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PA’s must-do 21st century deer management policy

When Gern texted me on November 12th “planning to plant the entire farm with grass next Fall… 100%  hay… can’t afford to feed wildlife. Going broke trying to make money,” I knew that my best deer management efforts had finally failed over the past 13 years.

Every year I work hard to make sure our deer season is as productive as possible. Because our tenant farmer pays us a per-acre rent every year, which covers the real estate taxes and some building maintenance, and for 13 years he has grown soybeans, corn and hay in various rotations across the many fields we have. Our arrangement has generally worked out well both ways, but that text message ended my  sense of satisfaction.

While I do wear dirty bib overalls when I run the sawmill and also when I try to impress people who don’t know me, Gern is the actual farmer who tills (broad sense), fertilizes, plants, and harvests a very large farm property in Dauphin County, some of which I own and all of which I manage. Our property is one of many that comprise about 30,000 acres of farm land that Gern and his family cultivate in Central Pennsylvania. To say that his family works hard is the understatement of all understatements. Gern embodies AMERICA! in flesh and spirit, and to see him so utterly beaten down by mere deer is heartbreaking.

Over the years I knew that both overabundant deer and bears were taking a significant toll on our grain crops (Gern’s primary source of family income), and so I worked hard to recruit the kinds of good hunters who would help us annually whittle down the herds, so that the pressure was taken off of our crops. About five years ago I proudly photographed one of our late-summer soybean fields, at about four super healthy feet high, indicating a minimal amount of deer damage. When I passed the soybean field pictures around to other farmers and land managers, nothing but high praise returned. And so I patted myself on the back for our successful deer management, and congratulated our guest hunters, who were killing about 25-35 deer a year on our property. Our hunters were filling an impressive 50% to 65% of the roughly 54 DMAP deer management tags we hand out every year, as well as some of their buck tags and WMU 4C tags.

But, change is life’s biggest constant, and while I rested on my hunting laurels, deer hunting changed under my feet. The past few years have seen a lot of change in the hunting world. First and biggest change is that hunters in Pennsylvania and other states are aging out en masse, with fewer replacements following them. This means that a lot less pressure is being brought to bear on the deer herd. Which means a lot more deer are everywhere, which is not difficult to see if you drive anywhere in Pennsylvania in a vehicle. There are literally tons of dead deer along the side of every road and highway, everywhere in Pennsylvania. We should be measuring this at tons-of-deer-per-mile, not just the number of dead deer and damaged vehicles. Frankly this overabundant deer herd situation is out of control not just for the farmers who feed Americans, but for the people who want to safely drive their vehicles to the grocery store. Hunters are sorely needed to get this dangerous situation under control, and yet Pennsylvania’s deer management policies favor overabundant deer herds to keep older hunters less crabby.

So, because I am about to break out the spotlights and AK47 to finally manage our farm deer the way they need to be managed (and yes, PA farmers are allowed to wholesale slaughter deer in the crops) (and yes, I feel the same way about our favorite forested places in the Northern Tier), here below is the kind of deer management/ hunting policy Pennsylvania needs via the PGC, if we are going to get the out-of-control deer herd genie back into its bottle and stop hemorrhaging farmland on the altar of too many deer:

  1. Archery season is too long. At seven weeks long, the current archery season lets a lot of head-hunters stink up the woods, cull the very best trophy bucks, and pressure the deer enough to make them extra skittish and nocturnal before rifle season begins. Even though rifle season is our greatest deer management tool. The same can be said of bear season, which is the week before rifle season. So shorten archery season and lengthen rifle season, or make the opening week of deer season concurrent with bear season, like New York does.
  2. Rifle season must be longer, and why not a longer flintlock season, too? Is there something “extra special” about deer come the middle of January, that they are prematurely off limits to hunting? Most bucks begin to drop their antlers in early February. Have three weeks of rifle season and then five weeks of flintlock season until January 30th, every year. Or consider flintlock hunting year ’round, or a spring doe season in May.
  3. More doe tags are needed. There are too few doe tags to begin with, and most doe tags sell out and are never used. This is especially true in WMUs 5C and 5D, where despite enormous tag allocations, tags quickly become unavailable. That is because individual hunters can presently buy unlimited numbers of doe tags, for some reason having to do with the way deer were managed in the 1980s…c’mon, PGC, limit of two or three doe tags for each hunter in these high-density WMUs, and at least two doe tags in Big Woods WMUs like 2G and 4C.
  4. Despite good advancements in reducing the regulatory burden on deer hunters this past season, there are still too many rules and restrictions. For example, why can’t our muzzleloading guns have two barrels? Pedersoli makes the Kodiak, a fearsome double percussion rifle that would be just the ticket for reducing deer herds in high deer density WMUs where the PGC says they want more deer harvests. But presently it is not legal. Another example is the ridiculous interruptions in small game seasons as they overlap with bear and deer seasons. This bizarre on-again-off-again discontinuity of NOT hunting rabbits while others ARE hunting deer is an unnecessary holdover from the long-gone, rough-n-ready bad old poaching days of Pennsylvania wildlife management. PA is one of the very few states, if the only one at all, with these staggered small game and big game seasons. Bottom line is hunting is supposed to be fun, and burdening hunters with all kinds of minutiae is not only not fun, it is unnecessary. Other states with far more liberal political cultures have far fewer regulations than Pennsylvania, so come on PA, give fun a try.
  5. Artificial deer feeding with corn, alfalfa, oats etc on private land during all deer and bear seasons must end. Not only does this “I’m saving the poor starving deer” nonsense lead to spreading deadly diseases like CWD, it artificially draws deer onto sanctuary properties and away from nearby hunters. Or it is baiting, plain and simple. Feeding causes overabundant deer to avoid being hunted during hunting season, but then quickly spread out on the landscape where they eat everything out of house and home when hunting season ends. This year up north (Lycoming and Clinton counties) is a prime example. We had no acorns to speak of this Fall, and whatever fell was quickly eaten up by early November. As the weeks rolled on through hunting season, the deer began leaving their regular haunts and unnaturally herding up where artificial feed was being doled out. This removed them from being hunted, and creates a wildlife feeding arms race, where those who don’t feed wildlife run the risk of seeing none at all. So either completely outlaw artificial feeding or let everyone do it, including hunters, so they can compete with the non-hunters. And yes, people who buck hunt only, and who do not shoot does, and who put out corn and alfalfa etc. for deer during hunting season, are not really hunters. They are purposefully meddling in the hunts of other people by trying to keep them from shooting “my deer.”
  6. PGC must better communicate to its constituency that too many deer result in unproductive farms that then become housing developments. Because the landowner and farmer must make some money from the land, if farm land can’t grow corn, it will end up growing houses, which no real hunter wants. So real hunters want fewer deer, at numbers the land and farms can sustain.

