Hunters share their tips for bagging deer on state game lands
With Pennsylvania's rifle deer season approaching, now is the time to find the ideal spot to watch for deer.
Last year, the Pennsylvania Game Commission sold 857,964 general hunting licenses, and hunters bagged 376,810 deer. With that many hunters, it may seem challenging to find a good place to sit for deer where there aren't other hunters. But two sportsmen, Ron Horvath and Bob Frye, report they have had plenty of success hunting on public lands in Pennsylvania.
Rifle deer season for bucks and antlerless deer runs Nov. 26 through Dec. 10. Hunting is permitted on Sunday, Nov. 27, but not Dec. 4.
Horvath, 37, of Uniontown, Fayette County, has had great success using state-owned property, including Forbes State Forest in Somerset County, for about 25 years.
“Last year we took 21, the year before we took 25, and the year before was our best year, we took 29 off of Mount Davis,” he said about the deer that 10 hunters in his party harvested. “The year we took 29, my family alone took 13 deer off that mountain.”
He hunts with his wife Felicia, son Donald, 14, and daughter Autumn, 11. This archery season Donald got the 14th deer of his life, all on public land.
“Whenever guys tell me there’s no deer, I just say yep, you’re right,” Horvath said with a laugh.
This fall everyone in his household harvested deer during archery season. Horvath got a 9-point in archery season, which he prefers over the upcoming rifle season.
One year, his son got deer with a compound bow, a crossbow, an inline muzzleloader and a flintlock muzzleloader. “He filled all four tags with four different weapons. I think he was only 12 years old at the time, which was a great accomplishment for a kid.”
Tips for success
Horvath scouts out hillsides in thick, brushy areas. Tip No. 1: This is where he finds most of his deer.
“Everyone wants to walk the flats,” he said, but that's not where he has found deer. Instead, drop over the side of the hill where deer are hiding in the brush. “Look for steep hillsides. You want to look for any sort of jagger thickets. Wide open woods is great for feeding, but you’re not going to get that buck in those wide-open woods.”
Spending time along the edges of tall, grassy and thick mountain laurel areas has also paid off for deer hunting. On large tracts of land where there are plentiful mast crops like acorns, he said it’s difficult to pattern a particular deer. However, if the food is there, deer will be in those areas.
Another tip: Horvath’s hunting efforts begin in the summer as his family puts motion-activated game trail cameras in areas where they want to hunt. “Between six cameras, we had about 44 different bucks on state lands on camera,” he said.
Also: While some tracts of state land can be thousands of acres in size, it doesn't need to be much of a hike to find whitetails.
“A lot of guys think they have to go far. We have three or four spots where we hunt where we're only in about 200 or 250 (yards) right on the crease in the hill and the outskirts of some jagger briars and mountain laurel,” he said.
Not all hunters are sportsmen
If you hunt from a treestand that you leave in the woods for an extended time, Horvath advises hunters to check the straps and cables before climbing the tree. He’s had his stands tampered with by other hunters. He’s seen situations where straps have been removed and the stand would have fallen if people had tried to climb it.
“They were trying to hurt someone,” he said about the person who vandalized his equipment. “Always check your tree stand; just don’t climb up in it.”
With state land being open to everyone, he urges hunters to be respectful to others. If you see someone set up hunting somewhere, move to a place where their orange clothing isn't visible.
“Best thing you can do is just get out there and do a little homework. You’re going to have a lot more days where you don’t see anything, but you got to stay persistent and patient,” he said.
During rifle season he likes the first hour of daylight for hunting.
"I don’t know what it is, but it always seems like we get them the first hour of daylight. (The deer) seem like they are more up on their feet and trying to get to their bedding areas.”
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Advice from the Game Commission
Bob Frye has enjoyed hunting State Game Lands for several decades in western Pennsylvania and in recent years in eastern Pennsylvania.
He's the Game News associate editor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“We’re so blessed, compared to so many states, that there are all kinds of public lands that you can explore, 1.5 million acres of game lands alone. It’s not a question if you have somewhere to go. It’s picking a couple, studying some maps and getting out and walking around," he said.
