Georgia's 2008 Deer Update -- Part 1: Our Best Hunting Areas

Georgia's 2008 Deer Update -- Part 1: Our Best Hunting Areas

Deer can be found in every part of the Peach State, but some areas produce far more whitetails than do others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a deer this fall.

Deer can be found all across Georgia, from the hustle and bustle of Georgia's largest urban areas to the most remote corner of a North Georgia mountaintop or South Georgia swamp. However, some areas merit hunters' special attention. Those may be consistent producers year after year, or may offer opportunities overlooked by most.

Let's draw a thumbnail sketch of what Georgia deer hunters can expect this upcoming season.

It's hard to appreciate where you're going unless you know where you've been. Whitetail deer management in Georgia has been a huge success story. It wasn't so long ago that even sighting a deer was a rare event, but with reintroduction efforts and modern game management techniques, things began to improve to the point that in 1970, Georgia deer hunters were putting in an average of 41 days to harvest a deer. The herd continued to grow and by 2001, that number had declined to a mere 13 days.

Charlie Killmaster is a Wildlife Resources Division wildlife biologist tasked with keeping up with the status of deer statewide. "The number of deer hunters and the deer harvest are starting to stabilize after decreasing over the last few years," he said. "The deer population peaked statewide in the mid-to-late 1990s at approximately 1.4 million, higher than any point in history. As the number of deer peaked, so did the number of deer hunters. An estimated 510,000 hunters were taking to the woods during the peak. As the deer population has been brought down to a more reasonable level, hunter numbers responded accordingly as the more casual deer hunters dropped out.

"What we have now is a reasonable deer population density and a more quality herd through a combination of voluntary restraint among hunters protecting young bucks, statewide antler restrictions, and widespread acceptance of quality deer management.

"My predictions for the future," he continued, "are that hunter numbers will stabilize at some point, as will the deer herd on hunted lands. Non-hunted properties, especially urban and suburban areas, will continue to have overabundance issues, but will hopefully have fewer problems as deer management education increases in these areas. I expect the quality of the herd to increase for a few more years and then stabilize as more hunters take an interest in quality management and education about proper quality management increases."

Georgia is a large state with diverse habitats, so comparing the deer hunting in the North Georgia mountains and that in South Georgia's river bottoms is as mistaken as comparing apples and oranges. To make the task easier, let's break down the state following the seven WRD Game Management geographical regions.

REGION 1
Region 1 covers northwest Georgia. Included in this region are the Ridge and Valley, the western edge of the Blue Ridge, and the Piedmont geophysical regions. There is some pretty good deer habitat in that mix, but a whole lot of people too, which means more competition from other hunters.

The state-managed wildlife management areas in this region offer some good hunting, along with some national forest land outside of the WMA system.

Two WMAs that have a proven track record of producing deer in the Ridge and Valley are Berry College WMA in Floyd County and Crockford-Pigeon Mountain WMA in Walker County. Berry College firearms hunters had an 18 percent success ratio last season and hunters at Crockford-Pigeon Mountain had an 11 percent firearms success rate.

Down in the Piedmont area of Region 1, hunters at Paulding Forest WMA enjoyed an 8 percent firearms success rate on this very popular tract near Dallas in Paulding County. Moving from the Piedmont up into the Blue Ridge, the Cohutta WMA in Fannin, Gilmer and Murray counties offers tough, but rewarding mountain hunting. Firearm hunters had just a 3 percent success rate last season --respectable, given the rough terrain and reduced numbers of deer in the mountain habitat.

In general, hunters in this part of the state expect to see more deer in the more-developed areas at lower elevations and few deer higher up, where the deer depend solely on what Mother Nature chooses to deliver in terms of the mast crop.

REGION 2
To the east is Region 2, the heart of the Georgia mountains, but taking in some northern Piedmont counties as well. Wildlife biologist Kevin Lowrey expects things to be looking up this season.

"I think hunter success will increase if we get a normal mast year," he said. "For example, Lake Russell and Dawson Forest WMAs were way off of their average harvest this past season due to zero available mast and poor weather during the hunts. I think these areas carried over a lot of deer and that will show in the harvest this fall. Also, I think hunter numbers will be down, with gas prices what they are. That may mean overall harvest numbers may decrease somewhat with fewer hunters in the woods.

