Tennessee's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Tennessee's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Deer can be found in every corner of the Volunteer State, but some areas produce far more whitetails than others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a deer this fall.

By the time this issue of Tennessee Sportsman reaches your mail box or hits the newsstands the archery season opener will be just days away. Final preparations are under way as deer hunters narrow their search for the "honey holes" that will hopefully put venison in the freezer and racks on the wall.

One of the biggest departures from the norm in Tennessee deer season regulations was the removal of the random drawing for county quota hunts. They were sold this year on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Even though the statewide deer harvest was predicted to climb in 2009, numbers didn't quite hit the marks predicted by Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency wildlife managers. Statewide harvest dropped 1.3 percent to 162,202. This is just slightly better than the 2003 deer harvest of 161,780, but last year's kill was accomplished with nearly 10 percent fewer hunters. It is estimated that 195,000 deer hunters went afield last season, compared to 214,000 in 2003. The most recent peak in estimated deer hunter participation was in 1999, when 242,000 hunters pursued whitetails.

Deer hunter success rates started inching back up last season. Approximately 45 percent of hunters were successful, up slightly from 44 percent in 2007 and 2008. Volunteer State deer hunter success rate peaked at 47 percent in 2006, the year prior to the die-off caused by the disease EHD.

In last year's Deer Outlook, Daryl Ratajczak, Tennessee's big-game coordinator, qualified his predictions for 2009 because of the regulation change that allowed hunters to check their kills online versus taking them to a check-in station. "

About 10 percent of the people used internet check-in," Ratajczak said. "I think that number will grow as more hunters become familiar with its use."

This season the TWRA is going back to checking deer during the calendar day they are killed to help enforce the deer bag limit.

"We have no evidence and no way to prove that compliance changed," Ratajczak said, "but our law enforcement officers feel that it would help them do a better job."

"My overall predictions," Ratajczak mused, "well, I would be thrilled if we stayed the course. Statewide, we dropped in the number of yearlings killed last season. Tennessee is a Quality Deer Management state voluntarily. If we just maintained what we have been harvesting, well, I would be thrilled.

"For the last three years we have harvested in the 160,000-plus range," he resumed, "and we will probably hit the mid 160s again, or we may approach 170,000. Overall, our herd is in really good shape."

The biggest change in deer regulations for 2010 is with the traditional either-sex quota hunt drawings.

"We recommended doing away with the quota drawing permits in units A and B," Ratajczak said. "All of those counties will have open doe days."

In Unit B counties the number of counties that allow the harvest of does during the muzzleloader season will increase to a total of 14.

Despite the EHD-related die offs statewide three years ago, Giles County has been seemingly unaffected and its deer harvest numbers have steadily climbed. Deer harvest has grown so steadily that the Middle Tennessee county rose from its fourth place spot to the reigning champion statewide for the most deer killed last season. It is speculated that Giles County would have topped the list earlier if its deer population hadn't been hammered by the EHD outbreak in 2007. Giles County has been a top producer for many years, with 1988 being the first season that this county topped the 5,000 mark for deer killed.

Slipping from its top spot in 2009, Hardeman County recorded 5,063 deer harvested, which was down from 5,758 the year previous. Fayette County dropped from the No. 2 spot in 2008 to No. 4 last season, with a total deer harvest of 4,847.

Although Henry County's harvest dropped from 5,122 to 5,022 last season, it wasn't enough to unseat it from its third place ranking. The number of antlered bucks taken in Henry County rose last season to 2,240, up from 2,063 in 2008.

The top 5 was again rounded out by Lincoln County, where deer hunters bagged a total of 4,342 whitetails. The number of antlered bucks was amazingly stable, with just two more bucks checked in last season than the previous, posting a total of 2,103.

Franklin County again made the No. 6 spot with a harvest of 3,723, down slightly from the 2008 total. Maury County crept back into the top 10 list after recovering from the EHD episode. The southern Middle Tennessee county rose to No. 7 with 3,505 deer taken.

Montgomery County rose in the standings last season by giving up 3,441 deer to hunters, and rising from the No. 10 spot to its present No. 8 position. Madison County held its ninth place ranking by harvesting 3,319 deer, which was down slightly from 3,536 taken during the 2008 season. Weakley County rounded out the top 10 by recording 3,267 deer harvested, which was down by more than 500 deer from the year before.

Carroll, Wayne, McNairy, Hickman and Lawrence counties, respectively, were in the top 15 counties in the statewide harvest. Of special note, Hickman County reigned as the top producer for more than a decade until it was unseated by Giles County way back in 1988. Hickman County jockeyed back and forth with Giles County for another decade, coming out on top in 1989, 1992, 1996 and 1998.

Predominantly hardwood forests, Hickman County has not seen nearly as much hunting pressure as it did when tens of thousands of acres were enrolled in the TWRA Public Hunting Area Program back then.

"Pressure isn't there like it was in the 1980s," Ratajczak said. "Hickman County is part of Law Enforcement Area 22 and we have conducted surveys for several years in that management unit. The population is healthy, with approximately 20 deer per square mile. The number of hunters decreased when it moved from public hunting to private le

asing."

From my personal experience, large timber companies, such as Wilamette, cut vast blocks of hardwoods before selling off tracts to investors. Once converted to vast clearcuts the habitat improved for whitetails, but made it more difficult to find deer in the thick cover. Less pressure and more escape cover has contributed to the once-top producer sliding dramatically in the overall harvest ranks.