 

My Aunt Jess

A little birdy just flew away. It was always a small, gentle, and delicate little thing, and especially so in its final days here on Planet Earth. A lifetime of cigarettes and other things took a toll on her body that even the best of genes could not resist, and tonight there was so little of her left. Now she has spread her little wings and flown the coop, moving into a different place, perhaps a different dimension.

In her side of our family, most people live a long time. Like into their late 90s and well into their 100s; so long that the people around them are eventually like “Look, why don’t you just die already.” My Aunt Jess made it into her 80s, a young’n by our family standards, and had she not attacked her own body with cigarettes and too much other stuff, she would have outlived me and most of the rest of the family.

I owe so much to my Aunt Jess, because she is the one who introduced me to the great outdoors, to Mother Nature, to fishing for brook trout in small Berkshire streams, to patiently watching a humming bird flitting undisturbed among trumpet flowers, sipping nectar from each one. Nature has been the central focus of my life and career, really as a result of Jess’s introduction to it so long ago.

One of my most vivid childhood memories, from 52 years ago no less, is Jess walking along Route 8 with me in Blandford. She pointed out some raccoon tracks in the sand along the road edge, and we studied them closely for a long minute. The long claw marks sticking out from the toes, which were splayed out from the foot pad, really spoke about the kind of beast that owned them. All this fascinated me, and then she gasped and led me twenty feet further along the guard rail.

There, digging a hole in the sandy soil was a mother turtle. We watched her slowly scoop and push the soft dirt away while she created a pretty deep hole for such stubby little legs. She, too, had claws, and they dug deeply into the dirt, so that she could eventually squeeze out her little round, white eggs into the hole. In there they would remain hidden and cool, incubating until they hatched cute little baby turtles. Aunt Jess and I stood there for half an hour, just watching the mother turtle, until she eventually pushed the last bit of dirt over her clutch of eggs and then slid down the bank toward the small brook. Whether it was a wood turtle or a box turtle, I do not now recall, though I am inclined to think and also kind of remember the yellow squiggle pattern of a box turtle.

Another time Aunt Jess threaded the two of us back into the large bog in the woods behind the farm house where my grandparents had retired. Small little carnivorous plants lived there, and she showed me how they lured the ants and other insects into their acidic stomachs. All of this was fascinating to a little boy, and because it was not explained in an academic way, it was even better. Jess’s love for the outdoors and for all things great and small propelled her forward every day. Every little living thing (well, almost all) was a source of love and intrigue to her, though the bears that raided her bird feeders in later years occasionally got a good whoopin’ with a broom. She could tolerate only so much gluttony and welfare mentality.

To wit, one day she was volunteering at Bartholomew’s Cobble, the natural area near her home, and a lady brought in a starling with a broken wing in a shoe box. Jess met the lady at the main counter, and peered into the box. The lady insisted that Jess do something to help this poor starling. Jess resisted, and explained to the nice lady that the starling was a rude invasive bird that destroys a great deal of other birds’ nests and young. Not a bird worth “saving.”

Undeterred, the lady pushed the shoe box back at Jess across the counter and once again insisted that the starling be healed in some way. Jess reached into the box, picked up the starling, wrung its neck, placed it back in the shoe box, and pushed the box back to the lady.

“There. Now it doesn’t have to worry about its broken wing,” Jess said to the unhappy lady.

Despite her antipathy for starlings, or perhaps because of it, Jess enjoyed bird watching, and as a naturalist she racked up a great many bird sightings in her Audubon bird identification book. At one time she traveled far and wide to see some little dickey bird or another, including by canoe, but in later years she was content to put out a rich enough smorgasbord to bring in all of the cool ones, including grosbeaks and warblers that should be far, far away.

