Week 15. Tyler Frantz: Pennsylvania Natural Pursuit Outdoors
When Pennsylvania was still just a colony, General George Washington’s Continental Army recruited 13 new rifle companies. Nine were from Pennsylvania, and they organized into the Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion, the first rifle battalion in U.S. history. Over two centuries later, the Pennsylvania riflemen still show up in force, but these days its as the “Orange Army” on the state’s legendary opening day of firearms season the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Pennsylvania today has nearly a million hunters and maintains one of the richest hunting heritages (and fishing too for that matter) in the mid-Atlantic. Tyler Frantz is a virtual almanac of Pennsylvania hunting and fishing and captures the state’s traditions and culture through his writing and films for his company Natural Pursuit Outdoors (NPO) and also for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
I discovered Tyler’s writing through book he wrote called Pennsylvania Deer Hunting, Through the Pages of Game News that contains 30 stories tales of deer hunting lore and legend, but that’s just scratching the surface. Tyler has also won a number of awards from the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writer Association.
From my home base in Washington, it’s easy to think of the mid-Atlantic as an extension of the Potomac, but the truth is that the “mother river” of the Chesapeake is the great Susquehanna. Its watershed covers the heart of Pennsylvania, including the Allegheny corduroy ridges and limestone regions, and is flush with fish and game. To the west, there's also the Ohio River headwaters and Lake Erie, and to the east, the Delaware River Valley and its many tributaries.
I caught up with Tyler on a December afternoon to talk about these different regions, and the best hunting and fishing in Pennsylvania's 52 weeks.
Below are more questions in bold, followed by his answers.
You hunt and fish all over Pennsylvania. What are your favorite species and what’s a year in the life of Tyler Frantz look like?
I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to jump around the state and see all of what Pennsylvania has to offer. Our state really has a lot of rich outdoor traditions. Bowhunting is really what I live for and it consumes a vast majority of my year — even when it’s out of season, I’m thinking about it and planning for it.
Let’s start with bow season then, and go from the fall through the seasons.
We have six weeks of early archery season that goes roughly from October 1 to November 12, and then we have a break, and then another shot at it for a late season right after Christmas. I hunt a variety of public and private land, but my favorite is hunting my family’s farm. I grew up there and my parents still own it. We do a lot to manage it for deer hunting. We plant a lot of food plots and pass up the younger bucks to give them a couple of years to grow bigger. It’s great deer terrain where the upper Piedmont transitions into the “Ridge and Valley” region of the state. It’s really close to where the Appalachian Trail comes through Pennsylvania.
Where’s the best region in Pennsylvania for deer hunting?
The best deer hunting used to be in the northern tier, where they logged the hardwood forests heavily in the 1920s. By the 40s, 50s, and 60s, it was all regenerating hardwood forests up there, which provided a lot of great habitat and ground cover for whitetails. Now those forests are nearing maturity, and deer are shifting to other parts of the state. They’ve adapted and are moving to areas with more conducive habitat, which includes agricultural and suburban areas.
They've also historically killed some of the biggest bucks in the western parts of the state, around Allegheny County, and they still kill some real slammers out there. But it’s getting to the point were you can kill a Pennsylvania record book whitetail anywhere in the state.
We’ve seen the size of bucks really take off statewide since the Game Commission implemented antler restrictions. The bucks that are 1.5-2.5 years old generally are protected, and they starting to grow up to 4.5-5.5 years old, and as a result, some real whoppers are getting killed. It used to be that you’d see a little spike buck or 4-pointer pushing around 20 does, but now it’s not uncommon to see 10- or even 12-pointers in decent regularity.
From your vantage point, what are the ideal bowhunting conditions?
If I could only hunt one day all year, I would pick cold, clear, frosty morning during the first week of November, with temps in the upper 20s or low 30s. It would be a stand overlooking a natural pinch point between bedding cover and close to a feeding area.
The bucks cruise the ridges between doe bedding areas looking to pick up the scent of a doe coming into estrous, so the best action is right at that pinch point linking the areas of cover together. I don’t focus too much on the moon phase, but mostly hunt the wind. We also get thermals in the hilly areas, where the air will rise up the hill in the morning and then drop in the evening. So I’ll hunt on the ridge top in the morning, and then down in a swamp or in the valley in the evening when the thermals are falling before dark.
How about the rest of the fall?
There’s a week around the middle of October when you can bowhunt for deer, muzzleloader hunt for deer, the first split of duck season starts, trapping for furbearer season starts, you can hunt small game like pheasants, grouse, squirrels and rabbits, and of course, you get into some of the best Pennsylvania fall trout fishing. It’s really a lot to juggle!
After archery season, I’ll switch gears to bear season. Pennsylvania actually has one of the best bear populations of any state with over 20,000 bears and hunters routinely taking bears over 600 lbs. It’s a low odds of success though, as only about 3% of bear hunters kill one. I’ve been fortunate to take three bears, and my brother has three bears, and my dad has killed eight Pennsylvania black bears.
The north central area leads the way for bear, up around Williamsport and Wellsboro, and the Poconos in the northeast have also done really well the past couple of years, too, as the population has expanded. Bears prefer rolling terrain- very rugged and mountainous areas- with a lot of laurel and evergreen cover. There is a week-long bear archery season preceding the four-day statewide firearms season.
