‘Just a small eight’ makes deer hunter’s season

I harvested a buck on the opening day of this year’s rifle season. It was a long shot in a forest-hunting situation, and I am quite happy that my copper bullet hit its mark — the buck dropped after running only 40 yards.

“How big was it?” an acquaintance asked.

“Just a small eight,” I replied.

The more that I think about those words, the more it makes me want to remind veteran hunters and tell new hunters just how much things have changed for the better.

My last two bucks have been small 8-pointers, or as some refer to them, “basket eights.” My son-in-law John shot a small eight on the opening morning of archery season this year, and my brother Frank harvested a small eight-pointer on the second day of rifle season. Based on weight and antler mass, these three bucks were likely all two-and-a-half-year-old deer.

I started deer hunting in 1963. It was the “one-deer-and-done” era. Any buck with one antler 3 inches long was fair game. It was also a time when the vast majority of the bucks shot were yearlings — with small antlers.

According to Pennsylvania Game Commission data, at the time that I started hunting, approximately 80 percent of the bucks harvested were only 1.5 years old. Maybe 15 percent were 2.5 years old — very, very few were older.

My father was a dedicated Woolrich-clad hunter — the type who used a week of precious vacation from his factory job to hunt deer. He shot a lot of bucks over the years and he had a bushel basket full of antlers to prove it. He was not a trophy hunter. His goal was to harvest a legal deer and put venison in the freezer.

What was in his antler basket? Spikes, three-pointers, fork horns, and a couple fives and tiny sixes made up most of the take. During his entire life, he shot three bucks carrying eight or more points.

The first was a beautiful, dark-antlered 13-point that he shot the fall after returning home from the Navy following World War II. In the 1990s, we drove together to Jersey Shore to have that rack measured at an official Game Commission scoring session. Much to our disappointment, it missed the state record book by less than 2 inches.

His second nice buck was a heavy-antlered eight pointer that he shot in Bedford County some 20 years later. There were many small-racked bucks in-between.

My, how things have changed since antler restrictions were instituted in 2002. The average buck is older, heavier and sports a much larger set of antlers. Of the estimated 147,750 bucks that were harvested during the 2018-19 seasons, more than 94,000, or approximately 64% were 2.5 years old or older. Only 36% were yearlings.

Many of those 2.5-year-olds were small eights — bucks that might have been mounted or at least proudly displayed back in the 1950s, ‘60s and ’70s. Because there are so many bigger bucks out there now, a “basket eight” is a “ho-hum” deer to many.

Some Pennsylvania hunters still gripe about antler restrictions. Just last week I read a post from one of those hunters on social media — it accompanied a photo of the hunter with a 10-point buck. Under the photo, the hunter wrote, “I hate to admit it, but antler restrictions are working.”

What a shame that it took this guy 17 years to figure that out.

My dad excitedly called me the day that he shot his last buck. I proudly made the two-hour round-trip drive to see him and the deer and take his picture. He posed in the backyard with his Woolrich coat, 30.06 pump gun and the buck.

It was “just a small eight.”

Categories: Bloggers on Hunting, Pennsylvania – Mark Nale, Whitetail Deer

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