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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Where are the 'Booners'?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA, Jan. 05, 2008.)
It takes a cagey whitetail to stay alive
for 3½ or 4½ years in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s current deer program has encouraged high expectations. As a result, conversations at sporting goods counters, gun clubs, and Internet message boards sometimes turn to the question of whether Pennsylvania can become a “Booner” state.

Will Pennsylvania -- like Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and others -- regularly produce whitetails with antlers big enough to qualify for the Boone and Crockett record book?

Don’t get your hopes up. Currently Pennsylvania ranks low (about 33rd) in the number of bucks entered in the B & C book. Many factors come into play, including season length and timing, number of hunters and state game regulations.

But if you doubt that Pennsylvania deer have the genetics to produce record book antlers, take a look at areas such as Allegheny County. That area has long been producing big bucks largely because limited access to huntable land keeps bucks safe long enough for them to reach maturity.

Another place to look for a glimpse of the genetic antler capability of Pennsylvania bucks is photos of deer that old-timers killed before World War II, and before the hunting population took a sharp turn upward. A few old books show pictures of deer racks that will make drool dribble down the chins of most hunters today.

Those ancestors of today’s deer had two advantages. (1) They lived in an era when comparatively few hunters pursued them, not the million hunters we have today. And (2) the forested areas of the state were more remote, giving bucks room to escape and places to live to old age.

Our deer may not have the very best in antler genetics, but evidence shows that the genetics in Pennsylvania are strong. Still, when you see large antlers, and when you see small antlers, it’s more likely a reflection of the deer’s age than his genetics. A buck’s genes are built in at conception. As a spindly yearling and at 5½ years, his genes are the same. Age and nutrition are what allow him to show his stuff.

Genetics are what they are, and the Game Commission cannot control genetics. But even with good antler genetics, Boone and Crockett bucks will never be common in Pennsylvania. Why?

First, even in the best “trophy” states, most bucks don’t achieve the potential of their genetic endowment. So hunters in those states are not killing as many record book bucks as a glance through hunting magazines might lead you to believe.

In American states and Canadian provinces known for producing record whitetail racks, realistic trophy hunters are happy with far less. To hunt in Saskatchewan, home of the world record typical whitetail (with 213-inch antlers), hunters spend several thousand dollars every year. They bring home impressive 140-inch bucks, but that’s still 30 inches shy of what it takes to score the Boone and Crockett minimum for typical whitetails.

The second reason B & C bucks will never be common here is hunting pressure. Serious hunters hunt Pennsylvania hard, and some consistently kill 3½ and 4½ year old deer with very good racks. They’re representative of adult bucks from most places where deer have to face the rigors of a wild existence with food supplies that are unreliable.

It takes a cagey whitetail to stay alive for 3½ or 4½ years in Pennsylvania. A buck with three years of experience is much harder to kill (or even to get a look at) than a 1½ year old. A buck usually can’t produce its largest rack until he is at least 5½ years old, and a 5½ year old buck is ancient in this state.

Under today’s antler restriction policy Pennsylvania will not become a “Booner” state. But -- a few more B & C bucks will show up where they haven’t been seen in modern times. It has already happened. In 2005 a skilled hunter named Jim Riggle killed the first ever B & C buck to come out of Forest County -- a 189 4/8" non-typical -- but that doesn’t make Forest County a “Booner” county.

Will you or I ever get a Booner in Pennsylvania? Not likely. But the everyday hunter who hunts hard and smart now has a real chance of getting a few 120" bucks (nothing to turn your nose up at), and maybe a 130", a 140" or even bigger. That’s a far cry from Booner standards, but a dandy buck anywhere.


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