First day of rifle season

Keangely Kim, right, of East Lampeter, and Joe Kurisch, of Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, leave the woods at State Game Lands 156 on the first day of rifle deer season, Saturday, November 30, 2019.

A Saturday opener, Sunday hunting, 14 total hunting days and Covid-19.

Pennsylvania's 2020 firearms deer season, which opens Saturday, is on track to be about as historic a season as we've seen in a generation.

Last year, Pennsylvania firearms deer hunters saw the hallowed Monday after Thanksgiving opener of deer season change to the Saturday in between.

That new opener continues this year.

Additionally, hunters will carry guns to their deer stands for the first time ever on a Sunday - Nov. 29.

The only change to firearms deer hunting here I can think of in my five-plus decades that's on par with those is the elimination of the three-day doe season that used to follow the two-week buck hunt.

But that was nearly 20 years ago.

The two other changes come in back-to-back years.

So this weekend, Pennsylvania deer hunters will have a true opening weekend to the firearms season.

They can hunt the opener on Saturday and then they can keep hunting the next day.

It's an extra two days added to the season. That's another historic change.

For decades, the firearms buck season has been 12 days long. This year, it's 14 days with that opening weekend added.

In 10 wildlife management units, the doe season will run that entire period from Nov. 28-Dec. 12. In the other 13, doe season runs Dec. 5-12.

If all that isn't enough historical change coming to next weekend's opener, let's not forget the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are no Covid-related hunting rules that will affect deer season, but there are plenty of business rules and general concerns that will.

Thoughts about the potential impact of Covid business rules hit me during a visit to the famous Wellsboro Diner in Tioga County a couple of weeks ago.

The diner is small, but wildly popular.

With social distancing rules in place to spread out patrons, it seemed even smaller.

But the line of people outside waiting to get in wasn't.

How many small eateries in prime hunting areas will have to keep hunters' at arm's length because of Covid rules? And what impact might that have on hunters?

Hunting camp life might be markedly different this year as well, due to Covid.

A thread "Camp and Covid" appeared within the past two weeks on the Huntingpa.com message boards to discuss hunters' concerns.

The person who started the thread said he wanted to know how others were planning to treat camp life with Covid.

Naturally, some responders said they expect nothing to change.

"Most of our camp is family and we see each other often enough outside of camp that I don't think it's going to be an issue," one hunter wrote.

"Even those of us that aren't family see each other fairly regularly."

Another posted simply, "We're going to camp just like usual."

But there were several posts from hunters who clearly have concerns, or are at least thinking about Covid.

"Family and close friends only," one hunter wrote. "No bar hopping or visiting other camps this year."

Another wrote, "I know a few guys that come up that are not coming this year because of family and I respect that. I also know a few that will be coming no matter what and I respect that."

"Skipping deer camp this year," one hunter wrote. "Scam or not, better safe than sorry."

"I may hunt some game lands on my own here and there when I can. Hopefully next year will be more normal. No hard feelings towards family and friends still going to deer camp though."

In response to a comment from a hunter who suggested the Covid-19 pandemic is a "scam," another hunter wrote, "I will be at my cabin Friday night before the opener. ALONE! Two other hunters won't be coming. They are both dead from this god-awful virus."

Setting the pandemic aside, the changes in the hunting schedule the past two years are aimed at attracting more hunters.

Pennsylvania had its traditions regarding when deer hunters hunt that stood for generations. License sales - and many hunters - tell the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners that it might me time for new traditions.

With the addition of the Saturday opener last year, Pennsylvania saw a modest increase in hunting license sales over 2018 - about 5,000 additional licenses.

That might not seem like something to write home about, but 2019 was the first year in the last six when sales didn't decrease.

And even with that modest increase last year, total license sales still were down about 80,000 from 10 years earlier.

This year is looking even better. According to the Game Commission, total license sales from mid-June through Nov. 11 this year increased by about 36,000 over sales during the same period last year, for a 5.13 percent increase.

The current hunting license year runs through June 30, 2021, so we don't know if that spike will hold, but it certainly looks promising.

Compared to 30 and 40 years ago, Pennsylvania has more opportunity now than ever before to hunt - more seasons, longer seasons, reduced age barriers. And yet, we're losing hunters on a historical basis.

That's a nationwide trend, but it's up to each individual state to do what it can to get more people into the woods carrying hunting licenses.

As hunters prepare tree stands and camps for next weekend's deer season opener, here are some random facts about the state of deer hunting in Pennsylvania.

1. The 2019-20 deer harvest was 389,431, which was the highest in the past 15 years. That harvest included 163,240 bucks and 226,191 antlerless deer.

2. Of the 2019-20 deer kill, gun hunters took 87,820 bucks and 126,073 antlerless deer. That's about 54 percent of the buck kill and 56 percent of the antlerless kill.

3. The 2019-20 total deer kill in WMU 5B, which covers Lancaster County, was 10,200 bucks and 15,345 antlerless deer. Both were increases over the previous year.

4. The largest typical antlered deer shot with a firearm in Lancaster County, which is entered in the Pennsylvania Game Commission's record book, is a buck that measured 164 inches. It was shot in 1997 by Wade Conrad of New Providence. That buck currently ranks 76th in that category.

5. The largest nontypical antlered deer shot with a firearm in Lancaster County, which is entered in the Pennsylvania Game Commission's record book, is a buck that measured 182.6 inches. It was shot Christopher Chester of New Providence in 1981, and ranks 49th in that category.

6. The state record typical whitetail taken with a firearm is a buck that measured 189 inches, which was shot by Fritz Janowsky in Bradford County in 1943.

7. The state record nontypical whitetail taken with a firearm is a buck that measured 238.6 inches, which was shot by Edward Dodge in Erie County in 1942.

8. Of the top 10 nontypical firearms whitetails in Pennsylvania, six were taken since 2001, while the other four all were shot before 1952.

9. Of the top 10 typical firearms whitetails in Pennsylvania, two were shot since 2010, one was shot in 1974 and the other seven all were shot between 1920 and 1957.

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