Pennsylvania’s Opening Day of Rifle Season!

Pennsylvania’s Opening Day of Rifle Season 2019!

The holidays are here and for Pennsylvania hunters, but not all holidays mean gathering around a large table for a feast with family. Hunter’s holidays are spent gathering around small camp kitchens and bonfires. They find presents and treasures from high up in trees early in the morning, instead of looking under them. They have different days circled on the calendar. Counting down the days until they can trade in the cozy couch for a frosty tree stand builds exciting anticipation only few of us understand. It’s equally a rite of passage and return to the familiar. Just like the holidays, it only comes once a year. One day to reference for generations when you got your first one there, and grandpa got that one there. There’s nothing like celebrating our whitetail rifle season’s opening day.

Arguably the same, if not more than other holidays, preparation goes into getting ready for that first dawn. This year you got new boots or a new coat, so you don’t freeze like you did last year. You put a new scope onto your old reliable rifle. The trail camera you’ve been checking all summer is paying for itself over and again with the secrets it’s telling you about where that buck lives. It’s all part of continuing the tradition of the chase.

Whether you’re hunting by yourself or with friends or family, the excitement of the experience is the same. The community of taking to our woods searching for an elusive game animal has been handed down to us from the stories and experiences of the generations before. That’s why it’s so valuable to us and why we put such time and effort into it. It’s why we get the best gear we can. No one jumps at the chance to tell the story every year about the one we missed, or about leaving the stand early because they got too cold. No, Pennsylvania hunters aren’t only tough, they’re smart. They know how to dress and how to hunt the weather in our home state. There’s no half-hearted effort on opening day.

Respect for the animal also is the highest. You can see that by all the cars and trucks at the range the weeks prior to opening day. Sighting in rifles, tuning new scopes, trying new ammunition for a single clean shot and kill. When the deer is down, they go to work with the sharpest knives and knowhow. Maybe you use your grandfather’s old knife, or maybe you’ve got a new one for yourself this year. Eating the venison that comes from the whole deer has been the tradition as long as hunting has in Pennsylvania. Little to nothing is wasted. With recipes new and old, no crockpot, grill grate, or oven doesn’t see its share of work over the winter months with the treasured animal protein.

There are those who argue it’s a barbaric pastime where something has to die for an individual’s enjoyment. Glorifying the kill in a time and place where food scarcity hardly exists. That argument has no value, and hunters know it. The experience teaches a respect for the animal, for the land, for the benefit of hard work. You’ll appreciate that deer every time you share the story, long after the meat in the freezer is gone.

Ruffed Grouse Decline and Their Future in the Keystone State

Unraveling Pennsylvania’s Ruffed Grouse Decline

Photo by Susan Drury 

Grouse hunting in Pennsylvania is a tradition for many. The northern tier of the state particularly housed robust but variable populations of ruffed grouse. The thrill has always been getting to hear the characteristic thump, thump, thump of a drumming bird. Pennsylvania grouse hunting is a completely different thrill. Harvesting one means pulling up on a flushed bird in dense cover and making a difficult shot. These situations, however, are becoming much rarer in the state.

The ruffed grouse decline the Keystone state has been experiencing for decades is coming to ahead. Hunters are noticing it more and so are land managers. Regardless of if you hunt grouse, hunted them years ago, or are simply an interested outdoors person, the current state and future for this bird is concerning.

“Decline” and “trouble” are serious words but are being used more and more to describe ruffed grouse populations in Pennsylvania. It is not just Pennsylvania either. Most Northeast and Midwest states like Maryland, Minnesota, and West Virginia are all showing seriously declining grouse populations. Pennsylvania is coming up on the last year of a 10-year grouse management plan aimed at addressing the issue. Although, the situation looks much different than it did back in 2011.

Grouse Numbers and Our Current State

Grouse hunting in Pennsylvania was traditionally split into two seasons. Grouse would open in the fall alongside squirrel hunting and other small games species. Even though there were several weeks available in the fall Pennsylvania grouse season, hunters relished the late-season opportunity. These weeks after Christmas were ideal to sneak through dense thickets in the big woods or for running dogs to flush birds. But based on the increasing decline in grouse numbers, the late-season opportunity has been closed since 2017.

Grouse populations are always in flux. Across their entire North American range, their numbers tend to rise and fall in 5- to 10-year cycles. Biologists to a lesser extent understand why the 5- to 10-year cycles occur compared to more short-term swings in numbers.