Jess taught me how to jig a garden worm on a size twelve Eagle Claw hook for tentative brook trout, so skittish that the slightest movement by any body part other than the rhythmic movement of the wrist and fishing rod would send them scurrying under cut-banks and submerged tree roots for cover. In my own wanderings, I had a fishing guide in Alaska and another in Montana tell me I was the best fly fisherman they had encountered, and I chalked it up to many days spent fooling wily brook trout in small Berkshire and Central Pennsylvania streams (confession here: as a kid I also poached the hell out of the Harpster stretch of Spruce Creek with a fly rod, which required real finesse with a rod and as a Scottish Highlands stalker staying out of sight of the humans; but let’s not talk about that now), all begun by my Aunt Jess.

Last week I told her on the phone that while I was deer hunting this winter, I had at one point been surrounded by juncos and chickadees, whose tameness around humans never ceases to amaze and entertain me. In their sweet chirps and happy flittings, I heard and saw Aunt Jess, and so I told her that whenever I am sitting alone some place and I hear juncos or chickadees, I will hear her voice. She cried, and then I cried, both of us knowing we would miss the other so very much. Gosh, what a gentle soul she has been.

The magic of Nature has never stopped inspiring me, and the passion for conserving it has never left me, to the point where I spend my days working to leave a scant legacy of bird and turtle habitat alive and well, so that future aunts and nephews can take walks and discover magical little moments like a mother turtle laying her eggs, or a rising brook trout in a small plunge pool. I owe all of this to Aunt Jess, who tonight left us, as all flesh must eventually do. But too soon for her clan, and so I must end with this admonition: Please do not smoke cigarettes. They destroy not only the body they enter, but also the hopes and dreams of the loved ones surrounding the smoker.

If you feel like you really have to walk on the wild side and play with fire to get a high, get involved in politics. Or feed the little brown dickey birds in your back yard. Just don’t leave your family too soon, for such an unnecessary reason as cigarettes. My Aunt Jess would heartily agree.

 

Why flintlock hunting mistakes happen

Last Saturday Pennsylvania’s flintlock deer season started. A surprising number of people take to our winter woods with primitive flintlock rifles in pursuit of super skittish deer. After two weeks of rifle season, which ended two weeks ago, our deer are as wary as possible. They are either burrowed into hillsides, or yarded up in suburban back yards, hiding from anyone that looks like a hunter. Deer are surprisingly good at separating people shoveling snow from people carrying rifles, so you might see a pile of deer in the oddest places right now.

Flintlocks involve pouring gunpowder down the barrel, followed by a small piece of cloth and a round lead ball. Then a small amount of fine gunpowder is put into the flash pan, and is then hopefully ignited when a piece of flint hits a piece of steel, thereby making sparks, ultimately igniting the powder that was poured down the barrel. That pushes out the lead ball with enough force to kill an animal.

This is the theory, anyhow.

Because there are a bunch of moving parts in a flintlock, each one of which is necessary for the whole to function properly, a lot of things can go wrong after the trigger is pulled. Here are a few problems that happen to flintlock hunters every year, and some suggestions on what flintlock hunters can do to fix the situation up front, before the trigger is pulled on a deer and the gun does not go “BANG.”

Problem One: Flint does not spark well or at all.

Solution one: Make sure the flint has a sharp edge; after lots of practice shooting, the flint edge gets chipped and dulled. If yours is dulled, then replace it with a new one, or re-sharpen the edge with a piece of steel.

Solution two: Ensure the frizzen is clean and dry; if it is oily or wet, it will not spark.

Solution three: Ensure the flint squares up exactly with the frizzen. The two must meet one another directly and perfectly aligned so that the flint edge scrapes evenly down the frizzen face. If only a corner of the flint connects with the frizzen, then very few sparks will result. This is probably the most common mistake associated with no or poor sparking.

Solution four: Ensure your lock is properly tuned and timed. This is both easier and harder than it sounds. It is common for people to buy inexpensive off-the-shelf flintlocks (especially the really cheap plastic and stainless steel ones) and expect them to work at the same high level of functionality that a comparable budget-level center fire rifle operates. This is misplaced trust, because unlike a modern rifle, a flintlock’s lock is full of tumblers, bars, levers, and springs, all moving in precise harmony with one another in a millisecond. If any of these moving parts is not tuned to work smoothly with the other moving parts, then your lock will have timing issues. You will pull the trigger, and only small hints will tell you that something is wrong, like hang fires, or many failures to ignite the flash pan powder. But each time you pull the trigger, you will not hit your deer. After a lot of heartache, you will eventually ask a competent flintlock expert to evaluate your gun’s issues, and he will immediately diagnose it as “Your lock don’t work.”

It is important to use only a trained flintlock gunsmith, and not a regular “gunsmith.” Most modern gunsmiths know as much about a flintlock as they do about maintaining mechanical Swiss watches, which is absolutely zero. Many modern gunsmiths will sell themselves as being able to do the work on a flintlock, but they will be overwhelmed when they pull the lock plate off and behold the incredible “primitive” inner machinery. I have seen a modern gunsmith actually destroy either the lock mechanism or the inletted stock wood, or both, so only take your gun to an actual flintlock gunsmith, and an experienced one at that. Here in Central Pennsylvania, we are super fortunate to have a lot of flintlock experts, including people at Dixon’s near Lenhartsville, and Fort Chambers in Chambersburg, Mark Wheland in eastern Huntingdon County, and many, many others sprinkled around.

