The 150-class 10-pointer suddenly appeared out of nowhere. One minute the bowhunter was looking at empty woods, the next a mature buck was standing within bow range. Waiting for the buck to make a move, the hunter nervously sat in his perch wondering if the deer could hear his heart pounding. Finally the buck started down the trail, searching for a doe that had passed by earlier. The hunter stood up, drew his bow, and made a lethal shot.
Walking up on this fine trophy would have been the event of a lifetime a decade ago in his native Pennsylvania, but for bowhunter Scott Walker, this was not even the biggest rack he had spotted during the season. While images of such trophies might generate thoughts of hunting in the Midwest, the fact is that Scott was hunting on public land in the south-central part of the state.
In Pennsylvania, once known as a “numbers” state for the both the number of hunters in the woods and the number of deer taken, the vast majority of deer hunters who headed to camp each fall during much of the 20th century were happy to put their tag on a spike or forkhorn buck. For decades, 1 1/2-year-old bucks made up about 80 percent of the antlered-deer harvest, according to Dr. Christopher Rosenberry, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist. But that was before antler restrictions.
A NEW DAY DAWNING
With deer numbers skyrocketing out of control in the late ’90s and one buck for nearly every 15 does across much of the state, some necessary changes in deer management were very much needed, and they came about in 2002. At that time, Dr. Gary Alt, well-known black bear biologist, moved from managing bears to managing the state’s whitetail herd. His methods were simple: add antler restrictions and increase the allocation of antlerless licenses.
Much like other states in the Northeast, Pennsylvania hunters were taking nearly 75 percent of the antlered bucks from the deer herd each hunting season, with very little emphasis placed on harvesting antlerless deer. The predictable result was a serious overpopulation problem that was wreaking havoc on the habitat. Research information showed that the average buck field dressed less than 100 pounds, and the average doe was 10 to 20 pounds lighter still.
Though the anticipated results would take years to realize, some 1,017,154 Pennsylvania hunters went afield during the 2002-2003 hunting season with a totally different attitude. The total buck harvest dropped about 18.5 percent, from 203,247 the season before to 165,416 during the 2002-03 season. Of much more significance, however, was the fact that the antlerless harvest increased from 282,767 to 352,113 during that same period.
A REMARKABLE DIFFERENCE
Dr. Gary Alt, then chief of the agency’s deer management section, believed that antler restrictions protected about 40,000 additional antlered bucks, nearly twice as many as had usually survived during past deer seasons. In addition, hunters took about 70,000 more antlerless deer than in 2001, helping to balance the herd.
During the 2006-2007 deer season, hunters took 135,290 antlered deer. Dr. Rosenberry says that the average post-antler-restriction harvest has consisted of a 50-50 split of yearlings and bucks 2 1/2 years old or older. The antlerless harvest has been declining somewhat since 2002, with the 2006-2007 harvest being 226,270 deer. According to the Game Commission, button bucks made up 23 percent of that harvest. While the Game Commission has been working to educate hunters not to shoot these six-month-old bucks, it’s often hard for hunters in woodland habitat to correctly identify button bucks.
In addition to the herd realignment, other positive signs have come about as a result of this new management strategy. The doe:buck ratio dropped to less than two adult females for every adult male, according to Dr. Rosenberry. Reproductive rates for mature does averaged higher than in previous years. Weights were up, with many bucks field dressing at over 200 pounds. One road-killed buck in Jefferson Township in Fayette County pushed the scales to well over the 300-pound mark. An Elk County deer processor complained to Forester Bryce Hall that the deer were now too heavy to carry, forcing his employees to quarter the deer so they could carry them to the coolers. Dr. Rosenberry said rack size jumped to a statewide average of just over 7 points.
A BY-PRODUCT OF GOOD MANAGEMENT
Though not intentionally designed to create a “trophy” state, the Game Commission’s management practices have allowed Pennsylvania bucks to grow to what would be considered trophy size in almost anyone’s book. Bob D’Angelo, a certified scorer for Pennsylvania’s record book, said he has seen three to four times as many bucks being eligible for the record book during the past few seasons as compared to the previous decade.
“Actually, we’re measuring more racks in the upper 130s to mid-140s,” Bob commented. “The minimum score to make the Pennsylvania records in the typical firearms category is 140 B&C. I suspect there are a lot more racks scoring in the 120s and lower 130s that guys aren’t bringing in to score, even though they’re still dandy racks, because they realize the racks are below that 140 minimum.”
Bob added that the largest deer to come across his table thus far was a road-killed buck from Allegheny County that netted exactly 170 B&C.
“Guys who don’t like antler restrictions complain until they take the biggest buck of their life, and then they say it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he added.
Bob had to work harder than ever after the 2006-2007 season wound up. Just about every newspaper in the state having an outdoors page and every hunting magazine in the state ran photo after photo of big bucks. The Pennsylvania Game Commission Web site received dozens of pictures of big bucks from all across the state. (To see some of these impressive photos, visit www.pgc.state.pa.us and click on the hunter and trapper scrapbook section.) You can literally see the increase in the number of larger bucks harvested from year to year. According to Elk County Wildlife Conservation Officer Dick Bodenhorn, the largest taxidermy operation in that county had a blockbuster year during the 2006-2007 season. The business took in more whitetails to mo
unt that year than in any other of its more than 30 years in operation.