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Stock Up: Northern Pennsylvania Hunting Scene

Stock Up: Northern Pennsylvania Hunting Scene

Every year whopper buck reports circulate through the whitetail grapevine as feverishly as gossip through the girls' room at middle school. Pictures fly from smartphone to smartphone while updates filter through Facebook. Most of the bucks that get nationwide attention come from Ohio or farther west, but a few impressive giants are harvested in a state not often mentioned: Pennsylvania.

Mike Speaker's buck topped 193 inches in score, making him the biggest ever recorded from northwestern Pennsylvania's McKean County. Photo courtesy of Mike Speaker

Two bucks worthy of such attention were taken in 2015. These gnarly non-typical bruisers from the rifle season mirror one another almost like bookends framing the northern-tier counties of Pennsylvania. One of the giants was killed by Mike Speaker, a lifelong hunter who has taken many bucks over the years. The other was harvested by 21-year old Brice Jenney, and it was his first buck.

The Speaker buck hails from the town of Bradford in McKean County. The Jenney buck fell three counties to the east, 130 miles away near the village of East Smithfield in Bradford County. The Speaker buck was at least 5 1/2 years old, judging by trail camera history, but at this writing the teeth hadn't yet been sent in for aging. The Jenney buck was an old-timer, aged by tooth cross-section at 7 1/2 years.

The Speaker Buck

Pennsylvania's rifle season opener is always the Monday after Thanksgiving. Rachel Speaker wanted to hunt with her dad until noon before making the six-hour trek back to the University of Findlay in Ohio, where she's a pharmacy student. Mike has hunted in recent years from a friend's camp 15 miles southwest of Bradford, near Marshburg. Rachel grew up hunting with her dad behind their house, and for old times' sake, she wanted to hunt there again. Mike agreed with the idea and sighted in her rifle, scouted the area and made sure she had a safe stand.

On Sunday night, Mike and Rachel were doing what hunters all over Pennsylvania were doing: reminiscing about past hunts and discussing their odds for the next morning before turning in for a few hours of restless sleep.

By the time the sun eased over the horizon on Monday morning, Mike and Rachel were perched in their stands. Back before the state implemented antler restrictions, opening day often sounded like a Civil War skirmish, but now the woods are relatively quiet. As the minute hand ticked toward the noon hour, Rachel finally saw a buck approaching. The buck met the state's antler restriction rule, and Rachel sent a bullet his way from her Remington 700, which is chambered in .308 Win. Her dad was nearby, heard the shot, and hurried over to help Rachel field-dress her buck.

Any legal deer is reason to celebrate in heavily hunted McKean County, especially when time is running out, and this father-daughter team had made one more lasting memory. Mike hung her deer in his garage in preparation for skinning and said his goodbyes to Rachel, who went in to shower and pack before heading back to college.

With a few hours left in the day, thoughts of a giant buck occupied Mike's mind. He had never seen it, but a young neighbor, Mike Wolf, had shown him several trail camera photos taken over the last few years. Wondering if the buck had survived the orange army that invades the woods on opening morning, Speaker decided to head to his stand for an afternoon sit. Tired from the short night's sleep and the excitement of Rachel's success, he dug a sandwich out of his pack at about 1:30 and began eating to stay awake. A couple of bites into it, he turned his head and saw antlers big enough to wake up any hunter.

The buck was relaxed and feeding toward him about 80 yards away. Through his scope, Mike saw a drop tine on each main beam, healthy mass on both sides, and too many points to count. This had to be the buck the locals nicknamed "Goliath." Despite the fact Mike had harvested dozens of bucks over the years, he began a battle with buck fever by going through a mental checklist: move slowly, stay calm, get a steady rest, carefully place the crosshairs on the deer's shoulder and ease the safety off. Goliath worked closer, and when the angle was right, Mike squeezed the trigger.

The deer ran only 20 yards and stopped. Was the buck hit, or simply startled at the crack of the rifle? Mike slipped another 140-grain round into the chamber of his .7mm-08 Browning A-Bolt rifle. As he prepped for another shot, the buck wobbled and went down. Fueled by adrenaline, a full-blown case of buck fever had Speaker shivering from head to toe. He had killed the dream buck of a million Pennsylvania hunters, a buck that any hunter in North America would be thrilled to shoot.

After regaining control of his shaking body, Speaker climbed down and headed toward the buck. Most hunters promptly grip an antler and raise the head to look over their trophy, but Mike first stopped to stare before touching his buck. Then he sat down to think, to honor this trophy, to recognize it as a gift and to offer thanks to God. What an opening day this had turned out to be. Mike had witnessed his daughter's last-minute success and had followed that hunt with his own trophy of a lifetime.

The Speaker buck has a pair of drop tines that would be impressive anywhere in North America. Photo by Steve Sorensen

Mike could hardly wait to tell Rachel. Thinking she'd be on the road, he tried her cell phone. But Rachel hadn't yet left, so she came up the hill to help her dad. Mike Wolf wasn't far away, either. Text messages flew back and forth, and in short order help was on the way.

"Drop tines are what set this buck apart," says the hunter. "He's a main-frame 4x4 in the 140-class, but sticker points, drop tines and split tines add almost 60 inches of non-typical points to his rack. The buck field dressed at a measly 122 pounds, with not an ounce of fat. The oak trees in the area hadn't produced much for three years, and certainly the rut had taken its toll."

A hunter can't help but wonder what this buck would have been had he been better nourished. But that's northern Pennsylvania for you.

