Georgia's 2006 Deer Outlook --Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

"Book" deer can turn up anywhere in the Peach State, but some areas are in a class by themselves when it comes to big whitetails. Georgia Sportsman has comprehensively surveyed the state and identified those spots for you. (Nov 2006)

Compared to other Southeastern states, Georgia produces more than its share of monster bucks each season. Sitting in a deer stand in the Peach State is in general going to provide you with a decent chance of seeing a trophy-grad animal.

Our success in raising whopper whitetails can be attributed to several factors. First of all, real estate -- of which we have plenty: East of the Mississippi River, Georgia's the state with the largest area. And while we're in 10th place in the nation in human population, most of that's concentrated in the counties of greater Atlanta -- which leaves a lot of room for deer.

The Peach State also boasts fertile soil, which results in the growth not only of peanuts, cotton, pine trees, and the fruit that gave us our nickname, but also of healthy whitetails. Also critical to the nurture of big bucks is native browse, and ours is abundant and nutritious. And if agricultural fields or food plots are present in an area as well, the groceries required for bulking up the bodies and the racks of local deer are even better suited to the task.

A few years ago, the state instituted antler restrictions for the buck harvest. The limit is two bucks, one of which has to have at least 4 points on one side of its rack before it can be taken, thus increasing the number of deer reaching maturity and growing bigger racks.

But that's not to say that you can find and harvest a bragworthy buck everywhere in Georgia. While a few can be found in almost any region of the state each fall, some areas in the state yield more and bigger bucks.

All areas of the state are not the same, particularly with regard to soil composition. The state is divided into five geophysical regions: the ridge and valley in the northwest; the northern mountains; the central Piedmont; the upper coastal plain; and the lower coastal plain.

The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division partitions the state still further -- into nine deer management units. Each DMU is composed of counties having distinctive geography and deer-herd characteristics.

Every year the Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Sportsman and the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association cosponsor the Georgia Big Deer Contest. Open to all hunters who legally harvest a buck in Georgia during the season, the contest provides valuable indicators of the number of trophy bucks in Georgia and the places in which they're being harvested in its annual results.

Racks are assessed by measuring the antler tines and beams for length and circumference, plus the width of the inside spread, with inches of antler equivalent to the total score. The contest's main categories, firearms and archery, are subdivided into typical and non-typical groupings. The minimum score for each: firearms (Boone and Crockett points) -- typical, 145, and non-typical, 170; archery (Pope & Young points) -- typical, 120, and non-typical, 145. Any buck meeting these criteria is one tremendous trophy.

For the 2005-06 deer season, 42 bucks were entered; by comparison, qualifying entries totaled 46 in 2004, 72 in 2003, 47 in 2002, and 76 in 2001. So, on the basis of these Big Deer Contest entries, last season was the least fruitful of the last five in terms of big bucks harvested.

The typical buck categories are usually well represented, with gun hunters often bagging the biggest specimens. The 2005-06 deer season entries consisted of 15 in typical firearms, four in non-typical firearms, 22 in typical archery, and one in non-typical archery.

If you divide the state roughly in half along a line running from Columbus to Macon to Augusta, you'll find that 66 percent of those 42 deer -- 28 -- were killed south of that boundary. So the bottom line for finding Georgia's trophy bucks is to head for the less-populated agricultural counties in that half of the state.

Of the Georgia's 159 counties, 29 entered a buck last season. Nine counties, seven of which were in the south, posted multiple entries: Morgan and Fulton, in the north, produced two each; Lee, Wilcox, Burke, Macon, and Dodge boasted two qualifiers each, while Turner added three. Topping all others was southwest Georgia's Dougherty County, with five whopper whitetail bucks, among which was the No. 2 typical firearms kill, James Lawson's 163 3/8 B&C bruiser.

Its seat in Albany, Dougherty County consists mainly of flat terrain punctuated by scattered wetlands. Its many private quail plantations are intensively managed for wildlife.

Inspect a map of Georgia highlighting the counties in which big bucks were taken last year, and you'll easily spot a trend: A specific section in southwest Georgia surrendered the majority of the biggest bagged. In this 13-county area stretching from Early northeast to Dodge and northward to Taylor, 24 of the 42 entries were taken. In order to limit crop damage, the region's residents have historically suppressed the deer population, and agricultural land-use patterns in the area make available nutrition of the sort required to grow big bucks. But genes probably also play a part.

When Georgia's deer population was being restocked several decades ago, many of the deer released in this region were from Wisconsin. Dairy State whitetails are known to attain impressive dimensions -- and they're doing that in southwest Georgia, too.

A list of the Top 20 bucks taken from the 42 contest entries shows that 14 of them are from this southwest region. So this sector of the state not only produces numerous trophies, but also grows the biggest of the big.

The highest-scoring typical buck taken by firearm last season was a 169 1/8 B&C brute downed in Dodge County, from which another Top 20 buck, Marvin Hightower's 146 7/8 firearms kill, also came. The 2004-05 season's largest animal overall was a 180 4/8 B&C buck from Dooly County, also in this region. Seven of last year's Top 20 fell in this region, and several more in surrounding counties.

Clearly, history indicates that the place for bagging a giant Georgia buck is southwest Georgia's Deer Management Unit 6, which gives up plus-sized whitetails year after year.

The Piedmont portion of the state is also home to many a worthy buck, seven counties there -- Harris, Meriwether, Lamar, Baldwin, Wilkinson, Burke, and Morgan -- having made appearances in the 2005-06 edition of the Big Deer Contest.

