It’s one thing to dream of winning the lottery. It’s another to base your entire financial future on the long odds of it actually happening.
The wiser course is to seek out an investment offering reliable, consistent returns.
Something that’s as stable as, let’s say, Pennsylvania deer hunting. Over the long term, hunters here take, on a per square mile basis, more deer than their counterparts almost anywhere in the country. That’s how things have long been. It’s how they remain.
Soon, hunters will have the opportunity to build on that trend again. Pennsylvania’s statewide firearms deer season is set to begin. It kicks off on Saturday, Nov. 26, continues on Sunday, Nov. 27, and runs through Dec. 10. Hunting is closed only on Sunday, Dec. 4.
What hunters will encounter is, by all indications, a deer herd that’s doing just fine.
David Stainbrook, Deer and Elk Management Section Supervisor for the Game Commission, said one way to measure trends is to look at the buck harvest per square mile. That’s a good general barometer of deer population abundance.
According to the National Deer Association, in the 10 hunting seasons between 2011 and 2020, Pennsylvania ranked second in the nation for buck harvest per square mile three times, third twice, fourth three times and fifth twice. Buck harvests over the decade averaged 3.2 per square mile, right in keeping with last year’s take.
Of course, the buck harvest per square mile varies between individual Wildlife Management Units (WMUs), with some producing more than others. WMU 2D, for example, produced 4.9 bucks per square mile each season over the last three, on average. That was tops in Pennsylvania. Seven other WMUs also averaged at least four bucks per square mile over that time, though: 1B (4.7), 4E (4.6), 2E (4.4), 3C (4.3), 2B (4.1), 2A (4.0) and 3A (4.0).
Pennsylvania’s antlerless deer harvest, meanwhile, broken down on a per-square-mile-basis, also annually ranks among the best in the country. For those who want to experience that, antlerless licenses remain available in a few WMUs, as do Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) tags in places.
Add it all up and hunters can find deer – bucks and antlerless deer both – this fall across Pennsylvania, provided they’re willing to work for them.
“Success in harvesting deer starts with scouting and knowing the land,” Stainbrook said. “But patience and putting in time are important, too. Persistence matters, as one additional day hunting can make the difference between a successful season and an unsuccessful one.”
A flexible season designed around when many people are off work – the weekend after Thanksgiving – provides the chance for hunters to get out just that way, all while making memories with family and friends.
“Pennsylvania’s firearms deer season draws more than 600,000 hunters to Penn’s Woods every year and it’s not hard to see why,” said Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “A productive deer herd that, thanks to antler point restrictions, includes a high proportion of adult bucks, spread out across the Commonwealth, together with a season that’s as user friendly as any we’ve offered, set the stage for an exciting time. I can’t wait.”
Hunt where the foods favored by wildlife are most abundant and you just might get to fill a tag. Don’t and you may find yourself doing little more than enjoying the scenery.
That could be truer than ever for hunters this season.
Hard mast – specifically acorns – are very sporadic this year. Paul Weiss, Chief of the Game Commission’s Forestry Division, said multiple regions of the state report poor acorn crops this fall, something that can be blamed on consecutive years of heavy spongy moth defoliation coupled with drought conditions in 2022.
That’s not to say all is lost.
There are still pockets of moderate red oak acorn production, Weiss said, especially on State Game Lands sprayed to control spongy moths over the past two years. Red oak acorns take two years to mature, so stands that were sprayed last year are producing acorns now even if they were damaged this past spring.
Likewise, white and chestnut oak acorn crops are down compared to the bumper crop seen last year in areas not impacted by spongy moths. So much like the deer, hunters will have to search a bit to find those places where they’re most plentiful. There aren’t many such spots this fall, but there are enough in some areas to make looking for them worthwhile.
Hickory nuts, by comparison, are fairly consistent this year and can be found in sufficient supply.
As for soft mast, droughty weather also impacted it across much of the state. Still, Weiss said there are pretty good crabapple, hawthorn, and grape crops in most places, if not in the same abundance as last year.
