Pennsylvania – Looking forward to the deer rifle season? Remember, it starts early this year on Saturday instead of Monday.

Good luck, hunters!

Safety tips for hunting season:

  • Wear hunter orange when in the woods, and use hunter orange tape to identify your hunting location.
  • Dress for the weather.
  • Know your gun and how to use it. Know the range of your gun and that it is properly sighted in.
  • Identify your target before putting your finger on the trigger. Do not shoot at sound or movement. Always identify your target before shooting.
  • Know what is behind your target and never shoot in the direction of another person, building, or road.
  • If hunting on private land, know where the boundaries, houses, roads, fences and livestock are located on the property.
  • Obey all wildlife and gun safety laws. If you are involved in an incident, identify yourself, render aid, and call 911.

PA Rep. Clint Owlett leads a discussion with Game Warden Thomas Nelson and Cadet Andrew Butler on all things hunting – safety, regulations, big game tags, new e-tags – and review common mistakes, and how you can avoid them.

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HARRISBURG, PA – Opportunity, meet convenience.

Pennsylvania’s upcoming firearms deer season – always the most popular on the hunting calendar – features abundant whitetails and increased flexibility in when and where hunters can harvest them. No wonder excitement is high for what this year might bring.

First, the opportunity.

Hunters harvested an estimated 435,180 deer in the 2020-21 seasons. That was 12 percent higher than the 2019-20 harvest of 389,431 and the highest harvest in 15 years.

Antlered deer were a large part of that. Hunters took 174,780 bucks last year. That was up from 163,240 in 2019-20 and 147,750 in 2018-19, and the most ever in the antler restrictions era.

No other state in the Northeast can match those numbers, not even when taking land mass into account.

According to the National Deer Association, in 2019 – the most recent year for which full statistics are available – Pennsylvania ranked second in the nation in buck harvest per square mile, trailing only Michigan. It produced almost three times as many bucks per square mile as any other state in the Northeast.

Two-thirds of those bucks were mature animals at least 2.5 years old, too.

Hunters likewise did well on antlerless deer. Pennsylvania ranked second nationally in 2019 in doe harvest per square mile, behind only Delaware. It produced two times as many does per square mile as any other Northeast state.

Yet, for all that, deer populations remain stable across most of the state’s 23 Wildlife Management Units (WMUs).

Now, the convenience.

The 14-day 2021 statewide firearms season is designed to maximize flexibility, in three ways.

First, it begins on Saturday, Nov. 27, and continues on Sunday, Nov. 28, providing hunters – many off work or school – a full weekend to be afield. Deer season then runs through Dec. 11, closing only on Sunday, Dec. 5.

Second, hunters with the proper licenses can harvest either an antlered or antlerless deer at any time throughout the season anywhere in the state. That’s a change from last year, when just 10 WMUs allowed concurrent buck and doe hunting.

That won’t necessarily lead to more antlerless deer taken overall.

The number of antlerless tags available this season was reduced in many WMUs compared to last to account for the additional days of antlerless hunting. Even where tag numbers are up – in WMUs included in CWD Disease Management Areas or where the goal is to stabilize deer numbers – the increase in tags is smaller than it would have been had seven days of concurrent hunting remained in place.

And third, the Game Commission this year made it possible for hunters willing to use antlerless tags to get more of them if the allocation hasn’t been sold out. It adopted a regulation change allowing hunters to hold up to six antlerless licenses at a time. That’s up from three previously.

That’s designed to give hunters desiring to take deer the opportunity to do so, and maybe even let last-minute license buyers get in on the action.

Last season, for example, more than 16,000 antlerless licenses remained available in mid-November in WMUs 2A and 4A. Yet hunters who already had three tags couldn’t buy any, even though no one else wanted them.

Upping the licenses-per-hunter limit better ensures tags are issued to the fullest extent possible. It also gives hunters the chance to buy antlerless tags deeper into hunting season.

A few WMUs still had antlerless tags available for purchase this week.

“It truly is an exciting time to be a Pennsylvania deer hunter,” said Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “Hunters have the opportunity to pursue large-racked bucks in numbers unlike anything we’ve seen in more than a century. Plus, they’ve got more flexibility when it comes to deciding when and where to take antlerless deer.

“We know that’s important. In Pennsylvania and across the nation, hunters busy with family, work and school commitments consistently list lack of time as the biggest obstacle to getting into the woods. These changes address that and set the stage for folks to make some wonderful memories.”

 

 

Field conditions

Consistently finding deer means first finding the food they’re keying on. There seems to be plenty of that available this year, in lots of places.

Game Commission foresters, land managers and other field staff report that “soft mast” – apples, crabapples, hawthorn, black cherries and many berry-producing shrubs – are available in abundance across many areas of the state.

