North Carolina's 2008 Deer Forecast Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Here's what last season's harvest statistics say about where to find big bucks. (November 2008)

The 2007-08 deer season was an amazing time for North Carolina's hunters. The state's deer hunters not only set a harvest record, but the harvest showed a distinct shift in hunter preference for the first time in many years. For many years, the buck-to-doe ratio of harvested deer had hovered around 60 to 62 percent, favoring bucks over does long after the liberalization of regulations pertaining to the taking of antlerless deer across the state have been in effect. However, a much larger proportion of antlerless deer compared with antlered bucks was taken in 2007-08, as well as a much larger total harvest of antlerless deer.

During the 2006-07 season, approximately 55.4 percent of the total deer harvest of 154,273 deer consisted of antlered bucks. During the 2007-08 season, approximately 48.6 percent of the total deer harvest consisted of antlered bucks. The complete deer harvest figures for the 2007-08 hunting season included 83,665 antlered bucks, 10,887 button bucks and 77,434 does. The total harvest of 171,986 deer set a new harvest record, although the antlered buck harvest was only the second highest on record, following on the heels of the record antlered buck harvest of 85,459 set in 2006-07.

Evin Stanford is the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's surveys and research biologist for deer, turkeys and wild boar. He keeps track of the harvest data for big-game animals and therefore has a better handle on the pulse of the deer herd and deer hunting effort than anyone else in the state.

"The deer herd is stabilizing across most of the state," Stanford said. "Therefore, it would not be unusual for the total harvest numbers to go up and down somewhere around the peak numbers we are seeing. A slight decline in the buck harvest is not significant over one year's time. It's probably just an anomaly.

Weather and disease are the factors that affect the deer harvest. Disease can reduce the number of deer available to hunters in areas where hemorrhagic disease is present. Severe winter weather in the mountains affects the harvest in that area because it is a short season, and if hunters can't get out, the harvest can be relatively low. We will be watching the long-term data several years to see whether the decline in the antlered buck harvest will continue."

In contrast to the apparently insignificant decline in the antlered buck harvest, the increase in the number of antlerless deer harvested appears to be very significant. An increase in antlerless deer harvest may represent a shift in hunter attitudes, since the either-sex hunting seasons in 2007-08 were essentially the same as in several hunting seasons.

One reason for the increased either-sex harvest may have been the use of bonus antlerless harvest report cards. For the first time, during the 2007 hunting season, hunters with access to private lands did not have to be involved with the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) to have the opportunity to harvest additional antlerless deer above the six antlerless deer maximum allowed under the standard hunting regulations.

Of these six total deer, two could be antlered bucks in the two-buck zone and four could be antlered bucks in the four-buck zone in eastern counties. Bonus harvest report cards applied only to private land in areas with a maximum-length, either-sex season. Hunters could obtain one or two of them per visit to a license agent with no limit for harvesting antlerless deer over the course of the hunting season. An increased doe harvest may have taken pressure off antlered bucks, as hunters filled their available hunting time by taking antlerless deer instead of antlered bucks.

"It's too early to tell for certain whether the bonus antlerless harvest report cards had an effect on the numbers of button bucks and does harvested during the 2007-08 hunting season," Stanford said. "We will able to get a better handle on that once the results of our next hunter survey is completed and analyzed next year. We do the surveys every three years, and they give us a better picture about what the game animals are our hunters prefer to harvest, as well as other attitudes."

With more than half of the total harvest consisting of does and button bucks for the first time since the deer restoration began decades ago, it's hard to argue against the fact that something has changed. While there has been an increase in the numbers of hunters who attempt to manage their deer-hunting territories' trophy buck potential, commonly referred to as "quality deer management," this attitude has been going on for quite some time.

Therefore, QDM does not explain the predisposition for so many individual hunters to harvest does in favor of bucks. But it is a main ingredient of the trophy management formula, which requires allowing younger bucks to grow and harvesting a liberal number of does.

Other reasons for the higher doe-to-buck harvest ratio could be economic. By last hunting season, hunters, like all other citizens, were paying higher prices for everything, including corn or sweet potatoes used as deer bait, fertilizer and seed for food plots, and fuel for planting food plots, as well as getting to and from their hunting destinations. Meat prices in the supermarkets were also escalating rapidly.