Many factors affect population numbers. Generally, a cold, damp spring combined with a prolonged cold winter lowers grouse populations in the state. These conditions influence adult female survival and decrease the chances a young grouse will make it through to next spring. Like other animals, causes of mortality also include predation, disease, accidents and environmental factors such as floods and habitat loss.

Exact grouse numbers are difficult to estimate. Instead, the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) uses sightings, harvests, and hunter survey data to assess grouse populations year-over-year and compile long-term trends. In the most recent data from 2018 (available from the PGC), a flush rate of 0.88 flushes per hour (f/hr) was overserved. This was a 6% decrease from the previous year and the lowest since 1965. For comparison, the long-term average is 1.37 f/hr. In addition, sight surveys are down 33% from the previous year and down 49% from the short-term average. These figures are based on surveys from grouse hunters (or cooperators) inside and outside of Pennsylvania grouse seasons. Clearly, the ruffed grouse decline that first was observed in the early 1980s is continuing to propagate itself.

 

Video: Award-winning and comprehensive look at Pennsylvania grouse from the PGC.

Two Factors Affecting the Ruffed Grouse Decline

The ruffed grouse decline can be attributed to two factors. The first, habitat loss, has always played a role in grouse numbers across their entire range. Aging forests are increasing and thus young forests, which grouse thrive in, are harder to find. It was not until 1999 when the second factor appeared. The impacts to grouse from the West Nile virus (West Nile) are only exemplified with habitat loss.

Habitat Needs of Grouse and Implications of Losing It

The primary habitat requirement of grouse is cover. Grouse use dense cover for all aspects of their life cycle including feeding, breeding, and shelter. Young forests provide these ideal conditions, however, aging Pennsylvania forests offer less suitable habitat. Also, population growth has fragmented what once were large contiguous tracts of forests. Grouse do not adapt well to changing habitat conditions and increased interaction with people.

Vegetation like mountain laurel, young pines and hemlocks, and new growth of hardwoods such as aspen are key elements to productive grouse habitat. Birds will eat buds of young growth during winter and feed on greenbriers, witch-hazel, and grapes during warmer months. All of which grow infrequently in older timber stands.

Multi-age forests have been dwindling through natural attrition over time since the large-scale logging that took place at the beginning of the 20th century. This continued loss reduces the habitat needed particularly for breeding and rearing young. The ruffed grouse decline is a direct result of decreased young forests in the state.

West Nile’s Threat

West Nile virus began running its course in Pennsylvania between 2001 and 2003. Mosquitoes can transmit the virus to humans, animals, and birds. The health impacts have been known as it relates to humans, but less is understood when it comes to birds. Birds have shown symptoms and even mortality, especially in crows and jays. Recently, grouse have been studied and observed to have effects related to West Nile.

Research has begun to show just how much of a threat West Nile is to grouse populations in Pennsylvania. More robust population segments, which occur in high-quality habitats, have a greater chance of surviving West Nile. These segments are able to rebound faster after years where West Nile is more prevalent. When small populations in poor habitats experience widespread West Nile prevalence, it is more likely they will experience higher than average mortality and further decline.

In summary, the ruffed grouse decline is not an either-or but rather a combination of less than optimal habitat in conjunction with higher incidents of West Nile.

Planning to Save the Ruffed Grouse’s Legacy in Pennsylvania

The state has proactively been addressing the ruffed grouse decline for decades but more rapidly since the development of the statewide ruffed grouse management plan in 2001.

One-step undertaken has been the use of a framework for Pennsylvania grouse season recommendationsGrouse hunting in Pennsylvania was reduced beginning in 2017 to close the late-season. Even though hunting is a minor factor in grouse survival, closing the after Christmas season ensures that even more birds made it to the next breeding season.

Similar to other wildlife species, habitat is key. Creating and maintaining high-quality grouse habitat supports existing populations and helps them be more resilient against outbreaks from West Nile. Grouse management is being incorporated in the strategic planning for forest harvesting on state lands. Programs are also being implemented to support private forest landowners in an effort to expand acreage and connectivity of a good habitat.

Finally, additional research is being conducted to assess the impacts of West Nile. The focus is on looking at factors that can limit the transmission of the virus and at what thresholds of infection grouse are most vulnerable. Information like this would be used to prioritize habitat work that will have the most benefit on existing and future grouse populations in Pennsylvania.

