When one ponders the suburban Atlanta counties of DeKalb, Gwinnett and Rockdale, typical images include shopping centers, subdivisions and sprawling arteries of asphalt and concrete. But amid all this development are strips and patches of woods that contain whitetail deer, and many of them are handsome trophies.
Photo courtesy of Lee Johnson.
In fact, since the turn of the century, numerous trophy whitetail bucks have come from these suburban counties, taken by savvy hunters who know where and how to hunt the elusive urban whitetails.
Georgia Sportsman, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association co-sponsor the Georgia Big Deer Contest every year. Outstanding bucks taken in the state the previous season are tallied and awards are given to the top-scoring antlers. The bucks are scored according to the Boone and Crockett and the Pope and Young clubs’ scoring systems.
Every year, there are big bucks taken from suburban Atlanta environs, including these three counties from the east side. Since 2000, there have been 24 bucks that have met the minimum score for the contest. Archery-killed bucks must score 120 P&Y points and gun-killed bucks need to top 145 B&C points to qualify.
The contest recognizes the top entrants by gun and bow in typical and non-typical categories. Since 2003, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Rockdale counties have had the top buck in at least one category every year.
In 2003, the largest buck taken by gun was a beast from Gwinnett County. The buck scored 176 1/8 B&C and was taken by Duane Sudderth of Buford. That buck qualified for the B&C all-time record book.
The following year, Taylor McCann arrowed a whopper whitetail in DeKalb County that claimed the non-typical archery category award. His 174 7/8-inch monster was taken early in September of that year and was the highest scoring buck in the state.
The 2008 deer season produced two category-winning bucks from these east Atlanta counties. DeKalb County claimed the top spot in the Non-Typical Archery category with Rusty Osborne’s 187 4/8 brute.
But the crown jewel was taken in Rockdale County. Devin Key of Stockbridge was hunting in the rain on Oct. 24 when he spotted a giant whitetail with a bushel of points on its head. Key put it down with a well-placed shot with his 12-gauge shotgun.
The 24-point buck’s rack has back-sweeping drop tines on its non-typical frame. Key’s Rockdale buck scored a whopping 211 5/8 B&C points placing it in the top 10 all-time in Georgia buck history. Racks bearing in excess of 200 inches of antler are rare in the Peach State, with fewer than 20 ever having been taken in Georgia.
Last season not only produced Key’s mega-buck, but there were six others from these counties entered in the contest. Gwinnett County produced a 149 2/8-inch firearms buck for Dustin Ledford and a 146 3/8 bow kill for Jerry Mann. DeKalb bow hunter Terry Garmon entered a 142 2/8 monster, Brian Mitchell arrowed a 137 2/8 whopper, and David Sherrill bagged a buck scoring 134 4/8.
I also bow-killed a 122 2/8-inch DeKalb buck that qualified for the competition, but did not enter it. My 9-pointer was shot from the ground in a privet thicket at 12 yards.
Along with Duane Sudderth’s giant Gwinnett buck in 2004, there were three others scoring in the 150s taken that season in the east Atlanta tri-county area. Additionally, Eric Sanders of Covington bagged a 152 6/8 B&C buck in Rockdale in 2000.
DeKalb County is open only to archery hunting during the entire season. Gwinnett and Rockdale allow firearms hunting during their respective seasons. Firearms hunting is restricted in that the hunter must be certain distances from roads and houses, meaning there are some areas where a gun simply cannot be used.
Why So Good?
So why do these three metro counties produce big bucks?
“Suburban areas tend to produce some good deer,” said Georgia Wildlife Resources Division Wildlife Biologist Charlie Killmaster. “This is because of the older age structure and lack of hunting.”
Also, archery hunters typically do not have the success rates of gun hunters since they have to wait for a closer shot opportunity. Lower hunter success translates to more deer surviving to the next season.
The terrain of suburban areas is not considered natural habitat, according to Killmaster.
“It’s extremely nutritious and fertilized,” he said of the habitat. “It’s like a huge food plot for the deer. They are feeding on lawns and gardens. The woods are restricted to small green spaces and strips between houses. A large portion of their diet is around houses.”
The WRD keeps data statewide broken down by deer management units, instead of individual counties. Gwinnett, DeKalb and Rockdale are in DMU 3, which also includes Douglas, Cobb, Fulton, Clayton, Walton and Barrow counties. Killmaster said that there are an estimated 34 deer per square mile and 965 square miles of forested acres in DMU 3.
“Urban areas tend to harbor higher deer densities because of the lack of hunting and the limitation of archery hunting,” Killmaster revealed.
The WRD estimates that there are 32,285 deer in DMU 3, and many of those whitetails inhabit Gwinnett, DeKalb and Rockdale counties.
Killmaster expects the deer hunting to be roughly the same in the coming year. The increase in rain this past spring should have helped the local forage by enhancing the quality of the habitat. The downturn in the economy has also reduced development and home construction, which clears forests and eliminates habitat.
Finding a pocket of the right habitat and getting permission to hunt there is the key to the action.
“The quality of the hunting can be dramatically different than a couple miles down the road,” Killmaster noted.
Lee Johnson of Lithonia is a hunter who has grown up in this area and frequently hunts DeKalb and Rockdale counties. Johnson has taken two P&Y qualifying racks. His son, Johnny, has downed a 147 2/8 P&
Y beast in DeKalb also.
“I hunt the waterways, creeks and the river corridors that meander through subdivisions,” Johnson described.
The bowhunter keys on the undeveloped floodplains, privet hedge thickets and anything that looks like a funnel directing deer toward his stand.
The 54-year-old hunter has been strictly bowhunting for the last 25 years. Over the years, Johnson has seen changes in the land areas with the woods getting smaller because of development.
“The bucks are easier to get on because they are restricted to skinnier areas now,” Johnson noted.
Another east metro bowhunter is Larry Chestnut, who bagged an 11-point Rockdale County bruiser in 2004 that scored 129 2/8 P&Y. Chestnut had hunted the buck for three years before arrowing him near an acorn-producing white oak tree in late September.
“I look for food sources and a rub line and try to get as close to the bedding area as I can,” Chestnut noted. “I like to backtrack to the bedding area and set up as quietly as I can.”
Gwinnett and Rockdale counties have the same deer-hunting seasons as other counties in the northern section of the state. DeKalb’s archery-only action differs in that it runs the entire season from the opening of bow season on through the special extended bow season to the end of January. There is no public-land hunting in these three counties, so you must find your own land. Researching landowner records and making contact with holders of woodlands is the only way to obtain permission to hunt.
But if you do get access to suburban hunting lands, there’s a good chance a trophy buck will cross paths with you this fall.