Most hunters who enjoy eating venison favor eating young deer and adult does to eating adult bucks, especially when the bucks are taken during the rut. The chance to fill the freezer with extra venison may have tempted many hunters into taking the opportunity to harvest more antlerless deer than in the past because antlerless deer are also more readily available than antlered bucks.

Another reason for the higher doe harvest could be simply that with the bonus harvest report cards, hunters may be reporting antlerless deer harvests they were not reporting before. But whatever the reason for the increased either-sex harvest, only time will tell if it is actually a trend, or just a blip on Stanford's deer radar.

"In many areas of the state we would like to see a greater percentage of does in the harvest," Stanford said. "The two ways to accomplish this are shooting a higher number of does and shooting a lower number of bucks. We're glad to see the antlered buck harvest stabilizing because it had really been increasing over the last few years.

Hunters have expressed a lot of interest in quality deer management. But there are still a lot of yearling bucks in the harvest, which is counterproductive to trophy management. Typically, one-third of does harvested are yearlings. But yearling antlered bucks account for 60 to 80 percent of the antlered buck harvest."

A high yearling buck harvest means a lower rate of recruitment of older aged bucks. If

the statistics for the 2007-08 harvest hold true for the future seasons, hunters may actually have begun to put their previous propensity for shooting young bucks on the back burner in favor of harvesting does, which is exactly what many individual hunters have expressed an interest in doing but hunters collectively have not accomplished.

There were few surprises when it came to the counties with the highest numbers of antlered bucks harvested. The top 10 counties for total antlered buck harvest were: Halifax, 2,452; Northampton, 2,217; Bertie, 2,009; Pender, 1,976; Bladen, 1,730; Duplin, 1,659; Columbus, 1,619; Sampson, 1,559; Beaufort, 1,520 and Wilkes, 1,517. These counties are traditional for producing high deer numbers and therefore producing plenty of antlered bucks. These counties lie in the northeastern part of the state, the southern Coastal Plain and in the northern mountains and have large landmasses with good deer habitats.

But the picture focuses more sharply when the amount of available deer habitat is considered. Some counties have more landmass than others, some have large water bodies, and some have unsuitable whitetail habitat in the form of highly urbanized areas. Therefore, the more accurate statistic that shows the ability of a county to support and yield antlered deer for hunting purposes is the statistic used by the commission and throughout the Southeast. That statistic is the number of antlered bucks harvested per square mile of habitat.

The top 10 counties in terms of antlered bucks harvested per square mile of habitat were: Alleghany, 7.62; Vance, 6.19; Northampton, 5.39; Halifax, 4.57; Alamance, 4.27; Caswell, 4.22; Franklin, 4.14; Hertford, 3.98 and Rowan, 3.96.

The top two counties in each district in terms of antlered buck harvest per square mile of habitat were District 1 -- Hertford, 3.98 and Gates, 3.52; District 2 -- Jones, 2.93 and Pender 2.88; District 3 -- Vance, 6.19 and Northampton, 5.39; District 4 -- Bladen, 2.44 and Columbus, 2.19; District 5 -- Alamance, 4.27 and Caswell, 4.22; District 6 -- Rowan, 3.96 and Stanly, 3.48; District 7 -- Alleghany, 7.62 and Davie, 3.84; District 8 -- Lincoln, 3.40 and Catawba, 2.34; District 9 -- Polk, 2.24 and Madison, 0.87.

Unfortunately, predicting potential for antlered buck harvest is not as simple as looking at statistics. Stanford said other factors than simply a greater number of bucks being harvested does not mean more antlered bucks are there.

"It's a function of two things," he said. "Antlered buck harvests are high where there is a high deer density to begin with and where the hunter effort is high as well."

For example, Wake County is in the top 10 in antlered bucks harvested per square mile. But the habitat is not extremely good. There are some good game lands in the county and some other habitats. But high human populations centers may merely contribute to extremely high hunting pressure and therefore, a high percentage of antlered bucks in the harvest.