The good news is we have an example where this is possible. The state of elk in Pennsylvania is thriving due to accomplishments in creating habitat and intensive management. Grouse can be the next success story with a lot of focused effort.

Hunting grouse in Pennsylvania is in many ways a dying tradition. The changing hunter demographic but more so the ruffed grouse decline has been a major contributing factor. However, hunters will need to play a major role in the path ahead to solving this issue. They are key in assessing populations and helping to manage large tracts of public and private land for which Pennsylvania is known for. The future of the state bird and beloved game species is most certainly a concern. Yet optimistically, much has been and more is being done to change the declining path grouse have been on.

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Pennsylvania Pre Rut Hunting Update and Tips

Pre Rut Hunting Tips and Tactics

What strategy are you employing when hunting late October and early November? The Pre Rut can contain some great opportunities to tag out on your target bucks or on public ground. This time of year lends itself to calling tactics, hunting over food such as white oak acorns, and hunting over scrapes. As the season transitions into early November the chase phase of the rut will begin, and hunting on pinch points and funnels will inevitably bring a shooter or two within bow range.

In this video Grant from the everyday outdoorsman breaks down his pre rut hunting strategy and some recent encounters!

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Tips for Public Land Deer Scouting in Pennsylvania

Public land Deer Scouting and Hunting in Pennsylvania 

The dog days of summer are here. Hot temperatures and humidity have most people wanting to stay inside and stay cool. These days, however, are when deer hunting success, this fall, can be earned. Having success while deer hunting on public land in Pennsylvania does not come easy. PA has lots of hunters, so you will be up against the competition. But, for those who decide they want to put in some hard work during these summer days, some amazing hunting opportunities are available. The hunters you know or see being successful during the fall are often they ones that put in hours of work during the summer to put the odds in their favor during the fall. Follow these tips this summer for scouting whitetails on public land here in the keystone state. 

  1. Utilize maps before physically scouting 

Whether you use a GPS, map, topo mapphone app, or google earth, utilize it before going there in person to scout. This is how you can “scout from the computer.” Look at topography of the area. Look for potential feeding fields, ridges, river bottoms, access trails, parking areas, funnels, pinch points, and whatever else you can find. Doing these things ahead of time can save you so much time and energy. Learn as much about the piece you plan to scout, before you even step foot on it. This will put you ahead of the game when you do go to scout the area.  

2. Get away from pressure 

This probably sounds familiar, but it is one of the most important things to keep in mind. Most deer in general, but especially smart deer, will avoid areas that have the most human pressure. This is where using your maps to mark parking areas and access trails becomes even more important. When you mark those things on a map, you can start to narrow down areas that are going to be the hardest to access. Cross off areas that look like they are easy to get to and popular for hunters. Look for those back corners, overlooked spots, and hardest to reach places. The less pressure it gets from other hunters, the better chance you will have at seeing deer there during daylight.  

3. Scout for bedding 

When you go to scout a piece of public land, one of the most important things to do is identify where the deer in the area are bedding. Yes, it is important to find feeding areas, trails, benches, funnels, and pinch points, but the number one thing to find is bedding areas. Successful public land hunters are usually the ones that are hunting closest to where the deer bed. Deer on public land probably won’t move far from their bedding areas during daylight. Hunting as close to that bedding as possible, without being detected, will give you the best opportunity to get a shot during legal shooting hours.  

4. Use trail cams as an extra tool, not your replacement for scouting.  

Trail cameras are becoming more and more popular as time goes on. I can’t stress enough how useful they can be when they are used right. They can do some work for you while you are not even there. They can teach hunters what caliber of deer are in an area, how many deer are in an area, the times of day they are moving through a certain area, and the list could go on. There are so many benefits. All that being said, it is important to not let trail cameras actually replace the importance of physically scouting an area. Trail cameras will never tell hunters the full story. Hunters need to know where bedding is, where travel routes are, where feeding areas are, and everything else about the areas surrounding their trail cameras or hunting areas. Don’t simply walk into the woods, set up a few trail cams, and walk back out without learning anything about the area.  

5. More is better 

When it comes to public land deer scouting in the summer, the more you scout, the better your chances will be. There are certain situations on private land, or when scouting or hunting during the fall where overkill will have a negative effect. But during these summer days get out there and hit it hard. The season is still a couple months away, so get out there and learn as much as you can now, before hunting season comes. Don’t just go out in November hoping to get lucky, get out there now and earn your fall success right here in August!