North Carolina's 2010 Deer Forecast -- Part 2

Where can you find a big buck this season? We've analyzed the latest harvest data statewide to help you improve your chances.

North Carolina's deer herd of 1.25 million appears to have stabilized. The 2009-10 deer harvest was third highest on record and the antlered buck harvest was third highest on record. Hunters continued a three-year trend of harvesting more antlerless deer than antlered bucks.

Prior to the 2007-08 deer-hunting season, the buck-to-doe harvest ratio was around 60 percent. The trend since then, of hunters killing more antlerless deer, is partly due to N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's regulations aimed at increasing antlerless deer harvests. Another explanation is education. Quality deer management's creed of "shoot does and let bucks grow" is having an impact, based on hunter reports of the increasing sizes and numbers of trophy racks.

One regulation that is also having an impact is the two-buck regulation that went into affect in the western regions the same time the harvest ratios began to shift toward hunters taking more antlerless deer. Another was the implementation three years ago of bonus antlerless harvest report cards for private lands. Bonus antlerless harvest report cards can now be used on public lands other than game lands.

During the 2009-10 season, 48.0 percent of the total deer harvest consisted of antlered bucks. During 2008-09, 48.2 percent of the harvest consisted of antlered bucks. Button bucks accounted for 7.5 percent in 2009-10, which is an increase from 6.3 percent in 2008-09.

The 2009-10 antlered buck harvest was third highest on record, following the 2006-07 buck harvest at 85,459 and 2007-08 at 83,665. The 2009-10 total deer harvest of 169,273 included 81,283 antlered bucks, 12,611 button bucks and 75,379 does. The 2008-09 harvest of 176,297 included 85,051 antlered bucks, 13,359 button bucks and 77,887 does.

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.

"Our deer hunting regulations have essentially remained the same for several years," Stanford said. "There have been some changes in the DMAP rules that allow landowners of smaller properties to take advantage of the program, but no changes that would significantly impact the deer harvest."

But Stanford said there was a shift harvest locations. Proportionally fewer deer, including bucks, were taken in the coastal plain. Less pressure last season could translate into more mature bucks in coastal counties this season.

"It could also mean that years of liberal antlerless harvests are having an impact on the population," he said. "It will take a few more years for our modeling will show whether it's a decline in the coastal deer population."

Although few hunters harvest more than one deer, the latest survey shows those who harvest a buck usually harvest more than one.

"It's counter-intuitive, because just over half of all hunters take only one deer," Stanford said. "But the two-buck rule could be having more of an impact than we thought. In the coastal region, the four-buck rule is still in effect because that's what hunters wanted. Every three years, we conduct a hunter harvest survey. Last year's survey was really surprising."

The survey included 239,367 deer hunters who reported harvesting 146,131 deer. Of those who harvested any deer, 41 percent took one buck, 30 percent took two bucks, 12 percent took three bucks and 9 percent took four bucks. That means a relatively low percentage of hunters is taking a high percentage of bucks.

"This could mean that extending the two-buck rule to the coastal counties could have the impact of lowering the statewide antlered buck harvest," Stanford said.

A change to the harvest reporting system asked whether dogs were used to take deer and whether the deer was taken at a specific game land. In most counties where dog hunting is legal, 20 to 25 percent of deer were taken using dogs. However, in Warren County, 56 percent were taken using dogs, in Gates County, 49 percent and in Brunswick County, 47 percent.

Hunters reported taking 3,776 antlered bucks on game lands, with 559 of them taken using dogs. Antlered bucks comprised 56 percent of the game land harvest of 6,727 deer.

The top 10 counties for antlered buck harvest during 2009-10 hunting season were Halifax, 2,502; Northampton, 2,336; Wilkes, 2,037; Bertie, 2,000; Pender, 1,841; Duplin, 1,665, Wake, 1,574; Beaufort, 1,569; Edgecombe, 1,532 and Franklin, 1,510.

Eight of these counties made the top-10 list last year, but Wake and Edgecombe counties replaced Columbus and Bladen.

These are traditional counties for producing high total deer and antlered buck harvests. All of these counties, except Wilkes, are in the eastern part of the state. Seven are in the northeastern corner of the state.

Two things make coastal counties stand out in terms of total antlered buck harvests aside from large deer populations. The first is they are under the four-buck rule, allowing individual hunters to harvest more bucks than in western counties. The second is that they all have large landmasses. Wilkes has the largest landmass of all mountain counties.

But a county being in the top 10 counties for total buck harvest doesn't necessarily mean it is one of the best for harvesting a buck. The picture becomes clearer when the amount of available deer habitat is considered. Biologists consider only the acreage of deer habitat in a county to arrive at a more reliable statistic: the antlered bucks harvested per square mile of available habitat.

The top 10 counties in terms of the antlered bucks harvested per square mile of habitat were Alleghany, 6.82; Vance, 5.75; Northampton, 5.17; Wake, 4.73; Halifax, 4.39; Franklin, 4.26; Caswell, 4.03; Alamance, 3.93; Davie, 3.78; Hertford, 3.76. Eight of these counties made the top ten list for antlered bucks per square mile of habitat during the 2008-09 season.

These counties are in located in the northern half of the state, mostly in the northeastern corner. Alleghany and Davie counties are in the northwestern corner and Alamance and Caswell counties are in the center.

