Back when my dad shot one of the biggest bucks of his life, through my little kid eyes I saw it as a giant. It didn't qualify for any record book, nor was it very old (probably 3 years.)
When I began my own hunting career, Pennsylvania was loaded with highly successful, traditional hunters. And many of us made a career of shooting spindly-antlered yearling bucks.
In 2002 the Game Commission launched its programs of herd reduction and antler restrictions. The goal of herd reduction was to reduce the negative impact of a high deer population on the habitat, and the goal of antler restrictions was to take pressure off young bucks so they could grow older.
Many traditional hunters have roundly criticized the PGC for its deer management policy, but has it worked? Some aspects of it may be debatable, but ordinary observations as well as scientific evidence point to the fact that reducing the herd has resulted in improved habitat.
What about the antler restriction policy? Here, it's harder to find agreement. Point to the bigger, more mature bucks being taken, and some hunters will say "Check the records Pennsylvania has always produced big bucks. We're not producing any more than we ever did."
So, now that we've had 10 seasons of antler restrictions in Pennsylvania, I decided to check the records. I charted Pennsylvania records (which use the Boone & Crockett measuring system) over the last ten decades. The record books don't say antlers are bigger now, but they do say more bucks have large antlers than ever before.
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These numbers in the chart represent almost all Pennsylvania's record book bucks killed in the last 100 years. The year of harvest is unknown for 17 of the bucks in the Pennsylvania record book, and only five more were killed more than a century ago, including the famous 1830 Arthur Young buck of McKean County, PA, the oldest buck in any record book.
A few observations are worth noting. First, the decade that produced the most significant increase in Boone & Crockett bucks, along with a large increase in Pennsylvania record book bucks, was the decade that included the post-World War 2 years when riflemen returned home to hunt a deer herd that had boomed. Deer had less hunting pressure while men were fighting in Europe and the Pacific, so bucks lived longer and grew larger.
The most recent 10-year period is the antler restriction period, and it put higher totals into both the Pennsylvania record book and the Boone & Crockett record book than any previous decade. However, bucks often don't get entered right away, so the numbers for the most recent decade will continue to increase for a few years.
Note that the last 20 years reflects the tremendous growth in archery hunting. In both those decades, the total record book bucks taken by archery exceeds the record book bucks taken by firearm.
Don't mis-read the chart and think that without archers in the woods, the overall totals wouldn't be so high. That can't be true. Firearms categories increased too, and if those archery bucks had lived to be available in rifle season, firearms hunters would show an even greater increase.
The bottom line? The decade of antler restrictions produced more record book bucks in every category. Any given area of the state may not show the same increase, but statewide more record book bucks are available than ever before.
Some readers will be quick to warn that record book bucks should not be the goal of hunters, nor should more record bucks be the goal of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. I agree. And the records have nothing to do with goals; records are not forward-looking. They have only to do with history; they are a look backwards.
Speaking of goals, my goal is not to get my name into either the Pennsylvania book or the Boone & Crockett book. My goal is simply to harvest a mature buck every year in Pennsylvania. I fail at that more than I succeed, but history shows that my odds are better now than they have ever been before. Yours are too.