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PGC PHOTO/JOE KOSSOCK Larger-racked – and older – bucks are making up more of the deer harvest with each passing year.

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PGC PHOTO/JOE KOSSOCK Saturday is the opener for the firearms deer season.

A Saturday opener for the firearms deer season and the possibility of more older bucks throughout the Commonwealth have many Pennsylvanians excited about Nov. 30 and the weeks to follow.

Last year’s firearms deer season saw rainy weather nearly statewide throughout much of the opening day. But even then, 30 percent of the antlered deer harvested in the 2018-19 firearms season were taken on opening day. It was the best day of the season for buck harvest.

It’s likely that opening day will continue to be the best for buck harvest this year, when the season will open on a Saturday, said Christopher Rosenberry, supervisor of the Game Commission’s Deer and Elk Section.

“We expect the opening Saturday to become the biggest harvest day for bucks,” said Rosenberry. “The first Monday will play a lesser role, but how much less remains to be seen. The second Saturday, since it is concurrent with the start of antlerless season, will probably become the second-biggest harvest day for bucks.”

And there now is a third Saturday in the season, as well, since the season was expanded from 12 days to 13 to accommodate a Saturday opener in which more hunters likely will be able to participate.

Pennsylvania’s firearms season historically has drawn the biggest crowds of all hunting seasons and consequently has been the state’s principal deer-management tool for more than a century. Its coming preoccupies many Pennsylvanians through their Thanksgiving meals and sends many more to a variety of outlets to fill their last-minute needs.

“Every deer hunter wants to be afield for the opener,” noted Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “They spend days and days, scouting, buying specialized gear and getting their packs ready.

“When they’re sitting in the dark, waiting for daylight and hoping for a big buck to come, most deer hunters couldn’t be happier, particularly if their son or granddaughter is joining them. It’s a fulfilling experience, regardless of what happens.”

The season always is worth the wait.

As a reminder, hunters statewide must wear at all times a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on their head, chest and back combined. An orange hat and vest will satisfy the requirement. Nonhunters who might be afield during the deer season and other hunting seasons are asked to consider wearing orange, as well.

Buck Luck

Deer hunters had seen the statewide buck harvest increase for three consecutive years until last season’s opening day soaker ruined the streak. But given the carryover of older bucks from last season, there’s no reason a new streak can’t start now. And when you consider the incredible size of some of those big boys, it’s easy to see why the coming season packs so much promise.

Larger-racked – and older – bucks are making up more of the deer harvest with each passing year. Two seasons ago, 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 the 2018-19 hunting seasons the overall deer harvest was 374,690 – 226,940 antlerless deer and 147,750 bucks. But despite the decreased buck harvest in 2018-19 seasons, there were more 2½-year-old and older bucks – 64 percent. Over the previous four years, the percentage of 2½-year-old and older bucks in the annual deer harvest was: 2017, 57 percent; 2016, 56; 2015, 59; and 2014, 57.

“Despite the increased harvest in 2½-year-old and older bucks, the buck-age structure in Pennsylvania is not old,” Rosenberry noted. “However, it is older than before antler-point restrictions were started in 2002.

“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.

“Whether it’s a young hunter’s first deer, or a big buck that fell to a hunter on a dark-to-dark sit, they all matter to these hunters, their families and the communities in which they live,” emphasized Burhans. “Hunting deer has been an exciting Pennsylvania pastime for centuries, and it’s sure to remain that way for many generations to come.”

Field Conditions

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.

When setting up a hunting stand, it’s also a good idea to use the prevailing wind to your advantage. Wherever you hunt, the prevailing wind should blow from where you expect to see deer to your location. Then, dress for the cold and sit tight.

Remember you’re not alone while you’re afield. Other hunters also are waiting on stand, still-hunting or driving for deer in groups. So, even if your position overlooking a feeding area fails to bring deer, the movements of other hunters might chase deer your way.

“Expect the unexpected on the firearms deer season opener,” Burhans noted. “It is hands-down that one day when you never know if or when that buck is coming. You must be ready to take it. Don’t let that buck of a lifetime catch you playing with your smartphone!”

Hunt safely

from tree stands

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 Meagan Thorpe, Game Commission hunter-education chief.

A hunter using a climbing stand should tie-in the safety rope or strap that pairs with the harness before beginning to climb.

Most safety ropes and straps have a sewn or knotted loop on one end, and the opposite end can be wrapped around the tree and through the loop, then cinched tightly. There’s often a separate loop, many times a carabiner loop held by a prussic knot, onto which to clip your safety harness.

Consult the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure proper installation.

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.

“Make sure you have proper contact with the stand and tree every time you move,” emphasized Thorpe.

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, but other safety ropes or straps can be used along with your harness. 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.

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.

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 permits must report on their hunting success, regardless of whether they harvest deer.

By reporting their deer harvests, hunters play a key role in providing information used to estimate harvests and the deer population within each WMU. Estimates are key to managing deer populations, and hunters are asked to do their part in this important process.