Last month, in Part 1 of our annual Mid-Atlantic Deer Forecast, we looked at the overall white-tailed deer situation in each of the three states that make up the region.
The objective was to paint an accurate picture on the current deer-management situation in each state, and to offer up a game plan: What areas with public access provide the best options to take a deer . . . or two?
If putting venison in the freezer was the slant of last month’s feature, this one is geared toward putting a trophy on the wall. While the term “trophy” may vary according to the eye of the beholder, here we are considering an older age-class buck, one that’s grown an extra year or two at least beyond the age of the yearling bucks so often taken in many areas.
Deer management is an ever-evolving process. The basic premise of most plans is to manage deer within the available habitat, but it’s not that simple. Many social and political issues come into play. Agricultural and forestry folks may feel an “adequate” number of deer is far fewer than what sportsmen feel is proper. Suburbanites who find deer browsing on their expensive shrubbery quickly form opinions too.
Modern deer-management plans attempt to address not only the balancing act between deer and habitat, but must also take into consideration the views of the various camps that deer populations affect.
Antler restrictions are yet another aspect of deer management closely tied to trophy buck hunting. Some states have tried some form of antler restriction in an attempt to allow bucks to live longer, and hence grow larger racks.
Philosophies vary from state to state, as do types of antler restrictions in the states that use them. Points-per-side is one form of antler restriction. Minimum spread width is another.
New Jersey has established point-per-side antler restrictions in a few of its deer-management zones, but has yet to see a substantial increase in the age structure of bucks.
Delaware’s Quality Buck Tag is another example of an effort to increase the numbers of older bucks. The Quality Buck Tag allows the harvest of a buck with a minimum spread of at least 15 inches, which can be gauged in the field by a rack that extends beyond the animal’s ears. Such tags allow the harvest of additional bucks without putting more pressure on yearling bucks.
While public lands tend to be pressured much more than private lands, the quest of putting venison on the table is still a very viable option on most public spots. But for trophy hunting, the odds are much better for the sportsman who has access to private land — for the obvious reason that bucks in such areas tend to live longer.
That’s not to say that big public-land bucks don’t exist, however. With fair regularity, large bucks come from places open to the general public. Often such areas feature lots of acreage and/or tough cover. Many hunters won’t venture more than a few hundred yards from a road, so places where you can “get back in,” away from the crowds, will offer deer a bit of a sanctuary.
With all this in mind, let’s take a more specific look at the trophy buck component of deer hunting in the Mid-Atlantic region.
According to Maryland Deer Project leader Doug Hotton, hunters who are looking to shoot big bucks should zero in on those portions of the state offering the best habitat. In Maryland, this includes the northern reaches of the Eastern Shore as well as central Maryland.
“The best habitat is found where there are the most productive soils,” said Hotton. “These soils produce the better vegetation. Naturally this equates to a premium food source for deer, which is necessary to grow big bucks with big racks.”
Hotton notes, too, that hunting pressure, as well as deer numbers, is a significant component of the Maryland big-buck picture.
“Reduced hunting pressure is obviously a factor,” he said. “Private land will have the edge in producing big bucks, but we have some good public lands that are located in prime big-buck areas of the state. You can’t count these public areas out in terms of their ability to produce big bucks.”
But the other important factor to consider, he says, is lower overall deer numbers.
“The places that produce the biggest bucks won’t have the highest deer densities. Too many deer means too much competition for food. You’ll find the biggest bucks where they don’t have to compete for food.”
Hotton notes that in recent years, the biggest bucks have come from counties such as Kent County, which produced the current record typical whitetail, one that scored 194 0/8, taken by Kevin Miller. Talbot County has also produced some monster bucks in recent years. Interestingly, only in the past 20 years or so has whitetail hunting been much of a pastime in this area, one that has a rich Canada goose-hunting tradition. During a time when goose numbers were down, hunters began to take notice of the deer-hunting opportunities, particularly for trophy bucks.
The central portion of the state also produces some outstanding bucks. Hotton said Montgomery County is a major player in this regard, as is Baltimore County. As one might expect in these developed counties, one component of this is the limited hunting pressure Hotton mentioned.
In regard to Eastern Shore public areas, choices include Millington and Sassafras wildlife management areas (WMAs) in Kent County. Both of these WMAs feature deer hunts during the shotgun, muzzleloader and bow seasons. Daily signups are required at both WMAs.
Wye Island NRMA, in Queen Anne’s County, offers 2,500 acres to hunt on. Various deer hunts are available on Wye Island, including shotgun, muzzleloader and bow hunts. Call (410) 827-7577 for additional information on Wye Island.
In Montgomery County, hunters will find the McKee-Beshers WMA, which boasts 1,947 acres. The best public-land bets for Baltimore County can be found on the Prettyboy and Liberty reservoir properties. These are bows-only hunts that require obtaining a permit. Though these two areas receive hunting pressure, due to the limited effectiveness of a bow (as compared to a rifle or shotgun), some bucks live longer lives.
Hotton also notes the overall health of the herd has improved over the last few years, mainly due to a deer-management plan that has emphasized
the taking of does over bucks. Antlerless harvests have increased, while buck harvests have remained stable, or even dropped slightly. He said hunters have become more selective in the deer they harvest, meaning that they’re passing up more yearling bucks.
Maryland has no antler restrictions in place at this time.
According to Carole Kandoth, the biologist who heads up the New Jersey Division of Wildlife’s (DFW) deer management program, the real key to bagging a trophy buck in the Garden State is knocking on doors.