“Many areas report the best crop of apples in years,” said David J. Gustafson, Chief of the Game Commission’s Forestry Division.

Supplies of “hard mast” look good, too.

Gustafson said white oak and chestnut oak acorns are abundant and widespread everywhere except for where gypsy moth defoliation was an issue this spring. In those areas, the white oak group acorn crop is almost nonexistent.

“In fact, some State Game Lands that the Game Commission sprayed to control gypsy moth are seeing the best white oak group acorn crop in several years, while areas that weren’t sprayed on neighboring properties that suffered significant defoliation failed to produce,” Gustafson said.

Acorns from trees in the red oak group – namely red, black, and scarlet oak – are widely available, as well, with a few exceptions attributable to an “elevation-driven phenomenon.”

Heavy frosts in some areas in spring of 2019, when the flowers leading to this year’s crop of red oak acorns formed, negatively limited production.

“So in some places you will find red oak acorns high on the mountains where winds prevented the damaging frost, while the lower slopes have none,” Gustafson said. “Other areas that had no frost impacts are seeing normal to above average red oak group crops.”

Hickory nuts, meanwhile, seem at near-record levels, with many areas of the state seeing more than at any time in the last decade.

With all that food available in so many places, not to mention that available in places like cornfields, deer can be spread out. So hunters should scout before the season.

Deer usually make a mess wherever they eat, so it shouldn’t be hard to sort out whether they’re using an area. Look for raked up leaves, droppings and partially eaten mast for confirmation.

Then, when setting up a hunting stand, use the prevailing wind to your advantage. It should blow from where you expect to see deer to your location.

Finally, dress for the weather and sit tight. There will be other hunters out there, too, some sitting, others still-hunting or driving for deer in groups. They might chase deer your way.

 

Licenses

Hunters are permitted to harvest one antlered deer with a valid general hunting license, which costs $20.97 for adult residents and $101.97 for adult nonresidents.

To take an antlerless deer, a hunter must possess either a valid antlerless deer license or valid Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) permit. A mentored hunter under the age of 7 cannot apply for their own antlerless license or DMAP permit but can harvest an antlerless deer if an antlerless license or DMAP permit is transferred to them by a mentor at the time of harvest.

Antlerless deer licenses can be used anywhere within the Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) for which they’re issued.

A DMAP permit can be used only on the specific property for which it is issued.

Some DMAP permits might remain available on private and public properties throughout the state. Visit the Game Commission’s website to learn more about where they are available.

Mentored hunting permits, meanwhile, are available to hunters of all ages. Mentored hunters ages 7 and older receive an antlered deer harvest tag with their permit. Those under 7 must receive deer harvest tags from their mentors. A mentor can transfer an antlered deer harvest tag and an antlerless license and/or DMAP permit to a mentored hunter under 7.

Mentored hunters ages 7 and older can apply for one antlerless deer license. They can also apply for DMAP permits, following the same regulations as adults.

Mentored hunting permit fees are $2.97 for residents and nonresidents under 12; $6.97 for residents 12 to 16; $41.97 for nonresidents 12 to 16; $20.97 for residents 17 and older; and $101.97 for nonresidents 17 and older.

Hunters 12 or older who are certified through the Game Commission’s Hunter-Trapper Education program qualify to purchase general hunting licenses, which provide more privileges. Certified hunters 12 to 16 can obtain junior licenses, the least expensive of which cost $6.97 for residents and $41.97 for nonresidents.

Those holding senior lifetime licenses are reminded they must obtain a new antlered deer harvest tag each year, free of charge, to participate in the season.

General hunting licenses can be purchased online, but as the season nears, hunters might find it better to purchase licenses in person. Hunters can carry a digital version of their general license afield, but still need their paper harvest tags. Deer licenses purchased online are mailed, meaning those harvest tags might not arrive in time if purchased too close to the start of the season.

Hunters are reminded the field possession of expired licenses or tags, or another hunter’s licenses or tags, is unlawful.

 

Deer season regulations

Rules regarding the number of points a legal buck must have on one antler vary by WMU. In most WMUs, a buck with three points to a side, counting the brow tine, is legal. But in WMUs 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B and 2D, a buck must have three points not counting the brow tine. Junior license holders, mentored youth, disabled hunters with a permit to use a vehicle, and resident active duty U.S. Armed Services personnel, can harvest antlered deer with two or more points on one antler, or a spike three or more inches in length.

For a complete breakdown of antler restrictions, WMU boundaries and other regulations, consult the 2021-22 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which is provided to hunters at the time they purchase their licenses and available online at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov.

Deer hunters everywhere statewide, meanwhile, must wear at all times a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on their head, chest and back combined, visible from 360 degrees, during the firearms deer season. An orange hat and vest will satisfy the requirement.

