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Advice from a deer

As sure as the sun rises, there is sure to be complaining among hunters about the state, condition, blood pressure, and dental hygiene of Pennsylvania’s deer herd. In fact, you can’t escape the topic if you spend any time, like even a minute or two, in the company of devoted hunters. No matter who I am standing around, next to, or in line with, the complaints begin to flow about the Pennsylvania Game Commission and its deer management.

Despite being highly skeptical about government in general, and therefore despite keeping an open mind to complaints about government failings, I find myself repeatedly unpersuaded by these deer management complaints. While not quite ranking up there with UFO sightings or insistence that PGC has helicopter-imported mountain lions and coyotes to eat the deer, the fretting and nail biting and angry denunciations always seem to lack key aspects of any serious argument.

For example, for twenty years I have heard that Sproul State Forest harbors no deer. Then last year I easily killed a deer standing right at the edge of Sproul State Forest, and saw many others. This November, I hunted elk in Sproul State Forest and State Game Lands 100 in northern Centre County, and found myself endlessly surrounded by deer, from dawn until way past bed time while driving. Conventional views that these deer do not exist are easily reinforced around bar stools, but I have found them easily and quickly disproven in personal contact with the deer habitat itself.

One of the real challenges to Pennsylvania deer hunters is the change in deer herd size and behavior since 2001, as well as the maturing of our forests since the 1970s, when a lot of today’s older hunters were really getting into the lifestyle. A hunting culture based on sitting in one place and watching unsustainably sized deer herds migrate by resulted, and now that most rural deer herds have been lowered, just sitting and waiting is not enough. Especially when the mature forests we now experience are devoid of any acorns for the second year in a row.

In 2021 a late frost killed the oak flowers in northern PA, resulting in no acorns up north and spotty acorn crops in the south. In 2022, rampant gypsy moth infestations across the entire state denuded entire oak forests of every leaf and flower, which has again resulted in zero acorn production across a great deal of Pennsylvania’s forests. If you are inclined to blame people for things that are mostly out of people’s control, then I suppose we can point out that PA DCNR seemed to hold back on gypsy moth spraying in 2021 and 2022. Had DCNR sprayed more, then the state-wide acorn crop failure we now behold probably would not have been as bad.

The fact is that a great many of us started sitting or walking in beautiful mature forests this past Saturday or Sunday as PA’s deer rifle season opened up, and found ourselves marveling at the incredible silence greeting us. Hardly any bird activity. Maybe one squirrel seen all day, and certainly no bears and few if any deer. This is the result of there being nothing for anyone to eat in the woods.

So, unless your woods escaped gypsy moth damage and has acorns, get the heck out of the woods and go find brushy and grassy areas where deer can browse. Utility rights-of-way and clearcuts are the best places to find deer this season, and in fact the only person I know of who killed a deer anywhere near me yesterday (Sunday) was an older guy in a deer drive through a beautifully overgrown overhead powerline right of way. His hunting party also reported seeing eight does with the now deceased buck, none of which they shot.

Yesterday, while I was sitting miserably sick in my covered stand and waiting out the miserable cold rain and wind, a deer in a top hat and silk gloves happened by and gave me the following advice:

In general, access your hunting area well before sunrise and start every deer hunt with a quiet Sit from 6:30-9am, overlooking some promising travel corridor, funnel, or feeding area. Then slowly and quietly Still Hunt into the wind or quartering into the wind until lunch time. Then Sit down and eat lunch quietly, while overlooking some promising location through which wildlife regularly pass or eat. At 1pm pack up the lunch stuff and Still Hunt again slowly until 3:30pm, and then find a good spot with good views and shooting lanes and Sit quietly until 15 minutes before shooting light ends. Then slowly and quietly walk out, and maybe kill something on your way back to your vehicle or camp, only unloading your firearm when shooting hours have officially ended.

I myself am about to suit up for a long and slow stalk through some brushy utility rights of way. Yes, they are now wet, and always steep, and the going is tough. But that is where the deer are, because that is where they can eat and survive, and I am hunting deer so that I might actually kill one.

The deer and I must meet in person in order for this transaction to happen.

