If ever there was a season that’s likely to produce more big bucks than the average season, get ready. This fall could be the one.
For several reasons more deer, and more nice bucks, are roaming our woodlands this year. It’s more than a hunch. For starters, hunters got soaked on the opening day of last year’s gun season in Pennsylvania, and although New York had better hunting weather on its firearms opener, it deteriorated over the next few days. Rain drives hunter participation down and makes visibility poor, resulting in fewer deer harvested during the early part of the season. After the 2018 season and heading into the winter, lots of bucks had survived the orange armies of southwestern New York and northwestern Pennsylvania.
In some years that’s not a good thing. More bucks remaining after the gun season can make winter survival challenging. One reason is that after bucks are exhausted from the rut, they then they have to compete for food in order to replenish their fat stores quickly before winter. Another is that any does that did not get bred in November will come into heat again, and those run down bucks won’t be able to resist the competition for fewer does at the time when they would be better off recovering from the rut and from the hunting season.
However, that’s not how things turned out this year. Winter was a little milder than usual and the freezing temps broke earlier than normal. We didn’t get the “early spring” the groundhog predicted, but we had more rain and less snow cover, and those are positives for deer survival and antler development.
In winter, deer live in a precarious balance. It takes energy to find food, and they must get more energy from it than they spend finding it. When snow is less deep and snow cover lasts a shorter time, that balance weighs more in favor of the deer. That’s why a mild winter puts less stress on deer than a longer, harsher winter. The does are more likely to bear multiple fawns with healthy birth weights. And antler development gets off to a good start for the bucks.
That’s exactly what happened this year. Deer are in great condition, and lots of people are seeing the evidence along the roadways and on trail cameras.
If you’re running trail cameras, and if you’re anything like a friend of mine, you’re excited about the coming season. Steve Sherk, Jr. has a guide service for hunters over in McKean County, PA. That’s why he keeps tabs on the bucks in the big woods year ’round, running the most intensive trail camera program and searching more diligently for shed antlers than anyone I know. He says, “I’ve seen better than average antler growth this year, and the rain helped a lot. Plus an earlier end to winter also let the bucks recover sooner in both PA and NY.”
When hunters see big antlers they often talk about genetics, but antlers are more of an indicator of a buck’s age, nutrition, and general health than genetics. Even with good antler genetics, the quality of a buck’s antlers don’t amount to much without maturity, quality food, and lack of stress. Even for pen-raised bucks it’s not all about genetics. They’re permitted to get old, they’re fed protein-rich food, and stress is kept to a minimum. And this year, wild deer have those advantages more than they usually do.
Remember when all that rain kept farmers from getting their crops in? That same rain meant plenty of natural foods were growing. Deer weren’t forced to rely on dead leaves and woody browse for as long, and could start eating new, green vegetation earlier. That was good for this year’s antler development. And with a relatively low kill last season, more big bucks are out there this season.
But then, if you’re running trail cameras you probably already know that, and you have some secrets you’re not telling other hunters.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting , he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.