The Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving are the two busiest days on Pennsylvania highways for two reasons: people heading home after turkey day, and Pennsy hunters heading to deer camp – which they've been doing for hundreds of years.
That may be no surprise since Pennsylvania is one of the oldest states in the U.S., and deer hunting is one of the oldest traditions in the state.
"Deer hunting in Pennsylvania goes back to colonial times – it's just that simple," said Joe Kosack, a wildlife education specialist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). "A fascination with whitetail deer has always been something Pennsylvanians hold near and dear to their hearts."
|Penn State estimated the deer herd at 1.37 million. (Jake Dingel/PGC photo)
Because of its early start, the state was active sooner than most in deer management. It was one of the first states to enact a law protecting deer, and then in 1895 created the PGC "because hunters weren't happy with the number of deer they were seeing," Kosack said.
By 1907 the state created a law, conventionally known as "the Buck Law," that protected antlerless deer.
"Everybody kind of thought it was a cool thing – the right thing from a gallantry standpoint," he said. "It was 'protecting moms.' Everybody liked it."
That early measure helped jumpstart the deer population in Pennsylvania, along with deforestation that was occurring due to farming.
"The deer population took off, and within a short amount of time we were starting to have problems with crop damage," said Kosack. (Vehicle accidents weren't yet a problem because this was in the 1920s, just 12 years after the Ford Model T came out.)
Because of farmer complaints, Pennsylvania held its first deer season – but "ran into all sorts of problems because no one wanted to shoot antlerless deer," Kosack said. The PGC was "trying to sell doe licenses, and hunters didn't want us to allow it."
After a while the habitat took a beating from too many deer, the population suffered, and the PGC was forced to ban the antlered-deer harvest in 1928 and 1938.
"That's the only way we could get people to go out and hunt," he said. "We had to battle sometimes to get the seasons we needed to make sure the resource was managed properly."
That passion for deer and the resultant battles over what's "right" for deer continue to this day in Pennsylvania, where hunting has an estimated economic impact of $4.8 billion, much of that whitetails, according to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
To cut down on some of the deer debates, the PGC now refuses to publish an estimate of the number of animals in the herd. Penn State University recently estimated it at 1.37 million animals. If true, that puts the state in the top tier of whitetail numbers, along with southern states and some midwestern states like Minnesota.
It can be said that arguing over deer is a tradition in the state, just like the fact that ever since the 1960s, deer season always opens on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Since Pennsylvania is still largely rural, that means farm kids don't go to school that Monday. And since they and their teachers want to be out hunting, some rural school districts still give that day off.
Another tradition the state maintains is a traditional flintlock muzzleloader season after Christmas. No in-lines, no percussions and no optics.
"It's been that way for a very long time," said Kosack, a line that pretty much sums up everything about Pennsylvania deer hunting.