Georgia's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 2

Georgia's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 2

Trophy deer can show up anyplace 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.

Georgia is a good place to bag a trophy buck, if you know where to look. There are 159 counties in the Peach State and all have a huntable deer population, but they vary in their ability to grow big-racked bucks.

Some areas of the state provide a better chance at seeing and harvesting a mature buck. Last month we profiled the best places to bag a deer -- any deer -- and this month we'll clue you in on the top places to score on a wallhanger.

There were 159,567 bucks harvested in Georgia last season. Each individual hunter has his or her own standard as to what they consider a trophy. Some will shoot anything with a rack and others will count points and estimate inches before deciding to pull the trigger. Still, only a handful was considered trophies.

On average, each deer season there are 70,000 bucks harvested that are 2 1/2 years old or older. These are typically 8-point bucks or larger. With 300,000 hunters, that's a 23 percent chance at a good buck each year. That averages out as killing a nice buck one out of every four seasons.

A whitetail buck needs three ingredients to become a trophy -- age, nutrition, and genetics. With those three factors, almost any buck will grow a decent rack. But of those three factors, age is the most important followed by nutrition and genetics. A buck cannot grow his best set of antlers until he is allowed to get some years and maturity.

Nutrition is key to providing the valuable groceries for the buck to grow a healthy body and big antlers. With the proper food and minerals, a deer can reach his optimum.

Genetics is much harder to control and there is little the average hunter can do to affect it.

Bagging a trophy buck is the ultimate goal of most hunters. But taking a mature whitetail buck can be very difficult as they are masters of hiding and escaping detection and are wary of any unusual sound, smell, or sight in their terrain.

Last season 40 percent of all deer killed were bucks. But among all Georgia deer hunters, 63 percent did not kill a single buck. About 26 percent killed one antlered deer and only 11 percent managed to bag two bucks. And those were any bucks, not just trophies. So if the percentage of hunters who bag a buck is low, the fortunate ones who take a true trophy buck is even lower.

Different areas of the state provide the factors in growing big deer to varying degrees. Some areas may have abundant forage, but are heavily hunted and few bucks grow to maturity before being harvested. Other regions may have light hunting pressure, but have poor soils and food available for deer to feed on.

The state can be divided into five geographical regions and each has its own geography, characteristics, topography, and deer herd. We have selected the top counties and Wildlife Management Areas in each region that gives the hunter the best opportunity to see and bag a trophy buck.

RIDGE AND VALLEY

In the northwest section of the state is an area characterized by parallel ridges interspersed with deep valleys. This area contains the cities of Rome, Armuchee, Dalton, and Adairsville. There is some agriculture in the valleys and hardwood forests primarily on the steep ridges.

Last season it was estimated that there were 68,211 deer in the Ridge and Valley region. That translates to about 24 deer per square mile. Of those, 15,991 were adult bucks which is about 23 percent of all the deer in the woods are adult bucks.

Charlie Killmaster, a biologist with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Department believes that Murray County gives the hunter the best chance for a trophy buck in the Ridge and Valley region. Murray is located on the eastern edge of the Ridge and Valley section and contains parts of the Cohutta and Coosawattee WMAs.

The county is characterized by steep terrain and expansive woodlands. The remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain makes the hunting more difficult. Tough hunting translates into less sportsmen venturing far from their trucks and more bucks survive and reach older ages. With the critical ingredient of age, bucks can grow big antlers and become handsome trophies, if you venture into the steep terrain to find them.

Killmaster picked Berry College WMA as the best public hunting area for a trophy in northwest Georgia. The 15,585-acre WMA is situated around its namesake institution near Rome. In addition to a generous archery season, there are two quota hunts allowing 1,000 hunters in early November and early December. Based on harvest statistics, there is a 6.4 percent success rate on bucks that are 2 1/2 years old or older.

BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS

Stretching across north Georgia are the southernmost of the Appalachian Mountains, also known as the Blue Ridge Mountains. Steep mountains covered by hardwoods, hemlocks, and rhododendron is a description of the terrain of this region. The area is littered with tumbling creeks, cascading waterfalls, scenic trails and vistas.

It is estimated that the region contains approximately 16,878 whitetail deer. This is about 14 deer per square mile of forested terrain. Of those, 28 percent or 4,681 are adult bucks. That percentage compares well to the other regions in the state.

The reason is likely due to the harshness of the mountains and difficulty of hunting in them. This allows for more bucks to survive and reach older ages. There are definitely some older bucks in the mountains, but you have to be in shape and hunt hard to get a shot at one.

Rabun County in extreme northeast Georgia is Biologist Killmaster's pick and the top trophy county overall in the Blue Ridge Mountains region. Rabun has 15,800-acre Warwoman WMA and 2,689-acre Tallulah Gorge State Park within its borders. This county, like most in the mountains, is steep and heavily wooded and is bordered by North Carolina to the north and the Chattooga River and South Carolina on the eastern side.

The best public place to score on a trophy buck according to Killmaster is Cooper Creek WMA. If you hunt at Cooper Creek, you have a 5.8 percent chance of bagging a buck that has lived 2 1/2 years or longer. This 30,000-acre WMA has an early October adult/child hunt, a mid-Nov

ember primitive weapons hunt, and a mid-December firearms hunt. All hunts are non-quota, but you to check-in.

PIEDMONT

The geographical region known as the Piedmont is the largest in size and most productive for both deer and trophy bucks. It is basically Middle Georgia from Atlanta south to Macon, and Columbus east to Augusta. It has rolling hills and drainages with hardwood gullies, mixed pine and hardwood uplands. There are also large planted pine plantations and agricultural fields.

The region has an estimated 422,714 whitetails distributed at 39 per square mile. This is the highest density of any region and is also the most heavily hunted. The adult buck count is believed to be 117,526 or 28 percent of the total herd.

Searching the record books and big buck contests statewide, the Piedmont section consistently grows some of the biggest bucks in the state. Numerous entries in the Boone and Crockett Club record books for bucks taken with firearms and Pope and Young Club lists of archery bucks have come from the Piedmont portion of the state.

It is tough to pick a one best county from so many good ones. Killmaster gave his nod to Cobb County, but he also mentioned Meriwether, Pike, Upson, Rockdale and Newton. Cobb is a metro Atlanta county and along with Fulton and Dekalb, regularly gives up top end trophy bucks to archers.

"The best quality bucks come from the metro counties", Killmaster said. "It has the combination of good habitat and older age from the lack of hunting pressure. Development is good for deer because of the fertilized lawns and irrigation," the biologist noted.

The B&C record book and the Georgia Big Deer Contest have numerous entries and winners from the metro Atlanta counties. From 2004 to 2008, Fulton County had 12 entries in the Georgia Big Deer Contest archery category. Dekalb had nine and Cobb seven entries in that same time period.

The Georgia Big Deer Contest is an annual competition sponsored by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division and Georgia Sportsman magazine and the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association. It recognizes the highest scoring typical and non-typical bucks taken by firearms and archery based on the B&C and P&Y scoring systems. To qualify, racks must be a minimum of 145 typical firearm, 170 non-typical firearm, 120 typical archery, and 145 non-typical archery.

During the 2009-10 season, the top typical and non-typical bucks by firearms were taken in the Piedmont. Danny Cook bagged a beautiful 10-pointer from Oglethorpe County that scored 170 7/8 B&C. In Upson County Susan Tate put the smack down on a monster buck that scored 198 3/8 non-typical points. Both bucks made the all-time B&C Record Book.

As mentioned, the Piedmont has numerous counties that provide an above-average opportunity for a trophy. "Dark horse" candidates also include Harris, Oglethorpe, Putnam, Jasper, and Hancock. It should be noted that Troup, Meriwether, and Hancock counties are have countywide quality deer management rules in effect. Legal bucks must have a minimum of four points of at least one inch long on one side of their rack to be harvested. That same regulation applies statewide on a hunter's second buck of the season, however it applies to all bucks taken in these counties. This restriction protects young bucks, allowing them to grow to older age classes and consequently give them the chance to grow a bigger set of antlers.

