Thanksgiving leftovers have been converted to potato cakes, turkey sandwiches and soup, and department stores have been ransacked. It’s time to celebrate the next big holiday: the first day of deer season in Pennsylvania.

Come Monday, an orange-clad army of 750,000 hunters will take to Penn’s Woods in search of bucks, as well as antlerless deer for those with the appropriate license.

Hunters have had to show some patience this fall, with the opening day coming later than normal, on the traditional heels of a later Thanksgiving Day. Few deer seasons have begun as late as Dec. 2, and this one continues to Dec. 14.

The weather forecast for opening day is for sun and temperatures in the low 40s, nearly ideal conditions to bring out even the most fair-weather of hunters. More hunters means more pressure on deer, increased movement and a greater opportunity for success.

The deep-rooted heritage of deer hunting in the state is driven by the opportunity for young and old to unite with family and friends for camaraderie and memories.

“We find that as many people hunt to be close to friends and family as hunt to put food on the table,” said Travis Lau, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “That family bond, that spending time in the outdoors and opportunity to put food on the table is all important to our deer hunters.”

More than half the antlered deer killed during the two-week season are taken on opening day.

Statistics for successful buck hunters in the Cumberland-Perry county region show that 56 percent and 52 percent of the bucks harvested last season were taken on the first day in wildlife management units 4B and 5A, respectively. Those WMUs contain portions of Cumberland, Perry, Franklin and Adams counties.

The game commission reports stable or increasing deer herd numbers throughout the commonwealth this fall, which should leave hunters optimistic for continued success starting Monday.

During the 2012 season, hunters harvested an estimated 343,110 deer, up 2 percent from the previous year.

Last season, hunters in WMU 4A took 4,200 bucks and 6,500 antlerless deer. In WMU 5A, hunters had success with 2,800 bucks, and 3,600 antlerless deer.

“The age structure of the antlered deer harvest was 49 percent 1.5-year-old bucks and 51 percent 2.5-year-old and older bucks,” game commission Executive Director Carl Roe said.

While hunters disagree with some of the commission’s deer management principles, many believe that antler restrictions have been effective in producing bigger bucks. In most areas of the state, a legal buck is one that has at least three points on one side of its rack.

“Hunters do like the fact that antler restrictions are working to create an older class of Pennsylvania bucks, and they are seeing more big bucks in the woods,” Lau said. “I think all hunters at the heart of the thing want the chance to see and harvest a large buck.”

Last year’s harvest resulted in about 200 new entries into Pennsylvania’s Big Game Record Program, which recognizes exceptional deer, bears and elk.

In Southcentral Pennsylvania, including WMU 5A, hunters may take a buck or antlerless deer on any day, provided they have the necessary licenses. In other areas, such as 4B locally, hunters may take only antlered deer the season’s first five days, with the antlerless and antlered seasons then running concurrently from the first Saturday, Dec. 7, to the season’s close.

An important regulation for deer hunters everywhere is that they must wear a minimum of 250 square inches of fluorescent orange material on the head, chest and back combined. An orange hat and vest will satisfy the requirement.

Non-hunters who might be in the outdoors during the deer season and other hunting seasons might also want to consider wearing orange.

Chronic wasting disease

Those who harvest any deer in the Midstate this season must be cognizant that the contagious and deadly chronic wasting disease has been detected in the wild herd.

CWD is not harmful to humans, but its presence will affect how hunters in some locations must react should they be able to kill a deer.

The disease was first found in the state in two captive deer on a New Oxford farm in October 2012. The discovery triggered an action plan already in place. About 30 deer farms in the region were placed in quarantine. A 600-square-mile disease management area was set up, emanating from the Adams County site. Last year, hunters harvesting deer within that area were required to have the carcasses checked and sampled at a state Game Lands location near York Springs.

Ultimately, none of the samples taken from deer killed in that area tested positive for CWD. The number of quarantined deer farms has been cut to nine.

But three deer killed by hunters during the season in Blair and Butler counties, and tested, turned up positive with CWD. It was significant in that the discoveries proved the disease had finally spread into the wild herd.

This deer season, there is a 600-square-mile disease management area in Adams and York counties; and a 900-square-mile area in the Butler-Blair region.

Deer hunters in the Midstate can check to see if they are hunting within one of the disease management areas by referring to the game commission website at www.pgc.state.pa.us.

There is no mandatory checking of harvested deer this year. But hunters are forbidden to transport “at-risk” deer parts out of either disease management area. “At-risk” parts are generally considered the head and backbone.

Hunters within a disease management area who process their own venison can drop the “at-risk” parts into trash receptacles at local Game Lands. For others, it is suggested that they use cooperating meat processors within the disease management area of the harvest.

“If it’s a buck and the hunter wants to keep the antlers, he can remove them but the antlers cannot have any visible brain matter on the skull plate,” Lau advised.

Hunters who would like to have their harvested deer tested, can do so by contacting the state Department of Agriculture. Cost of the test is about $80. It recommended that meat from a CWD deer not be consumed.

“(The presence of CWD) shouldn’t keep anyone from enjoying deer hunting or consuming meat from healthy-appearing animals,” Lau added. “There is no evidence at this point that CWD can be spread from deer to humans through consumption of meat or any other contact.”

The commission will be collecting about 1,000 samples from processors and taxidermists within the disease management areas for CWD testing.

“It’s no longer a case where we are trying to prevent CWD into the wild,” Lau said. “Rather, we’re trying to control it through testing and determining the prevalence and how much it might have spread among the free-ranging deer, if at all.”

In the meantime, deer hunters in Southcentral Pennsylvania can cross their fingers that there is no more CWD, and that they get that buck on opening day.

*Editor's Note: Update to reflect current allowances for doe hunting in WMU 4B.

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