"Barrow, Madison, and Hart counties in the Piedmont are our best for overall success rates. However, there is very little public land in those counties, so it may take some work to find somewhere to hunt.

"Our top three WMAs for overall success most years are Lake Russell, Dawson Forest, and Coopers Creek for numbers of deer. All of these WMAs have a proven track record."

Lowrey offered some other advice for mountain hunting. "Hunters should keep in mind that people make the hunt in the mountains," he said. "The remote nature of these areas means that the more hunters you have moving in the woods, the more deer get harvested. These tracts are so vast that it takes a lot of people to get the game up and moving. When it comes to hunting on these large tracts of public land, years when turnout is low, so is harvest. The opposite is true when you get a great turnout."

Lowrey had a tip on an up-and-comer area, too. "Wilson Shoals WMA is in Banks County," the biologist noted. "Last year was the first year of a new season structure there. We felt the small 2,800-acre area was getting too much pressure, so we changed the seasons around a little to more archery and fewer firearms either-sex days to reduce the harvest a little. Coinciding with the change in season structure is an effort to improve habitat. We planted 70 acres of shortleaf pines this year with plans to plant 200 more, and we thinned about 100 acres

to create more early succession habitat and improve food and cover for the deer."

REGION 3
Spanning nearly the whole state from east to west in its upper half, this region includes a lot of good deer habitat. Senior wildlife biologist I.B. Parnell has several tips on the upcoming season.

"The deer herd in most of our counties remains stable," he said. "Based on the weather this spring, we should have a good mast crop come fall. I predict the upcoming season will be about like last season, maybe a little better.

"It's hard to predict though since so much depends on the weather during the peak hunting times of opening weekend, Thanksgiving, and Christmas," he went on to caution. "If we get good hunting weather and good numbers of hunters in the woods, we should have a good year.

"The best counties for overall success in Region 3 are Burke, Washington, and Wilkes. Our best WMAs are the 8,100-acre Di-Lane in Burke County, which had a 19 percent success ratio last year; the 1,700-acre Big Dukes Pond WMA in Jenkins County, with a 14 percent success rate; and the 4,800-acre Oconee WMA in Greene County, which had a 13 percent success ratio."

Parnell also offered local knowledge that hunters in this part of the state may want to consider. "Both Di-Lane and Tuckahoe WMAs are underutilized by hunters," he said. "We've improved the facilities at both of them in the last year by constructing a bathhouse, so hunters might want to give them a try this season."

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BEST BET WMAs FOR 2008

LocatorWMADMUAcres
1.Berry College2 15,585
2. B.F. Grant 512,000
3.Bullard Creek 813,900
4.Cedar Creek 540,570
5.Chickasawhatchee6 19,700
6.Cohutta 196,530
7.Coopers Creek 130,000
8.Crockford-Pigeon Mountian 2 16,386
9.Dawson Forest 2 25,000
10.Di-Lane 7 8,100
11.Dixon Memorial 9 36,100
12.Flint River 4 2,300
13. Horse Creek 8 8,100
14.Lake Russell 2 17,300
15.Oconee 5 4,800
16. Ossabaw Island 9 9,000
17. Paulding Forest 2 25,707
18.River Creek 62,437
19. Sapelo Island 9 9,000

REGION 4
Region 4 is in west central Georgia and is the region Charlie Killmaster calls home.

"The Region 4 deer herd is doing well," Killmaster said. "Most areas have very reasonable deer densities. However, there are a few that are still overabundant and even a few that have been slightly over harvested. The mast crop last season was spotty -- exceptional in some areas and a complete failure in others.

"This season shoul

d be good," Killmaster offered. "The population is lower in some areas than it has been in the last few years, a result of widespread quality deer management and the willingness of hunters to harvest does. This is actually a good thing though; populations are now at a healthier level."

The region has some good public lands available.

"The best WMAs in our region for overall success are B.F. Grant and Cedar Creek in Putnam County and Joe Kurz WMA in Meriwether County," the biologist pointed out. "B.F. Grant had a firearms success ratio of 11 percent last season, Cedar Creek had 17 percent, and Joe Kurz 28 percent.