In all cases, deer usually make a mess wherever they eat, so it shouldn’t be hard to sort out whether they’re using an area. Look for raked up leaves, droppings and partially eaten mast for confirmation.
Then, when setting up a hunting stand, use the prevailing wind to your advantage. It should blow from where you expect to see deer to your location.
Finally, dress for the weather and sit tight. There will be other hunters out there, too, some sitting, others still-hunting or driving for deer in groups. They might chase deer your way.
Hunters are permitted to harvest one antlered deer with a valid general hunting license, which costs $20.97 for adult residents and $101.97 for adult nonresidents.
To take an antlerless deer, a hunter must possess either a valid antlerless deer license or valid Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) permit. A mentored hunter under the age of 7 cannot apply for their own antlerless license or DMAP permit but can harvest an antlerless deer if an antlerless license or DMAP permit is transferred to them by a mentor at the time of harvest.
Antlerless deer licenses can be used anywhere within the Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) for which they’re issued.
A DMAP permit can be used only on the specific property for which it is issued.
Some DMAP permits might remain available on private and public properties throughout the state. Visit the Game Commission’s website to learn more about where they are available.
Mentored hunting permits, meanwhile, are available to hunters of all ages. Mentored hunters ages 7 and older receive an antlered deer harvest tag with their permit. Those under 7 must receive deer harvest tags from their mentors. A mentor can transfer an antlered deer harvest tag and an antlerless license and/or DMAP permit to a mentored hunter under 7.
Mentored hunters ages 7 and older can apply for one antlerless deer license. They can also apply for DMAP permits, following the same regulations as adults.
Mentored hunting permit fees are $2.97 for residents and nonresidents under 12; $6.97 for residents 12 to 16; $41.97 for nonresidents 12 to 16; $20.97 for residents 17 and older; and $101.97 for nonresidents 17 and older.
Hunters 12 or older who are certified through the Game Commission’s Hunter-Trapper Education program qualify to purchase general hunting licenses, which provide more privileges. Certified hunters 12 to 16 can obtain junior licenses, the least expensive of which cost $6.97 for residents and $41.97 for nonresidents.
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.
General hunting licenses can be purchased online, but as the season nears, hunters might find it better to purchase licenses in person. Hunters can carry a digital version of their general license afield, but still need their paper harvest tags. Deer licenses purchased online are mailed, meaning those harvest tags 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.
Deer season regulations
Rules regarding the number of points a legal buck must have on one antler vary by WMU. In most WMUs, a buck with three points to a side, counting the brow tine, is legal. But in WMUs 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B and 2D, a buck must have three points not counting the brow tine.
Junior license holders, mentored youth, disabled hunters with a permit to use a vehicle, and resident active duty U.S. Armed Services personnel, can harvest antlered deer with two or more points on one antler, or a spike three or more inches in length.
For a complete breakdown of antler restrictions, WMU boundaries and other regulations, consult the 2022-23 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which is provided to hunters at the time they purchase their licenses and available online at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov.
Deer hunters everywhere statewide, meanwhile, must wear at all times a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on their head, chest and back combined, visible from 360 degrees, during the firearms deer season. An orange hat and vest will satisfy the requirement.
Nonhunters who might be afield during deer season and other hunting seasons should consider wearing orange, as well. And on state game lands between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15, nonhunters are required to meet the 250-square-inch fluorescent orange requirement.
Hunters who harvest a deer are required to affix a valid tag to the ear – not an antler – before the deer is moved. Hunters – especially those considering having their deer mounted – can use a large safety pin to attach the tag, as it won’t damage the ear. The tag must be filled out with a ballpoint pen and notched or cut with the correct date of harvest.
Hunters must then report their harvest to the Game Commission within 10 days. Harvests can be reported online at www.huntfish.pa.gov, by calling 1-800-838-4431 or by mailing in the postage-paid cards that are provided in the digest.
