Dave Muscia | Mossy Oak ProStaff
So far, the 2017 season has been the worst deer season for me personally. Two of the properties I hunt are not very far from each other. On those two properties, I’ve always seen shooter bucks. However, I've seen fewer deer this season in the regions I've hunted for the last four years. Most of the other hunters who live in the same areas where I live say they’re also seeing fewer deer than they’ve ever seen. When you have a season like this, the first thing that most hunters want to do is look for someone to blame. However, in our case, the general conclusion is that we've had an epidemic of bluetongue, a naturally occurring deer disease that’s non-contagious and carried by an insect. Really, there's no one to blame except Mother Nature, and she’ll do what she does when she does it. That’s just part of the natural order of things.
But there are still deer to hunt. Although I didn’t take a single deer during the early deer season, I believe I’ll get a doe for the freezer - either during gun season or late bow season. I'm kind of picky when it comes to taking does. Although I’ve had opportunities this bow season to take antlerless deer, the does I’ve had within range have been young does, does with fawns and button bucks. The very first week of rifle season is bucks only, but during the second week of our rifle season, you can take bucks or does. So, I’ll probably harvest one or two does during that last week of rifle season. Then I’ll bowhunt for bucks during that last six-week season after rifle season.
Let me say this. I'm not opposed to gun hunting at all. I've gun hunted all my life, but I just prefer to bowhunt. I've always enjoyed bowhunting more than gun hunting. I shoot a Bowtech Prodigy with a Rage broadhead. I have two close friends I hunt with who are as rabid about bowhunting as I am.
One of the real advantages that the State of Pennsylvania offers to hunters is that we have a tremendous amount of public hunting lands. Just about every county in Pennsylvania has at least one public hunting area. In our northern counties, the Allegheny National Forest has thousands and thousands of acres of public hunting. In Washington County where I live, we have five or more state game lands (total statewide is 1.5.million acres) that are all within 1 to 1-1/2-hours from my house. Pennsylvania has lots of county parks also that are open for hunting during deer season. So, as far as public hunting land goes, Pennsylvania does have quite a bit. Perhaps, too, that’s why so many deer licenses are sold in Pennsylvania.
In the past, finding a place to hunt where you didn’t see a large group of other hunters was an issue in Pennsylvania. But if the hunters will spend more time and do more research, they can pinpoint places now where there’s less hunting pressure and more deer, and the odds of taking an older-age-class buck are much better.
The word has gotten out about the big deer being taken in the northern counties of Pennsylvania right now. So, for the last few years, we've seen a huge migration of hunters going back to the northern counties to hunt. Hunters around the Pittsburgh and the northwestern part of the state are staying home and hunting those areas. Because we've had less hunting pressure for the last two or three years, and bluetongue has hit some of the south and southwestern counties, I believe that these counties won’t be hunted as much. The deer herd will be in a rebuilding cycle, and we should start seeing more big bucks there.
A few years ago, when I hunted in the mountain counties in northern Pennsylvania, a 6-pointer was considered a really nice buck. But today, we’re seeing 150 – 170-inch bucks come out of the mountain counties, because that area has seen its deer herd begin to rebuild. When there were fewer hunters, the bucks were allowed to move into those older age classes.
Regardless of where you hunt, plan to spend 45 minutes to an hour hiking in the dark from any public access area to reach your stand, 45 minutes to an hour before daylight. Then your chances of taking an older-age-class buck will be far greater than those 90 percent of the other hunters who hunt Pennsylvania’s public lands. Most people try to avoid hunting pressure. However, I've learned that hunting pressure can be a deer hunter’s best friend.
On public lands, if you:
- Scout early;
- Find a stand site in thick cover that’s 45 minutes to an hour’s walk from a public access area;
- Mark that stand site as a waypoint;
- Learn how to use your GPS to navigate through the woods on a dark night with no moon to arrive at your stand site 45 minutes to an hour before daylight; and
- Let hunting pressure drive the deer to your stand, then these tactics should produce older-age-class bucks on any public lands you hunt.
On private lands, if you always hunt in a place that:
- other hunters don’t want to hunt;
- hunters find difficult or almost impossible to reach; and
- you’ve found close to your camp, picnic tables or barking dogs, then these stands will produce big bucks because if no one is hunting these areas, these are the only places that a buck can stay during hunting season to become a mature buck.