As much as a covered hunting blind may be a necessity when the hunter is sick or the rain is pouring down, the fact is this not really hunting. Slowly and quietly walking into the wind through good deer habitat with your firearm at the ready is real hunting. Do it.

PA elk & bear seasons now behind us

You can spend all year excitedly anticipating a few days here or there, and before you know it, those days arrive, they happen intensely, and then they are over like a dream.

This dream we speak of here are the various big game seasons that are such a big part of so many peoples’ lives, entire families and communities, entire businesses (I think hunting is an annual $1.6 BILLION business sector here in Pennsylvania). Thus far we have had an elk season and now the main bear season pass along. Here are some of my thoughts on these two wonderful experiences.

First, the elk hunt.

I was fortunate enough to draw a coveted PA elk tag, after applying for many years and building up a lot of preference points. The lottery drawing was announced in late August, and I immediately began planning. The general elk season is just six days long, and unless you are going to engage a guide for a few thousand dollars, you have a lot of work to do before setting foot afield with a gun. If you draw a bull tag, paying a guide is worth it.

After a tremendous amount of analysis and planning, and some September scouting, I was fortunate to hunt for elk with some good friends and a .62-caliber percussion rifle over my shoulder in Elk Zone 13. We camped out on a log landing in Sproul State Forest, with elk all around us, and each buddy scouted hard each day, looking for elk that the sole hunter (me) could get after.

Elk Zone 13 is huge, and contains a lot of vast public land. And so the elk harvest data shows that it is a bit of a Death Valley in terms of hunters actually killing an elk within it. While a lot of Pennsylvania elk hunting takes place briefly where a lot of the local elk have pet names and are used to being around people, there are a few elk zones where the opposite is the case. Zone 13 is one of those opposite cases. It is a tough place to hunt under any conditions, and under the rainy, warm, and very windy conditions we had, it was just about impossible. In the end, just one of three bull tags there was filled, and as of the fifth day of the six day season, just one of the six cow elk tags had been filled. I was not one of those people lucky enough to fill my elk tag.

And it was not a harvest failure because we didn’t hunt smart. We hunted so smart that we were bumping into elk guides and their clients at every turn. We had done our homework ahead of time, and we knew where the elk were likely to be, which is where you will find an elk guide, too.

One of the things I did as part of the analysis and planning phase was was plot all of the past elk harvest data on the large Elk Zone 13 map the PA Game Commission sent me. Once your eyes see exactly where the elk are killed every year, almost always in large clusters, over the past seven years that Elk Zone 13 has been around, you recognize where to concentrate your field scouting efforts. And then our subsequent field scouting efforts confirmed the presence of elk, including the day before the elk hunt started.

Like I said above, the weather conditions were awful for any type of big game hunting, and especially with a primitive weapon such as I carried. My effective range was 110 yards, and 75 yards was a lot more preferable. But range doesn’t matter if you can’t get an elk to stand broadside for a few seconds. I did mix it up directly with an elk herd that was hiding in a forest, and I did call one close back to me, and I did get a couple good setups on moving elk. But the seesawing winds gave away my presence each time, and the elk stormed off each time. Like I said, I had a wonderful time with good friends in a beautiful place with a fantastic gun over my shoulder. Elk or no elk in the hunting bag, I had a great time hunting elk in Pennsylvania (an especial Thank You to the many private landowners who generously granted me access to their properties to hunt elk).

Now, bear season.

Bear season ended yesterday, and the last of the bear hunters grudgingly left the cabin today. As usual, we had a large crowd gathered here, with everyone happy to catch up with chums from years past, sharing good food and good drink and good cheer. One thing all hunters eventually begin to notice is that with age comes a mellowing of the spirit. The chase is not as important as simply being present in God’s creation, often communing with Him in the largest house of prayer anywhere, the mountain forest cathedral.

And so fewer and fewer guys are coming here to hunt, and more and more guys are here to relax. And that is OK.