On a regional basis, the TWRA Region 1 in West Tennessee has taken the top spot among the regions for the last three years. A total of 56,939 deer were taken, which were augmented by the high rankings of Hardemen, Henry, Fayette, Madison and Weakley counties. These five accounted for almost 38 percent of the region's total with a tally of 21,498.

Overall the deer harvest in Tennessee for the 2009 season was slightly down from the previous year. Photo by Polly Dean.

Region I Regional Manager Alan Peterson was recently promoted from his post as the big game coordinator for the region's West Tennessee counties after 10 years on the job. With a decade of managing the whitetail herd under his belt he's a good source for information.

"The liberalization of antlerless harvests, especially Unit L's three does a day, have begun to slow the growth of deer populations, hence, the stabilization of harvests," Peterson said. "The Unit L harvests should continue to stabilize. There may be slight annual fluctuations, but no significant growth or declines.

"Unit A counties should continue to see increasing harvests as the deer populations increase," he continued. "Limited doe harvests in Unit A counties will allow that growth to occur. Most of the Unit A counties are along the Mississippi River.

Three counties, however, are along Kentucky Lake.

"We believe the populations are still below what the counties can support, which is why we still have them in Unit A," Peterson pointed out. "When they reach the level where we want them stabilized, we will move them into Unit L."

In Region II, Giles County is the engine pulling the train in regards to deer harvest. Other powerhouse counties lending a hand in racking up harvest numbers are Lincoln, Franklin Maury and Montgomery. These five counties in Region II reported 20,361, or more than 39 percent of the region's total. Smith County's rise among the ranks last season can be credited to being moved into Unit L and recording 2,598 deer killed.

Moving eastward into Region III, Roane County's harvest was down slightly from 2008 numbers, but the number of bucks killed rose by more than 100 to a total of 1,185. Cumberland's total harvest rose slightly to 2,032, but Jackson was down slightly to a total of 1,897. In the fourth spot in Region III, Rhea County posted 1,812 deer killed. Meigs County's overall harvest slipped more than 17 percent to 1,622 in 2009, but it did manage to maintain its No. 5 ranking for Region III.

Hawkins County continues to be the deer harvest leader in Region IV with a harvest of 2,549, which is up slightly from the year before. Hawkins is an anomaly for counties east of Nashville, and its high deer harvest is astounding in that it is still in Unit B.

Sullivan County ranked second in Region IV with 1,648. It passed Claiborne County, which harvested 1,637 last season. The fourth slot goes to Johnson County with 1,385 deer shot, and No. 5 goes to Carter County with a total 1,354 taken last season.

Dan Gibbs, TWRA Region IV big-game coordinator listed several reasons for the increase in total harvest for his area. First, he said that 20 additional days of hunting comprised of five days in archery season, four during muzzleloader and 11 days during the gun season helped raise harvest figures. Also, the bag limit during the muzzleloader season was increased from a maximum of two deer to four, and the doe days during muzzleloader increased in three counties.

"Six more counties will be added to the counties with more opportunities for does in 2010," Gibbs said. "With additional increases in opportunity, I expect to go over 20,000 deer for the first time, if weather cooperates."

PUBLIC LAND HARVESTS

In general, 2009 was a down year for public land deer harvest. The statewide total dropped 12 percent to 5,082. Declining hunter participation last year coupled with lower harvests on the opening weekend of gun season took its toll on both public and private land alike.

The big surprise was that the Cherokee WMA produced 479 deer in 2009, which was up slightly from 456 the year before. The reigning public land champ, the Cherokee is comprised of two massive units that total 625,000 acres. When you do the math, this area produces just one deer per 1,304 acres. That's just one deer killed per two square miles. By just holding steady, Cherokee took top honors from Fort Campbell as the top producing public land.

Last season does composed rougly 48 percent of the harvest in the top 10 counties in the state. Photo by Polly Dean.

Fort Campbell's deer harvest figures for the 2009 season totaled 442, down significantly from the year before. But, it looks like at least 145 wall-hanger bucks were checked in, making this a choice area for hunters.

The AEDC WMA produced 396 whitetails last season, giving it the third spot in our top 10 list. In the fourth position among WMAs was Land Between the Lakes with 379 deer harvested. The LBL was down 21 percent from the previous year's harvest.

Following close on the heels of LBL was Oak Ridge WMA, which posted 359 deer killed last season. Oak Ridge was down 25 percent below the previous year's harvest of 481.

Chuck Swan WMA came next in line with 322 deer checked. Catoosa WMA ranked in the seventh slot among WMAs with a total of 317 deer harvested. Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge and Yanahli WMA were the big gainers in the top 10 public lands last season. Cross Creeks' harvested 299 deer and Yanahli's harvest jumped dramatically to 239. It is apparent that Yanahli WMA is making its way back after the sharp dip in reported deer kills following the EHD die off. Eagle Creek WMA rounded out the top 10 list with a total of 214, which was down from the previous year's 248 deer harvested.

Although the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge didn't make the top 10 list in harvest last season, it appears that hunter pressure dropped after the EHD event. Subsequently, this WMA may make a strong come back after getting a couple of year's compara

tive rest.

Even though several WMAs posted dramatic drops in deer harvest last season, that may bode well for hunters in 2010. Lower harvest figures in 2009 should lead to more whitetails in the woods and more hunter opportunity for the upcoming season.

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