Mid-Atlantic Deer Forecast Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Mid-Atlantic Deer Forecast Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

The best of times seems to be right now when it comes to finding (and harvesting) trophy deer in New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware. Here's the latest.

Photo by Billkenney.com

Few things in the hunting world garner the level of interest than trophy bucks. A walk past most any newsstand will reveal several publications aimed at trophy deer. Cable channels featuring outdoor programming rely heavily on the drawing power of deer hunting, big bucks in particular.

Indeed, there is something magical about exceptional bucks, particularly when the interaction takes place afield. Part two of our annual deer forecast will focus on the status of big bucks in the tri-state area, putting the odds on your side when it comes to making contact with a trophy buck this season.

The trophy aspect of a big buck is a relative thing, one based largely on the perspective of the individual. Some savvy hunters consider a mature doe a trophy, and rightfully so. Biologists tell us adult does have all the senses and level of wariness as their male counterparts, minus the impressive headgear. A 2 1/2-year-old buck can be a trophy deer in many areas, especially where the harvest of yearling bucks is heavy. One's point of view has a lot to do with the trophy element.

Deer managers feel three elements are needed to produce the kinds of trophy bucks that make the record books. Productive habitat, good genetics and age structure are all required to grow awe-inspiring bucks. The limiting factor in our area, most often, is age. Often bucks simply don't live long enough to grow exceptional antlers. A buck doesn't reach maturity until at least 4 1/2 years of age. Many are taken as yearlings or 2 1/2-year-olds. The best habitat and genetics won't lead to mature, trophy deer if they don't get to live long enough.

Larger public lands have areas that don't see a lot of hunting pressure, especially after the opening day of the firearms season. Suburban areas tend to have small wood lots that harbor trophy bucks, ones ripe for the taking by a hunter willing to do the homework and legwork necessary to gain access to such spots. Bowhunters, in particular, may find quality bucks via this scenario if they put forth the effort.

Recently I interviewed top deer managers from the tri-state region of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey to gather their thoughts on trophy buck hunting for the coming season. Here's a look at the big-buck picture for the soon-to-be-here 2006 deer seasons.

NEW JERSEY

Like many areas in the eastern United States, deer management in the Garden State is a complex one. Balancing the needs of society, available whitetail habitat and a thriving whitetail population is not an easy task, particularly in a state such as New Jersey where development is commonplace in many regions.

For several seasons now, one of the main focuses of New Jersey's deer program has been to reduce overall deer numbers in many areas of the state. As was pointed out in Part 1 of the "Deer Forecast," this is still the case. Since the reduction of deer densities typically is directed toward the antlerless segment of the population, this can be to the benefit of antlered deer.

New Jersey is also in the midst of an experimental multi-year program aimed at determining the value of antler restrictions in regard to creating more balanced deer populations. Though the study is not yet complete, at this point, the results have not suggested that antler restrictions are having their desired effect.

According to Carole Kandoth, a principal biologist for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife's (DFW) Deer Research Project, antler restrictions were established in some zones on an experimental basis to determine the regulation's effectiveness in producing older age-class deer. In that hunting can be controlled, unlike natural events, such as the annual mast production, the idea is to see the effect (of the regulation) on the quality of bucks being produced. The antler restriction requires that bucks taken from certain zones have at least 3 points on one side of the rack.

"The program is now in its sixth year," Kandoth said. "We have not seen a significant difference. It doesn't appear the regulation is equating into older age-class deer."

When the program is complete, Kandoth said researchers would tabulate the data and present the results to the hunters of New Jersey. At that point, determinations will be made in regard to future antler restrictions as part of the hunting regulations.

On a general scale, Kandoth said that while good bucks are taken from various areas of New Jersey, odds are better in the northern portion of the state.

"The agricultural areas tend to be the places that produce the highest numbers of big bucks," noted the biologist. She stated Morris County as a good example of an area with good potential for older age-class bucks.

When asked if there are any particular public areas that stand out in terms of having the ability to produce older deer, she said that many of New Jersey's public areas have trophy potential.

"Many New Jersey hunters became accustomed to seeing numerous 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."

What Kandoth is referring to is the fact that the majority of hunters don't venture too far into the woods, even on public areas. This allows tremendous trophy deer potential for the hunter who is willing to stretch his or her legs.

"Most hunters tend to drive around the perimeter of public areas, park and walk a short distance into the woods," she notes. "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."

Kandoth's statement that the northern portion of the state has the best trophy potential was backed up during the state's 2005 Garden State Deer Classic. The Classic is an annual event, held early each year, to celebrate the state's most outstanding deer and the hunters who took them.

Last season, northern New Jersey's Warren County produced the top typical and non-typical whitetails in the shotgun category. Charlie Barabas took the No. 1 typical shotgun kill with a 150 7/8-inch trophy from Deer Management Zone (DMZ) 5. James Novosel's 153 1/8-inch non-typical, also taken with a shotgun, came from DMZ 5 as well.

MARYLAND

According to Doug Hotton, Maryland Department o

f Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife and Heritage Division's top deer manager, the age structure of white-tailed deer in the Free State has been on the increase for several years.

"Back in 1998, in about two-thirds of the state, we went to a Quality Deer Management-style of deer management," Hotton said. The DNR carefully monitors deer harvest, sampling deer from check stations across the state during the opening days of the firearms season.

The biggest component of this deer management change, Hotton said, was the requirement that hunters take two antlerless deer before a second buck could be harvested. Not only did this change initiate a shift in deer harvest more heavily weighted toward doe harvest, it also changed the philosophies of many hunters.

"The effects of the regulatory changes have been two-fold," Hotton explained. "The harvest numbers of bucks have remained relatively consistent, while the numbers of antlerless deer taken has increased. Hunters have had to be more selective, too."