The Jenney Buck

Brice Jenney is about the age of Mike's daughter. But while he'd never shot a buck prior to 2015, he's no novice at pursuing whitetails. He's been hunting since he was first eligible to buy a license at age 12. He'd taken eight or nine does during his first decade as a hunter, so he knows the excitement of pulling the trigger on a deer.

Brice Jenney never dreamed his first buck would be the best ever from northeastern Pennsylvania's Bradford County, with a net score of just over 200 inches. Photo courtesy of Brice Jenney

Brice and his dad, Larry, have never wanted to shoot small bucks. They prefer mature headgear on their bucks — which is why Larry has shot only two in his entire career in a state with a long history of most hunters taking immature bucks. When either of these hunters pulls the trigger, he wants the deer to be dead, which is why Brice passed up long shots on two shooter bucks on the Monday opener.

Brice spent most of the following Saturday working on his girlfriend's car, helped by buddy Ryan Holton. That afternoon, Ryan asked Brice if he wanted to spend the last couple hours of the day on a new property he'd secured permission to hunt. So Brice tagged along, not even changing out of the oily Carhartts he'd been wearing to work on the car.

Neither man had high expectations, though they knew a giant buck was in the area. Brice had seen him a year earlier on a pine plantation a few miles away and had noticed a drop tine on the rack. But the hunter certainly didn't expect to see the buck again. Properties in this area are relatively small, and the buck was known to travel across several boundary lines, exposing himself to plenty of hunting pressure. Hunters had been getting trail camera photos of the buck for at least five years. In fact, one had missed the giant three times the previous year, and at least one other hunter also had reported missing him. A few local bowhunters had been after the deer all archery season.

Brice and Ryan headed to the farm, a 160-acre spread dedicated to raising beef cattle. About half the land was under cultivation or in pasture, with the remainder in timber. After the two hunters walked across the entire farm without seeing a deer, they hoped to get something moving by using their remaining time to do a quick drive.

As Ryan got into position to start a push, Brice headed for a point where he could watch for movement. Sure enough, after only a few minutes he saw the rump of a deer. Then he saw antlers with good mass and at least three points sticking straight up on one side.

"I thought it was a good buck with a regular main frame," Brice says. "It was following a doe and not paying any attention to me or my smelly Carhartts."

The buck picked up his pace, and Brice fired a shot from his .300 Weatherby Magnum, a rifle passed down from his grandfather and father.

"My first shot hit him, and I jacked another round into my rifle and fired again," recalls Brice. "That one hit him, too. But everything happened fast, and the deer took off like he wasn't hit."

The hunters saw plenty of blood on the ground. But the trail was confusing to sort out, because other hunters had shot a doe and a coyote there that morning.

"My heart sank when I followed the blood to a gut pile," Brice remembers. "But then I realized no one could have field-dressed the buck and gotten it out of there so fast."

So the hunters backtracked to re-evaluate the trail. This time, it led them to the wounded buck.

"When I came up on him, he was lying on the ground about 10 yards down the hill from me," says Brice. "I finished him off with a heart shot."

Brice couldn't wait to get him loaded onto the truck and show him to Larry.

"When I told him to come out and take a look at my 'spike,' I knew he'd be in for a surprise," Brice says. "When he saw the buck, he couldn't hold back tears of joy and gave me a hug. I know my grandpa and mom would be proud, too." (Robbin Jenney, Brice's mother, had also been a hunter, but she'd lost her battle with cancer in 2007.)

Older Bucks Equal Bigger Bucks

In the northern timber of Pennsylvania, deer rarely get as big as these two beasts. Strong antler genetics are present, as evidenced by old-time photos from the area and modern bucks like these, but nutrition is spotty. Also, heavy hunting pressure from a two-week rifle season eliminates many bucks before they become mature. Still, if one can escape the hunting pressure and find enough nourishment, even in this part of the state he can become something special.

Both of these bucks beat decades-old records in the counties where they were taken, and both rank high in the Pennsylvania non-typical records. The Speaker buck tallied 197 4/8 inches gross, netting 193 1/8. That surpasses Lawrence Leggett's 1943 McKean County record by 8 inches.

The live weight of the Jenney buck was estimated at about 200 pounds. The antler bases measured just over 6 inches in circumference. Its net non-typical score (still unofficial at press time) was 200 7/8 inches, enough to easily top the Bradford County non-typical record, set in 1930 by Milton Dodge at 180 7/8 inches. The Jenney buck's entry score also appears to make him No. 11 in the state.

Prior to 2002, Pennsylvania had only token antler restrictions in place. To that point, a legal buck had to have at least two points on one antler or have a spike at least 3 inches in length. But that rule still resulted in roughly 80 percent of the antlered harvest being made up of yearling bucks (1 1/2 years old).

In an effort to improve buck age structure, in 2002 the rule changed to make the minimum three (in some areas four) points per antler. With minor tweaks, this rule has remained in place ever since, and the effect has been significant; fewer than half the antlered deer now harvested in Pennsylvania are yearlings.

This rule might never turn the Keystone State into a trophy mecca rivaling the Midwest. Evidence is clear, however, that it's helped the state produce more mature bucks. In the 14 years since real antler restrictions became law, five of Pennsylvania's all-time top 11 non-typicals have been harvested. So big bucks increasingly are out there, and any hunter willing to apply his or her skills might end up with one. Mike Speaker and Brice Jenney's impressive 2015 results are testament to that.

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