↓ Archives ↓

Posts Tagged → deer

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.

 

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!

 

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.

 

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.

2123:113018:25F:TLH4 :6

2123:113018:25F:TLH4 :6

2123:113018:25F:TLH4 :6

2123:113018:23F:TLH4 :6

2123:113018:23F:TLH4 :6

2123:113018:23F:TLH4 :6

 

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.

Review of Kirschner’s deer lures

The whitetail deer rut is now under way across the Americas, and although writing about politics (especially a handful of days before such a momentous Election Day) is the bread and butter of this blog, man does not live on bread alone. Occasionally there must be a beverage. And Kirschner’s deer pee lure is it.

Twenty years ago I first met Bob Kirschner at the Pennsylvania Outdoor Show at the Pennsylvania Farm Show complex, in the traditional archery section. Among a slew of often cantankerous iconoclasts (think about the kind of people who hold onto traditional archery against the tide of ultra high-tech training wheel bows), he was a funny guy. As in kind of odd, as in not a huckster or a salesman, but almost shy.

Even though he was surrounded by a big display of his wares, which included his own videos on how to bowhunt wary deer using his unique deer pee lures, Bob was not a hard selling, fast talking circus barker. Instead, he seemed almost embarrassed that he had to take your money at all. Such is the way of the pure hearted, because of all the deer pee lures out there, Kirschner’s is among the very few that are worth anything. And that is because his pee is pure. No jest.

Somewhere at camp I have one of his videos that shows him making his deer lures. In one scene he is wearing a work smock, a big toothy grin, and carrying a large tub of deer legs sticking out in all directions. Each of those legs has a tarsal gland on it, which deer use to communicate with each other through their highly refined sense of smell. Bob painstakingly cuts out each gland and grinds it up into a paste, which forms the base of his very smelly deer lures. This takes a lot of work and a lot of time.

Contrast Bob’s laborious hands-on process to the over-the-counter stuff sold by the gallon at the big box stores. Not to knock anyone in particular, but my experience with many different brands is they are at best watered down versions of Kirschner’s lures, and at worst they are synthetics that don’t last very long and that lose their smell within a few months of purchase. Like Code Red and Code Blue….golly, guys, what do you put in your bottles? I do not think it is 100% estrus deer pee.

Somewhere a few years ago I saw an article about how much doe pee lure was sold nationwide, which is a LOT, like hundreds of thousands or millions of gallons, compared to how many penned farm doe deer there are, which is very few, and how a basic back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that the vast majority of “doe pee” lure sold in the USA is not actual doe pee. At least not 100%. Because the standards are so lax or even non-existent, what is sold as doe pee lure might only have 1% estrus doe pee in it.

There just are not enough penned farm deer to produce the vast amount of “deer pee” sold to hunters. Not even close. Which means that a lot of what is being sold as deer pee lure is not.

And this sorry situation is NOT what Kirschner sells. He sells stuff that will curl your hair if you sniff it, because it is that nasty tarsal gland paste he made mixed with actual pee from his own pet deer. No, you don’t want to ask how he gets the deer urine….same story with foxes, coyotes, and bobcats, all of which are kept in farms where their excrement is collected and made into lures for trappers and hunters. It is all expensive stuff, and it all works very well.

From the time I bought a small squeeze bottle of Kirschner’s SilverTop at that year 2000 outdoor show (what is now the Great American Outdoor Show, which will not be held in 2021), until four years ago, when it ran out, I killed a PILE of deer coming in to his lure. When I say a pile, I mean a literal pile, like piles of deer stacked like cord wood in the back of my pickup trucks. How, you ask? Answer: I get as many DMAP and doe tags as possible, which might number ten each season, and then usually fill 75-100% of them from archery season through the late muzzleloader season and late shotgun-only season in southeast PA.

Then I ran out of the Silver Top, which only required a few drops on a tampon hung on a tree branch each time hunting, and so it had lasted so very very long. And I thought, “Why not try some other brands, see what they can do, how they work.”

And what I found was that not one other deer lure has worked anything like Kirschner’s in the southcentral and northcentral regions in which I mostly hunt. Not even close.

Bob Kirschner tells me that very few people make deer lure like he does any longer, and at age 74 he is about to hang up his spurs from his incredibly physical work. He says that some Amish farms are beginning to make deer lure the way he does, and that they will have to take up the slack when he shuts down his operation (hint hint young people out there, here is a chance to run your own business and have fun).