We who both communed with God in the mountain forest cathedral, and who also hunted, saw no bears and only a few deer. Mostly because there are no acorns in the woods, and all wildlife must go where the food is. If there is no food here, there are no bears here. Gypsy moths devastated Pennsylvania’s oak forests this past summer, and so there were no oak flowers to turn into oak acorns to fatten up buck and bear, squirrel and turkey. The woods was totally quiet this week, and it made me wonder what a squirrel migration looks like. Do hordes of mountain squirrels move en masse into suburban yards in lean years like this one? And where the heck do all the bears hibernate?

Roughly 1,450 bears were killed in PA’s early archery and muzzleloader seasons, and so far just under a thousand bears total are reported for this week’s bear rifle hunt. Usually this week’s four-day hunt results in an enormous bear kill. We are now looking at an epically low bear harvest in a state with a huge and burgeoning bear population that needs managing (Just a few days ago New Jersey issued an emergency bear hunt approval, because The People’s Republic of New Jersey is being overrun with bears, which unfortunately cannot be trained to eat liberals but whom the liberals recognize as a natural predator and are seeking to reduce out of self defense).

Another thought a lot of people are sharing today is that the early bear seasons, archery and muzzleloader, are very effective, so that come the late November bear season, there are a lot fewer bears to be had. Bears that are facing both extreme hunger AND extreme hunting pressure will den up early to get out of the storm. It seems a lot of the bears that survived the early seasons arrived in a bleak foodless November and said an early good night until March, 2023.

Next up is deer season, another dream time. And our deer patterns are also all off kilter here, so it is going to be a very interesting deer hunt in the mountains. Again, it’s no acorns, no deer. Except for that one gigantic buck I saw a couple times….stay tuned for that report. Let’s hope it makes up for the no elk and no bear reports we already filed away for 2022…

An 1884 double rifle made for tigers in India would be great bear medicine. If only a bear would appear.

This remote old mine is one of dozens that dot our mountains. It is a fine place to hunt, take a nap, or write in a notebook. A couple times I have done all three in one visit.

Camped with friends on an old log landing in the Sproul State Forest is a wonderful way to spend life’s limited time, elk or no elk in the bag.

A great way to spend a day hunting elk, with a beautiful .62 caliber rifle (not a smoothbore) made by Mark Wheland here in PA. With its 335-grain round ball, it is easily capable of cleanly taking a hearty elk.

We interrupt our regular political bickering to bring you Deer Season

People who don’t hunt may think they have some serious political differences. Well, they have not yet gotten involved in the Pennsylvania deer hunting wars, where fifteen years ago PA Game Commission board members and senior staff believed they had to wear bullet proof vests to public policy gatherings, such was the intensity of hate and vitriol…over deer.

With deer archery season ending Sunday night (our first Sunday hunt of the year) and deer rifle season just two weeks away, what better time to interrupt all the political acrimony from Tuesday’s mid-term election and introduce people to some real genuine debate. Yep. About deer.

Last week PA Governor Tom Wolf signed into law a change to the annual antlerless deer (doe) tag purchase system that only took twenty five years of bipartisan effort to achieve. All too well are Pennsylvania hunters familiar with the gigantic pink envelopes that screamed out to anti hunting Postal Service employees “Throw me away, throw me away!”

The gigantic pink envelope doe tag application system had been in place since the 1970s, and the system that was implemented in the 1970s was only a slight modification of the doe tag allocation process from the 1940s. That is how freaking backwards one major aspect of PA’s deer management program has been…hunters living in 2022, but operating in 1945.

And yeah, aspects of 1945 were great improvements over the sinking cultural ship nonsense we have going on today, but the gigantic pink envelope doe tag application lottery was not one of them. In the era of the Internet and email and texting, the now discarded doe tag system relied upon an unreliable Postal Service, two licked stamps, a check, multiple folds in the gigantic pink envelope, exactly the correctly checked boxes, and hoping your application made it in on time, or No Doe Tag For You!

And for most deer hunters, having a doe tag is a really big deal, because the harvest rate on does is about forty or fifty percent, while the success rates on wily bucks is about fifteen percent. Having a doe tag meant a much higher likelihood of getting fresh and healthy venison for your family and personal enjoyment. And not having the doe tag, because of some ridiculous minor bureaucratic rule or unchecked box in the application, was a big deflation for many a hunter.