He likes visiting different game lands to explore what’s available.
“It’s a lot of fun to see what you come across,” he said.
Frye recommends hunters get to their spots before daylight.
“On the first couple days, that’s definitely a key thing,” he said about the upcoming rifle season. “Getting to a spot and being ready as soon as it becomes legal shooting time." Then, when other hunters arrive later, they'll move some of the deer around. "If you are in position and ready to go, that gives you a leg up on a lot of folks.”
He also recommends walking into the forest, about a half mile.
“You’re still close enough for other hunters to move deer for you," he said.
Stay in the woods throughout the day.
“I’ve killed a lot of deer between 10 and 2 o’clock if you’re talking about the opening weekend because folks who have been standing for three hours or more are getting cold, they’re stiff, they want to get up and move around and stretch. They are going back to the truck or go back to camp to eat lunch, so they become de facto drivers," he said.
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Online maps, resources available
The agency’s website, pgc.pa.gov, provides a wealth of information for hunters who are looking for new places to find deer and other game.
The Deer Hunter Focus Areas page reveals places where the agency has improved the habitat such as through selective timbering in an effort to make better cover for wildlife.
“We’ve seen some people who had really good success getting into those places and getting deer," he said.
Some of those places are thick to walk through, but that’s where the deer like to live. Look where the deer are feeding.
“Find a stand of mature timber that has acorns on the ground, of course that requires some boots on the ground scouting to make sure the acorns are there this year,” he said.
The agency has maps of the state game lands to highlight the terrain and topography. You can read the terrain lines and see natural funnel areas. The maps also show hardwood stands for mast crops, conifers and timber cuts for deer cover. “There’s a whole wealth of resources if you get on those maps. Before you go out the door, you can figure out where you want to go,” Frye said.
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“Some of these game lands are in the thousands of acres or tens of thousands of acres,” Frye said. “I always tell people to try to break it down. You know you’re not going to hunt 5,000 acres in a weekend. Get a hold of these maps and identify the parts you want to hunt, and a lot of times you will see where there are access roads.”
Hunters can print out the maps to take along to the field to help navigate their way.
In addition to the Game Commission’s website showing state game lands, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website, dcnr.pa.gov, has maps and information about where hunting is permitted in state forests and state parks.
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Some state parks, where there is limited hunting, have special opportunities during rifle deer season. For example the DCNR is offering a two-day, combined antlered and antlerless deer hunt at Presque Isle State Park, Erie County. The hunt is planned for Dec. 7 and 8 and assists the park with maintaining a healthy number of deer within the ecosystem and Presque Isle. Hunters must apply by calling the park at 814-833-7424 by 2 p.m. Dec. 2.
Between the two agencies there are millions of acres available to those who want to spend time in the woods.
When scouting a new area, keep in mind the state opens many gates to roads in the fall that are closed during the summer.
“We open a lot of roads to give hunters better access so that you don’t have to walk, let’s say a mile from the gate just to get started. You might be able to drive another half mile or mile back on a road and then start your hunting from there,” Frye said. “It’s an attempt to make access easier for hunters, to get hunters where they want to be and where we might want them to be, give them a chance to spread out on the Game Lands. They are definitely worth investigating.”
When going into a new spot, keep track of landmarks and streams to remember how to return to your vehicle. Knowledge of a compass or a handheld GPS unit is also recommended.
Regulations and upcoming seasons
- Licensed hunters are able to shoot one buck each year. Doe hunters need to purchase special antlerless licenses through a county treasurer.
- During rifle deer season you need to have at least 250 inches of orange clothing combined on your head, chest and back.
- If you hunt out of a blind where other hunters might not be able to see you, you are also required to post 100 square inches of orange on the outside of the blind.
- Flintlock muzzleloader and archery deer season runs Dec. 26-Jan. 16, excluding Sundays. In Wildlife Management Units, 2B, 5C and 5D, archery and muzzleloader hunting continues through Jan. 28.
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Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on Facebook @whipkeyoutdoors.