In District 1, Gates and Hertford counties had the highest harvest per square mile. These counties are separated by the Chowan River and have good farmland and forest habitats. These two ingredients make for top hunting opportunities in most of the best buck areas. The Chowan Swamp Game Land has 21,171 acres of prime deer-hunting habitat in these two counties.

In District 2, Jones and Pender counties have some excellent forest habitat, with an abundance of private, public and corporate timberlands for hunting, as well as plenty of commission game lands. Covering 160,724 acres in Jones, Craven and Carteret counties, the Croatan Game Land provides excellent hunting. The Neuse River and Trent River bottoms are very fertile relative to most Coastal Plain habitats.

They offer excellent hunting for big-racked bucks. In Pender County, the Angola Bay Game Land at 24,483 acres and the Holly Shelter Game Land complex at 64,743 acres offer excellent deer hunting. The Northeast Cape Fear River and its tributaries provide excellent habitat and the high human populations of Wilmington and the communities along the immediate coast contribute plenty of hunting effort to yield numerous antlered bucks.

In District 3, Vance and Northampton counties topped the buck harvest statistics, thanks to a rich mix of farmland and timberland. The Roanoke River floodplain is excellent quality habitat for producing antlered deer in Northampton County. A small portion of the Roanoke River Wetlands Game Land is located in Northampton County.

In District 4, Bladen and Columbus counties topped the district's bucks-per-square-mile stats. Both counties have ample rural lands in timber and agricultural production. Bladen County borders the Cape Fear River, which has excellent quality habitat. The county also has public hunting available at the 32,263-acre Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land and the 9,588-acre Suggs Millpond Game Land. Columbus County has a profusion of prime bottomland habitat along the Waccamaw and Lumber rivers. The Columbus County Game Land has several separate tracts of bottomland totaling 9,377 acres.

In District 5, Alamance and Caswell counties led in buck harvest density. These counties have mostly rural areas in timber and agricultural production. Nearby towns like Burlington produce high hunter effort. The Haw River provides fertile habitat. The commission's 17,198-acre Caswell Game Land is a traditional big-buck hunting area.

In District 6, Rowan and Stanly were the top counties. These counties have large forested areas along the Yadkin River chain of lakes, which provide excellent deer habitat. The 8,372-acre Alcoa Game Land and the 126-acre Linwood Game Land offer excellent hunting in these counties.

In District 7, Alleghany County yields an astounding number of big bucks for its small size. It has a long deer-hunting tradition and fertile farmland and timberland soils. The Yadkin River floodplain is excellent habitat. Davie County has plenty of timberland and farms, and is also located along the Yadkin River. The 982-acre Perkins Game Land is a good place for hunters to try their luck for a nice buck.

In District 8, Lincoln and Catawba counties lead the pack. These counties are located along the Catawba River and have forested habitat and open lands cover types. The Catawba Game Land offers 1,189 acres of hunting area along the Catawaba River.

In District 9, Polk County always stands out in terms of buck density and harvest. It is more of a foothills county than a high-relief mountain county, with low-lying and relatively fertile habitat along the Green River. The 14,308-acre Green River Game Land gives up some nice bucks every season. Madison County is typically the No. 2 county in District 9. It has a huge amount of public hunting territory in the Pisgah National Forest Game Land. The French Broad River bottomlands are likely the key to the Madison consistently producing many antlered bucks.

"After several years of increasing buck harvest, it now appears that a lot of hunter preference is changing in favor of harvesting antlerless deer, and that's good in most areas of the state," Stanford said. "We are even getting asked by

some hunters to liberalize either-sex seasons in the mountain regions. Obviously, if the buck harvest stabilizes or if the doe harvest continues going up, hunters could see more antlered bucks across the landscape of the state."

Still, it's hard to tell if the trend of increasing harvest of antlered bucks has finally peaked and hunter preference truly is shifting to favor the taking of antlerless deer. If these shifts continue, an increasing number of trophy bucks will come from the key areas of the state along the Virginia border, the southern Coastal Plain and the Yadkin River corridor. But it will take time to confirm if this major shift is actually a trend, or merely an odd year for statistics.

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