So I bought an 8-ounce bottle of Kirschner’s SilverTop the other day, and I am hoping this will last me a good twenty years. How can this one bottle last so long? Because only a few drops are needed each time out.

Here is another hint to hunters: Don’t overuse deer pee lure. It does not need to be sloshed about by the bucketful, and it should only be used during the actual rut, which is end of October into mid-November.

When hunters mis-use deer pee lure, either by using too much or by using it in early October, they are desensitizing deer to their world of smell, and instead of luring in deer, they confuse them and make them cagey and wary.

Using too much deer pee or using it at the wrong time eventually trains deer to stay away from it, or to be skeptical of it.

Two years ago I watched a Maryland hunting guide set off an enormous bottle of “Buck Bomb” for a youth hunter, which filled our woods with a chokingly sick scent that vaguely smelled like doe estrus. One buck was eventually brought in, a nice eight point, but he was so suspicious that he literally ran up to within 75 yards, looked around, and seeing no doe, turned and ran like hell back to where he had come from. Using too much of a good thing is not always a good thing to do, and hunters will do better in the short term and the long term if they are much more judicious in their application of deer pee lure.

So, there, that is my endorsement of Kirschner’s deer pee. I get no royalties, kickbacks, baksheesh, or remuneration from this essay. In fact, I hope Bob does not read it because he will probably object to being called shy. I write this out of simple admiration for a well done product that has made me a very happy hunter for a very long time, and I hope you get some, too. Just use it correctly.

Good luck this season. Have fun and be safe!

Eugene DePasquale vs. PA Sportsmen

Until a few years ago, Eugene DePasquale was to me just another career politician who was making the rounds of political seats in Pennsylvania, with his eye on the eventual governorship. There are people in both the Republican Party and Democrat Party (I used to be a Democrat) who do this, so I am not going to hang this boring and nettlesome practice around the neck of one particular political party.

Political careerism in a republic like America is inevitable, and while it bothers most voters, those same voters also overwhelmingly re-send their own elected representatives back to office repeatedly. So the idea of term limits is only as good as the voters are willing to make them, themselves.

Don’t like career politicians, most of whom make a hundred promises and say one thing and then do another thing altogether? Then stop voting for the same damned people over and over and over again. This power to inflict term limits is held in the hands of the voters in every election. But like old married couples who argue with one another and poke at each other with their canes, voters eventually become comfortable with the career politicians in their own lives, and repeatedly send them back to office, even while finding their voting record or behavior disagreeable. For whatever reason, this is especially true with registered Democrat Party voters. Senator Bob Casey , Jr. is probably Exhibit A in this phenomenon, because you cannot find anywhere a more do-nothing guy career politician than Bob Casey, Jr., who nevertheless keeps getting re-elected, despite having zero to show for his time on the taxpayer dime.

Eugene DePasquale is another example of this phenomenon, an Exhibit B of revolving door careerism, hunting down one political seat and then moving on to the next. I am unaware of DePasquale actually having a real world job. Ballotpedia lists his biography as:  

DePasquale received a B.A. in political science from the College of Wooster, an M.P.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, and a J.D. from Widener University School of Law. He worked as an attorney and for the City of York as director of economic development. DePasquale then worked as deputy secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection. He also served as chair of the York County Democratic Party from 1998 to 2002.”

In other words, DePasquale’s actual real-world, hands-on life and work experience is about zero, or it may be zero. Candidates from either political party like DePasquale sicken me, because they are power-hungry and their policy lens is shaped entirely by what others (donors, political bosses) tell them to think, or worse, by what they believe will sell to the most voters. This is how we get such polarized political contests; candidates whose entire adult lives and professional careers have been in an insulated, unaccountable womb, where they are being groomed for the next step.

Yuck yuck yuck.

I met DePasquale once, a couple years ago, at a sportsmen’s round table he held in Lewisburg, PA. He was there at the urging of a lobbyist close to him, and to his credit he sat down with about ten of us from around the state, to discuss two things. First subject was his audit of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, focusing on the deer program, including chronic wasting disease, and the collection and use of royalties from oil, gas, minerals, and timber removed from State Game Lands. Second was his openly anti-gun public policy position, which he had found creative ways to implement or promote through his role as Auditor General.

