Tennessee'™s 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Where To Get Your Deer

Tennessee'™s 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Where To Get Your Deer

Looking to fill a deer tag? Here's a region-by-region forecast of the best places in the state to hunt deer. (October 2009)

It's the time of year that we look at deer harvest trends across Tennessee. Call it our annual take on just how well Volunteer whitetail hunters succeeded during last year's deer hunts and the prospects for hunters across the state to fill some tags this season.

STATE OF THE UNION

Last year, Daryl Ratajczak, Tennessee's big-game coordinator, told us it would take a couple of seasons or so to return to the record harvest levels we've enjoyed over recent years. He also predicted the 2008 harvest would be similar to that of 2007. Ratajczak has been right so far, and the best news is the 2008 deer harvest was still strong considering the lingering effects from the biggest EHD outbreak in a century. In the down year of 2007, hunters harvested 164,856 deer and a comparable 164,414 last year.

In the way of predictions, Ratajczak said state biologists are expecting Tennessee deer hunters to have a comeback year with the 2009 deer harvests. He said they are predicting a bit better harvest — in the neighborhood of just over 170,000 deer — this season.

Ratajczak said it will be more difficult to compare the harvest numbers in 2009 with any other year, however. This season will be the first that Tennessee hunters are allowed to check in deer online through a link on the TWRA's Web site. Hunters are still encouraged to take deer to checking stations, but will be allowed the online convenience if stations are inaccessible, as can be the case on weekends or evenings after a hunter has had to spend time recovering a deer.

Ratajczak said the Unit L counties have actually started to see reductions in harvests. Those reductions, however, were as expected, since the purpose of the more liberal limits in some counties was to manage the expanding deer herds within them. Nevertheless, the Unit L counties are the driving force behind Tennessee's deer harvest, with 15 of the top 20 county harvests coming from within Unit L. Three additional counties, Chester, Haywood, and Henderson have been moved into Unit L for the coming season. That brings the Unit L total to 44 counties of 95 statewide.

Now let's take a look at where the deer numbers came from in 2008 and give you an idea and some tips on where to focus your hunting efforts this fall. If you're looking to fill a deer tag, here's a region-by-region forecast of the best places, based on the latest data from the TWRA.

THE TOP COUNTIES BY HARVEST

The annual battle between Hardeman and Henry Counties that raged for years as to which was the top deer producer statewide appears to be over. For two consecutive seasons now, Henry County's whitetail harvest has been less than Hardeman's. That means Hardeman County reigns supreme — at least for another year. However, Fayette County is charging hard up the ranks and may threaten its west Tennessee neighbor for top honors in a season or two.

But for now, the king of deer counties is safe with a statewide leading harvest of 5,748 whitetails. That's just slightly off Hardeman's totals from 2007. But just as impressive is what's happening in Fayette County. The hunters in Fayette County have continued to kill more deer in recent years and, last year, that county's harvest was the second highest in the state for the first time in memory. Hunters there harvested a strong 5,402 deer. Giles County went from second in the overall deer harvest in 2007 to third in 2008, with 5,110 deer tagged.

Henry County is getting more familiar with the fourth place spot among the top 10 deer harvests in Tennessee. There were 5,066 deer taken in Henry County in 2008. That's slightly better than their 2007 figures, which didn't break the 5,000 mark for the first time in years. Keep in mind, though, Henry County was hit hard by the EHD outbreak. The decease in harvest probably has more to do with that short-term disease issue than in permanent long-term problems, such as loss of large areas of habitat.

The top 5 was once again rounded out with Lincoln County, where hunters tagged 4,416 deer. The sixth spot went to another county that's quickly moving up the top 10 rankings: Weakley County rose from the ninth spot in 2007 to take over the sixth place in 2008 with a deer harvest of 3,766. In the seventh spot last year, Carroll County produced 3,679 deer.

Franklin County, where hunters bagged 3,615 whitetails last year, fell from the sixth spot two seasons ago to take the eighth position in 2008. You'll find a comeback county in the ninth spot. Madison County broke back into the elite deer harvest counties with a take of 3,490 whitetails. Montgomery County was in unfamiliar territory with a kill of 3,359 deer to take the final spot in the top 10 deer producers statewide in 2008. The only other change in the top 10 statewide was the falling out of McNairy County. Madison County, which had been in the top 10 before 2007, was replaced in 2007 by McNairy County. In 2008 Madison County hunters once again shot more deer than McNairy County hunters.

