In the decades that Troy Bair has spent butchering deer, he’s gotten to know the Lancaster County hunters who visit his West Donegal Township shop each season.
While he might not know their names, Bair said he can usually recognize their faces.
“If you come here on opening day, you are going to get local hunters,” he said.
This year, the butcher said things have been a bit different at his business, Bair’s Deer Processing.
“I’m seeing a fair amount of new faces,” he said, adding that he’s already received an above-average number of deer — about 650 by early this week.
Bair guessed that number means more hunters are taking to the woods this season, and he expects business will only continue to pick up with today’s opening of Pennsylvania’s firearms deer season.
There are numbers to back Bair’s hunch, according to Travis Lau, a state Game Commission spokesman, who shared hunting license sales figures. They show an increase in purchased general licenses, which permit hunting during the firearms season.
By mid-November, 756,444 general hunting licenses had been sold. That’s up about 5% from the amount sold during the same period in 2019.
“There will be many licenses sold between now and the end of firearms deer season,” Lau said, noting that sales figures are expected to grow.
Hunters not discouraged by virus
And for now, the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t seems to be discouraging hunters. In fact, it may be that the opposite is true. Since spring, state officials have billed outdoor activities like hunting as safe alternatives to in-door recreation, which has largely been restricted or discouraged in an attempt to curb virus transmission.
Still, Lau said he couldn’t attribute this season’s license-buying increase wholly to COVID-19.
“We have not performed any analysis into what is driving this year’s increase,” Lau said. “COVID could play a role, however, there also was an increase last year, and analysis tied that increase to the move to a Saturday opener.”
Lau was talking about last year’s transition to opening firearms deer season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving — a departure from the longstanding tradition of opening the Monday after. In 2020, game officials will allow hunting this Sunday, too.
“That, and other changes such as a nearly week longer archery deer season, expanded bear seasons and Sunday hunting in general also could be, and perhaps likely are, behind the increase, as well,” Lau said.
Sharing the harvest
Officials at the state Department of Agriculture are encouraging hunters to keep the pandemic in mind. Specifically, they pointed to the economic impacts of virus-related business shutdowns and ongoing restrictions, which have translated to job losses.
As a result, officials said, the number of Pennsylvanians struggling to regularly fill their kitchens with food has grown to about 2 million.
They shared that number while encouraging donations of deer meat to Hunters Sharing the Harvest (sharedeer.org), a nonprofit that coordinates with local processors to distribute hunter-donated venison to local food banks.
“If you’ve got more than one tag, consider using your love for the sport to feed others,” Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said in a statement.
Barry Buhay, a Lancaster County coordinator for the nonprofit, called it “a great program” that has seen yearly success.
“I really don’t know what COVID is going to do it,” Buhay said of the organization’s push for donations. “You might have more hunters who want to keep the meat for themselves this year.”
That could be true as hunters fear a repeat of early pandemic breakdowns in the food supply chain, which left some grocery store shelves bare, he said.
So far, Bair said there haven’t been as many willing donors at his shop, which processes upward of 1,000 deer per year.
“I’m seeing less of that,” he said.
Last season, Pennsylvania hunters harvested the highest number of deer in 15 years — a total of 389,431 animals, or 4% more than the season before. Of those deer, 213,893 were taken by firearms hunters.
Harvest totals for this season likely won’t be released until next March, Lau said
At Hess’ Deer Processing, namesake owner Lloyd Hess said several hundred deer have already made it through his Willow Street shop, which only accepts deboned meat.
He predicted the busy firearms season will take that total up to the typical 1,500 animals he sees in a normal year.
Hess shared those thoughts earlier this month, just minutes before a shift in his butcher shop, where he transforms deer meat into products like kielbasa and scrapple.
But first, he wished for good, hunter-friendly weather this weekend.
“The weather has a big effect on what we do in this business,” Hess said.
Forecasts for both today and Sunday call for clear skies and high temperatures in the 50s in the Lancaster area, according to the National Weather Service.
Hunters, I’ll be covering the opening day of firearms season and would love to hear how your hunt goes. Send photos and details about your day to [email protected].