Now we are going to have an online doe tag lottery and application process. No more photos of gigantic pink envelopes stacked up in Postal Service back rooms, waiting to be sent in weeks after their best-by date.

What is the doe hunt all about? It is about managing Pennsylvania’s over-abundant deer herd so that the non-hunting public doesn’t start to think that we hunters can’t get the job done right. It is a big and important job. In Europe, if wild game populations get too big and begin causing agricultural damage and car crashes, the local hunters actually get fined for it. Here in PA we have an enormous impact from too many deer, and a gigantic whiny peanut gallery that wants even more deer. Much more than the landscape can feed or than the public can afford to pay for.

Deer population management is done by the PA Game Commission. PGC uses hunting harvest numbers, statistical models, and input from individual hunters, hunting groups, landowners, farmers, “birds ‘n bunnies” environmental groups, and timber companies. One of the loudest voices is from hunters who want to see more deer, but who don’t care about the cost that those deer impose on other people. It is a tough job, requiring PGC to balance a lot of competing interests.

I am always surprised to hear hunters complain about PGC’s deer management, because invariably these critics really don’t know the actual mechanics of how it is done. Nor do they bother to take the time to learn the mechanics. Nor do they take the time to go on a local State Game Lands tour, to understand about deer impacts on the landscape. Instead, these hunters behave like communists and demand that everyone else provide year-’round room and board to the overabundant deer that they want to experience for just a few days a year. As much as I love our hunters, I am getting more and more cranky with them in my old age. Guys, please get educated about this subject, or just leave the adults alone.

This summer my wife and I drove out to Colorado and back. We passed endless deer roadkills on I-76 on the way out, but from the Ohio border westward, we saw just two dead deer on the side of the road. One in Iowa and one in Nebraska. On our way back to Pennsylvania, we saw no roadkills anywhere until we crossed into PA on I-80. Literally within the first mile of entering PA we began counting the freshly dead deer, and we continued that counting all the way home to central PA.

This Fall I hunted elk in northern Centre County and western Clinton County, and we saw TONS of deer every single day. This northcentral PA area is supposed to have no deer since 2001, if the official lazy stumpsitter hunter assessment is to be believed. The fact is, both PGC and DCNR have done fabulous jobs of clearcutting large blocks of forest, which has resulted in perfect habitat for deer and a bunch of other important animals. A hunter simply must get up off his butt and go do the Elmer Fudd hunting thing, nose into the wind. If this is too difficult for you, then deer hunting is not your thing.

I have hit several deer on the road in the past two years, each one doing expensive damage to my vehicles. My friend Mark just totaled his expensive sports car on the PA Turnpike 110 miles west of Harrisburg, because a deer walked out in front of his 70 MPH missile. He texted that the tow truck driver said that his was the sixth deer collision the tow truck operator had to address in 30 hours. That is just one tow truck in one small area, and so we know (and see with our eyes) that the deer collision problem is enormous, and expensive, and unnecessary,

Hopefully with the elimination of the gigantic pink envelope the PGC will also change the way it issues doe tags and the number it issues. I hunt all over PA and my opinion is, you can’t really issue too many doe tags. Especially in the southeast part of the state. WMUs 5B, 5C, and 5D should have unlimited doe tags. Apply for one and get one up until the end of the season.

There are so many deer everywhere, and all of them are causing enormous damage and highway carnage. This is presently a hunting problem to be solved by hunters, and unless PA hunters want to go the way of Washington State, where hunting as a wildlife management tool is being taken off the table, they had better step up and do the job and fix the problem.

Sayonara, Gigantic Pink Envelope! We won’t miss ya! And now that that problem is fixed, let the deer wars bickering begin about doe tags all over again. One camp living in 1945, the rest living in 2025. Can’t wait…..

Anatomy of a deer season

It doesn’t matter if you archery hunt for deer religiously, from October 1 to mid-November; the archery season is always over way too fast.

It doesn’t matter if you archery hunt a bit for bear and deer, hunt the week of early muzzleloader for bear and doe, do some small game hunting, have the men up to camp for bear season for four days, and then hunt every day of deer rifle season. The ending is always the same: It ended way too fast. We wait all year for this time, and before you can blink an eye, it is over.

