Ohio's 2009 Deer Outlook Part 2: Where To Find Our Biggest Bucks

The Buckeye State continues to produce world-class whitetail bucks in every season. Here's where to find your buck of a lifetime in 2009. (November 2009)

Although last year's total take of 252,017 deer set a new Buckeye State record, another record was set as well: an all-time record of 89,962 antlered bucks harvested during the 2008-09 season.

Ohio's deer season continues to gain in popularity with the state's hunters, due in no small part to the very real possibility of bagging a once-in-a-lifetime trophy buck.

Although Ohio's hunters have known about the state's quality deer hunting for years, when John Shmucker's "Amish Buck" made headlines two years ago, Ohio's non-resident license sales grew by nearly 7,500, plus an increase in outfitters, guides, and leasing along with it.

It's not just the big 140- to 160-class whitetails that draw the attention; it's the monster bucks, deer in the 200 and 300 classes that prove Ohio is one of the select states where world-class bucks are a reality.

"Twenty years ago, most hunters would take any buck, but nowadays most deer hunters are passing up the smaller yearling (18-month-old) bucks and waiting for something bigger," said Mike Tonkovich, deer biologist for the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

That causes some problems for biologists trying to gain insight into the state's deer herd.

"In the past, the buck harvest was always a reliable indicator of the deer population," said the biologist, "but today we are beginning to wonder if the buck harvest is truly a reflection of the overall deer population."

A SHIFT IN DATA

Historically, yearling bucks made up approximately 65 percent of the overall buck harvest. Now, yearling bucks make up 45 to 50 percent of the total buck harvest.

"The number of yearling bucks in the buck harvest data is down considerably," Tonkovich said. "Hunters are being more selective about what they shoot, which brings into question the overall buck mortality rate."

The lack of accurate buck mortality numbers has some biologists wondering if the current data is a true representation of the deer herd.

"One of the things we're struggling with is trying to make sense out of what the harvest data really means," Mike Tonkovich said. "Today, with so many deer and so much interest in antlers, we're not really sure what the numbers mean anymore."

Harvest data alone doesn't tell the full story on local deer populations. Some counties might show a decline in the buck harvest, but that could be a result of less hunting pressure or hunters being more selective.

"This gets back to the limitations of data based entirely on a harvest system. You hope its representative of the deer population, but it may not be because of changes in hunter behavior," Tonkovich said. "Traditionally, when the buck harvest went up, it was a good indication that the overall deer population was up. When the buck harvest went down, it signified the deer population was down. The same thing used to be true for deer-vehicle collisions. Buck harvest up, deer vehicle collisions up."

A look at the current data reveals that in deer zones C and B, yearling bucks make up nearly 50 percent of the total buck harvest. In Zone A, yearling bucks make up over 60 percent of the total buck harvest.

"When we look at the age of deer coming out of Zone A, the data shows that the deer are much younger than other parts of Ohio," Tonkovich said. "Obviously, deer are not living as long, which means hunting pressure is much higher."

In Zone C, 2 1/2-year-old bucks make up nearly 31 percent of the total buck harvest. In Zone B, they make up 34 percent of the buck harvest. In Zone A, 2.5-year-old bucks make up 29 percent of the total buck harvest.

However, trophy racks seldom show up before the animal has reached an age of 3.5 years. In Zone C, a statewide high of 16 percent of bucks harvested are 3.5 years old. In Zone B, that number is lower at 14 percent, while 3.5-year-old bucks make up only 11.7 percent of the total buck take in Zone A.

WHERE ARE THEY?

Wallhangers, bucks that gross over 140, are in a rare grouping that has lived 4 1/2 years or longer. Statistics show that in the east-central and southeast counties in Zone C, hunters have a better chance of bagging a potential trophy. However, that chance is slim because only 3.33 percent of the total buck harvest reaches that elusive age of 4.5 years in Zone C. Less then one-fourth of 1 (.25) percent of the trophy bucks harvested are over 5 years old in Zone C.

In northeast and western Ohio, zones A and B, the number of 4.5-year-old bucks is much lower, less then 1.5 percent of the total buck harvest. The number of bucks reaching over 5 years old in Zone B is negligible. In Zone A, barely more than .1 percent of bucks harvested reach the ripe old age of 5.5 years old.

However dismal the odds of bagging a trophy in western Ohio, that part of the state does lead in some important categories. It is the only area in the state where the average antler beam diameter is increasing. All other areas of the state are showing a slow decline in yearling buck beam diameter.

"That is due to the large agriculture base in that part of the state and the nutritional value that plays in beam diameter. It is also reflective of the relatively healthy condition of the deer here," Tonkovich said. "On the eastern side of the state, the forested areas are losing some nutritional value as the timber matures, providing less browse."

According to Tonkovich, the primary limiting factor for bucks in the western part of the state is hunting pressure and the limited escape routes and available cover that is not a problem in central and eastern Ohio.

The top five buck harvest counties in the state during the 2008-09 deer season were Coshocton (3,141), Tuscarawas (2,795), Guernsey (2763), Licking (2,745) and Muskingum (2,694).

In eastern Ohio, a number of counties stand out as constant producers of Buckeye Big Buck Club qualifying bucks. To be eligible for entry into the Buckeye Big Buck Club, bucks must score a minimum 140 inches for a typical and 160 for non-typical.

Licking County leads the state in qualifying bucks with a total 596 Buckeye Big Buck Club entries. Close behind is Muskingum County with 567 entries, Guernsey County (356 entries), Hocking (355 entries) and Coshocton (353 entries).

