Rifle deer season has changed plenty over the years

All hunters will be looking to get a trophy buck like this one on Monday on the opening day of deer hunting season.
All hunters will be looking to get a trophy buck like this one on Monday on the opening day of deer hunting season. For the CDT

Rifles have been sighted in, stands selected, and if you are like me, your hunting clothes and equipment are already or soon will be laid out for Monday morning.

For about 750,000 Pennsylvania hunters, the most anticipated day of the year is Monday — the opening day of rifle deer season.

Since I started to hunt in 1963, deer season — or as we called it then, buck season — has changed much. Back then, we lived by what is now referred to as “one and done.” If you harvested a buck or doe in archery season, your hunting was done for the year. If you shot a buck in the two-week rifle season, you could not hunt does during the one-to-three-day antlerless season that followed. Harvesting a doe became a consolation prize.

Closed or limited doe seasons between 1907 and 1961 allowed the herd to grow after almost being exterminated in the early 1900’s. Since the introduction of antler restrictions and a herd reduction philosophy in 2002, it has been hard for some hunters to adjust their thinking from “save the does” to “harvest more does.” When I started hunting, approximately 80 percent of the buck harvest was made up of one-and-a-half-year-old deer — spikes, 3-pointers and “forkhorns.” A six-point buck was a trophy.

The state’s north-central counties had perfect habitat and burgeoning deer herds then — mostly made up of does and young bucks. While many talk about the thousands of deer in the north-central mountains, they forget that deer were still rare in southwestern and southeastern counties at that time.

Portable treestands were not yet available and almost all public land hunters hunted from the ground. Some private land hunters built wooden treestands. Many hunters walked and many hunted without the use of rifle scopes. It was still common to see Woolrich-clad hunters carrying open-sighted .30-30s. Fluorescent orange was not yet a requirement.

My memory could be foggy, but I remember a lot of cold and snowy opening days during my teenage years. I know for sure that there were about four inches of snow on the ground and it was dang cold on my very first opening day. The ground was brown, but it was snowing when I shot my first opening-day buck in 1966.

Of course, that was 50 years ago. Since then, the hunters, the deer herd, the habitat, the weather and the seasons have changed.

Now (with proper permits), you can arrow a doe in archery season, harvest a buck in rifle season and maybe harvest several more does if you have the requisite licenses. In the two Wildlife Management Units (WMU) that include Centre County — 2G and 4D — only bucks are legal until Dec. 3 when the antlerless and antlered seasons run concurrently for a week. There is no longer a doe season following buck season.

In many parts of the state, with a proper license, we can hunt bears during all or part of deer season. In WMU 4D, the southern two thirds of Centre County, bears are legal game from Wednesday until Dec. 3.

There is still time to participate in the extended bear season — hunters need a general license and a bear license. A general license costs $20.90 for resident adults and $101.90 for nonresident adults, while a bear license costs $16.90 for residents and $36.90 for nonresidents.

Rain seems to be a more common occurrence than snow during recent opening days. I have also spent more than a couple recent deer hunts standing in the woods with my orange jacket unzipped. As I write this, there is no snow in the forecast for the opening day and the mercury could reach 50 degrees.

Hunters have changed. There are a couple hundred thousand fewer hunters today as compared to the year when I started hunting. Because of the current popularity of archery hunting, many hunters have already shot a buck and a doe during archery season — they will not be out in the woods on Monday.

Many of the hunters who are out there will hunt from portable treestands. They have warm, dry clothing and just might stay in the same spot all day. Almost all rifle hunters use scopes. Far, far fewer hunters will walk and push deer.

Today, the north-central counties have many areas of barren deer habitat and fewer deer. On the other hand, other parts of the state have many more deer than they had 50 years ago. Antler restrictions have made eight-point bucks commonplace, and a much higher percentage of the harvest is made up of 2.5, 3.5, and 4.5-year-old bucks. My brother Frank and I both shot our largest bucks since antler restrictions began — ditto for many of the other hunters that I know.

I still run into a few hunters who would like to return to what they imagine as “the good old days.” No matter what they wish, deer hunting will never be the same. While I relish the challenge and opportunity that bigger bucks represent, a few hunters would still rather shoot a spike.

Yet another change might be in the wind.

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed legislation that will enable the Pennsylvania Game Commission to regulate the use of semi-automatic rifles for hunting. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf last week.

Although the bill is law, the Game Commission has not yet made any changes to the lists of lawful arms and ammunition for any hunting season, including deer.

All centerfire rifles, handguns and shotguns to be used during deer season this fall must be manually operated. The only exception is that semi-automatic shotguns may be used to hunt deer in five counties — Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery — defined as Special Regulations Areas.

Semi-automatic rifles generally are not permitted for any type of hunting in any part of the state at this time. However, this could change by next year. No doubt in my mind — the Board of Commissioners will be discussing this at their January meeting in Harrisburg.

Good luck to all of the deer hunters on Monday.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.