When I had my first flintlock made, the new “gun builder” I hired actually ground off critical pieces of the lock, and then tried to blame me when the gun would not fire properly. It cost me a deer. I also had to pay Bill Slusser (now in Kentucky) $220 dollars to rebuild the lock and then properly re-attach it to the wood, which included him TIG welding back on metal that had been unnecessarily removed by the first guy. The lock is a delicate piece of machinery, and the bargain basement ones are very rough, so take your new gun to a competent flintlock gunsmith to get it tuned before you take it hunting. If you bought your flintlock new from a gunmaker, like Mark Wheland or Bill Slusser, then it is guaranteed to be fully tuned and ready to kill. Same goes if you had a gun custom built for you. Just don’t use the bargain basement “gun builder” guy who promises a quick turnaround, or a regular gunsmith who says “Yeah, I can do those.” They can’t do it, but they can do it in.

I learned that expensive lesson so you don’t have to.

Happy hunting and good luck!

 

The Spirit of the Season

Today is Christmas Day, America’s national holiday at least as much as Thanksgiving Day. It is a day of good cheer, happiness, kindness, family, acts of charity, rest and relaxation; a Sabbath of sorts. Across Western Civilization this day has played several different roles and in different formats over the past thousand years, the earliest being solely religious and quite somber. The later versions of Christmas being a non-offending marriage between Christianity and northern European paganism, and being more celebratory.

Christmas as we know it now is largely a creation of Englishman Charles Dickens, who decried the caste system’s forced poverty and lack of Christian charity in his own land, and whose 1843 book A Christmas Carol championed the triumph of kindness and generosity to all over greed and miserly wealth. A literal ghostly spirit of Christmas invaded old man Scrooge’s otherwise selfish life, and left him a changed man. Scrooge’s personal changes, in the true spirit of Christmas Day, then resulted in a domino effect of increasing happiness and beneficence spreading outward from the formerly unhappy and mean old man to all those around him and beyond.

Dickens’ powerful message was a seed that grew wildly in fertile soil, as the contemporaneous Industrial Revolution had created a great amount of wealth and also a great many have-nots. And a hundred years later downtown Manhattan USA at Christmastime was full of powerful images and themes drawn directly from Dickens’ writings. That resulting Christmas culture has spread far and wide, and is now a mix of all the good stuff, including spirituality and morality, along with some old fashioned American consumerism. This has all morphed into the modern version of Christmas most Americans practice or at least enjoy today. It is kind of a third version of Christmas.

But if we go back to its beginning, Christmas Day is closely linked to Christianity’s predecessor, Judaism, and its own festive holiday of Chanuka. Christmas Day always starts on the 25th of December, which is usually right around the Hebrew date of 25th of Kislev, the start of Chanuka. While Chanuka has eight days, Christmas has twelve (similar to Passover having eight days and Easter’s Holy Week having seven at least, and possibly more, depending upon where one lives). And if we then immediately fast-forward back to the present, we see that Christmas has profoundly influenced the practice and understanding of Chanuka. Chanuka now being a heavily mysticized and joyful celebration of a vague miracle involving some olive oil. If you dig deep, you might get an American Jew to tell you that Chanuka is generally about individual freedom, and freedom of religion specifically.

Truth is, Chanuka was indeed originally about freedom, but the kind of freedom we Westerners no longer seem to value, or which we seem to take for granted.

Chanuka is described at hebcal.com as “Hanukkah (Hebrew: חֲנֻכָּה, usually spelled חנוכה … in Modern Hebrew, also romanized as Chanukah or Chanuka), also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar.”

OK, but what was the Maccabean Revolt, you ask? Ah ha, here we have suddenly discovered the true spirit of Chanuka! And one could surmise, the true spirit of Today’s Christmas Day, as well, heir as it is to Chanuka.

The Maccabean Revolt was a true-life rebellion by a small group of totally dedicated, religiously pure Jewish families against an enormous Assyrian empire that was then occupying then-Israel/Judea, roughly 2,200 years ago. It is the triumph of the little guy over the big bad bully; the triumph of monotheism over evil paganism; morality over immorality. Chanuka is the story of winning freedom by the edge of the sword, at total risk of one’s own survival. Those Jews who then strapped on a sword and successfully fought to the death over several generations to rid themselves of the yoke of Assyrian slavery, then set in motion so many future events. Like the subsequent existence of Jesus, the eventual creation of Christianity, and the resulting creation of Christmas Day by people seeking to directly link the day with Chanuka.

Early Christmas was observed by religious Christians as a day of spiritual freedom, similar to the Chanuka celebration of national freedom and sovereignty, without which there was no spiritual freedom for the Jews, whose Temple service had been disrupted by the Assyrian occupation. Which makes one wonder, in the context of where we are right now, December 25th 2020 , as America is poised to be captured and subjugated by China through its secret treaties with Joe Biden, Big Media, and Big Tech…. what was and is the true, original spirit of Christmas Day, and does it have relevance for us right now?

Religious Christians will provide an orthodox Christian perspective, but it is no stretch to say that today’s Christmas spirit could use a heavy dose of the original Chanuka spirit. We need some of that old time religion. We need a modern equivalent of the Maccabean Revolt against the fraudulent, illegal election that just took place, in which America as we have known her for 244 years is about to collapse and be replaced by repression and slavery.