Burke County, in eastern Georgia's DMU 7, yielded two big-racked bucks. A

nd Morgan County has accounted for many wallhangers in the past, and did so again this year, providing two bucks that won the non-typical firearms and non-typical archery categories. Both of the Morgan County whitetails were taken on the same farm by hunters from a single family! Lamar Banks took the highest-scoring rack, a 185 7/8 non-typical rifle-killed buck, while his son, Loy, arrowed a 171 6/8 P&Y non-typical.

The Banks family intensively manages their 3,000-acre farm with a view to fostering deer of quality. Supplemental feeding, food plots, conscientious doe harvest, and a policy of shooting only mature bucks have combined to render this Morgan County property a prime producer of whopper whitetails, surrendering several wallhangers every season. In fact, the other son in the family, Jeff, bagged the No. 1 firearms typical in Georgia during the 2001-02 season on the farm.

Another recent hotspot: the metro Atlanta area. Despite its extremely high human population and dearth of forested acres, it still gives up several creditable bucks every year. The success is due in part to the limitation of hunting to archery only here. With no hunters using scoped rifles, the deer harvest is typically lower, bows and arrows having limited range. More bucks live longer and get to grow bigger racks in the scattered woodlots.

In the 2004-05 season, the largest archery kill in the state came out of DeKalb County, where Taylor McCann took a 174 7/8-point buck in 2004. In fact, Fulton County leads the state in Pope & Young bucks. In 2005, two P&Y bow bucks taken in Fulton qualified for the Big Deer Contest -- Phil Lewis' 137 3/8 and Shane Petsch's 129 3/8.

On the western edge of Georgia, Harris and Meriwether counties are known for serving up a substantial number of high-quality deer. The former is responsible for several Boone and Crockett and Pope & Young heads that've made the cut for those organizations' all-time record books over the years. Last year, archer Larry Garner Jr. bagged a 137 2/8-inch Harris County beast -- his fourth P&Y record-book buck.

In addition to the Big Deer Contest, another indicator of buck quality is the harvest data collected at hunts at wildlife management areas. The WRD collects detailed information from deer killed at WMAs and analyzes the numbers.

Trophy bucks haunt most WMAs, and many are taken every year. However, several such tracts are designated as Quality Buck areas in which only does or trophy bucks may be harvested. In most cases, these WMAs feature prime habitat amid which small young bucks are allowed to age to the stage of life that sees the sprouting of impressive racks.

The harvest data from these WMAs also reveal the size, health, and potential of the bucks in the surrounding region. There are nine Quality Buck WMAs: two in North Georgia, four in the west-central region, and three in the upper coastal plain or Piedmont. The two in North Georgia are Dawson Forest and Dukes Creek, at which 99 and 15 deer, respectively, were slain last season, 18 and four of those being "quality" bucks, which averages to 0.5 and 0.6 "quality" bucks harvested per square mile. Not surprisingly, the mountains in which these WMAs lie aren't known for large quantities of giant bucks, but there are some.

Big Lazer Creek, Blanton Creek, Joe Kurz, and West Point WMAs all lie near Columbus in some prime Piedmont habitat. These areas yielded 14, 10, nine, and 22 "quality" bucks respectively, in 2005, or 1.5, 1.4, 1.6, and 3.9 kills per square mile.

West Point had an outstanding season last year, and an exceptionally large harvest of high-end deer. However, an analysis of the beam length and antler spreads of its bucks indicates that they're a tad smaller than are other WMA trophies. Often, a too-numerous deer population will see the size of the group's members begin to decline.

Flint River WMA in Dooly County produced only four top-quality bucks, but it's only 2,300 acres in area. Also on the upper coastal plain, Di-Lane WMA in Burke County gave up 21 "quality" bucks among the 96 deer taken there, which works out to 1.7 wallhangers per square mile.

Of all the WMAs in the state, B.F. Grant is the oldest Quality Buck WMA in the state, and the only one to have produced a B&C all-time record book buck, back in 1975. Of its 103 deer kills last season, 24 were "quality" bucks -- a harvest ratio of 1.3 per square mile. An intriguing aspect of those bucks: They averaged the longest antler beam length, 17.9 inches, and an average outside spread for 2 1/2-year-old bucks of 15 inches.

B.F. Grant, in Putnam and Jasper counties in the central Piedmont, has been growing big bucks for many years. Though these counties have not had a Big Deer Contest entry recently, the WMA remains a reliable place at which to bag a trophy.

Several entire counties are also managed under Quality Buck regulations. In Hancock, Troup, and Meriwether in the northern zone, and Harris, Montgomery, Randolph and Talbot in the southern zone, only a buck with at least 4 points on one side of its rack may be harvested. In Dooly and Macon counties, bucks must have a minimum outside antler spread of 15 inches.

Of these nine quality buck counties, Harris, Meriwether, Dooly, and Macon had entries in the Big Deer Contest. These counties have the ingredients for growing big bucks, and the antler restrictions ensure that young bucks will be spared to live the years needed for king-sized racks.

SUMMING IT UP

The best chance to bag the biggest bucks is in southwest Georgia around Dooly, Dougherty, Worth, Dodge, Lee, Turner, Crisp, Wilcox and Macon counties. This region has been proven to generate big-racked bucks year after year.

The central Piedmont section of the state can also yield trophies. The center of the state from Harris and Meriwether counties in the west, across the state through Jones, Morgan, Hancock, and Burke counties is also known as a big-buck area.

Find more about Georgia fishing and hunting at: GeorgiaSportsmanMag.com

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