Upping your odds of shooting a buck in Pennsylvania this year
Pennsylvania’s seven-week-long archery deer season ended Nov. 19, and the regular firearms season is about to begin. If you aren’t an archery hunter or you have not bagged a deer yet, what are your odds of success, and how could you increase those odds?
The deer hunting landscape has changed over the past 20 years. Twenty years ago, archers took about 18% of the bucks. Crossbows were legalized in 2009, and since then, there has been a gradual increase in the number of archery kills. Last season, archers harvested an estimated 130,650 deer, which included 68,580 bucks. This amounted to 47% of the antlered deer harvest. In 2019, the archery piece of the harvest pie was 45% — and 46% in 2020.
A second big change has been antler restrictions that were instituted in 2002. Many hunters incorrectly think that their chances of getting a buck decreased since they are not allowed to shoot smaller-racked bucks. While that was true the first year or two, it is no longer the case.
Your chance of harvesting a buck in 1987 was 16%. In 2007, it was 15%. There are fewer deer now, but there are also fewer hunters. The average success rate during the past five years was 24%.
Your chance of shooting a buck has increased (not decreased), and there has been a positive change in the age, weight and antler size of the bucks harvested. According to Pennsylvania Game Commission figures, from 1985 to 2001, on average 81% of the bucks harvested were yearlings. That decreased to 68% the first year of antler restrictions, and then 56% in 2003.
The percentage of younger bucks in the harvest has continued to decrease. During the past three deer seasons, the statewide average has been only 36% yearlings. In some wildlife management units, such as 2G, which is in northcentral Pennsylvania north of I-80, the percentage of one-and-a-half-year-old bucks has dropped to 20%.
An average of one out of four antlerless permits results in a harvest. Since many hunters purchase more than one permit, it is difficult to say what the actual hunter success rate is.
Upping your chances
Many factors, in addition to just plain luck, determine whether you will be in the 24% that harvest a buck or the 76% who do not. Let us look at four.
The regular firearms season is 14 days long, but the harvest is not evenly distributed during the season. Being in the woods when the most hunters are out and when most bucks are shot really increases your odds. Last year, a full 43% of the bucks taken were shot on the opening day, and another 13% were harvested on Sunday — the second day of the season.
With that said, even if you do not score on the first two days of the season, you can increase your odds by doing what I call, “keeping the faith.” Five of my first six bucks were all taken on the opening day, and four of those were shot during the first two hours of the morning. Therefore, a certain amount of discouragement would start to settle in by noon on the opening morning.
Over my 50 years of hunting experience, I have learned an important lesson — to keep the faith. If you are out in the woods thinking that the best days are past and you will not get a buck, that thought is more likely to come true.
Get out as often as you can and keep the faith — your chance to harvest a nice buck could occur at any minute and you need to be ready. Last season, I shot my buck during the closing hour on the opening day. My second largest buck was taken during the last 10 minutes of the last day of the season. My third largest buck, a nine-pointer, was taken on the sixth day of the season. I have also been successful when just hunting a couple hours during an afternoon after work.
You can up your odds by taking care of little details. Is your clothing quiet? Cell phone turned off or to vibrate? Did you check the aim of your rifle before the season? Have you practiced scent management? These little things and others can mount up to a big advantage.
The last way to up your odds is to be flexible and take advantage of what Mother Nature offers. My standard method of hunting is to spend the day in a treestand. However, if you are out during the middle of the week when few other hunters are active to potentially move deer, consider still hunting.
Still hunting is not walking. Walking hunters most often see glimpses of white tails bobbing in the distance. Still hunting is very slowly moving through suitable habitat by taking two or three steps and then pausing to scan ahead for deer. It works best when the forest is quiet — say, after a rain or fresh snow. Always plan your path to hunt into the wind, and if you can, take the high ground.
Good luck this season. Stay safe, hunt when you can, and keep the faith.