North Carolina's 2009 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Where To Find Trophy Bucks

North Carolina's 2009 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Where To Find Trophy Bucks

Here's the newest data on the best places in the state to find your buck. (November 2009)

The 2008-09 deer season set a harvest record and confirmed a shift in hunter preference for taking antlerless deer over antlered bucks (or at least a willingness to do so) for the second year.

Previously, the buck-to-doe harvest ratio had hovered around 60 percent, following years of liberalization in antlerless deer harvest regulations.

This shift toward hunter willingness to take more does is good news for proponents of quality deer management because at the same time the antlerless deer harvest is increasing, the buck harvest is stabilizing.

During the 2007-08 season, 48.6 percent of the total harvest consisted of antlered bucks. 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 2007-08 harvest of 171,986 deer set a record, but the antlered buck harvest was only the second highest, following the record antlered buck harvest of 85,459 in 2006-07.

The 2008-09 antlered-buck harvest beat the 2007-08 antlered-buck harvest but not the 2006-07 harvest, so it's in second place. The breakdown by age and sex for the 2008-09 harvest was 85,051 antlered bucks, 13,359 button bucks and 77,887 does for a record 176,297 deer. The buck-to-antlerless deer ratio of harvested deer was 48.2 percent, proving it was probably not an anomaly.

Evin Stanford is the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's Surveys and Research Biologist for Deer, Turkey and Wild Boar. He analyses big-game harvest data.

"The antlered buck harvest was our second-best," Stanford said. "But the difference in buck harvest over the past three years is statistically insignificant. We are seeing a flattening of the deer harvest curve for all ages and sexes. This is a result of stabilization of the deer population through liberalization of regulations regarding the harvest of antlerless deer."

Antlered buck harvests are slightly lower, while overall harvests are higher. One factor is hunter acceptance of the regulatory caps on taking antlered bucks. Impacts of the two-buck rule for Piedmont and mountain counties and the four-buck rule for coastal counties are showing.

The harvest of does and button bucks has increased for two reasons. The first is a shift in hunter preference for taking does over bucks for those harvesting multiple deer. The second is the implementation two years ago of bonus antlerless harvest cards, which increased reported antlerless harvests on private lands.

With more than half of the total harvest consisting of does and button bucks for only the second season since deer restoration began, the establishment of a new trend may show an increasing number of hunters are seeking to improve their deer-hunting territories' trophy buck potential. But this attitude has been taking shape over a long time. Therefore, quality deer management alone does not explain the predisposition for so many individual hunters to harvest does in favor of bucks.

Last fall, for example, other reasons for the higher doe-to-buck harvest ratio could have included economic factors. 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 and driving to hunting destinations. Meat prices had also increased dramatically. Most deer hunters prefer eating antlerless deer rather than adult bucks. Therefore, the chance to supplement freezers with extra meat may have tempted many hunters into taking the opportunity to harvest more antlerless deer than in the past.

Stanford said he was happy that the buck harvest was stabilizing, as well as the increasing preference toward antlerless deer. He said the age and condition of bucks should continue increasing as long as hunters are willing to take does.

Trophy bucks are the result of advanced age, good nutrition and solid genetics. North Carolina whitetails are virtually identical genetically, so the other two ingredients are what produce trophy-quality antlers. Trophy bucks were once limited in distribution, favoring central and upper Piedmont counties. But now, trophy bucks may pop up anywhere. The increased doe antlerless harvest may be creating better quality habitat, while at the same time taking pressure off young bucks.

"In many areas of the state, we would still 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 still account for 60 to 80 percent of the antlered buck harvest."

Button bucks accounted for 7.5 percent of the total harvest in 2008-09, an increase from 6.3 percent of the total harvest in 2007-08. If hunters become more proficient at identifying button bucks, they would create an increased recruitment of antlered bucks into the trophy age-classes.

A higher recruitment of older aged bucks is exactly what many hunters have expressed an interest in seeing, with more hunters asking for trophy management rules, such as antler point restrictions and earn-a-buck rules at public hearings because hunters have not accomplished trophy management voluntarily. If true trophy management rules were put in place, it is likely that the total antlered buck harvest trend would be heading downward, not remaining nearly the same as it has during the past three seasons. Last season's top 10 counties for antlered buck harvest (and their harvest totals in parentheses) were: Halifax (2,799), Northampton (2,627), Bertie (2,463), Pender (2,051), Wilkes (1,842), Duplin (1,833), Columbus (1,748), Beaufort (1,739), Franklin (1,698) and Bladen (1,676).

These counties traditionally have produced high deer and antlered buck harvest totals. These counties are also "clumped together" primarily in two areas -- the northeastern part of the state and the southern coast. Wilkes County is the exception; it is in the northwestern mountains.

Two things make coastal counties stand out in terms of total antlered buck harvests, aside from their large deer populations. The first is they are all in the four-buck rule counties -- hunters tend to kill more bucks when killing more bucks is legal. The second is that they all have relatively large landmasses.

But th

e picture becomes more sharply focused 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, a more accurate statistic for demonstrating the ability of any county to yield adult antlered bucks for hunters is a statistic used by the commission and other wildlife agencies throughout the Southeastern U.S.

That statistic is the number of antlered bucks harvested per square mile of habitat.

The top 10 counties by this measure (followed by the number of antlered bucks taken per square mile) were Alleghany (7.0), Vance (6.88), Northampton (5.82), Halifax (4.91), Wake (4.84), Franklin (4.79), Alamance (4.26), Hertford (4.21), Rowan (4.03) and Bertie (3.99).