So, I will raise a glass of eggnog to everyone in the spirit of good Christmas cheer. Salud! And I will also raise the American symbol of freedom, defiance, and sovereignty in salute of the brave American citizens who we know are the last hope of restoring our republic: The American longrifle and its updated equivalent, the AR15.

Merry Christmas! May the ancient spirit of the Maccabees fill every patriot heart.

 

Deer season mostly in the rearview mirror

All year we hunters wait for deer rifle season like excited little kids holding our breath for some big, special treat. And then rifle season arrives, we run ourselves ragged, and suddenly…a switch is thrown…it is all over.

Where did all our fun times and friends and family go? Why, they were sitting with us having dinner and laughing just minutes ago, and adventuring around the beautiful woods together just hours ago…and now…now my life seems so very quiet, and humdrum.

Like the three days of bear season, the two weeks of deer season are so highly anticipated, and yet they are also then over so, so quickly. I guess this is the way of all fun times.

This year I can’t think of any woods I hunted in that had many or any acorns. This absence of food literally caused mountain deer to migrate. It was wild to see, or not see, as the word “see” can be taken to mean, because we hardly saw many deer in the mountains. Sure, we took some, and I have no complaints, as I know plenty of people who did not even get a shot at a deer, much less see any. I was able to pick and choose some shots, and one that I declined on a very nice buck I regretted soon after. That shot was not a “good” shot, but would have hit him right in the middle of the ribs. A liver shot, and almost immediately fatal. But a tracking job nonetheless, and not a shot I would have been proud of.

And so that buck lived to see another day, and because I had not filled my buck tag in 2019, I felt both very grown up for having made the correct decision and also very foolish for having not taken what was given to me.

But the mountain hunters did not have a lot of luck in rifle season, the best hunting having happened in October and early November during archery season. Plenty of browse and some few acorns were available for the deer then, and they were not feeling so pressured and anxious about food as they are now. No, the mountain hunters sat and waited, or did drives and yet still waited to see deer. But the deer, desiring not to starve to death, migrated on to whatever food sources they could find, and there they still sit.

Well, the fact is that the north country is seriously socked in with deep snow. Like a solid two to almost three feet in most places. The deer can hardly move through this, let alone paw or browse for food under it. Additionally, as soon as warm temperatures arrive, or a few hours of rain, that deep snow will have a thick, hard crust on top of it. And the deer will not be able to walk on it, stand on it, feed on it. Like we had in 2005, we will probably see a serious deer die-off across big parts of the Big Woods north country from this deep snow in the coming week. In 2005, after a similar deep snow with a heavy crust, I recall finding dozens of deer carcasses all over the mountains around us. In some instances the coyotes were able to close the distance and just pull them down, but in a lot of situations, the deer just laid down on that crusty snow, curled up, and starved to death.

Pretty sad, even for conservationists who know the mountain deer herds needed to be thinned out for the sake of forest health.

Down in the farmland, the deer seemed to be doing just dandy. In farm country, edge habitat browse and waste grain are so abundant that the plague of four-legged deer locusts have no trouble making a living, deep snow or not. Flintlock season cannot come too soon for the farm country, where our own tenant farmer informed me a few weeks ago that the deer have eaten all of our profit to the point where we can no longer afford to grow corn or soybeans. Going forward, we will only be growing hay.

For hunters having trouble understanding what this means, let me explain. If the farmer cannot make money from farming because the over-abundant deer eat up his profits, then the farmer cannot afford to pay the land owner a healthy per-acre rent that pays the land taxes and covers many annual maintenance costs. If farming won’t pay the costs of farm land, then maybe a few house lots here or there will pay…and thus is beautiful, sacred farmland slowly, inexorably, sadly converted to pavement. By deer no less.

And so in farm country, deer managers like me see deer more like rats than like deer. Rats are vermin, the overabundant deer become vermin, and deer hunting becomes less of an adventure, and more of a chore, or a jihad, to protect the beautiful landscape from becoming one more housing development.

These are some reflections on deer season. I have not killed a deer with a flintlock in many years, and hopefully this season I will. God knows, the farmland needs all the help it can get.

Halfway through PA deer season

We are halfway through deer season, and I, having hunted in several counties in Northcentral and southcentral Pennsylvania, have a few observations. These might be helpful to those seeking to fill tags this coming week, or to policy makers trying to mould a better season next year.

a) Despite the “purple paint law,” which is Pennsylvania’s new private land trespass law that carries severe penalties for trespassing, PA hunters continue to trespass and poach and shoot deer on private lands they have no business being on. So far this season I have been witness to the deliberate taking of deer on private land by people who have no right to hunt there, both a buck and a doe.  One incident was just plain sloppy woodsmanship; the other was purposefully crafty. Some trespassers are habitual lawbreakers, who trespass more to get one over (in their warped thinking) on someone who has land, rather than to actually pursue a specific trophy animal or meat for their family. This blurs into the mental illness category. Others are defiant individuals, who have always had authority problems both at work and elsewhere. This also blurs into the mental disease category. The antidote to all this miserable behavior is the joy of hidden trail cameras, which have caught several malefactors in flagrante. Yeah, Jon, you….again. To be continued!

b) Pennsylvania is now a huge deer trophy destination. The trophy bucks that are being taken from archery season, when deer are at their most vulnerable, right through rifle season, would have been unimaginable twenty or forty years ago. The enormous heads (antlers/ racks scoring 140 inches and above) that are being taken by hunters everywhere across the state are easily on par with famous trophy destination states like Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Kansas.

