Georgia's 2009 Deer Update Part 1: Our Best Hunting Areas

Georgia's 2009 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. (October 2009)

Nearly 300,000 Peach State deer hunters harvested more than 350,000 whitetails in 2008, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Deer Harvest Summary, a 53.4 percent hunter success rate!

"More than 207,000 does were taken," said senior wildlife biologist Charlie Killmaster. "That makes up 59.2 percent of the harvest and is a 1.1 percent increase over last year's harvest."

Killmaster said that every season's results are influenced by certain variables that affect the herd's condition.

"There are no real problems with the deer herd right now," he said. "The habitat influences the total number of deer, which right now, statewide, is about 1.3 million whitetails and that's about where it should be."

The 2009 archery-hunting season opens statewide on Sept. 13 and the firearms season opens, Oct. 18. A 12-deer limit applies, only two of which may be antlered and one of the antlered deer must have at least 4 points, 1 inch or longer on one side of the antlers. The firearms season runs through Jan. 1 in the Northern Zone, through Jan. 15 in the Southern Zone and from the looks of things, it will be another good year for Georgia deer hunters.

Harvest rates averaged 1.23 deer per hunter, and those hunters were afield an average of 17.6 days for each deer killed. All told, deer hunters spent an average of 21.7 days in the woods last year in the Peach State.

According to last year's summary, 291,911 hunters bagged 207,623 does and 143,092 bucks. The doe harvest was up only slightly, but the buck harvest increased by 14.7 percent.

Looking ahead to this season, wildlife managers hope the generously wet spring will yield a good mast crop this year.

"Last year was a very poor one for the mast crop due to the extensive drought conditions," Killmaster explained. "Acorns are an important food source for deer and last year's herd suffered somewhat from poor production. Acorn impacts are always on a one-year lag.

"To the deer herd, a poor mast year can mean lower body weights and antler development. A bad acorn year also depresses buck activity, so bucks don't rub as much and they don't chase does. This situation makes things harder for hunters, since deer don't tend to leave as much sign during low acorn years."

So where do you go to maximize your chances of harvesting a deer in 2009? One of the best ways to find the answer is to look at where deer were taken last year and plan to hit at least some of these areas for hunting trips.

Region 1

Region 1 covers the northwest corner of Georgia and is a mix of steep mountains and rolling hills. There are some good whitetails out there, but there are a lot more people hunting for them.

Wildlife biologist David Gregory said there are two outstanding wildlife management areas in the region -- Berry College in Floyd County and Crockford-Pigeon Mountain in Walker County -- that perennially get high marks among the state's public-hunting areas.

"Berry College had a 15.55 percent hunter success ratio in 2008 and Crockford-Pigeon Mountain had 10.89 making them our best places to harvest a deer," he said. "Although the numbers were down last year, these WMAs always produce good hunter success ratios."

Gregory also noted that hunters at Paulding Forest WMA near Dallas in Paulding County enjoyed an 8 percent firearms success rate.

"Paulding Forest is very diverse," he offered. "The upper half is covered in pines, so there's little mast production pushing the deer into the lower half and that creates lots of hunter pressure, so that's a pretty good ratio considering the circumstances."

Region 2

Seven hundred one whitetails were harvested last year in Region 2, right in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and wildlife biologist Kevin Lowrey expects things to be as good or better this season.

"Hopefully, the lag effects of the 2007 mast crop failure and the drought will ease and herd quantity and quality will be better," he said. "Last fall saw a considerably better mast crop and a spring with somewhat normal rainfall. This should allow does to enter the fawning period in better condition, improve fawning cover and increase the amount and quality of summer deer foods resulting in better fawn survival and recruitment."

Lowrey expects Madison, Hart, Barrow, Forsyth, Hall, Dawson, Banks and Jackson to be the most productive counties and Lake Russell WMA in Banks County and Dawson Forest WMA in Dawson County to be great deer producers, although they get a lot of hunting pressure. Coopers Creek WMA in Union County has had good results the last two years and enjoyed generally lower hunter pressure.

Region 3

"Everything in Region 3 depends on rainfall," said wildlife biologist I.B. Parnell.

He went on to explain that good rain throughout the spring and summer provides both browse for adults and cover for fawns. Under those conditions, 2009 will be as good or better than last year. If we don't get rain, then a bad year results.

Parnell thinks Burke, Columbia and Warren counties are probably the best places to hunt in his region, with Di-Lane WMA in Burke County, Tuckahoe WMA in Screven County and Big Dukes WMA offering the best public hunting spots.

"Tuckahoe had a 18.9 percent hunter success ratio," he described. "Di-Lane had an 18.6 ratio, which includes some quota hunts. Oconee WMA was 16.3 and Big Dukes, 14.1."

Alex Coley, the biologist responsible for the middle section of Region 3 said he expects Wilkes and Washington counties to be best in his area and Clarks Hill in Wilkes County is by far the best WMA. He went on to caution, however, that the harvest numbers were lower last year on that WMA.