And then right after bear season, we have a little three-day snapshot for fall turkey hunting. I try to kill a turkey on Thanksgiving Day and think that’s kind of a cool thing. I’ve killed a turkey twice on Thanksgiving and once the day after.
Historically, how has the bear population been doing in Pennsylvania?
The turning point for bear was in 1980. In the late 1970s, they closed bear hunting for three seasons because the population was not doing well, and in 1980 it started taking off again and rebounded, which they attribute to better habitat and better protection of the resource.
The reproduction rate has also rebounded really well. Pennsylvania bears have the largest average litter size of any state, with three cubs per sow, and the youngest average reproductive age. So we’re seeing reproduction earlier and in greater numbers, and that is probably attributed to the amount of habit and food, and the diversity of habitat, we have available across the state.
How about Pennsylvania’s famous opening day for firearms?
The Monday after Thanksgiving is the holy grail for hunting in Pennsylvania — the first day of firearms deer season. If you want to become a romantic about something, opening day of rifle season is one of the most storied traditions in Pennsylvania. It is a very magical time.
This is potential the highest odds day of killing a big buck just because of the pressure from all the hunters moving the animals around. The does that are unbred from the first round of their estrous cycle, and the young of the year that are getting bred for the first time, add even more action to the woods. The bucks have lots of reasons to be on their feet.
Pennsylvania used to have the most hunters of any state. It used to be a million hunters but I think that’s down to about 900,000. If a hunter is not already tagged out for the season, they’re out there that week. Everything shuts down — businesses close, schools are closed because the kids are going to miss anyway!
Rifle season is two weeks long, and the we joke that the orange army takes over. People who don’t hunt the rest of the year hunt during that time, and sometimes the guy who bags the huge buck is just in the right place at the right time. But it’s a great time to get out with family and experience Pennsylvania deer hunting at its finest.
That’s a lot of action in a few months! How about the winter, spring, and summer, and some of the other diversity of Pennsylvania fish and game?
After rifle season, we have about two weeks of peace and quiet to hunt ducks and small game. I’ll also do some upland bird hunting for woodcocks, pheasant, and grouse if we can get upstate, with by dog Cali. She’s a six year old Springer Spaniel and English Setter hybrid. She has some of the Springer in her in terms of diving into brambles and briar patches, and also has a little of the poise of the English Setter. She has a real sense of pride in being a hunter and the bird hunting is as much for her as it is for me.
The day after Christmas opens up the late traditional deer season, which is flintlock muzzleloader and archery only. If I’ve already shot a buck that this point, sometimes I’ll still get up in a tree and just watch what is moving around. It’s a great time of year to just reflect on the season too.
In late December and into early January, we get some of our best waterfowl hunting and get some late migrators coming in from New York's Finger Lakes on the way to the Chesapeake. There are days we’ll get large numbers of Canadas and even Snows coming through- especially in the southern portion of the state.
Later in the winter after waterfowl, in February and March, there’s not as much going on, and a lot of guys will be tying flies or hunting for shed antlers. Every other church in small town Pennsylvania will have have its wild game banquet, and the NRA has its annual outdoor show in Harrisburg.
Spring and Summer
Early April, trout fishing will start getting good again, and southeastern Pennsylvania seasons opens two weeks early. Central Pennsylvania has a lot of great areas with its famous limestone heritage, but we also have some nice little hidden gems around the state. Lehigh Gorge has some nice wild browns that are making a comeback, and the upper Delaware drainage also of course is famous. The Laurel Highlands region in western Pennsylvania also has some really nice trout fishing, though not as many wilds. The Youghiogheny also has some good holdovers. And then of course the Poconos have lakes for walleye and bass, and the Erie tribs are great for steelhead through the spring.
The first week of May is also the opener of spring gobbler season, and you can kill up to two birds. Moving into the summer in June, July, and August, the warm-water fishing heats up, and I’m right back to preparing for bow season!
I’ve read about the elk hunting in Pennsylvania in Daniel Boone’s childhood days. Are there still elk in the state?
The last native Allegheny elk were killed off by the late 1870s, and we actually made a deal with Wyoming to import Yellowstone elk by train car in the early 1900s. They brought them in, and restored them in two or three locations. The only areas that really took off were in the north central region around Clearfield and Clinton Counties. The herd there survived, but the number just hovered at less than 100 for a long time. In the 90s, the Game Commission made some efforts to restore them and got a huge grant to buy a bunch of reclaimed mine areas. With help from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, they planted those with grass and made some huge rolling meadows, and with that, the elk population really took off. The elk population is now over 800, and we have a lottery system to hunt them. You pay a fee to get into the lottery and if you don’t get drawn, you get an bonus point for next year’s drawing.
Any other advice to mid-Atlantic sportsmen?
I would like to shine a light on all that hunters do for conservation. Pennsylvania has helped a number of different species make impressive comebacks thanks to the hard work of concerned sportsmen. By the late 1800s, the deer herd in Pennsylvania was less than 500, and there was almost no river otters, beavers, turkeys or bears. The Game Commission was formed 1895 at the urging of hunters who noticed sharp decline in game populations. Through the sales of hunting permits and the added protection of regulated hunting seasons, they’ve been able to bring back various wildlife species from the brink of extinction. We should all take pride in that accomplishment- especially the sportsmen who funded it.