For many hunters, this time is about being afield, hunting. The occasional actual killing part is a welcome indication that the hunting part was done well. Proof that the time spent outside was not wasted.

Oh, we still have some late deer season remaining, which is the late archery and flintlock hunt. But by now, deer everywhere in Pennsylvania are on high alert. A twig falling out of a tree and rustling a leaf on the ground will send a nearby deer herd into panicked stampede into the next county. So getting deeply enough into the sensory zone of these intelligent animals to take one with a bow or a flintlock at this stage takes real skill, not just the usual luck.

Although I will hunt the flintlock deer season, because I have some DMAP tags left, looking back even now with a sense of longing has me thinking about the anatomy of a good deer season. Some take-aways:

  1. Eat good food. Whether it is home-made jerky and dried fruit we make ourselves for our own time afield, or it is the extra thick gourmet steaks we bring to hunting camp, eat the best quality food you can afford. Hunting alone or with friends and family is a celebration, so eat like you are celebrating. And because Man does not live on bread alone, make sure your drinks are of a commensurate high quality.
  2. Practice, practice, practice with your gun. Archery hunters practice non-stop, but for some reasons many gun hunters leave it to one box of ammo and the days right before the season to “practice” shooting. Well do I recall sharing a range with a guy from Lancaster County at the bench next to me. Friendly enough, he enthusiastically, if spastically, launched his one box of “extra” shells down range as rapid fire as a bolt action can fire. I had offered him the use of my spotting scope and Caldwell shooting sled, and he declined. He did end up relying on my spotting and calling his hurried shots, however, because he didn’t quite have his scope figured out. The old random “spray n’ pray” is the approach he packed up and drove off to hunting camp with. Do any of us think he hit what he shot at?
  3. Bring your best jokes, naughty or practical. Hunting camp is fun, and each of us must contribute to that festive atmosphere. Many years ago, I bent down to inspect a strange looking object hiding under the cabin’s kitchen counter. And just as quickly I jumped back and screamed like a little girl when the damned thing took off running. That it was merely a muskrat pelt attached to a fishing line being pulled by Bob and followed by uproarious laughter at my expense just made my revenge all the sweeter. As for naughty jokes and rhymes, the list is endless. Look them up and bring half a dozen. Maybe I am lowbrow, or maybe I have low expectations, but it sure seems that everyone present laughs at these men-only jokes.
  4. Get out into position early, like at least an hour before first light, and when you move play the wind (nose into the wind), go quietly and slowly, and carry your gun port-arms and not across your back. If you can get out into position at 4:30am, even better. Just bring a blanket and some Zippo hand warmers.
  5. Food sources matter for deer and bear, too. We humans are not the only ones who both enjoy and need food. In a year of abundant acorns, a stand of sweet tasting white oaks will draw more deer and bear, and you can sit down wind of that stand of trees. In a year of scarce acorns, like this year, any tree that had a decent crop will still draw animals pawing in the leaves for whatever may be left in early December. By this mid-November, almost all of the already scarce acorns were eaten up, and both bear and deer seemed to be moving widely across the landscape in search of any food. It makes for tough hunting, and so we have to team up with buddies and other camps to work together to scoop up what animals are out there. Be flexible and think outside the box of a permanent stand.
  6. Speak animal language. Last year I grunted in an Adirondacks wilderness buck after busting him out of his bed. He was a territorial and aggressive SOB. But the conditions were all wrong for playing around, and although his body was visible, I could not shoot through the beech brush to get him. This year I returned for Round Two with the same animal, which had probably never seen a human being, and after two days of tentative efforts, Day Three resulted in the furious huge buck storming right in to my position with leaves, twigs, snot and mouth foam flying. I shot him in the neck at five yards, five miles from my truck. Lot of work, totally worth it for that DIY hunt of a lifetime. My position was carefully chosen for what he could see or smell under a certain wind direction. I waited until it was all just right, and let fly. His response was immediate.
  7. Take pictures, send them in emails. While journaling is not dead, most people today do not write in a personal or camp journal. Instead, we take photos and email them around. The recipients always appreciate them. Especially when ten or twenty years has suddenly passed, our knees don’t seem capable of all those steep climbs and hard sidehilling drives any longer, and a lot of our best times at hunting camp are sitting around with dear friends and reminiscing together. So don’t forget to take pictures and share them.