For hunters who don't have hunting access in the top antlered buck harvest counties, or who can't afford to drive long distances to get to them, the Commission's statistics identify the top two counties in each district for antlered bucks harvested per square mile of habitat.

The top two counties in District 1 were Hertford, 3.76 and Bertie, 3.24; District 2, Beaufort, 3.24 and Pitt, 2.76; District 3, Vance, 5.75 and Northampton, 5.17; District 4, Bladen, 1.97, Cumberland, 1.92 and Harnett, 1.92 (Tie); District 5, Caswell, 4.03 and Alamance, 3.93; District 6, Rowan, 3.75 and Anson, 3.31; District 7, Alleghany, 6.82 and Yadkin, 3.72; District 8, Lincoln, 3.38 and Catawba, 2.28; District 9, Polk, 2.76 and Madison, 0.91.

While the antlered buck harvest per square mile helps in deciding where to hunt, predicting potential for antlered buck harvest is not as simple as looking at those statistics, either. Stanford said two other factors are deer density and hunter effort.

"Antlered buck harvests are high wherever there is a high deer density to begin with," he said. "But accessibility plays a big part. Antlered buck harvests are high wherever hunter effort is high. This can be due to the availability of public or private hunting land or to a county's close proximity to an urban or suburban center with a large number of hunters."

For example, Wake County is in the top 10 counties in the antlered buck per square mile category and is also in the top ten in total buck harvest. The habitat is good, but not exceptional. Wake is in the top 10 counties list in no small part because it has a large landmass and has lots of hunters from Raleigh and Durham. Three major game lands are in the county: Butner-Falls, Jordan and Harris.

Alamance County is fairly close to Wake County and, while it shares similar high-density human populations, it isn't in the top-10 category for total antlered buck harvest because it has a small landmass. Yet Alamance nearly always makes it into the top 10 in antlered bucks per square mile of habitat.

Author Mike Marsh killed this big buck in Pender County last season. Photo by Mike Marsh.

In District 1, Bertie and Hertford counties had the highest harvest rates for antlered bucks per square mile of habitat. These two counties share excellent deer habitat in swamps along the Chowan River and also have good mix of farmland and forestland 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 areas.

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 and are noted for heavy-antlered bucks.

In District 2, Beaufort and Pitt counties topped the antlered buck per square mile category. These two counties have some excellent privately held forest habitat. The 10,027-acre Goose Creek Game Land is located in Beaufort County has lowland coastal deer habitat.

Other counties in District 2 that ranked high were Pender and Craven. The Tar, Trent, Neuse and Northeast Cape Fear river bottomlands offer high deer densities in these counties, with lots of farmland and timberland on the uplands to grow big antlers. Covering 160,724 acres in Jones, Craven and Carteret Counties, Croatan Game National Forest 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 hunting.

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

In District 4, Bladen, Cumberland and Harnett counties topped the category. Bladen County borders the Cape Fear River floodplain's excellent deer habitat. The county also has the 32,263-acre Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land and the 9,588-acre Suggs Millpond Game Land. Because of its intensive habitat enhancement program, Fort Bragg Army Post in Cumberland and Harnett Counties has the highest potential for producing trophy bucks of any public hunting area in the coastal plain.

In District 5, Alamance and Caswell counties led the antlered buck per square mile category. These adjoining counties have large rural areas in timber and agricultural production. In Alamance County, Burlington creates high hunter effort and the Haw River area provides fertile habitat. In Caswell County, the 17,198-acre Caswell Game Land is a traditional big-buck producer. In Durham, Granville and Wake counties, Butner-Falls of the Neuse Game Land offers good buck potential. In Person County, Hyco and Mayo game lands have excellent forest habitat.

In District 6, Rowan and Anson led the way. These counties have large forested areas along the Yadkin River lakes, which provide excellent deer habitat. The 8,372-acre Alcoa Game Land offers excellent deer hunting, with high antlered buck harvests. But hunters should also try the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge permit hunts in Anson and Richmond counties. Prime habitat, with bottomland hardwoods, managed pine forests and agricultural plantings along with limited hunting effort produce lots of bucks for NWR hunters who are successful at drawing permits. Uwharrie Game Land in Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph counties is known for producing trophy bucks. The 61,225-acre Sandhills Game Land is another great place for big bucks. It is located in Hoke. Moore, Richmond and Scotland Counties,

In District 7, Alleghany County and Yadkin counties led in antlered bucks per square mile. Alleghany yields an astounding number of big bucks for its small size. The New River drainage corridor and fertile farmland and timberland soils create exceptional buck habitat. It has no public game lands, but Thurmond Chatham Game Land is located to the south in Wilkes County and it produces some of the best bucks in the mountain region. In Yadkin County, the Yadkin River floodplain has excellent deer habitat. The county has no game lands, but the 982-acre Perkins Game Land in Davie County has good deer habitat.

In District 8, Lincoln and Catawba counties led the category. These counties are located along the Catawba River and have forest habitat along with a few farms. The Catawba Game Land offers 1,189 acres of hunting along the headwaters of Lake Norman.

In District 9, Polk County always stands wins the ab/smh category because its habitat is more foothills

than mountainous terrain The fertile soils along the Green River produce fair hunting and the 14,308-acre Green River Game Land gives up some nice bucks every season. Madison County always gets the second-place honors for ab/smh. It has a huge amount of public hunting territory in the Pisgah National Forest Game Land. The French Broad River bottomlands are key to producing Madison County's antlered bucks.

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