Harrisburg, Pa. – Pennsylvania’s upcoming firearms deer season will start with a bang. For the first time in the Game Commission’s history, deer hunters will have a Saturday-Sunday opening weekend. Hunters in 10 Wildlife Management Units also will have concurrent antlered/antlerless hunting throughout the 14-day firearms deer season.
The firearms season also packs another new twist that will generate excitement afield. It’s a regulatory change that allows hunters to attempt to harvest a second deer before tagging the first, so long as they have the appropriate harvest tags for the deer they attempt to harvest, and no attempt is made to move a deer before it’s tagged.
Pennsylvania hunters in 2019 racked up the highest overall deer harvest in 15 years when they took 389,431 deer during the state’s 2019-20 hunting seasons. It topped the 2018-19 harvest by about 4 percent. The last time the total deer harvest exceeded this season’s total was in 2004-05, when 409,320 whitetails were taken.
The 2019-20 statewide buck harvest saw a generous bump of 10 percent, coming in at 163,240. In the 2018-19 seasons, 147,750 bucks were taken.
“The size and quality of bucks running in Penn’s Woods right now, probably hasn’t been duplicated in the Commonwealth in over 150 years,” noted Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “The number of record-book bucks being taken is incredible. In fact, it’s beginning to look like no rack sitting atop record-book listings is unapproachable.
“If you haven’t hunted whitetails in some time, now’s the time to get back into it,” Burhans emphasized. “You won’t believe what’s running around in Penn’s Woods!”
Deer hunters continue to experience antlered-buck-harvest-success levels comparable to historic highs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In recent years, about 22 percent of all hunters have harvested an antlered deer, and this trend will likely continue.
The 2019-20 antlerless deer harvest was 226,191, which included 10,461 taken with chronic wasting disease Deer Management Assistance Program permits, was similar to the 2018-19 overall antlerless deer harvest of 226,940. In 2017-18 seasons, the antlerless harvest was 203,409.
Pennsylvania’s firearms season historically has drawn the biggest crowds of all hunting seasons and consequently has been the state’s principal deer-management tool for more than a century. And it’s widely anticipated by hunters.
“Every deer hunter wants to be afield for the opener,” noted Burhans. “They spend days and days scouting, checking their gear and getting their packs ready.
“When they’re sitting in the dark, waiting for daylight and hoping for a big buck to come, most deer hunters couldn’t be happier, particularly if their son or granddaughter is joining them. It’s a fulfilling experience, regardless of what happens.”
The season always is worth the wait.
Deer hunters had seen the statewide buck harvest increase for three consecutive years until the 2018-19 firearms season’s opening-day soaker led to a broken streak. But last season, hunters resumed the uptick in buck harvest. They also caused an increase in the percentage of 2½-year-old bucks in the deer harvest.
In the 2019-20 seasons, 2½-year-old and older bucks comprised 66 percent of the buck harvest, up from 64 percent in the 2018-19 seasons. Over the previous four years, the percentage of 2½-year-old and older bucks in the annual deer harvest was between 56 and 59 percent.
Every year, Pennsylvania hunters are taking huge bucks. Some are “book bucks,” antlered deer that make the Pennsylvania Big Game Records book or Boone & Crockett Club rankings. Others simply win neighborhood bragging rights.
But it’s important to remember, every deer harvest hold special memories.
“Whether it’s a young hunter’s first deer, or a big buck that fell to a hunter on a dark-to-dark sit, they all matter to these hunters, their families and the communities in which they live,” emphasized Burhans. “Hunting deer has been an exciting Pennsylvania pastime for centuries, and it’s sure to remain that way for many generations to come.”
The firearms season opens Saturday, Nov. 28, continues on Sunday, Nov. 29 – the only day of Sunday deer hunting during the season – then runs from Nov. 30-Dec. 12.
In Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) 2B, 2C, 2D, 2E, 4A, 4B, 4D, 5A, 5C and 5D concurrent antlered and antlerless deer hunting is allowed through the duration of the firearms deer season.
In all other WMUs – 1A, 1B, 2A, 2F, 2G, 2H, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 4C, 4E and 5B – a seven-day antlered deer season will be followed by a seven-day concurrent season. The antlered deer season opens on Saturday, Nov. 28, includes a day of Sunday buck hunting on Sunday, Nov. 29, then runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4.
Antlerless deer hunting begins on Dec. 5 and continues through Dec. 12, concurrent with the antlered deer season. Holders of Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) permits may use them at any time in any WMU.
Rules regarding the number of points a legal buck must have on one antler also vary in different parts of the state, and young hunters statewide follow separate guidelines.
For a complete breakdown of antler restrictions, WMU boundaries and other regulations, consult the 2020-21 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, which is available online at the Game Commission’s website, www.pgc.pa.gov.
Deer hunters statewide must wear at all times a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on their head, chest and back combined during the firearms deer season. An orange hat and vest will satisfy the requirement. Nonhunters who might be afield during the deer season and other hunting seasons should consider wearing orange, as well.
