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

Where can you bag a buck this season? This analysis of harvest data in North Carolina could improve your odds of finding a trophy. (Nov 2006)

North Carolina hunters set a new record for overall deer harvest during the 2005-06 hunting season. The buck harvest did not quite exceed the previous record buck harvest set in 2001-02. But it was not far off. The buck harvest in 2001-02 was 78,805 and last season it was 78,096.

"Last season's record deer harvest was nothing unusual," said North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission deer biologist Evin Stanford. "We've been harvesting a lot of deer. The harvest went down in 2002-03. But ever since, the harvest has been fairly stable."

The antlered-buck harvest was so close to the previous record, it is only a statistical blip on the trend charts. The deer population is stabilizing across the state and the buck harvest is stabilizing along with the overall harvest.

"Our deer population modeling is showing a stable population at the statewide level, but there are some localized areas that have increasing populations," Stanford said. "The Neuse River watershed has an increasing population. In the Western Region, in Nantahala National Forest and the core mountain counties of Cherokee, Graham, Clay, Swain, Macon and Jackson, our modeling shows the population is increasing. But the region still has relatively low deer densities of four to five deer per square mile. Still, the population has nearly doubled since the 1990s from 5,000 deer to around 10,000 deer.

"A lot of it is because of better deer management on private lands. But some of it is because of the management we have in place, including either-sex regulations that only have limited opportunities to harvest antlerless deer. In the Western Region, antlerless deer can only be taken during bow season and on the last day of muzzleloader season."

Areas with expanding deer populations nearly always produce better quality bucks because the habitat is underutilized, meaning there are more high-quality foods available. Therefore, hunters should scout these areas for potential trophy deer.

Regulation changes are another way to manipulate buck-to-doe ratios and the number of bucks in the total population. However, recent and proposed changes to the regulations will achieve mixed results.

Harnett County will go to the maximum either-sex season and maximum length Eastern Region deer season this year. Some of the county was in the Eastern Region and a small part was in the central season last year. The longer Eastern deer season for the county may result in more opportunity for hunters who want to wait for a buck to come along. In the long run, it could result in more bucks being taken along with more total deer. What the overall effect will be in regard to trophy bucks and number of bucks in the herd will be answered only in the future.

Tar Heel hunters continue to show bias toward harvesting antlered bucks. The buck-to-doe harvest is consistent at about 1.3 to 1.5 bucks harvested for each doe harvested. Some hunters would like higher doe harvests and some would like increases or decreases in antlered-buck harvests. On a broad scale, these approaches may or may not result in what has come to be termed in modern times as "quality" deer management.

"Hunters want more of the state to become a two-buck area, as was implemented in the Western and Central regions a few years ago," Stanford said. "But in some western areas, they also wanted a longer season and it was implemented. The result was that they harvested more bucks during the extra days and completely lost any benefit of the two-buck rule as a result of that. Now hunters in the Northwestern Region want a longer season as well. It could be that they will also lose the benefit of the two-buck rule there if we change the regulations."

Deer management in North Carolina is becoming as much a people management process as a wildlife management process. The commission is currently completing a hunter dimensions survey to see what hunters want now that the deer herd is thriving statewide. With the exception of the low-density Western Region, hunters in the mountains and central region are already more efficient, taking more deer per square mile of habitat during the shorter season than in the Eastern Region. It's mostly attributed to attitudes. Most hunters take one or two deer per season and they want that first or second deer to be an antlered buck.

Some hunters in the Central and Eastern regions that are under the four-buck rule go to the two-buck rule. However, even with that rule, there won't be any benefit unless hunters choose to take more does and let more bucks walk away. If they do not, harvest ratios and sex ratios will remain the same. As long as most hunters take only a deer or two, changes in regulations to limit the number of bucks is unlikely to result in more trophy antlered deer roaming the forests and fields.

Some hunters want the season extended into January and some want it to end in mid-December. Everyone seems to have a different opinion.

"Hunters in the mountain regions want it all," Stanford said. "They want a longer season, a longer doe season, but they want more trophy bucks."

Of course, those propositions are in opposition to one another. Even on a nationwide basis, antler size and point restrictions, bonus antlerless seasons, and shooting a doe before a buck have proved of limited value in increasing the antler sizes of trophy deer on a broad scale. Some of the problem lies in the definition of a "trophy" set of buck antlers.

Based on a statewide average of DMAP and hunter check station buck harvests several years ago, there is not much variation throughout the state in the sizes of buck antlers. The average buck was aged at 2.4 years, live weight was 126 pounds, average number of points was 5.6, average diameter was .94 inches and the average spread was 10.55 inches.

"Our hunter surveys tell us most hunters consider an 8-point rack that's 15 inches wide as a trophy," Stanford said. "But for some hunters, a spike is a trophy and others are looking for something much larger. It depends on how long they've been hunting, how often they get to hunt and other personal factors. But across the state, that would be a buck in the more than 3-year-old category."

Some of the state's regions grow more trophy bucks because the habitat is better. Many of them have produced some surprising trophies in the past. But certain trends have become norms in the last few seasons.