There are numerous WMAs in the fertile Piedmont region and many of them produce trophy bucks. The largest buck ever killed on a Georgia WMA was shot by Thomas Cooper in 1974 at B.F. Grant, a Piedmont WMA in Putnam County, it scored 215 7/8 B&C.

"It has had QDM for a long time and they tend to grow bigger bucks at B.F. Grant," Charlie Killmaster said.

Joe Kurz WMA in west central part of the state is Killmaster's choice for best chance of a trophy buck. Hunters have an 11.8 percent probability of taking home a buck that has survived two or more years. The 3,700-acre Meriwether County tract hosts two quota firearms hunts in late October and mid-November for 100 hunters each.

Luke Fletcher downed his 175 6/8 B&C non-typical last season in Tift County on the Upper Coastal Plain. Photo courtesy of Lee Fletcher.

UPPER COASTAL PLAIN

This region is south of the Piedmont and is a productive trophy area in its own right. The terrain is less hilly. Large cotton and peanut fields characterize the region along with scattered wetland and marshes.

State biologists estimate 278,769 whitetail deer are roaming the Upper Coastal Plain. Approximately 28 percent of them are adult bucks scattered among the 23 deer per square mile. Similar to the Piedmont, fertile soils allow the deer to grow big and healthy and produce an abundance of super racks.

Killmaster likes Jenkins County in east central Georgia for the best chance for a trophy. But it would be hard to single out just one county in this deer-rich region. Other big buck counties would have to include Dooly, Lee, Macon, and Dougherty. Macon County gave up the biggest typical bowkill in the state last season to David Sams who arrowed a 152 6/8-inch bruiser. Based on statistics from the Georgia Big Deer Contest, from 2004 to 2008, Dougherty County had 18 archery entries followed by seven from Macon.

No less than six counties in the upper coastal plain are designated for QDM rules. Harris, Talbot, Macon, Dooly, Randolph, and Montgomery counties have harvest restrictions basically limited to 8-point bucks or bigger. Additionally, Dooly and Macon are further restricted to bucks with a minimum outside antler spread of 15 inches. The restriction on shooting young bucks and tremendous trophy potential makes these counties top choices for a true wallhanger.

Several WMAs also have excellent trophy, including Di-Lane in Burke County, which offers a 7.1 percent chance at a 2 ½-year or older buck. State biologist Julie Robbins recommended River Creek and Flint River WMAs. The 2,300-acre Flint River WMA is a trophy area in Dooly County that has produced several whopper bucks, including a 140-class giant just last season.

LOWER COASTAL PLAIN

Located in the southeastern section of the state is the Lower Coastal Plain, which includes the coastal barrier islands.

The terrain is flat with thick marshes and sandy soils. Because of the low soil fertility, this region is not known for producing monster bucks, but it does provide decent hunting and can give up nice bucks.

Biologist Greg Waters of the WRD concurred with the trophy assessment.

"The trophy potential is not high in my area because of the coastal plain soils, but there is a chance for a 100- to 120-class buck."

Most hunters would be thrilled to bag a 120-class buck and there is a good opportunity for one.

The lower coastal plain has an estimated 170,157 deer and 62,054 of them are adult bucks. That is an outstanding ratio of 35-percent mature bucks walking around, which is significantly higher than the other regions. Though this region does not typically produce as large antlers as the others, your chances of seeing and shooting a mature buck is much better.

The coastal islands of Ossabaw and Sapelo have very high deer populations and high ratios of mature bucks. That is why Sapelo Island WMA is Killmaster's pick as the top trophy buck WMA. The WMA has the same percentage of hunters killing 2 ½-plus-year -old bucks as the percentage of adult bucks in the region at 35 percent. The biologist choice for the best county is Toombs.

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