Drought and late-spring frosts have impacted fall foods in some areas of Penn’s Woods. Warmer-than-seasonal temperatures this fall have made grazing grass available in many places. Soft and hard mast crops have been remarkably plentiful in many areas, spotty in others.
Deer typically key on food sources within good cover. And, in the case of cornfields, they might never leave them until the corn comes down. So, hunters are urged to confirm deer activity in areas they plan to hunt before they commit to them.
“Scouting is important to every hunt,” Burhans explained. “Deer like to hang out where food is the easiest to obtain. But hunter pressure and other disturbances can inspire their selection.”
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.
When setting up a hunting stand, it’s also a good idea to use the prevailing wind to your advantage. Wherever you hunt, the prevailing wind should blow from where you expect to see deer to your location. Then, dress for the weather and sit tight.
Remember you’re not alone while you’re afield. Other hunters also are waiting on stand, still-hunting or driving for deer in groups. So, even if your position overlooking a feeding area fails to bring deer, the movements of other hunters might chase deer your way.
“Expect the unexpected on the firearms deer season opener,” Burhans noted. “It is hands-down that one day when you never know if or when that buck is coming. You must be ready to take it. Don’t let that buck of a lifetime catch you playing with your smartphone!”
Hunt safely from tree stands – Wear a harnass
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.
Most safety ropes and straps have a sewn or knotted loop on one end, and the opposite end can be wrapped around the tree and through the loop, then cinched tightly. There’s often a separate loop, many times a carabiner loop held by a prussic knot, onto which to clip your safety harness.
Consult the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure proper installation and inspect your stand, harness and safety straps 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.
Hunters during the statewide firearms season can harvest antlered deer, one per season per hunter, if they possess a valid general hunting license, which costs $20.90 for adult residents and $101.90 for adult nonresidents, or a valid mentored hunting permit.
Mentored hunting permits are available to hunters of all ages, and mentored hunters ages seven and older can apply for their own antlerless deer licenses and DMAP permits. Mentored hunters ages seven and older also receive an antlered deer harvest tag with their permit. Those under seven may harvest antlered deer, but must receive, by transfer from their adult mentor, a valid antlered deer harvest tag.
Mentored hunting permit fees are $2.90 for residents and nonresidents under 12; $6.90 for residents 12 to 16; $41.90 for nonresidents 12 to 16; $20.90 for residents 17 and older; and $101.90 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 $6.90 for residents and $41.90 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.
To take an antlerless deer, a hunter must possess either a valid antlerless deer license or valid DMAP permit. In the case of mentored hunters under seven, the mentor must possess a valid antlerless license or DMAP permit that can be transferred to the mentored hunter at the time of harvest.
A DMAP permit can be used throughout the 14-day firearms season, but 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.
Antlerless deer license can be used anywhere within the WMU for which they’re issued. They may only be used in the portion of the firearms deer season that’s open to antlerless hunting in that WMU.
General hunting licenses can be purchased online, but as the season nears, hunters might find it better to purchase licenses in person. Deer licenses purchased online are mailed, meaning they might not arrive in time if purchased too close to the start of the season. And the license and valid tags must be carried in the field while hunting.
Hunters are reminded the field possession of expired licenses or tags, or another hunter’s licenses or tags, is unlawful.
Tagging and reporting
A valid tag must be affixed to the ear of each deer harvested before that deer is moved. The tag must be filled out with a ball-point pen by the hunter.
Within 10 days of a harvest, a successful hunter is required to make a report to the Game Commission. Harvests can be reported online at the Game Commission’s website – www.pgc.pa.gov – by clicking on the “Report a Harvest” button on the home page. Reporting online not only is the quickest way to report a harvest, it’s the most cost-effective for the Game Commission.
Harvests also can be reported by mailing in the postage-paid cards that are provided when licenses are purchased, or successful hunters can call 1-855-PAHUNT1 (1-855-724-8681) to report by phone. Those reporting by phone are asked to have their license number and other information about the harvest ready at the time they call.
Mentored youth hunters are required to report deer harvests within five days. And hunters with DMAP permits must report on their hunting success, regardless of whether they harvest deer.
By reporting their deer harvests, hunters play a key role in providing information used to estimate harvests and the deer population within each WMU. Estimates are key to managing deer populations, and hunters are asked to do their part in this important process.
Extended bear season begins Nov. 30
Hunters are reminded that with the new Saturday-Sunday opening weekend to the firearms deer season, the extended bear season does not begin until Monday, Nov. 30 in any WMU where the season is held.
Licensed bear hunters who see bears during the first two days of the firearms deer season – Saturday, Nov. 28 and Sunday, Nov. 29 – may not attempt to harvest them.
The extended bear season is held in most of the state, but it’s not held in every WMU. And there are different season lengths in different WMUs.
In WMUs 1B, 2C, 3A, 3B, 3C, 3D, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 5A, the extended bear season runs from Monday, Nov. 30 through Saturday, Dec. 5.
In WMUs 2B, 5B, 5C and 5D, the season runs from Monday, Nov. 30 through Saturday, Dec. 12. No extended bear season is held in WMUs 1A, 2A, 2D, 2E, 2F, 2G or 2H.