"

Deer are much larger in farm belt areas. The farm crops are providing much more fat, carbohydrates and protein than what the native forages in eastern Ohio are providing," said Tonkovich, "but with the racks they're growing in eastern Ohio, we still have a very healthy and productive herd."

The eastern part of the state also contains the bulk of the public lands in Ohio. However, hunting pressure on public lands has grown substantially as the huge sizes of Ohio's bucks attract more out-of-state hunters, leading to an increase in leasing, which in turn has forced many local hunters away from traditional hunting grounds and onto public land.

"My concern with leasing is that local guys are being excluded from their traditional hunting grounds. Those sportsmen are not finding other places to hunt, so they're resorting to public lands," Tonkovich said. "Public land pressure is building, and I think that is a direct result of hunters being bumped from the private lands they used to hunt that are now being leased."

Public lands are being more heavily hunted, and the Ohio Division of Wildlife has taken notice of the increased pressure placed on deer in public hunting areas.

"Based on conversations with the chief and the number of folks that have contacted him as well about this issue, I wouldn't discount the possibility of a different set of regulations on public lands versus private lands," Tonkovich. said "It's doable. It would be difficult, but that's not to say we wouldn't do it, we would certainly entertain the thought."

EHD, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, which infected deer in Ohio and elsewhere in 2007, was not confirmed in a single deer in 2008.

"We didn't have any confirmed cases in the state," Tonkovich said. "It seemed to be nonexistent last year."

A HOTBED FOR TROPHIES

Southwestern Ohio, the current hotbed for trophy bucks, has a relative handful of counties that have produced some of the nation's top bucks in recent years.

"The southwest region has been on fire," said Tonkovich. "If we went back and looked at the numbers, we would see very similar things in proportion to the big bucks it's producing. The southwest region's counties are where the eastern counties were 20 years ago as far as maturing of the herd. Obviously, the deer have a distinct advantage in many of these southwest counties, and that advantage would be agriculture. Access to agriculture crops means bigger deer and much larger racks."

Today's top producers of Boone and Crockett bucks in Ohio would fall squarely into Wildlife District Five, with such notable deer as the Beatty Buck, the Amish Buck and the Jerman Buck.

"We certainly have had our share of quality bucks," said District Five wildlife biologist Dave Kohler. "There are three big factors that tie into a deer reaching that quality and size. One of those would be nutrition. They need a good food source, which we have in southwest Ohio. Number two would be genetics. Number three, bucks must be able to become a trophy in Ohio. Also, we have a one-buck limit, and that in addition to the antlerless permits takes some pressure off our bucks."

Biologists also point out that the deer population in southwest Ohio is at a good level for producing the kind of trophies that make the headlines.

"The population of deer in southwestern Ohio is not so high that we're seeing beam diameters go down, plus we have good deer per square mile numbers. Add all that up and I think you have the recipe for some real quality bucks," Kohler said.

Habitat changes have also played a role in shifting the axis of Ohio's mega trophy bucks production westward.

"Southeast and eastern Ohio has certainly been the mecca for deer hunting in Ohio for a long time," Kohler said. "But the habitat has changed to the point where there are now a lot of mature woodlands that are not nutritionally as good as what we're seeing in southwestern Ohio. The mix of wood lots with agriculture is what produces the quality deer in southwest Ohio."

While the eastern Ohio counties used to be the producers of the state's top bucks, that reputation has now been taken over by a handful of southwestern counties.

"If somebody would have asked me prior to 2000 where would be the best counties to bag a trophy buck, would I have said Warren County or Green County? Probably not," Kohler said. "But then, you look at where the Beatty Buck (Green County) and the Jerman Buck (Warren County) came from.

"Some of these suburban areas have access issues as far as hunters getting in," Kohler added. "What that amounts to is these bucks are getting a chance to age. If a hunter can gain permission to hunt these areas, there's probably a pretty good chance of coming across a quality buck."

What are southwest Ohio's top picks for trophy bucks?

"As far as counties, I would say Highland, Adams, Brown and Clermont, in addition to Warren and Green counties," Kohler said. "The Caesar Creek Wildlife Area is basically a three-county wildlife area where Green, Warren and Clinton counties come together. I would also pick Paint Creek Wildlife Area in Highland and Ross counties, and the East Fork Wildlife Area in Clermont County."

"The opportunity to take these trophy bucks has always been there, so why are we seeing more trophies all of a sudden? It goes back to an increase in archery hunting. The deer have always been there, the opportunity has been there, and we now have more people taking advantage of it," Kohler said. "The good part of it is we have more archery hunters hunting, we're seeing more quality bucks being taken, but we have more bucks coming along to replace them, and we've got our hunters focusing as well on taking antlerless deer, and that's just going to pay dividends."

Hunters are still going to have to spend time and energy scouting for trophy buck sign and patterning the animals as the seasons change. You won't find big bucks in December where they were in October, and there will be significant changes in habitat and food availability as the season wears on. Hunters who pay attention to all these details and stay focused are the ones who will score.

For more information about Ohio's trophy deer hunting, contact the Ohio Division of Wildlife at (800) WILDLIFE (945-3543), or visit www.wildohio.com.

Check out the Buckeye Big Buck Club on the Internet at www.buckeyebigbuckclub.org

For travel information and accommodations, contact the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism at www.discoverohio.com, or call (800) BUCKEYE (282-5393).

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