In our discussion with him that day, DePasquale struck a severely cagey disposition. You could just so easily tell that our comments on his various positions and doings were passing right in one ear and out the other. He did not care. This was a perfunctory meeting set up to give the appearance of a career politician listening to constituents, when in fact the politician was probably thinking about dinner out with his wife or mistress or drinking buddies.

DePasquale evinced little concern that his obviously political investigation, designed to burnish his own credentials at the cost of whatever happened to get damaged in the process, could really hurt the PGC. And especially damage both its science-based deer management and its erstwhile political independence. Erstwhile, because as DePasquale’s Grand Inquisition into the PGC books showed, no public agency is bulletproof against meddling politicians. Had PGC officials or staff mis-spent public money, then by gosh fry ’em.

But of course, DePasquale found nothing that the PGC’s own regular annual audits had not found. And thus, the PGC did not have to change course on a damned thing it was doing. But DePasquale benefited politically from making it seem that he had possibly found something. And that is where I come out on this election he is in.

Here we have a candidate who has almost zero private work experience, who is 99.5% a political party construct and product, who has been sucking at the taxpayer teat for his entire career in one role or another, who tried to damage Pennsylvania sportsmen’s interests for his own political gain, running against incumbent congressman Scott Perry. To me, there is little to nothing compelling or exciting about Eugene DePasquale. He is another career politician drone who could be from either political party, except that he hates guns, used his elected position to beat on gun owners, and tried to hurt Pennsylvania sportsmen by hurting the PGC.

In great contrast to DePasquale, his opponent, Scott Perry, has been a complete champion for gun rights, AKA our Constitutional rights. He does not blame law-abiding citizens or manufacturers for other people’s criminal acts. And he has had a whole career in the private sector, including as a small business owner, prior to becoming a politician. I admire these two things about Scott Perry. Yes, yes, yes, I know, I know, I know, he also served in the military, as a chopper pilot, at a high rank.

I am one of those voters who only gets excited about a candidate’s military duty when it shows real gumption and leadership, and I guess Scott Perry has that. But it is his real-life business experience, his willingness to work hard, take risks, and make sacrifices that impresses me the most.

In contrast to Eugene DePasquale, whose biggest risks were wondering which pressed suit to wear to whatever fundraiser, and whether it was worth it to burn the Sportsmen enough to impress his gun-grabbing supporters to a degree that they would really, really write him bigger campaign checks.

In this election for Congress, it is not even close. It is Scott Perry who is the best candidate. That is who I am voting for. The other guy DQ’d himself a long time ago.

Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day, the day we celebrate our dads, the people who helped us grow into young men and women. For thousands of years, fathers have been the protectors and providers for their families, and they have traditionally been the source of life-saving wisdom and decision making. The lessons and skills they teach their children, especially their sons, are essential for living life properly.

Thank you to my dad, for teaching me to use a chainsaw and an axe from a young age. For giving me the childhood chore of splitting and stacking firewood all summer long, so that our family would have heat and comfort all winter long. Other chores included weeding the garden and shooting pests like chipmunks, squirrels, and groundhogs, all of whom could easily do tremendous damage to the garden in just minutes. And while these chores trained me in self-reliance, hard work, and planning ahead, it was the one thing that dad would not let me do that probably shaped me the most.

Although my dad comes from a hunting family, he himself did not and still to this day does not hunt. Oh, he appreciates wild game and will eat it over everything else, given a choice. But when I started taking my BB gun on deer hunts with neighbors at age eight, my dad always told me I had to get close to the animal to shoot it. As I grew into a young Indian or frontiersman out there in the wilds of southern Centre County, I was prohibited by dad from topping my rifles with scopes. Only open sights were allowed. He said using only open sights taught me woodcraft, requiring me to get close to the wild animals I wanted to harvest, before taking their lives.

“It is only fair,” he said. “You can’t just assassinate unsuspecting wild animals from hundreds of yards away. If you hunt, you must be a real hunter. You must get close and take the animal with skill, on its own terms, where it can see, hear and smell you. That is fair.”