Nonhunters who might be afield during deer season and other hunting seasons should consider wearing orange, as well.

Hunters who harvest a deer are required to affix a valid tag to the ear – not an antler – before the deer is moved. The tag must be filled out with a ballpoint pen and notched or cut with the correct date of harvest.

Hunters must then report their harvest to the Game Commission within 10 days. Harvests can be reported online at www.huntfish.pa.gov, by calling 1-800-838-4431 or by mailing in the postage-paid cards that are provided in the digest.

Mentored youth hunters are required to report deer harvests within five days. And hunters with DMAP permits must report on their hunting success within 10 days of the last possible date of harvest, regardless of whether they harvest deer.

 

Hunt safely from tree stands

Wearing a full-body harness is essential to staying safe when using a tree stand, but a harness can prevent falls to the ground only if it is connected to the tree.

“That means you must wear your harness, and be sure it’s connected to the tree, at all times you’re in the stand, as well as when you’re getting into and out of the stand, or climbing or descending trees,” explained A.J. Garcia, the Game Commission’s hunter-education administrator.

A hunter using a climbing stand should tie-in the safety rope or strap that pairs with the harness before beginning to climb.

Consult the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure proper installation and inspect your stand, harness and safety straps, ropes and lines before use.

With a climbing tree stand, you’ll want to move the safety rope or strap up the tree first, then tighten it, each time before moving the platform up the tree. If the rope is at or slightly above eye-level as you stand on the platform, you should have plenty of room to raise the platform to a higher standing position before moving the rope up the tree again before climbing. Also, make sure your foot platform and seat platform are tied together with a length of rope to ensure that the foot platform does not fall below your reach.

“Make sure you have proper contact with the stand and tree every time you move,” emphasized Garcia.

It takes only a little longer to climb with a rope, and if the stand fails due to breakage or a pin pulling out of the climbing band, or if a fall occurs because slippage or loss of balance, the harness and rope will prevent falling to the ground.

With pre-installed hang-on stands – and especially ladder stands – the most-practical way to stay connected to the tree is through a safety line, commonly referred to by the brand name Lifeline, that hangs to the ground from above the platform.

Because the safety line is installed above the platform, the tree must be climbed first to install one, but other safety ropes or straps, along with your harness, can be used for installation. When installing a safety line at a hang-on stand, a linemen’s style belt can be worn while ascending the tree. A linemen’s belt might not be an option for many ladder stands, but a separate ladder and linemen’s belt could be used to install the safety line before the ladder stand is installed.

When using a ladder stand, climbing stick or tree steps, make sure to maintain three points of contact (two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand) with each step.

The important points are to always take your time and be safe when using stands. Always put on your safety harness while you’re still on the ground, and keep it connected to the tree at all times until you’re back on the ground.

 

Extended bear season

The extended bear season that allows hunters to take a black bear in certain WMUs opens on the first day of the statewide firearms deer season this year. That’s a change from 2020.

Last year, extended bear hunting didn’t begin until the first Monday of deer season. This year, hunters with a bear license can take a bear on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 27 and 28, which are the first two days of deer season.

Where seasons are held and how long they run varies by WMU.

The extended bear season runs Nov. 27-Dec. 4 in WMUs 1B, 2C, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 5A. It runs Nov. 27-Dec. 11 in WMUs 2B, 5B, 5C and 5D.

To participate in the extended bear season, a hunter needs a general hunting license, as well as a bear license. In periods where the extended bear season overlaps portions of the firearms deer season, properly licensed hunters may also harvest deer.

Fluorescent orange requirements for the extended bear season and firearms deer season are identical.

 

 

Chronic wasting disease

Managing deer in Pennsylvania means managing Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

First discovered in Pennsylvania in 2012, CWD is an always-fatal ailment affecting deer, elk and other cervids. There is no vaccine or cure for CWD. It’s spread by deer-to-deer contact and through the environment.

Although there is no known case of it being transmitted to humans, the Game Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people do not consume meat from deer that test positive for CWD.

The Game Commission is implementing several new measures for the 2021-22 deer seasons to slow CWD’s spread.

First, there’s a new Disease Management Area – DMA 5 – in Warren County, the result of a CWD-positive deer found at a captive deer facility.

A recent CWD-positive deer found near the border of DMA 3 has led to the expansion of DMA 3, as well as the creation of DMA 6 in portions of Clearfield, Elk and Jefferson counties.

Here, and within the state’s other active DMAs – DMA 2 and DMA 4 – it’s illegal to remove any high-risk parts of deer; use or possess cervid urine-based attractants; directly or indirectly feed wild, free-ranging deer; and rehabilitate wild, free-ranging cervids.

Up-to-date DMA boundaries can be viewed at www.pgc.pa.gov/CWD.

