Record harvest could be on the horizon

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s coming firearms deer season packs promise for hundreds of thousands of hunters as they await its opener Monday.

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.

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,” Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said. “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.”

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 2 1/2 years old or older, said Chris Rosenberry, who supervises the Game Commission’s Deer and Elk Section. The rest were 1 1/2 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,” Burhans said. “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.”

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.

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.

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 to the season’s close.

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