And so last deer season, on a steep hillside deep within the Northcentral PA state forest complex, all of those lessons and preparation came together in one quick, fleeting second. I did the Elmer Fudd thing all alone, quietly sidehilling into the wind, trying to live up to Dad’s dictum. One cautious, slow step at a time. Eyes scanning ahead, downhill, and especially uphill. Ears on high alert for any sound other than the wind in the leaves. Big bucks that are bedded down high above where the puny humans might slip, stumble, and walk, are most likely to flee to higher ground when one of us Pleistocene guys shows up too close for comfort. Deer might hear or smell us coming a long way off, or they might see us at the last second because we are being quiet and playing the wind right, but they know that within a hundred yards or so, we can kill them. So they flee uphill, and in stumbling up against gravity and slippery things underfoot they give us shot opportunities we would not otherwise have.

And so when the strange <snap> sounded out ahead of me, just over the slight rise that led into the large bowl filled with mature timber and rock outcroppings, and an odd looking animal bolted down hill almost bouncing like a fisher, I quickly backpedaled.

Anticipating where the deer would emerge about 130 yards below me, I quickly and also carefully walked straight backwards to where a natural slight funnel in the ground provided a clear enough shooting lane down through the forest to a small stream bed. Anything passing between me and the stream would be broadside at moments, providing a clear shot through heart and lungs if I took careful aim.

And sure enough, the big doe filled one of those spaces so briefly that I don’t even recall seeing her. All I do recall is how the rifle butt fit carefully into the space between the backpack strap over my shoulder and the thick wool coat sleeve, and how the open sights briefly aligned with her chest. The thumb safety had been snicked off already without thinking, and the gun cracked. I fired the gun instinctively.

Quickly raising the binoculars to my face, the doe was clearly visible way down below me, lying fully outstretched on the forest floor just above the stream bank, like in mid-leap with her front hooves and rear hooves completely extended ahead and behind, except she was not moving. She was laying still, her neck fully stretched out on her front legs like she was taking a nap. I watched her tail twitch a few times and then knew she was dead.

Sliding on my butt down to her was more challenging than climbing up to where I had been still hunting her. Northcentral PA mountainsides are the most difficult terrain for humans, in my experience. It is topped with a layer of slippery leaves, then wet twigs and branches waiting underneath to act like oil-slicked icicles, ready to throw a boot way ahead of one’s body. If the wet leaves and branches don’t make you fall down, then the rotten talus rock waiting underneath the leaves and twigs will slide, causing you to either do an extra-wide wildly gesticulating split, or fall on your butt, or fall on your back.

So I scooted downhill to the doe, tobogganning on my butt on the slick forest floor, cradling the rifle against my chest, keeping my feet out ahead of me to brake against getting too much speed and hurtling out of control.

Arriving at her body, I marveled at how she resembled a mule. Her long horse face and her huge body were anything but deer-like. Her teeth were worn down, and she must have been at least five years old. The single fawn hanging around watching me indicated an older mother no longer able to bear twins or triplets. This old lady had done her job and had given us many new deer to hunt and watch over many deer years.

Normally, in such remote and rugged conditions I will quickly bone out the deer, removing all of the good meat and putting it in a large trash bag in my backpack, leaving the carcass ungutted and relatively intact for the forest scavengers. But this doe was so big that I just had to show her off to friends, and so after putting the 2G tag on her ear, I ran a pull rope around her neck and put a stick through her slit back legs, and began the long drag out.

This hunt has stayed with me almost every day since that day. I think about it all the time, because it was so rewarding in so many ways, and emblematic of being a good hunter. Not the least of which was the careful woodcraft that led up to the moment where the smart old doe was busted in her bed and then brought to hand with one careful shot as she loped away, far away. Just as easily I could have been a hunter clothed in bucksin, using a stick bow and arrow five thousand years ago.

Thanks, Dad, for all the good lessons, the chores, the hard work, the restrictions and requirements that made me the man I am today. Without your firmly guiding hand back then, I would not be the man I am today. And what kind of man am I? I am a fully developed hu-man; a competent hunter with the skill set only a dad can teach a son, even if it takes a lifetime.

[some will want to know: Rifle is a 1991 full-stock Ruger RSI Mannlicher in .308 Winchester with open sights. Bullets in the magazine were a motley assortment of Hornady, Winchester, and Federal 150-grain soft points, any one of which will kill a deer or a bear with one good shot. Binoculars are Leupold Pro Guide HD 8×32 on a Cabela’s cross-chest harness. Boots are Danner Canadians. Coat is a Filson buffalo check virgin wool cruiser. Pants are Filson wool. Backpack is a now discontinued LL Bean hunting pack, most closely resembling the current Ridge Runner pack. Knife is a custom SREK by John R. Johnson of Perry County]

My comments to the PA Game Commission

The Pennsylvania Game Commission board of commissioners will be meeting this weekend, to set next season’s dates and bag limits. Like many other people, I submitted comments by email last week. From past experiences with this, I know that the commissioners read comments and requests from the public. Some of my comments, and those of my son, have received direct feedback from various members of the board.