Region 4

"We had kind of a bad year in west-central Georgia last year with late white oak mast due to a late frost the previous year," said biologist Killmaster. "Red oaks, the other preferred mast, run on a two-year cycle, meaning the acorns begin growing during the first growing season, but don't actually drop until two years following. We may see some lingering damage to this year's red oak mast.

"Mast production is dependent on a decent amount of rain, especially when

the acorns are developing," he explained. "Any drought will stress the trees. Oaks go in cycles. You can have an average crop several years followed by one boom year, then a really nasty year.

"Actually I prefer a spotty crop. If there are acorns everywhere, the deer will be scattered making it harder to hunt. If there is spotty mast production, the deer will be focused in certain areas where there is good mast production," he concluded.

Killmaster added that the best counties for quantity should be the ones closer to Atlanta -- Henry, Coweta and Fayette -- and the best WMAs should be Clybel in Jasper County, Rum Creek in Monroe County and Cedar Creek in Putnam County. Those tracts average about 30 deer per square mile.

"As far as quantity, I expect the count to be about the same as last year, no higher, no lower," he said. "We didn't have any major bouts with hemorrhagic disease that would drop the population and there wasn't an exceptionally high harvest last years." Region 5

Deer herds in southwest Georgia have remained fairly steady, although wildlife biologist Julie Robbins said there has been a decline in densities caused by large-scale landscape changes.

"More hunting clubs have popped up putting more pressure on the deer," she noted. "Also there's a lot of paper company land that is tied up with young pine stands, so you lose a lot of the forage base."

Robbins pointed to Lee, Dougherty, Randolph and Stewart counties as providing the best hunter success ratios in the region, along with parts of Marion and Sumter.

On public land Chickasawhatchee WMA in Dougherty County is the best as far as numbers go, with an 18.7 percent success ratio and nearly 50 percent success ratio at the lone quota hunt held there. Silver Lake WMA in Decatur County, which opened last year, recorded a 20 percent success rate. The rates for both these tracts were phenomenal for any public-hunting area.

Robbins said hunters should expect another good year.

"Last year's mast crop was very good and I've seen no indications that this year would be a bad one," she predicted. "Our very wet spring should contribute to successful mast production and lots of deer."

Region 6

Region 6 is spread across 32 counties in southeast Georgia on the Coastal Plain. The Altamaha River splits the region providing good lowland habitat for whitetails.

"We don't expect a lot of change from last year," said senior wildlife biologist Greg Waters. "Our management strategy hasn't changed. The biggest thing is there should be a lot more browse this year due to clear-cutting on several WMAs --especially Beaver Dam WMA -- to remove storm damage. Unfortunately, that means we lose a lot of hard mast."

Waters added he expects the counties bordering regions 3 and 4 -- Wilcox, Dodge, Laurens, Treutlin, Emanuel, Jenkins and Screven -- to produce the most deer. Bullard Creek, a 13,900-acre WMA in Jeff Davis County on the Altamaha River near Hazlehurst, is one of Water's picks as a top public-hunting area. He also likes 8,000-acre Horse Creek WMA in Telfair County west of Hazlehurst, Dixon Memorial WMA in Ware County near the Okeefenokee Swamp, and River Bend and Beaver Dam WMAs in Laurens County.

Region 7

Georgia's coastal herd is thriving, according to Brooks Good, senior wildlife biologist based in Brunswick.

"Last spring was unusually wet and all of the major freshwater rivers -- the Savannah, Ogeechee, Altamaha, Satilla and St. Mary's -- were at or above flood stage most of the spring," he described, "and the floodplains were inundated with water for several weeks. This produced a mixed bag for wildlife species, including white­tail deer.

"While flooding is a necessary part of the natural cycle," he continued. "It does impact production of plant species important to wildlife. Some plant species are intolerant of high water conditions. Floodwaters substantially reduce the crop of acorns and other staple foods.

"On the other hand, all the rain and short-term inundation should lead to an abundance of soft mast and hard mast in areas that were not flooded for a prolonged period."

Good said hunters have the best chance of harvesting a deer in the maritime forests of Sapelo and Ossabaw islands, which have whitetail densities approaching 60 per square mile and hunter success rates usually ranging between 80 and 100 percent.

On the mainland, he pointed to Sansavilla WMA in Wayne County and Paulk's Pasture WMA in Glynn County as excellent choices for hunters.

The biologist recommended Clayhole Swamp and Penholoway Swamp WMA in Wayne County along with Townsend WMA as areas to be very productive in the future.

Regardless of where you live in Georgia, there are likely some great deer-hunting opportunities nearby. The Peach State is one of the top deer-hunting states in the Southeast. Thus, with a little know-how and effort, hunters have a really good chance of taking a deer in the 2009 season.

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