"Archery hunters have some real opportunity in Region 4," Killmaster also suggested. "After firearms season opens, the Archery-Only areas turn into ghost towns. For bowhunters who stick it out, they have Berry Creek on Rum Creek WMA, Sprewell Bluff Natural Area, Fall Line Sandhills Natural Area, Standing Boy Creek State Park, Dixie Creek on West Point WMA, and Gum Swamp Creek on Ocmulgee WMA virtually all to themselves. Fall Line Sandhills Natural Area is brand new too, 876 acres of archery hunting in Taylor County."

REGION 5
In this region covering southwest Georgia, wildlife biologist Julie Robbins keeps tabs on the deer population. "The deer herd in Region 5 is stable overall," Robbins said. "Some counties in the northern portion of the region have seen declines in deer densities over the past 10 years -- Stewart County in particular -- where others have seen stable to slightly increasing deer herds. Declines in deer numbers can be attributed to increased hunting pressure, changes in the landscape, and possibly other factors such as predation from coyotes and domestic dogs, as well as competition with feral hogs."

Based on reported hunt numbers, WMAs that you might want to look at closely in Region 5 are Chickasawhatchee, to the southwest of Albany, with a firearms success ratio of 17 percent, and the quota hunts at Flint River WMA in Dooly County and River Creek WMA near Thomasville.

Robbins also wanted to alert hunters about a new opportunity in Region 5. "The 9,000-plus-acre Silver Lake WMA in Decatur County will be open for hunting this year," she said. "This area includes the newly-acquired Silver Lake and Hog Farm Tracts which are part of International Paper's Southlands Experimental Forest, as well as about 1,000 acres of what used to be part of Lake Seminole WMA.

"Plans are for the area to offer either-sex archery and primitive weapons hunts, two quota hunts, and two buck-only firearm hunts. The projected deer density is 15 to 20 per square mile. The area is a mix of open longleaf pine stands, industrial forest stands, and hardwood drains and should be good hunting."

REGION 6
Region 6 covers southeast Georgia on the coastal plain. The Altamaha River cuts through the region and its extensive bottoms are good deer habitat. Several large WMAs offer hunters plenty of room in which to spread out.

Bullard Creek WMA provides 13,900 acres of public-land hunting on the Altamaha River near Hazelhurst. Another Altamaha River tract, 8,100-acre Horse Creek WMA west of Hazelhurst, isn't quite a true river bottom, but is proper lowland nonetheless. Another WMA that hunters may want to take into consideration is Dixon Memorial WMA just south of Waycross near the Okefenokee Swamp.

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BEST BET WMAs FOR 2008

WMADMU
Hart2
Barrow3
Madison5
Wilkes5
Marion6
Stewart6
Burke7
Washington7
Camden9
McIntosh9
Wayne9

REGION 7
In Region 7, on the Georgia coast, senior wildlife biologist Brooks Good had advice to offer hunters. "The deer herd in the coastal region is in good shape," he said, "and continues to offer hunters high percentage hunting opportunities. This past season's mast crop was good to excellent throughout the coastal plain and provided a viable food source for deer late into the season. Getting some rain this spring was encouraging and as long as the summer was not too dry, browse should be good going into fall.

"Our top counties in Region 7 on the Lower Coastal Plain are Wayne, McIntosh, and Camden. While deer on the coast tend to be smaller than their cousins in the Upper Coastal Plain and Piedmont, these counties still produce for hunters in good numbers.

"The best chance for harvesting a deer is on Sapelo and Ossabaw Islands," he continued. "Both of these barrier islands offer hunters a unique experience to hunt deer in some of the most beautiful maritime forest in the country."

As for new opportunities, Good had a couple of thoughts. "In 2006," he stated, "the state of Georgia purchased Clayhole Swamp WMA

in Glynn County and Penholoway Swamp WMA in Wayne County. These recent acquisitions have already produced some quality deer and should only get better as improvements continue to be made in wildlife habitat on the property. I would rate these as the up-and-coming WMAs on the coast."

SUMMING UP
No matter what part of the state is home to your hunting grounds, the Georgia deer herd is in great shape, and the upcoming season should be a good one. When selecting the area you want to hunt this year, you really can't go wrong: Georgia has good deer hunting everywhere you look. From the mountains to the coast, the seasons are changing -- and it's time to head to the woods.

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