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
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2012. To help prevent the spread of CWD, the Game Commission created Disease Management Areas (DMA) where specific regulations apply.
Currently there are three DMAs. They are:
DMA 2 was established in 2012 and now covers approximately 7,470 square miles, an expansion of 755 square miles over last year. For 2020 biologists expanded it west into Westmoreland County as the result of a CWD-positive adult female roadkill deer, northwest into Cambria and Indiana counties as the result of CWD-positive captive deer facilities and north into Centre County and Mifflin, Union, and Snyder counties as the result of two CWD-positive adult male roadkill deer.
DMA 2 currently includes all or parts of Indiana, Cambria, Clearfield, Centre, Union, Snyder, Blair, Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Cumberland, Westmoreland, Somerset, Bedford, Fulton, Franklin, and Adams counties.
DMA 3 was established in 2014 and now covers approximately 1,233 square miles, an expansion of 114 square miles over last year. For 2020 biologists expanded it southwest into Jefferson, Indiana, and Armstrong counties because of a CWD-positive yearling male road-killed deer. DMA 3 now covers portions of Jefferson, Clearfield, Indiana, Armstrong, and Clarion counties.
DMA 4 was established in 2018 and now covers approximately 746 square miles, an increase of 397 square miles over last year. For 2020 biologists expanded it further south into Lancaster County after detection of a captive deer with CWD. It now covers portions of Berks, Lancaster, and Lebanon counties.
For the specific boundaries of each DMA, check the Game Commission’s website – www.pgc.pa.gov.
New for this fall are eight CWD Deer Management Assistance Program, or DMAP, units within the DMAs. Hunters can get additional antlerless deer permits specific for each.
They all surround the spot where a CWD-positive deer was found, far away from any previously known infected deer. The Game Commission is asking hunters who harvest deer any of these units to submit the heads for testing, to determine if the previously detected CWD-infected deer was an outlier or a symptom of a bigger problem.
The DMAP units are: Unit 3468 in Berks, Lancaster and Lebanon counties; Unit 3934 in Clearfield County; Unit 4311 in Cambria County; Unit 4312 in Jefferson County; Unit 4313 in Westmoreland County; Unit 4314 in Adams and Franklin counties; Unit 4315 in Juniata, Mifflin and Snyder counties; and Unit 4316 in Blair, Cambria, Centre, Clearfield, and Huntingdon counties.
DMAP permits can be purchased online or from any issuing agent and are valid during any open antlerless deer season. Details on remaining tags are available at https://www.pgcapps.pa.gov/Harvest/DMAP.
Hunters harvesting deer within a DMA may not export deer parts deemed to have a high-risk of spreading CWD from the DMA. The head – specifically the brain, eyes, tonsils and lymph nodes, spinal cord and spleen are considered high-risk parts. In addition, hunters harvesting deer in CWD-positive states or provinces cannot import these high-risk parts into Pennsylvania. Once high-risk parts are removed, hunters can export the remaining meat on or off the bone, cleaned capes, cleaned skull plates with antlers, and finished taxidermy mounts from the DMA.
Hunters can dispose of high-risk parts through their curbside trash service or in dumpsters provided by the Game Commission. Locations of dumpsters can be found on the Game Commission’s website – www.pgc.pa.gov.
Hunters may take their harvested deer to any processor or taxidermist within the DMA. In some cases, cooperating processors and taxidermists just beyond the border of a DMA can accept deer from a DMA. A list of cooperating processors and taxidermists is available on the Game Commission’s website – www.pgc.pa.gov.
Hunters who take deer within DMAs can have their deer tested – free of charge – for CWD, and at the same time help the Game Commission fight this deadly disease.
The Game Commission has installed large metal bins for the collection of harvested deer heads within DMA 2, DMA 3 and DMA 4. The bins, which are similar to those used for clothing donations, keep contents secure and are checked and emptied regularly through the deer-hunting seasons.
All deer heads brought to the white-colored head-drop-off bins must be lawfully tagged, with the harvest tag legibly completed and attached to the deer’s ear and placed in a tied-shut plastic bag. The head can be bagged before being brought to the bin, or hunters can use the bags provided at bins.
Once submitted for testing, deer heads will not be returned to hunters. Hunters wishing to keep antlers should remove them prior to submitting. Hunters will be notified of disease testing results within six weeks. Hunters who harvest deer outside a DMA can make arrangements with the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System if they want their deer to be tested. There is a fee associated with this testing. More information about this process can be found online at http://padls.agriculture.pa.gov/.
In addition to heads deposited in bins, the Game Commission will be collecting heads from processors throughout the state for CWD surveillance. However, hunters should not assume a deer taken to a processor will be tested for CWD.
Chronic wasting disease is always fatal to deer and there is no vaccine or cure. The disease is 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.
For more information on CWD, drop-off dumpsters and rules applying within DMAs, visit the Game Commission’s website.
As of Nov. 5 of this year, the Game Commission received 4,241 deer for CWD testing. Hunters provided 1,575 of those, with the rest coming from roadkills and other sources. Fifty-one deer tested positive for CWD, with results from 802 samples still pending.