Hotton believes this selectivity has trained many hunters to be choosier in regard to the buck they take, rather than simply taking the first antlered buck that presents a shot. The agency has not used antler restrictions.

Maryland's deer populations are managed by way of two separate regions. Region A contains the western counties of Allegany and Garrett. Region B encompasses the remainder of the state. In general, Hotton said Region B provides the necessary ingredients for growing exceptional bucks. Region A's bucks may get a shot in the arm, though, as hunting days have been reduced, at least temporarily, in this one-buck zone.

NEW JERSEY'S TOP TROPHY DEER WINNERS*
Typical Shotgun
HunterCountyScore
Charlie BarabasWarren150 7/8
O. David HuebnerCamden150 2/8
Gordon GalfoMorris149 0/8
Non-Typical Shotgun
James C. NovoselWarren153 1/8
Edward CastelliWarren152 7/8
Joesph S. KucowskiBurlington145 2/8
Typical Archery
Larry D. HuntSalem155 5/8
Mark SpotoSomerset151 4/8
Gregory ZiolaMiddlesex145 4/8
Non-Typical Archery
Wayne DresslerSussex168 0/8
Karl BauerMonmouth158 5/8
Robert L. Bill Jr.Warren151 0/8
Typical Muzzleloader
Jeffery W. PenksaMiddlesex147 1/8
Louis Basciani Jr.Ocean141 7/8
Nick ScamuffaHunterdon133 6/8
Non-Typical Muzzleloader
Ron Keller Jr.Gloucester163 6/8
Warren S. Brown IIIAtlantic160 5/8
*This is the latest trophy listing available at press time.

According to Hotton, Maryland's best big-buck areas are ones that have the best habitat. This includes the counties in central Maryland as well as the upper Eastern Shore.

"This doesn't mean you can't get a big buck anywhere in the state," Hotton noted. "Big bucks show up every year from all areas. But the odds go to the counties where the habitat is best. In the central part of the state, as well as the northern potion of the Eastern Shore, you have very good soils. And good soils equate into good habitat."

The specific counties located in the areas Hotton suggested include Queen Anne's, Kent, Cecil, Talbot and Baltimore.

Results of the most recent Maryland Trophy Buck Contest verify Hotton's comments. The Trophy Buck Contest is held each year, and is co-sponsored by the DNR and the Maryland Bowhunters Society. In the typical whitetails taken with a firearm category, the No. 3 entry came from Baltimore County, while the No. 2 non-typical came from Carol County. Tim McQuaid's Baltimore County typical measured 158 6/8, while Steve Calp's non-typical checked in at 171 2/8. Though it wasn't entered in the Trophy Deer Contest, Walter Johnson of the Maryland Bowhunters' Society noted the 194-inch monster harvested by Kevin Miller set a new state record in the typical firearms category. This buck came from Kent County.

While Hotton said the agency hasn't done the research to tie the connection of suburban deer populations to older age-class deer, he feels it's a good bet there is good potential in such areas to down an exceptional buck, especially for bowhunters. Any time hunting opportunities are limited,

such as by development, chances exist for deer to live longer.

For example, Hotton noted the bowhunting found within the Prettyboy and Liberty reservoir properties.

"Though they are located in Baltimore County, and are open to the public, when you limit hunting to bows, you limit the effectiveness of the hunter. Some bucks will live an extra year or two," Hotton said.

DELAWARE

Though Delaware is small size-wise, it is large in its ability to grow exceptional bucks. The state's whitetail population has increased dramatically over the past two decades or so. As such, so have hunting attention and philosophies.

According to wildlife biologist Ken Reynolds of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, in recent years the agency has witnessed a trend of hunters taking the first available buck.

"About 60 percent to 65 percent of the bucks taken are yearlings," the biologist noted. Still, 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 even 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 buck harvest," Reynolds said. "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 be harvested."

MARYLAND'S TOP TROPHY DEER WINNERS*
Typical Firearms
HunterCountyScore
Tom WagnerAnne Arundel169 5/8
John EstepPrince Georges159 3/8
Tim McQuaid IIIBaltimore158 0/8
Non-Typical Firearms
Michael LawhornWicomico214 3/8
Steve CalpCarroll171 2/8
Kevin HoefsFrederick150 7/8
Typical Archery
Jeff HarrisonMontgomery161 3/8
James GuntherBaltimore158 3/8
Stephen PeachFrederick155 4/8
Typical Muzzleloader
Charles SimmonsBaltimore151 1/8
Brad SeissFrederick149 3/8
Brian BallAnne Arundel120 5/8
Non-Typical Muzzleloader
Keith UpdikeDorchester180 0/8
Clifton Thomas Jr.Prince Georges135 0/8
*This is the latest trophy listing available at press time.

Reynolds said the best opportunity for trophy bucks exists in the southern portion of the state. Areas such as Redden State Forest provide a significant amount of public land. He noted, 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 each have been known to produce impressive antlered bucks. In these parks, hunters must take a doe before they can harvest a buck. Many hunters are satisfied with a doe, leaving added potential for older bucks.

Bill Jones, another of the state agency's wildlife biologists, serves as an official scorer for the state's deer records. Jones said there is a good smattering of trophy bucks across the state. He suggests that hunters key in on the marshy areas of Kent and Sussex counties located near Delaware Bay. Public areas, such as Little Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and the Norman G. Wilder WMA, 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, is more urbanized," Jones stated. "Access is tough there."

Jones said work has been done to educate hunters and landowners on the value of QDM practices. He believes in the future there will be 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," Jones said.

Deer hunting regulations, because of the complexity of the management strategies, are often detailed. Be sure to carefully review the latest rules and regulations before taking to the woods this fall.

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