doe walking through woods followed by fawn in fall

Humans travel a lot. And the best way to get from Point A to Point B is an established route. When I get in the car to go to the grocery, I don’t draw straight line and drive it. I take the paved road to the Weiss.

Pennsylvania topography usually makes those paved roads snake and jog unless you are traveling east-west. 

If roads and ridges affect my trip to the grocery, how might it affect hunters and the deer they harvest?

During the 2005 and 2006 hunting seasons, we studied harvest rates of female deer in two different areas of Pennsylvania: the Allegheny Plateau region around the Sproul State Forest and the Ridge and Valley Region around the Tuscarora State Forest. Both study areas encompassed private and public lands.

Following radio-collared deer, we were able to locate them on the landscape knowing how far they were from the road and mountain top. We also conducted aerial surveys during the hunting season to see how hunters were distributed across the landscape.

On the Allegheny Plateau around the Sproul State Forest, you have a flat plateau at the highest elevations and steep drainages to the Susquehanna River. Roads are mostly located at the highest elevations. The graph shows an elevation profile across the study area and the arrows indicate where roads are located – at the highest points.

Consequently, guess where you find hunters? Near roads and flat areas. Below is a graph showing the highest density of hunters are nearest roads BUT only on state lands. Private lands with less restrictions on things like ATV use likely made it easier for hunters to get around so they were basically everywhere!

In the Ridge and Valley Region, roads and topography are very different. We have roads that go along ridges, along valleys, and up and over ridges.

On public lands, there are more hunters because of the proximity to population centers and the road network provides access to all of the public lands. 

How does this affect deer harvest in these areas? As you might guess, harvest rates are related to distance from road and steepness of slope on the Allegheny Plateau. But less so on private lands (stippled areas) because of confounding factors like ATV use.

In the Ridge and Valley Region, the only deer that survived slightly better were ones whose home range was centered on the side hill of a steep slope. Otherwise, it didn’t really matter where a deer was located. The roads in the Ridge and Valley are high, low, and go up and over ridges. If you leave your car, you can always walk downhill to a road. Not so on the Sproul State Forest!

So what can hunters learn from all these pretty pictures? I’m sure there’s not much you don’t already know, except for one thing.

On the Sproul State Forest there is a sweet spot for hunting deer. A kind of Goldilocks “just right” location. You need to get away from a road, but not too far. You have to go “just right” far.

“Just right” far is the right combination of topography and hunters. Too many hunters and they scare all the deer away. Remember high hunter density is great for the first day or two but after that the deer adjust and avoid you like the plague. Too few hunters and deer go about their “normal” business which isn’t necessarily moving in your direction. The map below is a prediction of where you are going to have the highest probability of harvesting a deer.

Now, you can’t take this map to the bank. Some of the bright orange areas may be mountain laurel thicker than pea soup. But we found that hunters were most successful if they hunted areas with slopes of 10-20 degrees (for every 100 feet of horizontal distance the land dropped (rose) 17 to 34 feet) and if they got 500-1000 yards from the nearest road.

Go beyond 1000 yards or on steeper slopes and you won’t find any hunters (at least you won’t find me there!). There may be deer but you’re going to have to play all your cards right for one to walk past you and hope that Lady Luck is smiling in your direction. 

You have to get it “just right” to outsmart a deer. 

-Duane Diefenbach

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