HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s coming firearms deer season looks as promising as ever to the hundreds of thousands of hunters awaiting its start next Monday.
Deer hunters have seen the statewide buck harvest increase over each of the past three years, and more than a million whitetails have been taken by hunters over the same period. Many are wondering, “Can it get any better?”
Unseasonably warm weather, later leaf-drop and rain made it more challenging to pattern deer movements and take whitetails throughout the statewide six-week archery season, which concluded Nov. 12. Now the Commonwealth’s “orange-clad army” awaits its next opportunity to hunt deer in the statewide firearms season.
Pennsylvania’s firearms season draws the biggest crowd and consequently has been the state’s principal deer-management tool for more than a century. In many rural areas, the opener is equivalent to a holiday, and some schools still close their doors 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 45 percent of the season’s buck harvest was taken on the opener last year.
“Opening days have been drawing the largest crowds of hunters for a long, long time,” explained Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “It’s that day when anything really can happen, when lifetime bucks are taken, when hunters are bound to see more deer than any other day of the hunting season. It’s when every hunter wants to be tucked away in the woods waiting for a big buck to come his or her way.
“The firearms season opener is always worth the wait,” Burhans said. “But so is the first Saturday of the season. Last fall, hunters took more deer on the first Saturday than the opening day — a first in Pennsylvania’s deer-management history. So, if you can find the time, get afield for both days. They really are two of the best times to be deer hunting.”
Larger-racked — and older — bucks are making up more of the deer harvest with each passing year. Last year, 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 2017, 57 percent of the antlered buck harvest was made up of bucks 2½ years old or older, said Christopher Rosenberry, who supervises the Game Commission’s Deer and Elk Section. The rest were 1½ years old.
“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.
STATEWIDE SEASON — The statewide general firearms season runs from Monday to Dec. 8. 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. 1, 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.
— The applicable WMUs to most of the area are 2D (Clarion and Jefferson counties south of Route 322 and Interstate 80 and Armstrong County) and 2F (Clarion and Jefferson counties north of Route 322 and Interstate 80 and north).
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 2018-19 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which is available online at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov.
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.
CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE — Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2012. To help prevent the spread of CWD, the Game Commission created Disease Management Areas (DMA) where specific regulations apply.
Currently there are three DMAs. DMA 2 includes parts of Adams, Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Clearfield, Cumberland, Franklin, Fulton, Juniata, Perry, Huntingdon and Somerset counties. DMA 3 includes about 350 square miles in Armstrong, Clarion, Clearfield, Indiana and Jefferson counties. And DMA 4 encompasses 346 square miles in Berks, Lancaster and Lebanon counties.
For the specific boundaries of each DMA, check the Game Commission’s website — www.pgc.pa.gov.
Hunters harvesting deer within a DMA may not export deer parts deemed to have a high-risk of spreading CWD from the DMA. The head – specifically the brain, eyes, tonsils and lymph nodes, spinal cord and spleen are considered high-risk parts. In addition, hunters harvesting deer in CWD-positive states or provinces cannot import these high-risk parts into Pennsylvania. Once high-risk parts are removed, hunters can export the remaining meat on or off the bone, cleaned capes, cleaned skull plates with antlers, and finished taxidermy mounts from the DMA.
Hunters can dispose of high-risk parts through their curbside trash service or in dumpsters provided by the Game Commission. Locations of dumpsters can be found on the Game Commission’s website – www.pgc.pa.gov.
Hunters may take their harvested deer to any processor or taxidermist within the DMA. In some cases, cooperating processors and taxidermists just beyond the border of a DMA can accept deer from a DMA. A list of cooperating processors and taxidermists is available on the Game Commission’s website – www.pgc.pa.gov.
Hunters who take deer within DMAs can have their deer tested – free of charge – for CWD, and at the same time help the Game Commission fight this deadly disease.
Chronic wasting disease is always fatal to deer and there is no vaccine or cure. The disease is spread by deer-to-deer contact and through the environment. Although there is no known case of it being transmitted to humans, the Game Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people do not 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 – www.pgc.pa.us.