This development is a looooong way from the spike bucks and “trophy” fork horns of my youth, and frankly to which too many older hunters would gladly return.

This exciting development is primarily a result of top-notch deer management by the Pennsylvania Game Commission over the past twenty years. Along that twenty-year-way, PGC has suffered a lot of abuse for its deer management, which always involved reducing the number of over-abundant does and retaining a high number of mature bucks to return again next year, with racks that have gone from OK to spectacular. People upset with PGC were long accustomed to “seeing” lots of deer. These people incorrectly equated overabundant deer with a healthy deer population, because, in fact, the truth is the opposite. Too many deer is unhealthy for not only deer, but for a boatload of other animals, and plants, that everybody other than deer needs. Deer diseases like TB and CWD are a result of deer populations too high for their own good. So is the deer-car-collision disease, which is crazy high in PA.

We have to kill a lot more deer. PGC knew that and started it in 2000, and it was a slow and painful process that necessitated an entire cultural shift among tradition-bound hunters.

However, PGC alone doesn’t get all the credit for these big bucks, even though the agency has carried the torch of scientific wildlife management through a hailstorm of undeserved crap. Another reason Pennsylvania has so many massive trophy bucks roaming around is that we have a lot fewer hunters and less hunting pressure over the past five years, and over the past fifty years. There is a big difference between someone who buys a hunting license, because he has been proudly buying a license every year since 1962, as it is part of his personal identity, and someone who buys a hunting license with the intention of squeezing out many of its benefits and opportunities, such as climbing high into remote places in pursuit of huge bucks.

Buying a hunting license is a tradition among many older Pennsylvanians, even if they don’t actually hunt much or at all with it.

If I can think off-hand of five hunters I know who will comment on the dearth of deer hunters seen in the more remote places, I can probably easily find five hundred others who will testify to far less hunting pressure in most places, not just the remote ones. This means that old bucks with big trophy racks have more secret places to go where they can go on growing old, without dying of sudden acute lead poisoning from a hunter standing downwind behind a tree. As the population of really older bucks continues to climb, they begin to spill out into more accessible and less topographically challenged places, where the average Hunter Joes can now occasionally pick one off for the local newspaper’s front page.

c) I miss John R. Johnson as my long time knife maker of choice. John took a break from making his beautiful custom knives about five years ago, and fortunate are those of us who bought his highest-quality products while we could. While it is possible to hunt with a hunk of basic soft steel half-assedly made into a rough knife shape in China, why should we? Ever since the dawn of our species, a hunter-gatherer species, our hunters have ALWAYS prided themselves on the high quality of their weapons and accoutrements. Having a nice rifle and a nice knife is a source of great pleasure for every hunter I know, and most aspire to having the best they can stretch to afford. That is to their individual credit and to our collective credit, as a sign of sophistication and high performance. So if you are fortunate enough to find a JRJ hunting knife somewhere, buy it right away. Cherish it, keep it sharp and well, and use it. It is a product of one of our central Pennsylvania native sons, and a true embodiment of the rugged character and values we here in central Pennsylvania cherish.

 

PA’s new Sunday hunting in review

Notify the media: Sunday hunting in Pennsylvania did not throw Planet Earth off of its orbit, did not cause mass extinctions, did not cause entire animal populations to mass migrate by stampeding for the border in search of a day of rest or respite from bloodthirsty hunters, did not cause church attendance to drop across the state, and did not result in the skies opening up with fiery hail and brimstone.

Truly, I am sorry to be a smart ass about this subject, but for God’s sake did we ever unnecessarily debate and fight about this ridiculous subject for twenty years or more. And now that people are hunting for bear and deer on Sunday in Pennsylvania….there is literally nothing to write about. Nothing bad happened. Hell, nothing happened. I mean, like nothing occurred. Hardly any animals were killed on any of the Sundays we now can hunt.

All of that gnashing of teeth, the wailing, the silly dramatics that caused this essential personal freedom to be unfairly withheld from Pennsylvanians while the rest of the country happily hunts on Sunday…and now what? We see it isn’t the end of the world as we were told it would be. It is barely discernable from the middle of the week, except that most of us work in the middle of the week, and only have time to hunt on weekends.

If we expand Sunday hunting further, like all of the states adjoining Pennsylvania have, will the silly dramatics happen all over again? I can hear it now “No more freedom for you!” as we show with real-time data that Sunday hunting has not ended our civilization or resulted in hikers’ bodies piling high. So far, we didn’t even pile any animals’ bodies high on Sundays.

Well, one comfort we can take is that at least the people against Sunday hunting finally have some political chums they can run with: All the totalitarian governors who have used the never-ending CCP covid19 virus emergency to toss the US Constitution overboard while they tighten their grip on the private home gatherings of Americans while simultaneously jetting off to their own fancy mask-less wine-and-dine soirees, they also love them some big government anti freedom policies….but heck, now come to think of it, even these totalitarian governors (Cuomo – NY, Newsom – CA, Wolf – PA et al) support Sunday hunting.

