Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Richard Goodman of Gibsonia checks a target at the State Game Land 203 rifle range Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015, in Wexford. Deer season opens Nov. 30.
Shoppers and retailers have Black Friday. Pennsylvania hunters have what might be considered Orange Monday.
It’s opening day of the firearms deer season, and it draws a unique crowd.
About 750,000 hunters will take to Pennsylvania’s woods Nov. 30 for a chance to bag a whitetail.
Two or three other states — Texas, Wisconsin, perhaps New York — have more deer hunters, but no one puts more hunters in a smaller space. Opening day here likely will see 20.5 hunters per square mile, said Kip Adams of Knox, the outreach and education coordinator for Quality Deer Management Association.
“And actually it’s probably higher in places because when I looked at the size of the state and did the math, I included bodies of water and other places where you really can’t hunt,” Adams said.
“If you were to look at just the amount of huntable land, the crowds would be even thicker.”
No other state has more than 16.5 hunters per square mile, he said, and in much of the country, there are fewer than five.
Pennsylvania hunters, though, can succeed despite the competition.
Many hunters don’t enter the woods on opening day until first light, Adams said. And they get to their spot by parking in the same lots and following the same trails as everyone else.
That’s a mistake.
“You’re not using all of those other hunters to your advantage,” he said.
He recommends going into the woods an hour or two before dawn via roundabout routes. That will prevent spooking deer between the parking lot and your stand in the dark. It also leaves you in position to shoot deer that come by — pushed by late-arriving hunters — the minute it is legal to begin shooting, he said.
There’s another advantage to being early, said Matt Ross, a biologist with the deer association.
Deer react quickly to the sudden presence of so many hunters, he said.
“But their vulnerability is going to be at its highest on opening day because they’re not adapted to it,” Ross said.
Penn State researchers have been putting GPS collars on deer — bucks and does — for several years and tracking their movements on multiple sites in Pennsylvania.
Their work has shown “any deer that survives the hunting season is probably surviving because they have a hiding place,” said Duane Diefenbach, director of Penn State’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
“My guess is, yeah, it’s some of the thickest, nastiest cover they can find,” Diefenbach said.
“Anything you would look at and say, ‘Man, I wouldn’t want to walk through that,’ deer will look at and think that’s good cover,” Adams said.
The key to hunting such “sanctuaries,” be they swamps, thickets or something else, is to get on the edges and ambush deer entering and exiting, Ross said.
Find the ‘sweet spot’
One belief held by many hunters is that, once the crowds arrive, you have to go deeper into the woods to find deer. That’s true, but only to a point, Diefenbach said.
“According to some of our research, about 500 to 1,000 yards from a road is where hunter harvest is highest. It’s a sort of sweet spot, if you will,” he said.
Such places have the right combination of deer and hunters, Diefenbach said. Their mingling keeps deer on the move, visible and vulnerable, he said.
Inside that zone, deer typically are “using parts of the landscape that they haven’t before,” Ross said. If there’s spot most hunters avoid because it’s too wet, for example, that might be a good “hidden space” to focus on, he said.
Stay through lunch
Research shows that whereas a deer’s home range likely covered a square mile, or 640 acres, before deer season, it shrinks to 100 acres during daylight hours in season, Diefenbach said.
They don’t stop moving altogether.
“At some point during the day, every day, during our hunting season, deer are up and feeding,” Adams said.
Movement peaks between 12 and 1 p.m., said Chris Rosenberry, chief deer biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“About 90 percent of our collared bucks are moving at that time,” Rosenberry said.
Many hunters are heading back to camp or the truck for lunch by then. Those who stay and let the wandering crowds push deer may increase their chances of filling a tag, he said.
There’s something to be said for staying on the stand until the last possible minute, said Brian Kosaglow of Irwin, a pro staffer with Primos Hunting.
Deer activity starts to wind down after 1 p.m., then picks up again as dusk approaches, Rosenberry said.
The problem for many hunters, Kosaglow said, is that they’re walking, too, so as to be out of the woods by dark. They should be staying put, especially with other hunters moving, he said.
“I call it the secondary push,” Kosaglow said. “As guys are walking back out of the woods, if you stay in your spot, they’ll most likely push deer past you. You’ve just got to be willing to sit it out. You have to be as willing to see the moon and the stars as you are the sun and the clouds.”
Hunters who want to avoid the crowds always can just wait. Opening day’s massive wave doesn’t last long.
There are crowds on the first Saturday — when antlerless deer become legal in most places — and again on the final one, said Chris Reidmiller, one of the commission’s wildlife conservation officers in Indiana County. But on weekdays, there’s usually little competition.
“I’d say there’s probably 90 percent less pressure those days,” he said.
The key is to go when you can, Kosaglow said.
“There are plenty of quality deer out there, even on game lands. I’m seeing them on my trail cameras anyway,” he said. “But you have to be in the woods to be lucky.”
This story originally appeared at triblive.com/sports/outdoors.