For several years, the Pennsylvania Game Commission estimated there were 750,000 hunters hitting the woods for the opening day of deer season.
For this season’s opener, which begins Monday, the agency estimates hunter turnout to be around 550,000.
Does that mean there are 200,000 fewer hunters in the state?
Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau said the agency’s estimate of 750,000 deer hunters was high over the last few years, and it’s likely because more hunters have taken up archery hunting and they’re having success.
“The harvest success in archery season is trending upward,” Lau said.
During the 2015-16 hunting season, archery hunters harvested 98,972 deer, according to PGC estimates. Of those, more than half of the harvest, 51,280, were bucks, meaning those hunters can’t hunt in most Wildlife Management Units where the first week is antlered deer only on opening day.
While the archery harvest is up, so is the number of archery hunters. Archery license sales among residents and nonresidents totaled 340,474 in 2015. Lau said archery license sales for this hunting season are expected to surpass last year’s total.
“More people are choosing to archery hunt because of crossbows, a longer season, the opportunity to hunt the rut and favorable weather,” Lau said. “We estimate that 74 percent of deer hunters are hunting on the opening day of the rifle season, and that has dropped. But there is a reciprocal rise in archery license sales and archery harvest.”
Lots of opportunity: So what can hunter’s expect for this year’s 12-day firearms season?
Plenty of opportunity, according to PGC executive director Matthew Hough.
“The prospect of bagging a trophy buck in Pennsylvania probably has never been better,” Hough said. “More and more of the buck harvest is being made up of mature bucks. In the 2015-16 seasons, an incredible 59 percent of bucks taken by hunters were ages 2½ or older. And many of these deer are absolute wall-hangers that any hunter would be proud to take.
“But whether you’re fortunate enough to encounter one of these trophies this season, or your buck of a lifetime will have to wait for a future season, the coming firearms deer season is something to which we all can look forward,” he said. “It’s a tradition that’s about more than just harvesting deer. It’s about family and friends enjoying the outdoors together. Moreover, it’s what being a Pennsylvanian is all about.”
Deer forecast: Food availability always influences deer movements and deer hunting, and this year has been one of the best in memory for red-oak acorn production statewide.
While that’s a good thing for the deer that live in areas where red-oak acorns are especially abundant, it could make for tougher deer hunting there.
When mast crops are abundant, deer don’t have to move much to find food. And studies show deer harvests tend to drop in years of abundant mast.
At the same time, hunters can be reasonably confident that if they’re hunting in an area with available food, deer are in the area, as well.
The presence in that area of other hunters who, through their activity, might move deer, leading to increased movements and sightings, and a better chance for harvest.
Participation trending downward: Participation in the firearms deer season has been trending downward in recent years as the archery deer season has become more popular with hunters, and more deer are taken in the archery season, before the firearms deer season begins.
Archery license sales have increased annually since 2007. And in the 2015-16 seasons, deer harvested during archery seasons accounted for 31 percent of the overall deer harvest.
Still, the opening day of the firearms deer season is like no other. In 2015, 27 percent of the total deer harvest – and 47 percent of the buck harvest – occurred on the opening day. And this year, an estimated 550,000 hunters statewide are expected to take part in the firearms season’s opening day, which widely is regarded as an unofficial holiday in Pennsylvania.
Deer populations are being tracked as stable or increasing in each of the state’s 23 wildlife management units, said Christopher Rosenberry, who supervises the Game Commission’s Deer and Elk Section.
The chances to take a trophy buck in Pennsylvania might be better than ever.
Rosenberry said 59 percent of the bucks harvested in the 2015-16 seasons were 2½ years old or older – the highest percentage recorded in decades.
Back in 2002, only 20 percent of the bucks harvested were 2½ years old or older.
Food availability: Aside from the red-oak acorn crop, mast crops such as white- and chestnut-oak acorns, beechnuts, apples, berries and grapes are spotty statewide – good in some areas, poor in others.
In forested areas where mast is spotty overall, deer are likely to concentrate where food is available, and finding food might uncover a potential deer hotspot.
The Game Commission has also increased the number of Deer Hunter Focus Areas on state game lands statewide this year.
These areas, which are posted with signs that identify them to hunters, have undergone recent timber harvests or other habitat projects, creating new forest growth that could be causing deer to concentrate there because young forest is an important deer food source.
An interactive map of Deer Hunter Focus Areas and a list of state game lands containing Deer Hunter Focus Areas is available at the Game Commission’s website.