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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.

 

Reflections on 2020 bear season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.