Easing into the best of deer hunting in Pennsylvania
Up a tree during a recent afternoon, I sat quietly in the company of buzzing mosquitoes and other assorted bugs, all eager to land any place I had uncovered skin. I was watching a tree and underbrush-laden bottomland surrounded by 8-foot-high stalks of corn and a huge mowed grass field to one side, assorted brushy fields along another edge.
A slow rising of thickened woods that reach toward a steep hillside comprised the remaining boundary. The trees still had green leaves, and the underbrush is just as thick and thriving as it was through summer.
In the middle of this flattened area, a small stream of clear, clean water flows, providing an excellent source of fresh, thirst-quenching liquid for all the creatures that call this area part of their home range. Deer trails run throughout, and they see heavy use. It is a prime spot for deer hunting, but I must admit, swatting at hungry insects while watching for movement of the quarry I come here to hunt is not my peak of enjoyment.
During these early season outings, I tend to think of what these woods will become once the weather brings some serious coldness, and how deer, field and forest will all change with a good run of heavy frost, cold rains, flurries of snow and chilling winds.
Of course, this change of conditions is never an overnight spectacle, but rather a slow process that runs through a sluggish transformation towards a final, wintry setting where most of the brush will eventually consist of empty thin limbs. Trees will be barren, standing in woodlots often covered with snow, everything green now hushed in a deep sleep until early springtime, when once again the lands awaken.
It is during this slow daily change toward winter that I experience what I feel is the best of this states deer hunting. The approach of whitetail breeding is occurring, and that means deer sign and movement are like no other time of year.
With the steady weather change, deer show a steady change, also. Scrapes are everywhere, often with broken limbs hanging above. Rubs show up in spots not normally thought of as rubbing places. Deer sign is scattered about in abundance, visual proof the animals are living there, preparing for the final climax that is the rut.
It is on those mornings when my exhaled breath is visible, when the sky is gray and small gusts of wind blow late-hanging leaves to earth like colored snowflakes, that I enjoy deer hunting the most. I also love those evening sits where a shining sun brings some afternoon warmth, but as it begins its decent toward the surrounding mountain tops the warm stillness of the afternoon becomes filled with quick-cooling air. Deer move then in those final minutes of another day, and my expectations climb just the opposite of the sun’s plunge.\
There are times of nothing moving to be sure, but there is always the chance that deer will appear quickly. Sometimes it’s a buck moving through the area, his nose to the ground, searching for that certain scent he knows means a female that is ready to replicate his gene markers in a future birth. Sometimes it is does scampering from an unseen male, happy to get away from a rut-crazy buck. And sometimes, if one is lucky enough, it is a buck actually chasing a doe, often cutting the distance between them by speeding through thick cover on a straight line, unconcerned with briars ripping at his hide and small limbs echoing cracking sounds off his prideful rack.
I have friends who have already harvested good-sized bucks this year, and they claim early season to be the best time to hunt. I also have other friends who would rather sling a rifle over their shoulder and trek through snow-covered woods in search of deer tracks, reading their freshness, and following the deer’s course of movement for a chance to fill a tag. Often times, too, they will choose to change strategy and slowly hike along the ridge of a sunken ravine, watching an opposite ridge for deer, sometimes rewarded by scoring with a long shot across a wide divide.
Others best love the thrill of flintlock season in winter, where competition is rare, and success is a hard-earned achievement. I, too, enjoy all these deer hunting experiences, but by far, my most enjoyable time is when I’m up a tree in weather that is easing toward deep fall and early winter. It’s a time when I can feel and see that change, and the change in the deer. It’s a time of year I know to be the best of what Pennsylvania has to offer for deer hunting.