Areas (DMA).
There are two DMAs. DMA 2 includes parts of Adams, Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Clearfield, Cumberland, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset counties. And DMA 3 includes about 350 square miles in Clearfield, Indiana and Jefferson counties.
For the specific boundaries of each DMA, check the Game Commission’s website or turn to the 2017-18 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest.
Hunters may not remove from any DMA any deer parts deemed to have a high-risk of transmitting CWD. The head, backbone and spinal cord are among those high-risk parts, and successful hunters who live outside a DMA can remove and deposit high-risk parts in dumpsters that have been set up on state game lands within each DMA. They then can transport the meat and other low-risk parts outside the DMA.
Hunters also can take their harvests to a processor or taxidermist within the DMA, and the processor or taxidermist can properly dispose of the high-risk parts. In some cases, processors and taxidermists just beyond the border of a DMA have been approved as drop-off sites and those facilities appear on the list of cooperating processors and taxidermists available on the Game Commission’s website.
Hunters who take deer within DMAs can now have their deer tested – free of charge – for CWD, and at the same time help the Game Commission fight this deadly disease.
The Game Commission has installed large metal bins at 26 locations for the collection of harvested deer heads within DMA 2 and DMA 3. The bins, which are similar to those used for clothing donations, keep contents secure and are checked and emptied every other day through the deer-hunting seasons.
All deer heads brought to the white-colored bins that can be tested for CWD will be tested for CWD, and the hunters who submitted them will be notified of the results as soon as they are available.
All heads submitted for testing must be lawfully tagged, with the harvest tag legibly completed and attached to the deer’s ear, and placed in a tied-shut plastic bag. The head can be bagged before being brought to the bin, or hunters can use the bags provided at bins.
Hunters who harvest deer outside a DMA must make arrangements with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Laboratory if they want their deer to be tested. There is a fee associated with this testing. More information about this process can be found online at www.agriculture.pa.gov.
Transporting a deer head outside a DMA so the deer can be disease-tested at a lab is a permitted exception to the rule prohibiting the removal of high-risk parts from a DMA. Deer heads should be double-bagged in plastic garbage bags before they are removed from the DMA.
The Game Commission will be sampling for chronic wasting disease statewide, but just because a hunter drops a deer off at a processor or taxidermist doesn’t mean the deer will be tested for CWD.
Chronic wasting disease is transmitted from deer to deer by direct and indirect contact. It is always fatal to deer that become infected, but there’s no known case of it being transmitted to humans.
People are advised, however, not to consume meat from deer that test positive for CWD.
For more information on CWD, drop-off dumpsters and rules applying within DMAs, visit the Game Commission’s website.
Beyond The Hunt Photo and Big Buck Photo Contests
There is so much more to hunting than the harvest. Yet, sometimes we forget to capture those memories with a photo. To participate in the inaugural Beyond the Hunt Photo Contest, the Game Commission encourages you to snap a photo of the landscape or wildlife surrounding your favorite hunting spot, the person sitting beside you in the stand, the meal you share after a successful hunt or any other special moment surrounding your Pennsylvania hunting experience that goes #beyondtheharvest for a chance to win a generous prize package.
To enter, submit a photo showing an aspect of hunting other than the harvest and provide a short explanation about why it is meaningful to you. E-mail the submission to firstname.lastname@example.org using “BTH” in the subject line. Hunters may send more than one submission. Photos must be taken in Pennsylvania. Entries will be accepted through Dec. 31.
Hunters who take Pennsylvania bucks during the 2017 archery or firearms seasons are eligible to submit photos of their trophies to the Game Commission’s Buck Harvest Photo Contest. Photos will be accepted through Dec. 17, and also should be emailed to email@example.com. Use “BUCK HARVEST” in the subject line.
Game Commission staff will narrow the submitted photos in each contest into groups of contenders to be posted on the agency’s Facebook page, where users will determine the winning photos by “liking” the images. Those submitting the images of the winning archery and firearms bucks will win trail cameras.
For more information about either contest and prizes, visit the Game Commission’s website.
MEDIA CONTACT: Travis Lau - 717-705-6541
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