For the most part it begins a day or two prior to buck season. Hunters are making their way to areas they intend to hunt over the course of the first couple days of buck season, and the sharp report of rifles fill the air as they are being checked for downrange accuracy.
A lot goes on prior to Opening Day. Who would have ever thought that amidst all the commotion the deer have been paying close attention to humans in general and hunters in particular?
It’s a proven fact these annual disturbances are not being ignored.
Some will say with a hardy dose of skepticism. However technology has been separating fact from fiction and even closing the books on a couple of old “wives tales” too.
For over a decade the Deer-Forest Study has been capturing and fitting thousands of deer with radio-collars. Later in the program GPS units were fitted to whitetails with GPS tracking units. Over time a wide range of information has been collected.
Duane Diefenbach, adjunct professor of wildlife ecology and leader of the PA Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Penn State, heads up the Deer-Forest Study. He offered insight to deer movements prior to the opening day of PA’s two-week rifle deer season.
“We captured and radio collared bucks that were 1.5 years old or older. By thefollowing deer season all had survived at least two hunting seasons,” Diefenbach pointed out.
What was learned was amazing due to the use of GPS tracking.
Diefenbach went on explain, “If a deer survives two hunting seasons, their survivalrate over time increases. The reason is they have located places to hide from hunters.”
But when do these smart bucks retreat to their hideaways? GPS tracking indicated it occurs about two days before rifle season opens. Clearly the deer are reacting to increased hunter activity.
But how do these “smart” deer know when it’s time to limit their movements and hide?
And where do they go?
A clearer picture of when and where deer move begins to develop as GPS way points are received from individual deer and are overlaid on a topographical map.
As the two week rifle season begins, both bucks and does limit their movements.
However it is interesting to note that the research showed that a lot of bucks move during the afternoon hours. But they don’t go far.
The study found that both bucks and does reduce their home range to about 100 acres in the daytime.
A common denominator among deer are the areas they tend to gravitate to in an effort to avoid hunters.
The study consistently found that deer seek out vantage points, places where there is a prevailing west wind and to the east a steep slope offering a quick getaway.
For the hunter the deer are playing a terrain game hunters will seldom win.
Whitetails that use this strategy are in place long before daylight.
There was a time when there was an overabundance of deer on the landscape. Those were the days when over 70 percent of the bucks in the year and a half old age class and were taken within the first cold days of the season. That was also a time when a larger percentage of the deer population had yet to reach maturity. That too has been changing, which brings us up to another portion of the study.
Keep in mind the Deer-Forest Study has and continues to be conducted on public lands. The study areas include portions of the Susquehannock and Bald Eagle and Rothrock State Forests.
Whitetail survival rates can and will vary across the state. However let’s review data compiled within the northern tier of the state.
Data gleaned from the study area in the Susquehannock State Forest within DMA 2G states that 88 percent of females will survive their first year as fawns.
And 83 percent will make it through their second. After this, each year 89 percent of females will survive the hunting season. That’s impressive.
For bucks it’s a different story. Again the study revealed that only 69 percent of bucks survive their second hunting season. The following year only 30 percent of the remaining older bucks will be harvested.
It is also interesting to note that within the study area in DMA 2G less than nine percent of bucks are 6.5 years of age or older.
By contrast there was a doe captured and identified in the Quehanna Wild Area as a fawn in 2001. The doe was later captured in a trail camera and identified. She was 13.5 years old.
So what does all this information provide? Plenty.
One thing is for sure and the data proves this out, that deer are very adaptable to hunters. The importance of seeking those out-of-the-way places deer gravitate to is a key factor when locating deer prior to and during rifle season.
In the past Pennsylvania’s whitetails were no doubt just as savvy as those hunted today. The only difference is that today a greater number of deer are reaching maturity. And that in itself presents new challenges to today’s deer hunter.
Granted, deer numbers are not what they were during the 80s and 90s.
But more importantly the whitetails hunters pursue today are in general older, more seasoned, and smarter than those we hunted “back in the day.”
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Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net