A key to getting the commissioners to read and truly consider your comments is to submit them with plenty of time for the recipients to read them. If you submit comments a day or two before the meeting, it’s a very low likelihood of anyone having time to read them. Also, try to keep comments short, to the point, and sweet. Comments with prolonged bitching, whining, and playing biologist when you have no training or education or even a novice’s interest in wildlife biology, are all ways to ensure that your audience at best glances at your comments.

“Dear Commissioners,
Hunting should be fun, and therefore our small game seasons should run unbroken from their Fall opening to their February close. Whatever long gone reason for the on again-off again pattern of small game seasons, Pennsylvania must create opportunities for everyone. No biological reason exists for hiccup-style seasons. Few if any other states have this odd pattern. Let’s just let our hunters have fun and hunt.

In that vein, please consider allowing bodygrip traps on running pole sets in our most rural WMUs. The idea that a loose domestic dog is going to get caught in a trap in the middle of a state forest wilderness is preposterous. Same is true on private land. Same goes for allowing snares. We need all the tools we can get to manage coyotes. With now three years of crazy freeze-thaw-rain winter weather cycles, it’s impossible to rely on footholds. Cable restraints should be allowed throughout the whole season, and snares should be allowed on private land and or on public land in the Big Woods WMUs.

Finally, please put one of our Sundays on the day after the Saturday bear rifle opener, and another Sunday on the day after the Saturday deer rifle opener. This will create the most energy and excitement for our hunters. Even better, make bear and deer rifle concurrent!

Thank you for considering my thoughts,

–Josh”

Deer season is mostly over…now what happened?

Everywhere I checked, deer season (rifle) was just…off… this year.

The deer were off their usual trails, off their usual habits, patterns, just not cooperating. People hunting up in the Big Woods and down in the farm country all said that opening day was the quietest they had ever heard.

“When I was a kid, opening day sounded like a war zone,” says Ed, a product of west-central PA and lifelong hunter.

“This year, I heard nine shots all day. What the hell is that about?” he says emphatically.

And how could I not agree? Heck, I recall 2005’s opener, because I warned a flatlander non-hunting new neighbor that it was going to sound like “Bosnia” around their newly acquired country retreat. And it did. And it was a rewarding feeling looking up into the snow-covered mountains and seeing blaze orange dots sprinkled all over the landscape.

This year, we heard four or five shots on opening Saturday and maybe two or three shots on Monday, up in the Big Woods. And yet plenty of deer were moving. Talk about strange! Totally uncharacteristic.

Might be that our hunters are aging out in larger numbers than we anticipated, or that too many are part of the “professional whiners club,” never satisfied with the deer we have, but rather longing for the bad old days of over-abundant deer that we used to have. And therefore not participating in deer hunting, as a form of protest.

I don’t mean to pick on people, but it is disheartening and frustrating to hear the unfair abuse some Pennsylvania hunters heap on the Pennsylvania Game Commission and on anyone else who supports the PGC’s science-based wildlife management. No question, there are fewer deer…and so what is wrong with that?

And in fact, due to the hunters opting out because they say there are not sufficient deer to hunt, the deer numbers everywhere sure appear robust to me. They aren’t getting hunted very hard, so they are naturally reproducing quite fine. But the harvest numbers are down everywhere I hunt, in both the Big Woods and the farm country. Maybe we will be seeing longer deer seasons as a result.

–Some Reflections–

Deer drives: Like bear drives that are so popular the week before deer rifle season, deer drives are a necessity if hunters are going to see deer. Deer are adapatable, intelligent animals, and after 20 years of concurrent doe-buck hunting, they have changed their behavior. Gone are the days when a hunter could sit at Pap’s stand and expect to fill a buck tag. Now, the deer are moving around old stand sites, or staying hunkered down altogether. It takes a boot in their behind to get them moving, and once they are moving, deer begin to make mistakes. If hunters are ready enough, they can exploit those mistakes and start filling tags.