Northern PA’s acorn crop largely failed in 2021, possibly due to a late frost that killed the acorn flowers. Acorns remaining on the ground looked OK from the outside, but were all rotten like this on the inside. Wildlife is hungry and moving widely to locate food.

My “Freedom Buck,” killed on Sunday November 28th at 7:45am, on private property in PA. The ban on Sunday hunting is an attack on freedom, and so I named this Sunday morning buck after my declaration of freedom.

 

 

The deer that got away, but shouldn’t have

It doesn’t matter how many seasons I’ve spent afield, or how many big game animals I’ve taken while hunting. I am always surprised at how many strange circumstances there are in the woods that challenge my expectations and prior experiences. Over the decades some fatally wounded animals have gotten away from me, despite my best efforts to locate them. Or at least I thought they had gotten away, because I did not find them where I expected them to be, and ended up going home mystified about how such a large animal could seemingly vanish into thin air. Each one of these losses has been a “teachable moment,” and the better I became at following up wounded animals, the more I was able to look back on ones that got away (that actually were there but not found) and realize where and how I had failed to look.
Learning from these moments is important, because dying animals sometimes pull off disappearing acts that you can’t believe. That you would not believe if someone told you, and you would not believe if you did not see it with your own eyes. One big take away from my experiences is big game like deer and bear can be dead on their feet but nonetheless run far on adrenaline, and then do a head dive under a log, into a leaf pile, or over a cliff, thereby disappearing from view. It is up to the hunter to decipher the clues left behind by the mortally wounded animal, so that we can track it down and bring it to hand. Losing wounded big game animals is a big no-no, and although it does happen, it really shouldn’t happen very often.
Even with tracking dogs now legal in Pennsylvania for finding lost big game, a lot of hard work can be avoided if the hunter can figure out what likely happened right away.
Last Sunday morning I was reminded yet again that fatally hard-hit deer can nonetheless run pretty far, not leave much of a trail to follow, leave little or no blood trail, seem to disappear, and important clues about how far they are likely to go can often be found right at the site of initial bullet contact. Even in snow, which in the best circumstances shows all kinds of evidence that is easy to follow.
He had been grubbing for acorns in the brush behind the log at the top of the picture below. He was shot there when he turned broadside, at 120 yards. Notice the wildly turned up leaves and dirt, as his first few frantic leaps propelled him away from the scene of attack as fast as possible. There are just a couple of these scuff marks, and no blood visible on the snow yet. If snow were not present, we would only have the violent scuff marks as an indication an animal had reacted wildly and sought immediate escape. These scuff marks are typically (though not always) only found where the animal has taken a hard hit. In dry leaves and no snow, this might be your only clue at the beginning of a long and faint trail left by a fatally wounded animal.
The buck left a good clue that he was hit hard the first time: A series of sliding steps with scuffed up leaves and some minor blood spray, just little drops, right before bounding farther up the hill and turning around to regard his former position like he’d been stung by a bee. That’s when I shot him the second time. I knew I had connected with the first shot, but my impression was that it was not a hard or fatal hit.

Below is the buck after the second bullet, at about 140 yards, the hole of which is visible behind his shoulder; a classic behind-the-shoulder double lung/ top of heart hit. Usually it’s immediately fatal. Usually the animal is knocked down by the impact. But not that day. He absorbed the second soft point without moving, just standing there broadside, as if I had completely missed him. Even after he dropped he had a lot of life and fight left, as can be seen in his death spiral in the snow.

My challenge was that I did not see him fall, which happened while I was fumbling with my binoculars. Because I do not often use a rifle scope, I do not maintain a magnified field of view after my shot. Going back and forth between open sights and binoculars is my process.

As an aside, you may wonder why I use open sights, or you may be one of those people who deride open sights. Shooting instinctively with open sights is how I grew up and how I learned to hunt. Unlike a scope, open sights can take a lot more abuse in the field before they go out of whack. Unlike a scope, they cannot possibly lose their “zero” after spending eleven months in a closet. Open sights are absolutely reliable, and perfectly effective. Recall that American infantry are qualified on open sights out to 600 yards (or meters), so it is not like these things are relics from the past. Open sights are the best option, provided they are installed correctly and checked annually.

