Georgia's 2009 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Georgia's 2009 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Trophy deer can show up any place in Georgia, but some areas are in a class by themselves for producing big whitetails. Here, Georgia Sportsman takes an in-depth look at what parts of the state are best for a trophy buck. (November 2009)

Big bucks are harvested in almost every county in the Peach State. In fact, Georgia produces more trophy bucks than its Southeastern neighbors just about every season.

Each year, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Sportsman magazine and the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association co-sponsor the Georgia Big Deer Contest, which is open to all hunters, resident or non-resident, who legally harvest a buck in Georgia during the season. Antler tines and beams are measured for length and circumference, plus the width of the inside spread and combined to give a total score.

The minimum scores required to enter the categories are 145 for typical firearm kills and 170 non-typical, using the Boone and Crocket Club guidelines. For archery they are 120 typical and 145 non-typical using Pope and Young Club measurements.

Bucks shot with a crossbow must meet firearms minimums.

Seventy-four bucks were entered in last year's contest, 27 in typical firearms, five in non-typical firearms, 39 in typical archery and three in non-typical archery.

Of last year's top 20 big bucks, there were eight non-typicals and 12 typical racks. Thirteen bucks, including the biggest, a 211 5/8 B&C non-typical taken by Devin Key in Rockdale County, were killed in urban counties, while the rest were harvested in predominately rural counties in the south and central part of the state.

In fact, 69 percent of those 74 deer -- 51 bucks -- were killed in the southern half of the state. Twenty-five Georgia counties out of 159 produced an entry last season. Eleven counties, seven of which were in the south, posted multiple entries. In North Georgia, Fulton and Gwinnett counties produced two entries each, Cobb County boasted three and DeKalb chalked up four.

In the southern part of the state, Dougherty County produced nine trophy whitetails; all typical archery kills including Garrett Jones' 141 7/8 P&Y buck. Other southern counties with multiple entries were Colquitt with four, Macon, Ben Hill and Worth with three, while Irwin, Turner and Schley had two each.

The highest-scoring typical buck taken by firearm last season was a 167 B&C brute in Pulaski County by Wayne McDaniel, while the biggest typical bow kill was a 146 6/8-inch buck taken by Randy Birchfield in Fulton County. The season's biggest non-typical firearms kill was the previously mentioned 211 5/8 B&C monster taken by Key in Rockdale County, while a 187 4/8 non-typical was arrowed by Rusty Osborne in DeKalb.

Big bucks in Georgia seem to thrive in the habitat found along the state's major river corridors -- the Chattahoochee, Flint, Altamaha, Ocmulgee and Satilla. Those regions produce a wealth of soft browse and hard mast. Such fertile soil also produces healthy agricultural crops like peanuts and soybeans, which are necessary for bulking up big bodies and racks, sometimes to the farmer's dismay.

All areas of the state are not the same, however, especially regarding soil composition. The state is divided into five geophysical regions -- the Ridge and Valley in the northwest; the Blue Ridge Mountains of the northeast; the central Piedmont Plateau; the Upper Coastal Plain; and the Lower Coastal Plain. Each has its different soil compositions.

Deer Management Units

Based partly on those soil varieties, the Wildlife Resources Division of the DNR partitions the state into nine deer management units with each composed of counties having similar characteristics. Besides soil composition, land-use patterns and natural habitat are taken into account. Big bucks are taken in nearly every DMU in the state, but some are more productive than others.

Finishing No. 1 again this year in regard to contest entries was DMU 6 -- consisting of 32 counties in southwest Georgia -- with 35 entries from 19 counties. Included in those was a 145-inch typical arrowed by Mitchell Bell in Schley County and a 163-inch firearms typical taken by Justin Scarborough in Early County.

According to Julie Robbins, DMU 6 senior wildlife biologist, most of the big bucks found along the Flint River drainage are in areas that are managed for quality deer. Indeed the counties in Unit 6 yielding big bucks form a pattern along the Flint drainage from Macon and Worth counties with three each, to Dougherty County with nine entries and Colquitt with four entries. This region has productive soil and high deer populations.

"Most of that is tied to soil fertility, which provides a good forage base," she said. "It's surrounded by farming, which provides added fertility. My guess is many of the big bucks are being taken on larger properties that are intensively managed for deer, so there's a lot of selection going on. The river provides a major corridor for the deer to travel between these areas."

Robbins said the success of the Quality Deer Management program should be measured on a property-by-property basis.

"QDM works best on parcels 3,000 acres or bigger," she noted. "Anything smaller depends on the willingness of your neighbors to practice QDM along with you.

"The Flint River Wildlife Management Area in Dooly County and River Creek WMA in Thomas County are examples of quality buck management, but under different management regulations," she continued. "Flint River WMA deer are measured by the main beam -- a 15 or 16-inch minimum spread and River Creek is regulated by points -- 4 points on at least one side.

"River Creek and Flint River WMAs are our best antler hunts, but both are quota hunts, so you may have to wait three or four years to get a chance to hunt there."

Robbins also recommended hunting Montezuma Bluffs, a Macon County archery-only WMA along the Flint corridor, or Hannahatchee Creek WMA in Stewart County, which has produced several 140-inch bucks in the last few years.

Nine metro-Atlanta counties in DMU 3 produced winners in three of the four categories of the Big Deer Contest last year. Those were biggest archery typical for a 148 6/8-inch buck arrowed by Randy Birchfield in Fulton County; biggest archery non-typical for a 187 4/8-incher taken by Rusty Osborne in DeKalb; and Devin Key's biggest gun non-typical, a 211 6/8-inch monster taken in Rockdale County.