Makes ya wonder and realize just how totalitarian and anti-freedom the anti-Sunday hunting folks actually are.

So far this year in Pennsylvania, Sunday hunting has been a big day of….quiet. The deer archery season Sunday did not seem to result in a mass slaughter of deer. Last week’s Sunday bear hunting day resulted in about the same number of deceased bears as the following Monday, both of which being dramatically less than the take on Saturday. And tomorrow, being the first firearms deer Sunday hunting day, is probably going to be a lot like today was….just about dead silent, with very few rifle shots heard anywhere in all of the counties I have checked in. If I am wrong about this, and tomorrow turns out to be the much advertised human bloodbath and bloody orgy that antis squealed about, then I will eat my shorts.

But I know where those shorts have been, and I don’t plan on eating them. I am quite certain that tomorrow we will hear some shooting here and there, probably the same as today, today being the freaking opener for God’s sake, a day when there should have been massive shooting non-stop. Which is to say, a lot of the excitement about hunting and hunting camp has been bled out of the hunting population by the SATURDAY opener. Sunday has nothing to do with it. In fact, it seems that though it is now legal, Sunday has very little to do with hunting, at all.

One. Big. Yawwwnnnn.

And that is the beauty of having individual freedom. Sometimes people don’t really exercise it, because of personal choice. Something I read about America and all, long ago…

UPDATE, NEXT DAY: So this Sunday morning while on stand, I counted a grand total of seven shots between 7am and 11:30am. Three were fairly close, like within a mile, and the other four were distant. To those who do not hunt, this is a very, very small number of shots, especially on an opening weekend. No big bloodbath this Sunday hunt. You could much more commonly listen to your neighbors blow off a thousand rounds of semi auto on a Sunday morning, as I did last weekend. Me personally, I find a handful of scattered shots over a five hour period to be fairly representative of rural PA, and more desirable than listening to people protest Sunday hunting by trying to create an enormous racket that really does disturb peoples’ Sunday rest.

While I had deer around me, including two nice bucks sparring with each other, which is cool as heck, I had no good shots. And so as the opponents of Sunday hunting demanded of me and all others they wished to command, I spent my Sunday morning in silent contemplation, prayer (mostly for America and the peaceful resolution of the current election fraud crisis), and deep reflection. But with a rifle across my knees. To me the whole experience has been a win-win, and a truly American opportunity based on my own personal free choice.

 

Giving Thanks for Being an American

Thanksgiving Day may have originated three hundred years ago, when the first Pilgrims were starving to death in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and they were saved by local Indians who took pity on them, but it is still our big national holiday for the same sort of reasons today.

Native pumpkin squash, beans, wild turkey, and cranberry jelly that is native to the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts have ever since been the symbolic food at which we rejoice for our great good fortune for living in America, no matter where we live.

America is the freest country with the most opportunity available to the most people in the world. What an incredible place.

The symbolism of our unique national holiday food – turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin squash etc – is similar in meaning to the food of other nationalities and cultures. For example, the matza “bread of affliction” flatbread eaten every Passover by religiously observant Jews is a reminder of their own escape from hard slavery into newfound freedom. Many South American cultures form round breads from maize (corn, which is native to the Americas) and yams that are symbolic of how they eat together in a family circle. The French (and Italian) diet of bread, cheese, and wine may seem hedonistic on its face, but when one considers that even free French (and Italian) peasants had fertile land to farm and live on, their national food and drink make perfect sense. And so on for so many other cultures.

Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans. Enjoy this day together, unified as one people in union, heading on the same path of freedom together. We might be in tough times together right now, but we should take every opportunity to celebrate our shared identities. During the first (or second) American Civil War, soldiers on both the Union and Confederate lines would gather on Thanksgiving and Christmas nights to serenade each other with religious songs. In World War One, both German soldiers and Allied soldiers would sing Christmas songs back and forth to each other across the waste lands filled with destroyed men and war machines. My God, friends, if they could gather in peace one night a year, then how much more so can we Americans today gather together and wish each other

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, for we each have much to give thanks to God for!

Reflections on 2020 bear season

As if by magic or just the batting of an eyelid, the much anticipated 2020 bear season is now behind us, having concluded at dark yesterday. Sad to see our friends go; we had such a fun time! The last of our bear hunting guests have left, cleanup has commenced, preparations are under way for Thanksgiving, and there are some reflections to be had on bear season.

First, where the hell were the bears? Serious question here. We hunt in a mountainous Northcentral area that is Pennsylvania’s “Bear Central.” And despite us daily scouring a lot of remote, very rugged territory that is usually home to lots of bears, we saw neither bears nor bear poop. None. It could be the warm weather has bears hunkered down under cool overhangs in even more remote places. It could be the low acorn crop has bears going in to hibernation early, because there is no more food for them to eat to put on the extra fat they need to hibernate successfully. The truth is, no bear tracks or poops have been seen around here for months, which is remarkable. I cannot think of any year prior like this.

Second, where were all the hunters? We heard only a few shots between Saturday and Sunday, and either none or one on Monday, and for sure none on Tuesday; and very few hunting parties were on the radio on any day. This means that few large scale hunting drives were going on. Without hunters moving across the landscape, the bears don’t have to move out of their way. They can just sit still and not run the risk of exposing their rib cage to a hunter’s bullet. That means that the bears can loaf about in some remote corner, escaping the unseasonable warmth or just waiting for the wafting human scent to drift away before making their usual rounds again. Which means the few hunters who are out don’t see much action.