My preference for open sights is about more than performance, however. It has to do with how I like to hunt: On foot, getting close to the animal, within its sensory zone, and trying to kill it on its own terms, up close. This is a true contest of skill, not an assassination. And I hardly think an open-sighted center fire rifle is a disadvantage; it is a huge advantage over a spear or a bow. Scoped rifles are just that much more of an advantage.

So, I did not see the buck fall, and he fell into a small swale where I could not see him. Not wanting to stink up the woods and ruin further hunting, I sat on my butt and scoured the woods for signs of a deer. In fact, I saw a large buck a couple hundred yards away sneak into a thick tree top blowdown. It made me think the buck I had shot at was gut-shot and sneaking away to lie down, and so I did not push him. Only when the crows showed up over an hour later was it evident that the buck was in fact dead right where I had last seen him.

Freedom Sunday

Aaaaahhhh, the swell feeling of freedom.

A few days ago, I sat up in a tree stand in Perry County with a loaded crossbow, waiting for a legal buck to walk by. A legal buck in this area of Pennsylvania has at least three points on one side of his antler rack.

The most distinguishing feature of this afternoon deer hunt was that it was occurring on a Sunday. Sunday hunting (beyond coyotes and foxes) is a new addition to Pennsylvania, and as of 2020 we have three Sundays to hunt deer or bear. People like me prevailed in obtaining these mere three Sundays to hunt only after a protracted 25-year battle with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, whose nonagenarian board members constantly shook their canes at freedom lovers.

We lovers of freedom are also by nature opponents of government overreach, and yet while the PA Farm Bureau is against all kinds of government overreach, they were all fall-on-their-sword supportive of a government ban on Sunday hunting. Even on private property, where land owners could make their own personal choice about how to spend their weekend. The PA Farm Bureau would not, and still will not, budge one inch in their opposition to any sort of Sunday hunting. And incredibly, Pennsylvania’s laundry list of career elected officials went along with the PA Farm Bureau’s twenty nonagenarians, and against the wishes of just about everyone else.

So while we await the day when the Liberty Bell shall yet ring again and proclaim liberty throughout the land, granting Sunday hunting from October 1st through February 15th, we must enjoy what crumbs we may glean from the grips of the power and control obsessed.

This present gridlock situation made my three hours of Sunday afternoon archery hunting bittersweet. On the one hand, I was in fact experiencing one Freedom Sunday. Better than nothing, right? On the other hand, sometimes a taste of honey is worse than none at all, and while I sat there my mind kept involuntarily counting the number of Sundays we were being unfairly excluded from enjoying.

If you are curious, the number of Sundays we hunters are being deprived in Pennsylvania is nineteen (19). That may seem like very few days to the person who gets to do whatever they want to do seven days a week, 365 days a year, and without false moralists looking over their shoulder in hypocritical judgment of whatever their choice of entertainment may be on any particular day. But to us hunters, whose season runs from early October to mid February, and again the month of May’s turkey season, those nineteen days are a huge deal. We can’t make up for them in the summer months. We can’t get them back once they have passed.

This means that we Pennsylvania hunters are missing a significant percentage of freedom in our lives as otherwise free citizens. This freedom is being unfairly deprived to us, stripped out of our hands, out of the lives of our children. It is a bizarre situation, when we look at the states around us that have unlimited Sunday hunting.

For example, a week ago I began an annual wilderness hunt out of state on a Sunday morning. The trail head parking lot I started out from was packed with the pickup trucks and SUVs of fellow hunters, many of whom I learned later are tradesmen and contractors, whose work loads are heavy all week long, and whose weekends are their real opportunity to pursue their hobbies and pastimes. Our presence as free hunters, free citizens, in the Sunday woods bothered no one, impacted no one. Pennsylvania needs a lot more of this same Freedom Sunday.

Freedom Sunday: Me deer hunting on private land last Sunday. Hurting no one, bothering no one. Why not more of this Sunday freedom?

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.