Mentored youth hunters are required to report deer harvests within five days. And hunters with DMAP permits must report on their hunting success within 10 days of the last possible date of harvest, regardless of whether they harvest deer.
Hunt safely from tree stands
As the use of tree stands has grown in popularity, so, too, have incidences of injuries resulting from tree stand falls and accidents.
With that in mind, wearing a full-body harness is essential to staying safe when using a tree stand. But a harness can prevent falls to the ground only if it is connected to the tree.
“That means you must wear your harness, and be sure it’s connected to the tree, at all times you’re in the stand, as well as when you’re getting into and out of the stand, or climbing or descending trees,” explained A.J. Garcia, the Game Commission’s hunter-education administrator.
Consult the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure proper installation and inspect your stand, harness and safety straps, ropes and lines before use.
A hunter using a climbing stand should tie-in the safety rope or strap that pairs with the harness before beginning to climb.
Consult the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure proper installation and inspect your stand, harness and safety straps, ropes and lines before use.
With a climbing tree stand, you’ll want to move the safety rope or strap up the tree first, then tighten it, each time before moving the platform up the tree. If the rope is at or slightly above eye-level as you stand on the platform, you should have plenty of room to raise the platform to a higher standing position before moving the rope up the tree again before climbing. Also, make sure your foot platform and seat platform are tied together with a length of rope to ensure that the foot platform does not fall below your reach.
“Make sure you have proper contact with the stand and tree every time you move,” emphasized Garcia.
It takes only a little longer to climb with a rope, and if the stand fails due to breakage or a pin pulling out of the climbing band, or if a fall occurs because slippage or loss of balance, the harness and rope will prevent falling to the ground.
With pre-installed hang-on stands – and especially ladder stands – the most-practical way to stay connected to the tree is through a safety line, commonly referred to by the brand name Lifeline, that hangs to the ground from above the platform.
Because the safety line is installed above the platform, the tree must be climbed first to install one, but other safety ropes or straps, along with your harness, can be used for installation. When installing a safety line at a hang-on stand, a linemen’s style belt can be worn while ascending the tree. A linemen’s belt might not be an option for many ladder stands, but a separate ladder and linemen’s belt could be used to install the safety line before the ladder stand is installed.
It's also wise to carry a Suspension Relief Strap (SRS). In the event of a fall, this strap – attached left and right at the waist – will allow you to stand in the strap, thereby relieving pressure from your harness on the lower extremities. Practice with a partner at ground level using the SRS with your fall arrest system and practice self-recovery by getting back into your stand. If you don’t have an SRS, keep your legs moving to avoid blood pooling in the lower legs. Hanging motionless in your harness can lead to a heart attack.
When using a ladder stand, climbing stick or tree steps, make sure to maintain three points of contact (two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand) with each step.
The important points are to always take your time and be safe when using stands. Always put on your safety harness while you’re still on the ground, and keep it connected to the tree at all times until you’re back on the ground.
Finally, always carry an easy-to-reach signaling device, such as a cell phone, whistle or emergency beacon, that will work in the location you hunt.
Extended bear season
As was the case last year, hunters can harvest a black bear in some WMUs starting throughout the opening week of deer season in some WMUs.
The extended bear season runs Nov. 26-Dec. 3 in WMUs 1B, 2C, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 5A. It runs Nov. 26-Dec. 10 in WMUs 2B, 5B, 5C and 5D.
To participate in the extended bear season, a hunter needs a general hunting license, as well as a bear license. In periods where the extended bear season overlaps portions of the firearms deer season, properly licensed hunters may also harvest deer.
Fluorescent orange requirements for the extended bear season and firearms deer season are identical.
Chronic Wasting Disease
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is an always-fatal disease that is a threat to deer and elk in Pennsylvania. There is no vaccine or cure for CWD. It’s spread by deer-to-deer contact and through the environment.
