Monday, Dec. 1,1969: It’s the opening day of buck season in Pennsylvania. A hunter dons his red-and-black plaid coat, grabs his rifle and walks to his favorite spot in the frost-laced woods.
After two hours of numbness, the hunter hears something in the distant brush. A small, brown figure comes into view. As it walks closer, he sees that it’s a buck, though he’s not sure how many points it has. With his toes frozen and the idea of lunch sinking in, the hunter raises his open-sighted rifle. He fires a fatal shot, packs up his thermos and walks 100 yards to retrieve his deer. Upon finding his target, the hunter notices it’s a solid-bodied deer, but only sports three points total on its rack — certainly nothing to hang on the wall. Regardless, the hunter field dresses and drags his harvest out of the woods.
It was a successful hunt.
Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019: Fast forward 40 years. Opening day now falls on the weekend. A hunter covered in fluorescent orange makes his way into the woods with his digital GPS device. After two hours in his portable treestand, he sees a buck emerge. It’s standing broadside about 100 yards away in a clearing — an easy shot for an experienced marksman with a scope-sighted rifle. However, there are some branches hanging behind the deer and the hunter can’t tell if the buck meets the antler requirements in his Wildlife Management Unit. The hunter opts not to shoot, and the deer walks away.
As the daylight begins to fade hours later, another buck trots out to feed near the hunter’s treestand. This time, there’s no doubt about the antler count. The deer has four points on the left side (including the brow point) and three on the other. The hunter downs the buck, field dresses it and take it out of the woods with the help of his ATV.
It was a successful hunt.
The landscape of hunting in Pennsylvania has changed dramatically over the last four decades. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that things aren’t the way they’ve always been. But let’s put on our orange hats and vests and take a stroll through memory lane and look at some of the biggest changes Pennsylvania hunters have experienced.
From plaid to fluorescent Orange
Though a bright orange vest and hat is now the official uniform of the Pennsylvania rifle hunter, things looked much different 40 years ago.
“I wore my dad’s Woolrich black-and-red-plaid coat. I still actually have it,” said Art Keefer of Rimersburg. “Then I wore a red hat to go with it.”
It wasn’t until 1980 that deer, bear and woodchuck hunters were required by law to wear at least 100 square inches of fluorescent orange material on the head, or on chest and back combined. The law increased orange coverage to 250 square inches in 1992.
Keefer, 65, has hunted for 54 years and is a former officer with United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania. With a half-century of experience in the woods, he has seen plenty of new hunting regulations. With those new proposals came some pushback — including the changing wardrobe.
“There was a little resistance because people didn’t understand the biology of a deer’s eye because they’re basically blind to that color,” Keefer said. “Then they finally realized that it was going to be safer for everyone in the woods.”
Antler restrictions cause an outcry
Prior to 2002, Pennsylvania deer hunters could harvest a buck of any rack size. But then restrictions were implemented for hunting seasons to allow more bucks to reach older age classes and subsequently improve the breeding ecology of deer populations statewide. Much of the state follows a three point on one side antler rule. But 10 western counties have a four points to one side antler rule.
Even though the restrictions were put in place to usher in bigger bucks and a healthier herd, hunters were split on the decision.
“I was excited for it and was probably considered an advocate for it. But I can remember going to some of the seminars, and there was serious, threatening anger towards this,” said Harold Daub, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists. “The Game Commission took a beating on that, but we are reaping the benefits of it now.”
Opening day of rifle season
Rifle season for hunting deer in Pennsylvania commenced on the Monday after Thanksgiving since 1963. But that changed in 2019 when the Game Commission gave final approval to move the opening day of deer rifle season to the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Pennsylvania hunters debated the issue for months at public meetings and on social media. The board of commissions ultimately passed it with a slim, 5-3 vote.
“If the Game Commission would have taken a day from hunters to account for the Saturday opener, I would understand the argument against it a little more. But this is giving us an extra day to hunt. I wouldn’t want to argue against getting an extra day,” said Daub.
The ever-changing archery landscape
Archery hunters in Pennsylvania get to enjoy hunting into the rut, or mating season. This increases their chances of bagging a trophy buck, but archers didn’t always have such an opportunity.
It wasn’t until 1993 that archery season was expanded from four weeks to six weeks.
