Friday, February 11, 2011

Pennsylvania Deer Wars: A Different Perspective-The Early Years

It seems there are almost as many points of view about whitetail deer and deer management as there are people who are interested in deer, and most are quite passionate about their point of view.  I am somewhat unusual in the sense that I have been involved with whitetail deer throughout my life and during that time have seen almost every type of situation involving deer that one can imagine.

I was born in 1950,and grew up in Fulton County, Pennsylvania, which at the time was a remote farming oriented community in the mountains of southcentral Pennsylvania, only a short distance from the Maryland border.  This was before the influx of commuters and retirees from the Baltimore, Washington, D.C. area, or the establishment of factories to provide employment, so most residents were small farmers, worked in agricultural related jobs, or at the Letterkenny Ordnance Depot, in Franklin County.  Deer and deer hunting were one of the major subjects of conversation among the men in the community, and some of my earliest recollections are of these stories.  My grandfather could recall when he saw his first deer track, and as deer season was in, he and some companions tracked the deer to a nearby mountain, where they flushed a deer or two and killed one of them.  At the time deer were so rare that few owned deer rifles, but rather hunted with shotguns and rifled slugs, which they called "pumpkin" balls.

Fulton County Deer Hunting: Circa late 1950s, early 1960s
Deer were more common by the time I became aware of them, but they were very wild and shy.  If they were feeding in a distant field, they usually ran if they saw you traveling between buildings, or even slammed a door. Most men hunted deer, there was little posted ground, and hunting pressure was intense.  There was usually heavy gunfire, when dawn broke on the first day of deer season, which was bucks only at that time. Perhaps the best deer hunter I knew said that one's best chance of killing a buck was before 10:00 am on the first day and after that the probability decreased rapidly.  There was still a fair chance of getting a buck on the second day of the season, but if one had not killed one by the end of the third day, there was little chance of bagging a buck that year.

Bucks only needed 3" spikes or longer to be legal, and the vast majority of the bucks were killed during their first year with antlers, which in most cases were small indeed.

A Legal Buck Before Antler Restrictions
A Better Than Average 6 Point For This Time Period
At times one did see respectable bucks and this was usually before season, during the rut when they would bee seen chasing does or emerge from the woods to eat in late evening.  Bucks such as the one pictured below were very rare and a serious deer hunter could only hope to take one or two of this size during a lifetime of hunting.

A Large Buck For Fulton County At This Time Period

 I realize many will say that this is not a large buck and it is not compared to those from certain areas, but it was exceptional for that area at that time. (Fulton County has always been known for small, thin antlered deer, in comparison to states such as Iowa, etc.)

Many of the locals had little to no respect for wildlife laws, and believed that the government had no right to tell one when they could shoot deer, or how many they could kill (They conveniently forgot that deer were almost eliminated from Pennsylvania because of a lack of hunting regulations).This attitude was not quite as bad as it sounds in some cases, as many persons actually acted in a fairly restrained manner and did not kill unlimited amounts of deer, but rather decided how many deer the family  "needed"  for a year's supply of deer meat.   Another method commonly used in "gang" hunting, where large numbers of hunters co-operated in driving and shooting deer, was for hunters to divide the meat among all participants at the end of the hunt regardless as to who had shot the animal.  In this type of hunting, it was also common for one hunter to shoot multiple deer if a herd was pushed past him.  Some were quite proud of how they could "pile them up", and it was common to hear stories of one person shooting four or more deer in such situations.  Often it was a doe with her twins fawns from the past spring and if the hunter shot the doe first, the fawns were basically clueless and stood around while the shooter took care of business.  Ironically I can well recall an individual who vehemently opposed  shooting deer out of season, but saw nothing wrong with putting down as many does as possible in doe season even though the limit was one deer.

I never participated in a large gang hunt of any type, but did help drive the woodlot on the family farm, where one or two people waited on stand, while one or two did the driving.  I never shot a deer while heading a drive, or while driving, and soon drifted completely away from this type of activity, preferring to hunt alone, either by sitting on watch or by still hunting.

I began reading the Pennsylvania Game News in the mid-1960s and soon learned there were, "too many" deer, which was a refrain I was doomed to hear for many years.  In a few years, I met my future father-in-law and was amazed to learn from him that the Game Commission had killed all of the deer off, the big bucks were all killed off, and people were down to killing "the little tittie suckers".  He was caretaker for an  estate, which bordered a large hunting club and he took me with him on the first day of season in 1969.  Shortly after dawn several does arrived followed by a six-point buck and I killed him.  Before we could get out of the tree stand to check on the deer another herd with two medium-sized bucks arrived and I could not believe it when he would not shoot one(he refused to shoot a small buck and would shoot one yearling doe each year to provide meat for his family).  We started down the ladder once they left and he suddenly froze and said there goes a peach of a buck (he got a glimpse of it as it ran along the top of the ridge below us).

The point in telling this is that I thought there were a lot of deer, and deer numbers were about right, while he was disillusioned and thought the deer herd was all but eradicated, and the PGC was saying there were too many deer, yet  we had both  taken part in a situation, which was by far the greatest deer hunting experience I had experienced until that point, and in fact may have equaled but never surpassed by the time I quit hunting almost thirty years later.

This then was the background that I came from, and the perspective from which I would view deer and deer management issues for the remainder of my life.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill


V.L. Locey said...

Very nice entry Willard. I can recall before antler restictions myself.

Rhyfhad said...

hey.. happy valentine days ..

Ranger said...

Nice post Willard. It really tells a good story.

Dale said...

Wonderful commentary as usual. This makes me remember my Grandfather's hunting stories and mirrors my own hunting experience.