The parts-movement ban means hunters in a DMA must determine in advance what they’ll do with any deer they harvest. They can take them to a processor within the DMA or to one included on a Game Commission-approved list for that particular DMA, so that the processor can properly dispose of the high-risk parts. Hunters can also dispose of high-risk parts within the DMA in trash destined for a landfill.

Hunters can also in cases leave many high-risk parts at the kill site.

Hunters can quarter or debone a deer in the field. They still must carry out the properly-tagged head for disposal. Hunters who take a buck also have the option to remove individual antlers or a cleaned skull cap of a deer and bring those out of the woods, with their tag attached to those antlers.

The meat, antlers (free of brain material) and other low-risk parts then can be transported outside the DMA.

Hunters getting taxidermy mounts must likewise take their deer to a taxidermist within the DMA or on the Game Commission approved taxidermist list for the specific DMA where the deer was harvested.

The processor and taxidermist list is available at www.pgc.pa.gov/CWD.

The Game Commission offers free CWD testing within the DMAs. Hunters should deposit deer heads – minus any antlers, double-bagged and with a legible harvest tag attached – in one of the provided head-collection containers. The locations of those are also on the agency website.

The Game Commission will test those deer for CWD for free and make results available to hunters. Hunters can access their results online or by calling the CWD hotline at 1-833-INFOCWD.

Also new this year is the Established Area (EA). It’s a portion of DMA 2 – specifically WMU 4A and part of WMU 2C – where CWD is considered established within the deer population and the environment. As a result, it poses a long-term threat to neighboring areas.

The goal is to keep the CWD prevalence rate among hunter-harvested adult deer at 5 percent or less in the EA. It was 14 percent last year.

To bring that number down, the Game Commission’s CWD Response Plan calls for reducing deer abundance in the EA to mitigate disease transmission risks, remove diseased cervids from the landscape, and prevent further contamination of the environment.

Hunters who harvest deer within the EA are prohibited from moving high-risk parts beyond the EA’sboundaries, including even into the surrounding DMA. Using cervid urine-based attractants, feeding deer and rehabilitating deer is also illegal there.

The Game Commission is taking other steps to control CWD, too. It is once again offering Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) permits that allow hunters to take antlerless deer in areas where additional CWD monitoring is required.

Some permits may still remain. Hunters can check availability at www.pgc.pa.gov/CWD. Click on “CWD DMAP Area Look Up.”

 

Special Regulations Areas

Deer hunters in most of the state’s Special Regulations Areas this season may use straight-walled cartridges in addition to other lawful ammunition, but buckshot no longer is permitted for deer hunting in any Special Regulations Area, except where authorized under special hunt conditions on state park properties (Ridley Creek and Tyler State Parks).

Those two changes result from a regulatory amendment adopted by the Game Commission earlier this year.

Straight-walled cartridges essentially are a short-range option for rifle shooters. They lose velocity quickly, but at their optimal ranges can be highly effective ammunition. In many states straight-walled cartridges have become an alternative in shotgun-only areas. Their limited range is similar to a rifled shotgun, inside 200 yards, but they often provide better accuracy and considerably less recoil, making their use an attractive option for smaller-framed hunters.

However, this new option does not apply throughout the entirety of the state’s Special Regulations Areas. In all of Philadelphia County, and at Ridley Creek State Park in Delaware County and Tyler State Park in Bucks County, the hunting use of centerfire rifles continues to be prohibited, meaning centerfire straight-walled cartridges can’t be used there.

Special Regulations Areas include Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties.

Straight-walled cartridges also are lawful this season for hunters outside of Special Regulations Areas, as had been the case prior to the change. Regardless of cartridge type, the use of semiautomatic rifles remains unlawful for big game hunting statewide.

Meanwhile, buckshot, which previously could be used by deer hunters in most of the southeastern Special Regulations Area – but nowhere else in Pennsylvania – now can’t be used in Special Regulations Areas either, except during controlled hunts at Tyler State Park and Ridley Creek State Park, when selected hunters should consult with the information they’re provided.

While hunters should be aware of this change, which took effect in September at the same time straight-walled cartridges were made legal in most Special Regulations Areas, the Game Commission in the coming 2021-22 firearm seasons will focus on educating hunters regarding the change and not on enforcement. Because this change was adopted within the license year, and after publication of the Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest (which lists buckshot as a legal option in Special Regulations Areas under certain conditions) agency enforcement of this new regulation won’t begin until the 2022-23 license year, when it will be printed in the digest alongside other lawful ammunition choices, which are different in different counties within Special Regulations Areas.

Aside from the changes to the lists of lawful arms and ammunition, additional information on deer hunting in Special Regulations Areas provided in the 2021-22 Hunting & Trapping Digest remains up-to-date.