big buck trail cam

A big Pennsylvania buck makes his way past a trail camera last fall, when hunters in the state shot the most bucks in the last 15 years.

Call this a catch-all hunting column this week.

There have been quite a few bits and pieces of news from the Pennsylvania Game Commission the past few weeks that warrant coverage.

So let’s get down to business.

Deer kill breakdown and license sales

Last fall’s deer harvest of 435,180 was up 12 percent over the 2019-20 kill, and was the highest we’ve seen in the past 15 years.

The buck harvest of 174,780 was the highest we’ve seen since the current antler restrictions were put in place 20 years ago.

And it continued a three-year trend of impressive buck-kill increases. In 2018-19, hunters shot 147,750 bucks. In 2019-20, they took 163,240.

The archery kill also saw a nice increase last season. Bowhunters accounted for more than one-third of the total deer kill, taking 160,480 deer – 80,130 bucks and 80,350 antlerless deer.

That compares to the prior year’s bow kill of 145,908 deer – 74,190 bucks and 71,718 antlerless deer.

No doubt at least some of the increased deer kill has to be attributed to the fact that Pennsylvania saw an increase in hunting license sales of 25,000 this past year as compared to 2019.

Leading the license categories that spurred the increase was a jump in the sale of resident adult licenses, which climbed from 558,916 in 2019 to 572,680 this past year.

That’s the first time Pennsylvania has seen growth in that category of license sales since 2013.

Elk licenses

A couple readers sent in questions asking about the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s increase in elk licenses for next fall.

Hunters in late summer will be allowed to apply for the lottery drawing that will distribute a total of 187 elk licenses – 56 for bulls and 131 for antlerless elk.

That’s up from last year’s allocation of 164 elk licenses, which consisted of 36 bull tags and 128 cow tags.

Usually when the allocation rises from one year to the next, it’s the cow tags that are boosted. Readers wanted to know why the Game Commission would bump up the bull-tag count by 20 in one year.

Elk biologist Jeremy Banfield said the sizable increase was approved for two primary reasons.

First, the Game Commission has noticed increased problems in certain areas with bulls.

“We had a noticeable boost in agricultural conflicts, and the majority of those involved groups of bulls,” Banfield said.

Second, the Game Commission has noticed that the state’s bull-to-cow ratio has increased beyond the target range.

The long-term average ratio has been around 34 bulls per 100 cows. During the herd survey this year, the Game Commission estimated the ratio at 67 bulls per 100 cows.

“We’re trying to incrementally increase that bull harvest and draw that ratio back down to somewhere around the 30 to 40 branch bulls per 100 cows,” he said.

Pennsylvania’s total elk population this year was estimated at 1,480 elk, up from 1,339 last year.

Southeast firearms deer hunting

Lancaster County has a lot of hunters who head east to counties such as Chester, Berks and Montgomery when they chase deer.

Firearms rules in the southeast are set to accommodate some interesting changes.

First, straight-walled rifle cartridges are under consideration for deer hunting in the Special Regulations Area counties of Allegheny, Chester, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery counties.

These are centerfire rifle rounds where the cartridge is uniform in shape from primer to neck. The casing is straight instead of having a reduced neck where the bullet sits.

We’re talking about rounds such as the 350 Winchester Legend, .444 Marlin, .450 Bushmaster and .45-70 Government.

Prior to this year, all centerfire rifles were outlawed in the Special Regs Area. Only shotguns and muzzleloaders were allowed.

Straight-walled cartridges, however, which have increased in popularity in recent years, are somewhat like shotgun and muzzleloader loads in that they lose velocity quickly.

Essentially, their effective range is considered to be inside 200 yards, as compared to more traditional centerfire rifle rounds, which can be lethal out to 500 yards and beyond.

Limited-range firearms are preferred in the heavily-suburban Special Regs Area because they are perceived as being safer.

The Game Commission completed a study some 20 years ago, however, that was unable to reach that conclusion.

It found that traditional centerfire bullets travel much farther, but they tend to break apart easier on contact.

By comparison, shotgun slugs don’t travel as far, but hold together better as they drive through objects in their path.

A final vote on allowing straight-walled cartridges is expected this summer.

Already granted final approval is a move to allow late-season firearms doe hunting throughout Wildlife Management Units 2B, 5C and 5D. Those units cover all of the Special Regs Area counties, but also include parts of other counties as well.

For years, deer hunters in the Special Regs Area have been allowed to hunt antlerless deer with shotguns and muzzleloaders from the day after Christmas through the end of January.

For the 2021-22 season, that late-season firearms doe hunt will be allowed across all of the three WMUs. That means rifle hunting will be allowed for does outside the Special Regs Area, but still within WMUs 2B, 5C and 5D.

The firearms doe season in those units for next fall is scheduled for Nov. 27-Dec. 11 and Dec. 27-Jan. 29. That’s six full weeks of firearms doe hunting in those units.

I’ve hunted in Chester County my whole life. My experience with that six weeks of firearms doe hunting has been that, in those places where hunting is allowed, that long season really puts a dent in the local deer population.

Deer are managed on a WMU basis in Pennsylvania. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas within each unit where there are a lot of deer, and areas where the herds are pretty thin.

Remember, besides now having the longest firearms doe season in the state, these three WMUs also have some of the highest doe-tag allocations in the state.

WMU 5C issues the most tags in Pennsylvania, with 70,000 allocated for 2021-22.

Will this extended gun hunt create pockets of scarce deer numbers in those new areas of WMUs 2B, 5C and 5D that will be opened up to this extended gun hunt?

We’ll see.

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