All of these counties are in the northern half of the state, with most of them clustered in the northeastern corner. But the central Piedmont county of Rowan has been a consistent producer of deer in all categories, from total harvest to antlered buck harvest, for the past several seasons. The same is true of Alleghany County in the northwestern mountain region. Alamance and Vance counties, which are located in the northern Piedmont, are also consistent producers of deer, across all categories, but simply have small landmasses, so it takes the antlered buck harvest per square mile to show the potential of these smaller counties.

For hunters who don't have access to places to hunt in these top 10 counties, or can't afford to drive long distances to take advantage of hunting in them, we've used the commission's statistics to identify the top two counties in each district in terms of antlered bucks harvested per square mile of habitat. That information is contained in the charts accompanying this article.

While the antlered buck harvest per square mile is a big help in deciding where to hunt, predicting potential for antlered buck harvest is not really as simple as looking at statistics. Stanford said two other factors come into play -- overall deer density and hunter effort.

For example, Alamance County is in the top 10 in bucks-per-square-mile measures. But the habitat is not exceptional. The county is, however, located at the epicenter of one of the highest human populations centers in the state. Burlington is inside the county's borders and the county is located along the Interstate 40 corridor between Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and the Greensboro metropolitan area. Yet the Haw River drainage has plenty of habitat that is inhospitable to human habitation, creating an island of deer habitat in Alamance County that is surrounded by residential and commercial development.

In District 1, Bertie and Hertford counties had the highest buck-per-square-mile counts. These counties have excellent deer habitat in swamps of the Chowan River, with a good mix of farmland and forest on the uplands. In Bertie County, the Roanoke River area offers a similar combination of perfect habitat. These three ingredients, river floodplains, farmland and forestland, create the top hunting opportunities in most of the state's best antlered buck producing areas. The Chowan Swamp Game Land has 21,171 acres of prime deer hunting habitat in these two counties. Several tracts of the Roanoke River Game Land are located in Bertie County.

In District 2, Pitt and Greene counties lead the bucks-per-square-mile category. These two counties have some excellent privately held forest habitat, but no public hunting lands. Other counties ranking within a buck's jump of these counties were Pender and Craven. The Tar, Trent, Neuse and Northeast Cape Fear river bottomlands offer high deer densities, with lots of farmland and timberland on the upland areas -- habitat conditions that can allow deer to grow big antlers. Covering 160,724 acres in Jones, Craven and Carteret counties, the Croatan Game Land provides excellent hunting. 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.

In District 3, Vance and Northampton counties topped the statistics for the second year, thanks to an excellent mix of farmland and timberland. The Roanoke River floodplain is excellent habitat for producing antlered deer in Northampton County. A small part of the Roanoke River Wetlands Game Land is located in Northampton County.

In District 4, Bladen and Columbus counties topped the bucks-per-square-mile for the second year. Both counties have lots of rural land in timber and agricultural production. Bladen County borders the Cape Fear River, which has excellent 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 offers lots of prime bottomland habitat along the Waccamaw and Lumber rivers. The Columbus County Game Land has several separate tracts of bottomland hardwoods along these rivers totaling 9,377 acres. Because of an intensive habitat enhancement program, Fort Bragg Army Post in Cumberland Count probably has the highest potential for producing trophy bucks of any public hunting area in the Coastal Plain. Hunters must undergo an orientation and purchase an additional hunting license for all hunts at Fort Bragg.

In District 5, Alamance and Granville counties led the harvest in bucks per square mile. Alamance perennially produces big bucks. These counties have large rural areas in timber and agricultural production. Nearby towns produce high hunter effort and the Haw River provides fertile habitat in Alamance County. Just to the north of Alamance County, the commission's 17,198-acre Caswell Game Land is a traditional big-buck public-hunting area. In Granville and Wake counties, the Butner-Falls of the Neuse Game Land offers excellent buck potential.

Rowan and Stanly led the way in District 6. 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 deer hunting. But hunters should also try the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge permit hunts in Anson and Richmond counties. Prime habitat, with lots of bottomland hardwoods, managed pine forests and agricultural plantings along with limited hunting effort produce plenty of bucks for NWR hunters who are successful at drawing permits. Uwharrie Game Land in Davidson and Montgomery counties is also worth scouting for bucks.

In District 7, Alleghany County yields an astounding number of big bucks for its small size. It has the New River drainage, plus fertile farmland and timberland soils, which create prime big buck habitat. It has no public game lands, but Thurmond Chatham Game Land is just to the south in Wilkes County and it produces some excellent bucks. In Davie County, located at the southern edge of the district, the Yadkin River floodplain offers excellent habitat. Davie County has extensive timberland and farms. The only game land is the 982-acre Perkins Game Land.

In District 8, Lincoln and Catawba counties again led in the bucks-per-square-mile category. These counties are located along the Catawba River and have forest habitat with a few farms. The Catawba Game Land offers 1,189 acres of hunting.

In District 9, Polk County always stands out. It has more foothills county than the mountain terrain typical in most of District 9. Polk County also contains low-lying, fertile soils along the Green River. The 14,308-acre Green River Game Land gives up some nice bucks every season. Madison County typically garners second-place honors. It has a huge amount of public hunting territory in the Pisgah National Forest Game Land. The French Broad River bottomlands are the key to Madison County consistently producing lots of antlered bucks.

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