But just sitting is a very tough way to kill a deer any longer, under most conditions. So try deer drives. Even a two-man “leap-frog” drive is very effective. One hunter posts up in a good ambush spot, while the other slowly and quietly stalks into the wind or on some other trajectory, say for 300-500 yards. Then the driver becomes the poster/stander, and the former stander becomes the driver, moving around and ahead of the other hunter. Pennsylvania whitetails usually loop around and backtrack, so it is common to bump deer that will try to get around behind you. If you have a buddy standing back there, the deer will often present  a great shot while making their “escape.”

Deer scents & lures: If every other hunter is spraying a gallon of doe pee all over the landscape every time he or she goes hunting, what kind of effect do we think this will have on the deer we are targeting? If you think it is very confusing to the deer to be bombarded from every side by olfactory lures, then you are correct. Americans like everything BIG – guns, cars, trucks, competitive sports, homes, etc., and deer scents are no different.

A lot of hunters approach deer estrous scents like “Heck, if a few drops on a tampon hung in a tree branch is good enough, then a whole 2-ounce bottle should really do the trick!”

This is wrong thinking, because it is a total overdose. More is not better. Deer cannot handle the overdose. Now I am encountering hunters using “Buck Bomb” cans that are the size of a bathroom fresh scent can; that is, enough snoot material to wipe out a city. Problem is, deer are just single animals, and like humans, when they are carpet-bombed by too much estrous scent everywhere all of the time, they become confused, even spooked, and the scents lose their effectiveness.

So use your estrous scents sparingly, only at specific times, when the rut is at its highest. Like October 25th through the end of archery season. And maybe a few drops during the late season, because some does do come back into heat. The less you use, the more effective it will be.

Quality hunts: For better or for worse, right or wrong, killing a buck is the goal of most deer hunters. A buck is the ultimate symbol of hunting prowess, or good fortune, and the bigger the rack, the bigger the bragging rights. So far I have not killed a buck this season, and I doubt I will. But I am cheerfully accepting my fate, because I did take a big old matriarch doe on state forest land that sees little hunting pressure.

Long hike in and up up up, then a J-hook turn into the wind and sidehilling very slowly, carefully, trying not to fall loudly or too often in the wet leaves and rotten rock, brought me to a big old doe in her bed. She jumped up at the sound of a twig snapping under my boot, and ran around trying to figure out what it was. Within moments she was loping downhill at an angle, and at a rather longer distance than I had anticipated, I put a .308 150-grain slug through her lungs. No sign of the buck I was sure was hiding way up in that remote and vast wash, but the old doe was a pretty tough quarry, too. And so I consider this a real quality hunt, fairly won with hard work, good woodcraft and good shooting in a beautiful environment (Nothing like solo hunting the big woods. My favorite thing). This for me makes my season a good one, buck or no buck.

The memory of this hunt, the beautiful setting, the clear stream at the bottom of the steep wash, the two old mines I found, the soothing solitude … it will all carry me all year long. Just closing my eyes will take me back there. And as usual, I used a JRJ knife and the Ruger M77 RSI International in .308. No better mountain rifle in bolt action exists. Yes, a quick-handling double rifle could be an even better gun, but they are not made for the constant abuse that guns receive in this place.
It was also a good season because as a driver, often the only driver, I pushed many other deer to standers on our drives, some of whom connected. Last Friday, I got to be a stander, and a buck and a doe ran straight to me on a drive in a regenerating clearcut in Clark’s Valley. I couldn’t get good shots in the thick stuff, so I waited. Usually I shoot at 10-20 yards in those bramble and sapling thickets, and they were almost to me. They had no idea I was there. Suddenly a loud crashing  and a noisy rush through the brush comes from behind and below the deer, and a bear runs between them, spooks them, splits them. Mister Buck goes to my left, Missus Doe to my right, and both gone out of sight. The bear continues straight past me, now just walking, maybe five yards away on the logging road I’m standing on, apprising me in some grouchy bemusement, and then up the mountain he goes.
It was a good way to end the rifle season, and I hope you had a good one, too.
Flintlock season, here I come, wide misses and all!

See you all at the Great American Outdoor Show in early February, where I will be volunteering with the PFSC (Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists, formerly Clubs) a lot. Please come by and say hello.

Marc and Robb enjoy the fruit of a long day’s hunt in the Big Woods