“Some 97 percent of our state is privately owned,” she said. “The hunters who are most serious about taking a trophy buck are the ones who do their homework, and who make the effort to access the private lands that provide sanctuary for bucks to get older.”
Kandoth calls the places where big bucks tend to be found “refuge properties.” Such areas have limited hunting pressure, and as already pointed out, this is a significant component of the big buck picture. The agricultural portions of the state tend to produce the biggest bucks.
Taking a look at the entries in last year’s Garden State Deer Classic, it’s not surprising that counties like Hunterdon and Salem consistently show up. Both counties have a history of producing big bucks as well as large, mature does. The No. 2 (taken by Dan Deveney) and No. 3 (taken by Joe Buchanan) typical archery bucks came from Hunterdon County, scoring 144 2/8 and 143 2/8 respectively. Last season, Eugene Donato took the top typical archery buck from Cumberland County. It scored 146 0/8.
The top non-typical archery buck came from Salem County. Bagged by H. Russell Hiles, it scored 147 1/8. James Mandaglio arrowed the No. 3 non-typical in Hunterdon County, one that scored 138 2/8. The No. 2 non-typical bow kill came from Somerset County, a 146 1/8-inch buck bagged by Paul Fenwick. Hunterdon County also registered the No. 3 typical muzzleloader kill, a 137 7/8-inch buck harvested by Steven Fodor.
Amel Balega Jr. dropped the No. 1 buck entered in the typical crossbow/physically challenged category with a buck that scored 134 0/8, also from Hunterdon County.
Salem County produced the No. 2 typical muzzleloader buck, a 140 7/8-inch trophy dropped by Mark Humphreys. Harry Lombardo Jr. took his 143 4/8-inch No. 2 typical/shotgun buck in Salem County. The county also produced the No. 1 non-typical shotgun buck, a 160 5/8-inch trophy bagged by Jeff Norton.
Salem and Hunterdon counties also figured prominently in the 200-pound buck/archery slot.
While the odds favor the private-land hunter, that’s not to say big bucks don’t exist on public lands.
“Many New Jersey hunters became accustomed to seeing lots of deer during the days when deer populations were high,” she said. “Now that deer numbers have been brought down to more reasonable levels, many hunters have not made the adjustment in their hunting tactics.”
Kandoth is referring to the fact that even on public areas, the majority of hunters don’t venture too far into the woods. This allows tremendous trophy potential for those hunters who are willing to stretch their legs.
“Most hunters tend to drive around the perimeter of public areas, park, and walk a short distance into the woods,” she noted. “The interior of many public areas harbor older age-class deer that see little in the way of hunting pressure. If you want to kill an older buck, you need to hike in.”
Antler restrictions have been in place in New Jersey for several years, though at this time they don’t seem to be having a significant impact on the age-class of the deer found there.
For its size, Delaware packs a lot of punch for the deer hunter, both in terms of numbers of deer and their size. It also has a significant amount of public land. Though much of the public land provides waterfowling opportunities, there are also plenty of surrounding lands of importance to the deer hunter.
According to wildlife biologist Ken Reynolds of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources, in recent years the agency has witnessed a trend of hunters taking the first buck that’s available.
“About 60 to 65 percent of the bucks taken are yearlings,” notes the biologist. Yet with the availability of excellent habitat throughout the state — as well as situations that allow a few bucks to fall through the cracks each year — some real trophies are taken. Some come from public lands. Recent regulatory changes as well as education programs provide hope of more big bucks in the future.
“We’ve made a few changes in an effort to cut down on the total buck harvest,” notes Reynolds. “General hunting licenses no longer have a buck tag. A buck tag must be purchased separately. Quality buck tags are also available, ones that require a buck to have a spread of at least 15 inches to harvest.”
Reynolds said the best opportunity for trophy bucks exists in the southern portion of the state. Areas such as Redden State Forest provide significant amounts of public land. He notes, too, that many of the state’s public hunting areas include wetlands. Swampy areas provide bucks a sanctuary from hunting pressure that equates into older deer.
In the northern portion of the state, two state parks offer shotgun deer hunting on a lottery basis. Brandywine and White Clay state parks have each been known to produce impressive antlered bucks. In these parks, you must take a doe before you may harvest a buck. Many hunters are satisfied with their doe, leaving added potential for older bucks.
Biologist Joe Rogerson suggests Cedar Swamp Wildlife Management Area as a good public area for finding larger bucks. Cedar Swamp is being managed as a quality deer area.
Bill Jones, another of the state agency’s wildlife biologists, serves as an official scorer for the state’s deer records. Jones said there’s a good smattering of trophy bucks across the state. He suggested hunters key in on the marshy areas of Kent and Sussex counties located near Delaware Bay.
Public areas such as Little Creek and Norman G. Wilder WMAs have produced very large bucks in recent years. These two counties are also rich in agricultural areas and have large blocks of timber.
“New Castle County, in northern Delaware, in more urbanized,” noted Jones. “Access is tough there.”
He said work has been done to educate hunters and landowners on the value of quality deer-management practices. He believes that the future will see a trend toward hunters passing up smaller bucks.
“With the excellent habitat we have, even 3 1/2-year-old bucks are impressive in Delaware,” said Jones.
Due to the complexity of management strategies, deer-hunting regulations are often detailed. Be sure to carefully review the latest rules and regula
tions before taking to the woods this fall.