“Back then, I remember sitting in my treestand on the last day of archery thinking about how cool it would be to hunt during the heart of the rut,” Daub said. “It was just a great advancement of opportunity to extend the season.”
Archery season has also seen a technological evolution through the decades, forcing more legislative changes.
Archers of yesteryear used recurve bows, a style of bow with limbs that curve away from the archer when unstrung. But in the 1970s, compound bows were beginning to gain in popularity. A compound bow has a pulley, cable style that allows an archer to hold the bow back for a longer period of time.
“My first two or three bows were recurve, and I didn’t switch over to compound bows until the ’80s,” Keefer said. “The compound bow just became easier to shoot because you could mount sights on it, and then the mechanical release came around, and it was all just easier.”
Though the mechanical release is as common a piece of equipment as the bow itself in today’s world, it took until 1982 for a Game Code amendment to permit archers to use certain mechanical bow releases.
Permissible archery equipment continued to expand in the early 2000s when crossbows were slowly ushered in for use during specific seasons.
Crossbows were legalized for all archery deer and bear seasons in 2009.
While Keefer supports the use of crossbows for those with disabilities, he still doesn’t love the idea of everyone being able to use one.
“Bowhunting isn’t supposed to be easy, that’s why we choose to do it,” he said. “The crossbow kind of made it a lot easier. We (UBP) were afraid that the kill rate would go up and the season would be shortened.”
But equipment legislation isn’t the only thing that has changed the game for archers. Keefer also added that getting the high ground was a big advantage during his archery career.
“One of the things that really made a difference in bowhunting for me was getting off the ground. Back in the old days, people would hunt from the ground or would build treestands, most which were dangerous,” Keefer said. “Once the self-climbing treestands and ladder stands came around, it was safer and made hunting a lot better.”
Sunday hunting and beyond
The most recent shift in the hunting landscape has been Sunday hunting. Senate Bill 147 recently passed the Pennsylvania Legislature and will allow three huntable Sundays in the state:
- One day of Sunday hunting shall be instituted by the Commission during deer rifle season.
- One day of Sunday hunting shall be instituted by the Commission during deer archery season.
- One day of Sunday hunting shall be instituted by the Commission at their discretion.
The debate over Sunday hunting has raged for years. With the passing of SB147, Daub believes it will someday become as common as changes made in decades past.
“I think when sportsmen get a taste of being able to hunt on Sunday and have the ability to choose which day on the weekend can be their day to hunt, I think they’ll be upset we don’t have more Sundays to hunt,” he said.
Hunting is an undeniable icon of Pennsylvania heritage. But it has come a long way since it was first being permitted on all lands under William Penn’s Charter in 1683.
“When you look at all the opportunities we have now, Pennsylvania hunters are in a great spot,” Daub said. “These are the golden days for Pennsylvania hunting. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”
Other historic conservancy dates:
- 1721 – Aug. 26: Pennsylvania’s first Game Law enacted by Sir William Keith (provincial governor). Deer may be hunted from July 1-Jan. 1. Fine for shooting out of season — 20 shillings. Native Americans were exempt.
- 1851 – Aug. 1: Deer hunting banned for five years in Cumberland and Franklin counties.
- 1856 – April 10: Deer hunting banned for five years in Adams County.
- 1869: New deer season set: Sept. 1 to Dec. 31.
- 1873: All Sunday game hunting banned.
- 1907: The first Pennsylvania buck law was passed; under it does were given absolute protection.
- 1913 – May 8: Wild turkey hunting banned statewide for two years.
- 1923: Game Commission given authority to establish antlerless deer season. (First season — Dec. 19-21 in Washington and Quincy townships, Franklin County; 100 licenses allotted at $5 each; 8 legal and 1 illegal deer taken.)
- 1929: Bow and arrow legalized for hunting game.
- 1968: First spring gobbler hunting season.
- 1969: Hunter safety training mandatory before youths under 16 years of age can purchase hunting license.
- 1974: First muzzleloader deer season; 65 deer, including four bucks, were taken. The season was held for three days on 37 state game lands.
- 1978: No bear season was held.
- 1999: First three-day fall flintlock season for antlerless deer held.
- 2001: First concurrent two-week antlered/antlerless deer season held.
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