Third, where were all the other critters, like turkeys and deer? Like with bears, we saw very little deer or turkey poop in the woods. And although I myself saw two whopper bucks and a five-point up close, no one else saw any deer. Nor did any of us see any turkeys. Once again, the absence of these otherwise ubiquitous animals could be due to the relative absence of acorns. Which would push the wildlife far afield to find food sources.

Fourth, despite all of our hunting setbacks, did any of us care a bit? No! We missed all of our friends who could not be with us for various reasons, like fear of the CCP virus, or family emergencies requiring them to stay at home. But those of us who gathered had a lot of fun nonetheless. And with or without a bear on the game pole, we would not have missed this time together for any reason at all. We caught up on our families, our work, our homes, cars, friendships, wives, and politics (yeah, there was a lot of pro-Trump  politics). Some people drank way too much alcohol, and we got some great pictures of it all, like the one guy asleep on the cold ground outside. No, we don’t post those here. We ate like kings, that is for sure, and no one lacked for food or drink.

Finally, it is possible that the new early bears seasons (archery, muzzleloader, and special junior+ senior rifle) are removing so many bears from the woods that come rifle season, very few huntable bears remain to be had. According to real-time hunting harvest data posted at the PA Game Commission website, more bears were killed in the early seasons than in the official rifle season this year. This means there are fewer bears available for the rifle hunters. It is possible that many hunters expected this, based on last year’s harvest patterns, and they stayed home or hunted alone, instead of joining the big crew at camp, like usual. As of late today, just 3,138 bears had been killed total this year. That is about a thousand fewer than expected.

Based on this raw data alone, the early bear seasons are actually backfiring. They are not removing the high surplus number of bears that are beyond Pennsylvania’s social carrying capacity. Rather, the early bear seasons are removing the easiest bears and leaving few to be hunted in the later rifle season.

And this new dynamic could be the real story in PA’s bear season: There are so many early season bear hunting opportunities for individuals that they collectively take the wind out of the sails for the regular season hunters, thereby having a boomerang effect on the entire thing and limiting it.

We won’t know what all this data really means for another few years, and by then either great or even fatal damage will have been done to Pennsylvania’s traditional bear camp culture, with its big gatherings and big drives and big camp camaraderie dying out, or we will simply all have to learn to adapt to new ways of hunting. I have to say, there is no substitute for men gathering at a camp to hunt together. The gathered hunting party is the most human of experiences; it is an institution as old as our species. Its purpose was not just making meat, but also social and sociological.

I sure hope these myriad new early bear seasons are not self-defeating, in that they do not kill that traditional bear camp culture by removing its whole purpose ahead of the game. Question for the PGC: What incentive is there to push your body hard through rugged and remote landscapes, destroying your boots, tearing your clothing, and often losing or breaking some of your gear, including damaging your gun, when the animal you are seeking has already been removed?

Below are some photos from one of our trail cameras two years ago. Just days after bear season ended, a bear was caught gloriously and most joyously rubbing its back against a young white pine tree. Almost like a pole dancer. Pretty hot hip shakes there. We haven’t seen a bear anywhere around here since May this year.

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When one of our guys is finally browbeaten into washing dishes after years, it is cause for “Notify the media” acts like taking his unhappy picture. This is back in 2015. He still has to be browbeaten into washing the damned dishes

Lycoming County is the boot-looking shape in the northcentral area. Its northwestern corner is where we hunt. The darkest township there demonstrates the importance of organized hunting drives. A bunch of large hunting clubs are located in this area, and their members put on highly coordinated, obviously successful drives.

Good luck, bear hunters!

Bear rifle season is here in Pennsylvania, starting tomorrow morning, and in many rural places bear hunting has displaced deer hunting as the primary outdoor recreational activity.

Pennsylvania’a bear population is at an all-time (modern times) high, as demonstrated at least in my own small world by the large black bear that showed up a block from my Harrisburg City home last year. Or the other bear that showed up on the same street, but ten blocks closer to the down-town area, a few months later. When bears are showing up in major cities, you know their regular rural habitat is filled up, and the younger generations are looking for new homes.

So good luck to Pennsylvania’s bear hunters tomorrow through next Wednesday. Our own crew is half of the usual number, due to some guys fearing the CCP virus, and some others having health emergencies at home that prevent them from traveling. Normally we field guys from five states across the East Coast, and at one time, all the way from California. Last year we had a guy from England. Usually the cabin is packed and noisy, and this year it will be more subdued. Nonetheless, despite the challenges this year, we will still field a hunting crew. Some will be out tomorrow, some out Sunday, and some out the rest of the week.

Here in the hills, we have not seen bear sign for a long time, which is surprising. Our township here usually produces one of the highest bear harvests in the entire state. We shall see what happens, however, as hunters enter the woods and begin to push animals around. In places where no bears have been seen all year, there could well be a bunch running through.

Good luck to those who are hunting alone, with family, or with their usual chums. For me, this time together just cannot be missed. It comes just once a year, and is gone so quickly that you almost can’t believe it was here to begin with.

Be safe and have fun!