Mid-Atlantic Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Here's a close-up look at where trophy deer were taken last season in New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware, with insights on likely places to hunt this year as well. (November 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

As important as deer-management issues are in the total scope of things, nothing stirs the soul of the most deer hunters more than a trophy buck. How many of us have sat on a stand, visualizing a buck of a lifetime coming into view? How many of us have actually realized that dream?

While most of us aren't going to bag a Boone and Crockett-caliber buck, modern deer management does work in favor of taking a nice buck.

The emphasis on harvesting antlerless deer takes a bit of the pressure off bucks, giving a larger percentage the chance to live an extra year or two. And with the good habitat found in many areas of the region, it's not surprising that more bucks are now growing impressive headgear.

Deer managers say three elements are needed to produce the kind of trophy bucks that make the record books. Productive habitat, good genetics and age structure are all required. In our region, most often the limiting factor is age. Many 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. But most of the bucks we take are less than 2 years old. The best habitat and genetics won't lead to mature trophy deer if they don't live long enough.

What factors lead to older age-class deer? For one, hunting regulations up the odds that a buck lives that extra year or two. Regulations favoring the taking of antlerless deer also come into play. So do antler restrictions, though results vary in just how effective this limitation is in producing better bucks.

What follows is a three-state look at taking a better-than-average buck this season.

MARYLAND

According to Doug Hotton, Maryland Department of 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," stated Hotton. 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, said Hotton, is the requirement that hunters take two antlerless deer before they may harvest a second buck. This change not initiate a shift in deer harvest more heavily weighted toward doe harvest, but it also changed the philosophies of many hunters.

"The effects of the regulatory changes have been twofold," said Hotton. "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 more choosey 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 in 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, since hunting days have been reduced --temporarily, at least -- in this one-buck zone.

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," noted Hotton. "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 in the areas Hotton suggested include Kent, Cecil, Queen Annes, Talbot and Baltimore.

He said the agency hasn't done the research to tie the connection of suburban deer populations to older age-class deer, but feels there is good potential in such areas to down an exceptional buck -- especially for bowhunters. Whenever hunting opportunities are limited, such as by development, the chances increase for deer to live longer.

For example, Hotton cited 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," noted Hotton.

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 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. Because the reduction of deer densities is typically directed toward the antlerless segment of the population, this can also benefit the 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.

The study is not yet complete, but the results at this point do not suggest that antler restrictions are having their desired effect.

According to Carole Kandoth, 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. Inasmuch as hunting can be controlled, unlike natural events such as the annual mast production, the idea is to see how the regulation affects the quality of bucks being produced. The ant

ler restriction requires that bucks taken from certain zones have at least three points on one side of their rack.

Kandoth noted that after having been in use in select deer management zones (DMZs) for about eight years, the antler restriction doesn't appear to be having the desired effect of producing older larger-racked bucks. Earlier this year, a change was made in this regard, with the elimination of the antler restriction in Deer Management Zone 6.

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.

When asked if any particular public areas stand out in their ability to produce older deer, she stated many of New Jersey's public areas have trophy potential.

"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 have not made the adjustment in their hunting tactics."

Kandoth is referring to 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 hunters 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."

The Garden State Deer Classic, held each year to celebrate the largest bucks taken in the state, serves as a good example of the quality of bucks out there, as well as areas where they exist. The Classic includes not only bucks, but large does as well (135-pound does or better in the archery, muzzleloader and shotgun categories). The 2006 Classic dealt with deer harvested during the 2004-05 season.

Not surprising, Hunterdon County had a strong showing, with seven entries from the total of 24.

Salem County had six entries. Somerset, Cumberland and Warren also had multiple entries.

The top two non-typical bucks came from the shotgun and muzzleloader categories. Jeff Norton used a shotgun to down his Salem County buck, which scored 160 5/8. Burlington County was the site of Peter Bell's 152 7/8-inch muzzleloader kill.

The best archery non-typical was a 147 1/8-inch Salem County buck harvested by H. Russell Hiles. The top typical buck was an exceptional shotgun kill by James Porcelli. That Monmouth County buck scored 175 7/8. The top muzzleloader typical was a 151 4/8-inch buck bagged in Warren County by William Hill.

Eugene Donato took the top typical archery buck, a 146-inch Cumberland County buck.

Exceptionally heavy bucks included three 200-pound-plus archery kills. The No. 1 heavyweight tipped the scale at 223 pounds.

Dan Deveney bagged that brute in Hunterdon County. A 205-pound buck was arrowed in Salem County by Eric S. Price. Gary W. Mood was also in Salem County when he downed a 203-pound buck.

DELAWARE

Though Delaware might be small, size-wise, it's large in being able to grow exceptional bucks. Over the past two decades or so, the state's whitetail population has increased dramatically. And so has hunters' attention.

Consider a few of the bucks taken in recent years. Two of the top all-time typical whitetails were taken within the past four or five years.

In October of 2006, Neal Dukes used a muzzleloader to harvest the No. 2 all-time typical whitetail, a monster that measured 182 inches. Dukes' buck, taken in New Castle County, is the No. 1 muzzleloader typical.

In November of 2004, Steven Cardano bagged the No. 6 all-time buck. Taken in Sussex County, the Cardano buck measured 173 inches. It is the No. 2 all-time buck on the muzzleloader/typical list.

A 167 7/8-inch buck taken in November of 2002 by Jimmy Warren stands as the No. 12 all-time typical. Warren used a shotgun to bag the Kent County buck.

The list of all-time non-typicals shows plenty of recent activity. The top three non-typical bucks were harvested over the past four years. Two years ago, Keith Lee bagged the No. 1 buck, a Sussex County monster that measured 208 1/8. Jeff Foskey took the No. 2 non-typical in November of 2003 -- a Sussex County buck that measured 202 3/8.

Kent County produced the No. 3 all-time non-typical, a buck that scored 197, bagged in November of 2003 by Robert Reeves Jr.

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

"About 60 to 65 percent of the bucks taken are yearlings," noted the biologist. 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 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," noted Reynolds. Among these is the availability of quality buck tags. Recently, the state refined the system to offer hunters their choice of quality buck tags.

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 lands. He noted, too, that many of the state's public hunting areas include wetlands. Swampy areas provide bucks a sanctuary from hunting pressure, which equates to 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, hunters must take a doe before they may 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 suggested keying in on the marshy areas of Kent and Sussex counties located near Delaware Bay.

Public areas such as Little Creek and the 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.

Deer-hunting regulations, due to 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.

Find more about Mid-Atlantic fishing and hunting at: MidAtlanticGameandFish.com

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