Since the discovery of the disease in Pennsylvania a decade ago, the fight to slow the spread of CWD continues across the commonwealth. So hunters who harvest deer within any of the state’s Disease Management Areas (DMAs) or its Established Area (EA) must comply with special rules.
There are six DMAs across the state, one of them – DMA 7 – new this hunting season. Created in April after the detection of a CWD-positive deer at a captive facility in Lycoming County, it takes in portions of Lycoming, Northumberland, Montour, Columbia and Sullivan counties.
The boundaries of a few other DMAs, meanwhile, have changed since last season, with the most recent of those impacting DMA 2 in southcentral Pennsylvania.
Because some of those changes became necessary after publication of the Hunting & Trapping Digest that all hunters get with their license, hunters are advised to visit the Game Commission’s website at www.pgc.pa.gov to familiarize themselves with DMA boundary lines.
The EA, meanwhile, is within DMA 2 and includes portions of Bedford, Blair, Fulton, and Huntingdon counties. Approximately 90% of all CWD detections in the state have come from this area.
As a reminder, within a DMA and the EA, it’s illegal within a DMA and the EA to remove any cervid high-risk parts; use or possess cervid urine-based attractants; directly or indirectly feed wild, free-ranging deer; and rehabilitate wild, free-ranging cervids.
High-risk parts include: the head (including brain, tonsils, eyes and any lymph nodes); spinal cord/backbone; spleen; skull plate with attached antlers, if visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present; cape, if visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present; upper canine teeth, if root structure or other soft tissue is present; any object or article containing visible brain or spinal cord tissue; unfinished taxidermy mounts; and brain-tanned hides.
The parts-movement ban means hunters in a DMA and the EA must determine in advance what they’ll do with any deer they harvest. They can take them to a processor within the DMA/EA or to one included on a Game Commission-approved list for that particular DMA/EA, as those processors agree to properly dispose of the high-risk parts. Hunters can also dispose of high-risk parts within the DMA/EA in trash destined for a landfill. Or, while not preferred, they can quarter the animal and leave the high-risk parts at the kill site (preferably buried).
The meat, antlers (free of brain material) and other low-risk parts then can be transported outside the DMA and the EA.
Hunters getting taxidermy mounts must likewise take their deer to a taxidermist within the DMA, the EA or on the Game Commission list. The processor and taxidermist list is available at the Game Commission website. Click on “Wildlife,” then “Wildlife Health,” then “Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).”
There, too, hunters will find the locations of head drop-off bins within DMAs and the EA. Hunters can deposit deer heads – minus any antlers, double-bagged and with a legible harvest tag attached –there and have them tested for CWD for free. Test results can be obtained by calling the CWD hotline (1-833-INFOCWD) or visiting the CWD Results lookup page at https://pgcdatacollection.pa.gov/CWDResultsLookup.
For those who wish to keep their deer head but still get it tested, you can try your hand at sampling it yourself using this instruction video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnEdDmfY-i4.
Hunters can also explore opportunities to get Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) permits, which allow them to take up to two additional antlerless deer in areas where increased CWD surveillance is needed. Some permits may still remain. Hunters can check availability at www.pgc.pa.gov/CWD. Click on “CWD DMAP Area Look Up.”
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. The Game Commission manages wildlife for and in cooperation with the public. Because much is still unknown about CWD, it is important to do all we can to limit exposure of all species (including people) to this known pathogen.
Special Regulations Areas
Deer hunters in most of the state’s Special Regulations Areas may use straight-walled cartridges in addition to other lawful ammunition, but buckshot no longer is permitted, except where authorized under special hunt conditions on state park properties (Ridley Creek and Tyler State Parks).
That change went into effect last year, but not until September. As a result, Game Wardens then focused on educating hunters about the new rule, rather than strictly enforcing the regulation. That will not necessarily be the case this year.
Additional information on deer hunting in Special Regulations Areas is provided in the 2022-23 Hunting & Trapping Digest. Hunters should check it to remain up-to-date.