The Monday after Thanksgiving is an unofficial holiday in the state of Pennsylvania, as nearly one million hunters mobilize for the start of the state’s two-week firearm deer season.
An unmistakable change sweeps over the commonwealth for the start of deer season, as hunter orange dominates the landscape, roadsides fill with cars and trucks left by hunters and rifle cracks reverberate nearly non-stop throughout Penn’s Woods. It’s a season steeped in tradition in one of the country’s great hunting states.
As a lifelong Pennsylvania hunter, I’ve been fortunate to experience my share of memorable rifle openers, but I have to admit that the season has lost a bit of its luster in recent years.
You see, 2009 marked the eighth season since Pennsylvania instituted antler restrictions, meaning that the spike and six-point I saw on opening morning in Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) 2A were not legal deer, thanks to the four-points-to-one-side rule that governs all or part of 17 western Pennsylvania counties. Hunters in the rest of the state can shoot bucks with at least three points on one antler. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, a point is defined as any antler projection, including the brow tine, at least one inch in length.
The four-points-to-a-side restriction currently exists in WMUs 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B and 2D.
We’ve received a lot of calls and e-mails from hunters in the Pittsburgh region voicing opposition to this rule. Having hunted that area my entire life, I have to agree with their complaints. The main point of contention is this: If Pennsylvania is going to have antler restrictions, they should be uniform statewide.
In 2002, the game commission decided to implement antler restrictions. They wanted to enhance the state’s breeding stock by improving the buck-to-doe ratio and increasing the number and size of bucks in the herd. While the success of those goals to date is debatable, the game commission essentially wanted more bucks to live beyond their first year, and the restrictions were designed to protect about one-half of the state’s yearling bucks.
Commission biologists decided that a three-point-to-one-side restriction would accomplish that goal in the majority of the state. However, according to the commission, a three-point restriction would protect less than one-third of yearling bucks in western Pennsylvania, while a four-point restriction would protect half. Simply stated, the suburban woodlots and farmland of western Pennsylvania produce larger bucks more quickly than the mountains of northern and central Pennsylvania.
“There’s no denying that it will take some hunters time to adjust to the new restrictions,” said Dr. Gary Alt, former Game Commission deer management section supervisor, just before the 2002 deer season. “Shooting at an antlered buck won’t be as automatic a decision as it used to be.”
No kidding. In fact, the statewide buck harvest has declined from 203,247 during the 2001-2002 season (the last before antler restrictions went into effect) to 122,410 in 2008-2009. A 40 percent decline in the buck harvest over that time period indicates that not only are hunters waiting before they shoot, many aren’t shooting all season.
With the amount of hunting pressure that deer receive in Pennsylvania, it’s not unusual to shoot a buck while he’s on the move. When you factor in trees and brush, a hunter has just a second or two to decide if he or she is going to shoot a buck or let him walk. The more time a hunter spends deciding if a buck is legal, the less time he or she has to focus on making a safe, ethical shot. Indecision is not a good quality in the deer woods.
Five years ago I was hunting on a friend’s property in WMU 2B the first morning of gun season when three deer came slipping through above me. The last deer was a buck, and I could tell that he had at least three points on the side closest to me, but I could not see brow tines. The deer had obviously been pushed my way, and the tangled mass of grapevines between the buck and me, combined with his speed, presented one of those split-second decisions. I was going to shoot, figuring the buck had brow tines, but then second-guessed myself. The buck veered up the hollow about 75 yards to where my dad was standing; he had a clear shot, recognized that the buck was legal and closed the deal.
I heard him shoot and my heart sank. Not because he had killed the deer, but because I had second-guessed myself. The buck was a respectable eight-point with one-inch brow tines, which I had been unable to see. That’s the last buck I saw that season, and my tag went unfilled.
Two years ago on the Wednesday before the opener, my dad and I were out doing some scouting when we spotted a buck feeding in a bottom. Even with binoculars and the deer standing still, neither of us were certain if he was legal. He definitely had three points on both sides, but we could not tell for certain if a fourth point existed. My dad thought he could see a brow tine on one side; I thought it was just a six-point. We never found out for sure, and we both questioned what we would do if we met up with this buck again during the season.
The bottom line is that it’s extremely difficult to determine if a buck has three points or four when you consider the hunting conditions that exist in Pennsylvania. There’s no question that it’s easier to differentiate between a fork horn and a six-point, and that should be the standard statewide. As the rules currently exist, too many hunters are second-guessing themselves, and the fun of the hunt has diminished.
Penalizing hunters in western Pennsylvania for a perceived larger, more robust deer herd is no way to keep hunters interested in the sport, especially when the state’s hunting base is already shrinking—license sales are down 14 percent over the last decade. Perhaps there is a correlation between declining buck harvests and declining license sales.
“I grew up in a family who hunted hard, pushing out patches of woods between farm fields or organizing drives through larger woods,” said Rob Dlugos of Level Green, Pa. “The season was a thrill. No longer. Now many [people] no longer hunt and this is exactly coincidental with antler restrictions. I’ve found those who are for them are bowhunters who have the time to sit in a tree day after day waiting for the perfect shot where they can count points beforehand. Well there’s only so many bowhunters, and [Pennsylvania is] a state where a large portion of deer hunters buy a license for the two weeks or even the first day of rifle season.”
It is true that some hunters in western Pennsylvania do support the antler restrictions as they currently exist, but many hunters have quietly been grumbling since 2002 for the antler rules to go back to the way they were. When a legal buck consisted of an antler with two or more points to one side, or a spike three inches or longer, the deer herd did just fine and hunters were happy. There were always a few large bucks in most areas and, eight years into antler restrictions, it seems as if little has changed.
“While antler restrictions may result in more deer with more points, I’ve seen more shabby-looking eight-points than ever before,” said Dlugos. “Think about it, the only deer that can never be shot in Pennsylvania are inferior bucks. Do away with antler restrictions entirely and the fittest, strongest, smartest bucks with the largest racks will survive and remain the trophies we all would love to bag. In the meantime, don’t take away the trophy of the hunt from every rifle hunter who used to love busting brush.”
Having personally seen eight bucks over the past two rifle seasons, only one of which sported a legal rack, one has to wonder if antler restrictions are indeed working.
William Lewis, who lived in western Pennsylvania for 17 years and now resides in Seneca Falls, N.Y., perhaps summed up the problems with antler restrictions best: “What is the point of hunting? Is it to get big racks or put meat on the table? If the promoters of the food plots and antler restrictions want to do it on their own land that is one thing, but to force that ideology on everyone should not be.
“I have harvested a couple of trophy-class bucks, and I am proud of that. I got them in areas where there was no antler restriction. If every time I went into the woods I shot a trophy buck it would become quite normal. I haven’t eaten any horns lately, but I have eaten some very delicious venison from bucks and does that a ‘trophy’ hunter would scorn. One man’s trophy is just that, and he should define it and not someone else.”
Lewis is certainly not alone in his estimation of antler restrictions. In a recent poll on www.NRAhuntersrights.org, 55 percent of more than 2,200 respondents indicated that they did not support antler restrictions.
I argue that if antler restrictions are seen as a necessity for the overall health of Pennsylvania’s deer herd and they must stay, then a sensible concession would be to make the rules uniform statewide. Three points to a side across the board seems fair.
Maybe then the magic of the first day of buck season would be restored. After all, some hunters measure a trophy by the thrill of the hunt and not by counting points.