HARRISBURG — A Saturday opener for the firearms deer season and the possibility of more older bucks throughout the Commonwealth have many Pennsylvanians excited about Nov. 30 and the weeks to follow.
Last year’s firearms deer season saw rainy weather nearly statewide throughout much of the opening day. But even then, 30 percent of the antlered deer harvested in the 2018-19 firearms season were taken on opening day. It was the best day of the season for buck harvest.
It’s likely that opening day will continue to be the best for buck harvest this year, when the season will open on a Saturday, said Christopher Rosenberry, supervisor of the Game Commission’s Deer and Elk Section.
“We expect the opening Saturday to become the biggest harvest day for bucks,” said Rosenberry. “The first Monday will play a lesser role, but how much less remains to be seen. The second Saturday, since it is concurrent with the start of antlerless season, will probably become the second-biggest harvest day for bucks.”
And there now is a third Saturday in the season, as well, since the season was expanded from 12 days to 13 to accommodate a Saturday opener in which more hunters likely will be able to participate.
Pennsylvania’s firearms season historically has drawn the biggest crowds of all hunting seasons and consequently has been the state’s principal deer-management tool for more than a century. Its coming preoccupies many Pennsylvanians through their Thanksgiving meals and sends many more to a variety of outlets to fill their last-minute needs.
“Every deer hunter wants to be afield for the opener,” noted Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “They spend days and days, scouting, buying specialized gear and getting their packs ready.
“When they’re sitting in the dark, waiting for daylight and hoping for a big buck to come, most deer hunters couldn’t be happier, particularly if their son or granddaughter is joining them. It’s a fulfilling experience, regardless of what happens.”
The season always is worth the wait.
BUCK LUCK — Deer hunters had seen the statewide buck harvest increase for three consecutive years until last season’s opening day soaker ruined the streak. But given the carryover of older bucks from last season, there’s no reason a new streak can’t start now. And when you consider the incredible size of some of those big boys, it’s easy to see why the coming season packs so much promise.
Larger-racked – and older – bucks are making up more of the deer harvest with each passing year. Two seasons ago, 163,750 bucks were taken by hunters, making it the second-largest buck harvest in Pennsylvania since antler restrictions were started in 2002. It was the 10th best all-time.
In the 2018-19 hunting seasons the overall deer harvest was 374,690 – 226,940 antlerless deer and 147,750 bucks. But despite the decreased buck harvest in 2018-19 seasons, there were more 2½-year-old and older bucks – 64 percent. Over the previous four years, the percentage of 2½-year-old and older bucks in the annual deer harvest was: 2017, 57 percent; 2016, 56; 2015, 59; and 2014, 57.
“Despite the increased harvest in 2½-year-old and older bucks, the buck-age structure in Pennsylvania is not old,” Rosenberry noted. “However, it is older than before antler-point restrictions were started in 2002.
“Older, bigger-racked bucks are making up more of the buck harvest than they have for at least a couple decades,” Rosenberry said. “Hunters like the bucks in Pennsylvania today compared to what many of them saw 30 years ago.”
Every year, Pennsylvania hunters are taking huge 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 it’s important to remember, every deer matters when only about a third of hunters harvest whitetails during Pennsylvania’s slate of deer seasons.
“Whether it’s a young hunter’s first deer, or a big buck that fell to a hunter on a dark-to-dark sit, they all matter to these hunters, their families and the communities in which they live,” emphasized Burhans. “Hunting deer has been an exciting Pennsylvania pastime for centuries, and it’s sure to remain that way for many generations to come.”
STATEWIDE SEASON — The statewide general firearms season runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 14. In most areas, hunters may take only antlered deer during the season’s first six days, with the antlerless and antlered seasons then running concurrently from the first Saturday, Dec. 7, 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 vary 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 2019-20 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which is available online at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov.
Hunters statewide must 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. Nonhunters who might be afield during the deer season and other hunting seasons are asked to consider wearing orange, as well.
FIELD CONDITIONS — Precipitation through spring and summer has once again fostered an exceptional supply of fall foods in Penn’s Woods. Grazing grass was available in early November. Soft and hard mast crops have been remarkably plentiful in many areas, spotty in others.
Deer typically key on food sources within good cover. And, in the case of cornfields, they might never leave them until the corn comes down. So, hunters are urged to confirm deer activity in areas they plan to hunt before they commit to them.
“Expect the unexpected on the firearms deer season opener,” Burhans noted. “It is hands-down that one day when you never know if or when that buck is coming. You must be ready to take it. Don’t let that buck of a lifetime catch you playing with your smartphone!”