A measure of buck-producing potential in each county has been undertaken for many years. This is the antlered-buck harvest per square mile of habitat. Areas without deer, principally cities, large lakes

and other barren habitat are removed from the calculation. While this statistic is reported, it is also unreliable. A county with a short either-sex season but long antlered-buck season may show a larger harvest of bucks as a result of the regulations. Hunters may also select more bucks than does in certain areas.

"The antlered-buck harvest per square mile was in effect long before I came onboard with the commission," Stanford said. "Basically, our statistics show hunters must focus on harvesting antlered bucks. The antlered bucks harvested per square mile statistics aren't that important to a biologist, but hunters like to use it. However, it has flaws because, for example, a western county can have a lot of area and have a low buck harvest. It has been reported in the regulations digest since long before I became a deer biologist."

Some of the top 10 counties in terms of overall deer harvest don't show up on the radar of antlered-buck harvest per square mile. Of the top 10 doe harvest counties, only three made it into the top 10 for buck harvest. Halifax County was No. 5 for antlered bucks per square mile and No. 1 for doe harvest. Northampton County was No. 3 for antlered bucks harvested per square mile and No. 2 for doe harvest. Alleghany was No. 1 for antlered bucks per square mile and No. 7 for doe harvest.

Here's how the potential buck harvest looks and some potential hotspots to get in on this season's action, based on the top 10 counties for antlered-buck harvest per square mile (ABHPSM) in 2006-06.

Alleghany was the top county, with 1,002 antlered bucks taken and an ABHPSM of 6.97.

"Alleghany is above the escarpment," Stanford said. "It has plenty of deer and a good mix of habitats. There are some big deer there. I checked in a 170-pound doe from Alleghany a couple of years ago. There are some big bucks because they get bigger as you go north. It's not true mountain-type habitat and it has good soils."

While hunters looking for public hunting areas in Alleghany won't find anywhere to go, just to the south in Wilkes County is the Thurmond Chatham Game Land. Two state parks bordering the game land act as sanctuaries to allow bucks to grow old and relatively good soils and habitats grow decent sets of antlers. However, the going can get rough, with about half the game land consisting of difficult mountain terrain. The game land covers 6,276 acres.

Caswell County was No. 2, with 1,663 antlered bucks and an ABHPSM of 5.31. Caswell is still a rural county with plenty of open land, agricultural land and forest habitats. Caswell Game Land offers excellent hunting opportunities for high-quality deer. The game land has 16,704 acres of habitat, with some of the area planted in food plots or otherwise manipulated to produce some excellent deer-hunting potential.

Northampton County was No. 3, with 2,138 antlered bucks and an ABHPSM of 4.91. The environment is similar to the Caswell County deer habitats. The Roanoke River watershed provides fertile soils for good antler growth, and numerous hunting club leases exist, many of which are through timber companies. The Roanoke River Wetlands Game Land also provides a small parcel for public hunting.

Halifax County was No. 5, with a total buck harvest of 2,544 and an ABHPSM of 4.52. Habitat is similar to Northampton County, with Swift Creek watershed and the Roanoke River bottomlands providing fertile soils. There are no public game lands in Halifax County. But there are plenty of hunting clubs on leased lands.

Granville County came in at No. 4, with 1,493 antlered bucks and an ABHPSM of 4.54. Vance County was No. 6, with 660 antlered bucks and an ABHPSM of 4.17. Person County came in at No. 7, with 1,042 antlered bucks and an ABHPSM of 3.89. Wake County came in at No. 8, with 1,238 antlered bucks and an ABHPSM of 3.80.

These are all counties in the same geographic area that have relatively fertile soils and high-density human populations. Hunting pressure is high, leading to a high buck harvest from the propensity of hunters to select bucks over does, and all of these counties have many deer.

Several game lands are in these counties. Granville and Wake have much of the Butner-Falls of the Neuse Game Land within their boundaries. The game land has 43,959 acres that also extend into Durham County. The 41,213-acre Jordan Game Land provides plenty of deer hunting in Wake County, but also extends into Chatham, Durham and Orange counties. Person County has some excellent public hunting at the Lee Game Land, with 2,421 acres, and the Hyco Game Land, which has 4,229 acres.

Alamance County came in at No. 9, with an antlered-buck harvest of 903 and ABHPSM of 3.79. The Haw River bottomlands provide fertile habitat and the Cane Creek Mountains provide mixed habitats for deer.

Franklin County was No. 10, with an antlered-buck harvest of 1,350 and ABHPSM of 3.79. The 1,625-acre Shocco Creek Game Land provides some public hunting opportunities for deer. Franklin County deer habitat is similar to other top 10 Piedmont counties like Wake and Granville that are in the same geographic area.

With the deer herd "filling" its habitat though most of the state, the one thing that is becoming obvious is that the top buck counties lie along the North Carolina-Virginia border. These are all Coastal Plain, Piedmont and mountain counties that are oriented in the northern part of the state.

Nevertheless, there are other places that produce nice bucks. For hunters who want to stick close to home, there are still excellent places to hunt in other regions of the state. Impressive deer are coming from all parts of the state, especially on intensively managed lands with food plots and high doe harvests.

If hunters living in each district consider where the nearest county is located that has a high antlered-buck harvest based on the statistics, they should increase their odds for taking a trophy buck this season.

Find more about North Carolina fishing and hunting at:

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