Seven of the nine metro counties posted entries in 2008, with Fulton County yielding four. With the exception of the Rockdale County buck, which

was killed with a shotgun, all were taken by bowhunters.

"It may seem odd to see big bucks coming from such a heavily developed area as metropolitan Atlanta," says Don McGowan, DMU 3 wildlife biologist. "But deer are very adaptable creatures. With low hunting pressure and plentiful gardens and yards providing plenty of forage sources, suburban whitetails are fat and happy."

There was a tie for third place between units 5 and 8, posting seven entries each.

Located in east-central Georgia, Unit 5 gave up two entries from Morgan County and one each from Jackson, Hancock, Putnam, Jasper and Oglethorpe. Historically, DMU 5 has produced numbers of trophy whitetails and is a popular region with hunters, but changes in habitat, agricultural practices and urban development have resulted in increased deer densities that have affected the quality of the herd across the region.

Unit 8 is made up of 22 southeast Georgia counties, split between the Upper and Lower Coastal Plains. Four counties -- Irwin, Ben Hill, Laurens and Pulaski -- contributed seven entries to the Big Deer Contest from the region. Although the area is not known as a big-deer producer, it's obviously possible to find a quality deer in this DMU.

Twenty counties west and south of metro Atlanta comprise DMU 4. Six of those -- Taylor, Fayette, Monroe, Harris, Meriwether and Coweta -- had entries in the Big Deer Contest.

According to the state's Deer Management Plan, forests cover nearly three-fourths of the land in this DMU. But habitat in Bibb, Fayette, Henry and Troup counties has been heavily affected by suburban development. Still, lots of fine bucks are out there because of quality deer management practices by area hunting clubs. Additionally, Harris, Meriwether, Talbot and Troup counties have mandatory minimum antler restrictions in their regulations. Both factors should increase hunters' chances of bagging a big buck in those counties.

In east-central Georgia, DMU 7 posted three entries from a trio of counties -- Screven, Jefferson and Washington. Among those was a 137 3/8 P&Y buck taken by Jason Lowe in Screven County.

Since 2002, five of the DMUs 13 counties have posted eight entries to the contest.

DiLane WMA in Burke County offers a good public option in this DMU that may yield some big bucks.

Bartow, Hart and Forsyth counties each posted entries from DMU 2, made up of 17 counties in the Ridge and Valley and Upper Piedmont areas of northwest and north-central Georgia. This unit has very divergent features. Parts of it are largely undeveloped wilderness, but other parts border urban areas where unchecked population growth and the resulting commercial and residential development have negatively affected the habitat and thus the whitetail population.

"We had a pretty decent mast season last year," said DMU 2 Wildlife Biologist Kevin Lowrey, "so we're hoping for a better year.

"In the past deer seasons," he noted, "Lake Russell WMA, which has historically been a big deer producer, has been kind of borderline for big bucks. It was a very hearty forest, but drought and a beetle kill destroyed about 2,000 acres of good browse and the deer suffered from it.

"The good news is this fawning season was preceded by good rainfall and mast production, so I think things are looking better. Dawson Forest, which is managed as a trophy deer producer, is in the same shape. I think all the spring rain we had will produce good browse and bigger deer," he concluded.

In extreme North Georgia, DMU 1 is made up of 12 counties across the Ridge and Valley, Upper Piedmont and Blue Ridge divisions. Up there, the soil quality fails to support quality food for deer, other than hard mast.

Unit 1 posted no entries to the Big Deer Contest in 2008 -- it has contributed only two entries since 2002, which probably reflects mast crop failures during drought periods.

On the other hand, the region offers large tracts of relatively unhunted public lands because of the rugged terrain. Hunters have to hike considerable distances to find good hunting spots. However, hunters willing to make the effort to hunt in the Cohutta and Blue Ridge WMAs have harvested some nice bucks.

"Cohutta doesn't produce a whole lot of deer," Wildlife Biologist David Gregory pointed out. "But the deer they do kill are very big -- getting close to Boone and Crocket size. A deer living in the Cohutta Wilderness has a rough life. It takes a lot of work to stay alive up there, so when you do get one, it's usually an old, big buck."

At the bottom of the big deer list is DMU 9, made up of 15 counties in southeastern Georgia. This DMU along the coast hasn't contributed an entry in the last Big Deer Contests. Senior Wildlife Biologist Brooks Good of the WRD said the sandy soil of the lower Coastal Plain has never supported adequate browse, leaving the herd to rely on hard mast as its primary source of food.

Although true trophy bucks are rare, Good noted that hunters have a good chance of harvesting a deer in the maritime forests of Sapelo and Ossabaw islands, which have whitetail densities approaching 60 deer per square mile. Hunter success rates usually range somewhere between 80 and 100 percent for managed hunts on these WMAs.

On the mainland, he said Sansavilla WMA in Wayne County and Paulk's Pasture WMA in Glynn County are excellent choices for hunters wanting to harvest a deer as well.

Wildlife Management Areas

There are 12 wildlife management areas operated under Quality Deer Management regulations. Those are Dawson Forest and Dukes Creek/ Smithgall Woods in North Georgia; Big Lazer Creek, Blanton Creek, Joe Kurz and West Point in central Georgia; and B.F. Grant, Bullard Creek, Di-Lane, Flint River, Montezuma Bluffs and River Creek in the south.

B.F. Grant near Eatonton has the oldest QDM management regimen, dating back more than three decades. It's also the only WMA to have produced a B&C all-time record book buck. Finally, every year it's one of the most reliable public-hunting areas to bag a trophy.

Regardless of where you live in Georgia, there are likely some great trophy deer-hunting opportunities within an hour's drive of your home. Which brings us back to the opening premise; the Peach State is one of the best deer-hunting areas in the South.

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