Looking at the top counties in each region, we see that Hardeman was obviously number one in Region I with its harvest of 5,748 deer. Fayette County was second in that region with 5,402 whitetails. Henry County was third in Region I with a take of 5,066 deer. The fourth spot there went to Weakley's harvest of 3,766 animals. The fifth spot in Region I was held by Carroll County, with 3,679 whitetails.

In Region II, Giles was once again the top deer producer with its harvest of 5,110 deer, followed by Lincoln's 4,416 whitetails. Franklin County was third in the region with its take of 3,615 deer. Montgomery County was next with 3,359 deer harvested. The fifth position in Region II went to Maury County's harvest of 2,979 whitetails.

As one moves east from Region II to Region III, the habitat changes in various ways so that Region II supports fewer deer than do the more western parts of the state. However, the deer herd in Region II seems to be slowly increasing.

As it has in the past, Roane County produced the most deer in Region II last season, with 2,697 deer taken. The second position was taken over by Cumberland County with a harvest of 1,997 whitetails. Not far off that pace, the Region III third spot was filled by Jackson County's take of 1,975 deer. The fourth spot in the region was grabbed by Rhea County's production of 1,865 deer. Meigs County claimed the fifth position in Region III with a harvest of 1,850 deer.

Hawkins County continues to be the deer harvest leader in Region IV with a take of 2,409. Hawkins County held this distinction of being the highest-producing county east of the state capital for years, until 2007, when Roane County surpassed it. The second spot in Region IV was

again held by Claiborne County with its harvest of 1,409 deer. Sullivan County was again third in the region with a take of 1,320 whitetails. The fourth position was claimed by Johnson County hunters with their harvest of 1,301 deer. The last and fifth position in the region respectively went to Greene County with a harvest of 1,198 whitetails.

THE TOP WMAs AND PUBLIC LAND HUNTS HARVESTS

Back in July, we gave top honors to AEDC for taking over the top spot among public land hunting opportunities after last year's WMA deer harvests were totaled. The preliminary total harvest in 2008 on WMAs was slightly better than the total harvest of whitetails in 2007. It was noted then those totals were without the harvest figures from Fort Campbell, because Fort Campbell's figures had not been tabulated at press time.

They have been since then, and Fort Campbell's 2008 deer harvest numbers turned out to be the highest of any public hunting land in Tennessee. Hunters at Fort Campbell tagged 630 whitetails in 2008, higher than ADEC's final harvest count of 535 deer by nearly 100 tags. AEDC's final tally was still good enough to hold onto second place among WMAs and slightly better than legendary Land-Between-The Lakes (LBL).

LBL, however, wasn't far off the pace with its harvest of 482 deer but but typically LBL ranks higher than that among public lands. LBL is almost always neck and neck with Fort Campbell for the top spot. Climbing back into the top five in 2008 was Oak Ridge WMA with a take of 481 deer for a fourth place finish. The massive Cherokee Forest, whose two units contain a total of 625,000 acres, had a harvest of 456 whitetails last season and the fifth spot among public deer harvests. Obviously, the deer killed per square mile on the Cherokee is lower than many other smaller public lands.

The sixth place spot is going to have to be shared by Catoosa's and Chuck Swan, both of which produced 345 deer for hunters. The Tennessee NWR deer harvest was down slightly again in 2008, but hunters there were able to maintain their hold on the eighth spot among WMAs with a deer harvest of 311 whitetails. Eagle Creek and Cross Creeks NWR fought it out as usual for the last two spots in the top public land hunts. In 2008, hunters at Eagle Creek took 248 deer while hunters at Cross Creeks harvested 228 for the final spot among the top 10.

The 2007 WMA harvest of 5,983 deer was well below the 2006 harvest of 7,156 whitetails, but the good news is that after only one season following the biggest EHD outbreak in a hundred years, deer hunting on public lands bounced back with a total harvest of 6,272 deer in 2008.

The top 10 remained relatively unchanged other than a few areas that flip-flopped positions. Oak Ridge made the biggest move from sixth place in 2007 to the fourth spot in 2008. LBL fell from first in 2007 to third in 2008 while Fort Campbell moved up one spot, as did AEDC (moving from third to second). Other than that, the rest of the top 10 WMA hunts remained basically the same from 2007 to 2008.

The role of public lands in deer hunting has changed over time. Early on in the modern deer restoration program, a high percentage of the deer in the state were on public lands. Thus, if you wanted to hunt deer, you were likely to be dependant on public land. Obviously, for most hunters, that has changed; the vast majority of deer killed nowadays are taken on private land.

However, Ratajczak said the Agency is pleased that the WMA system gives hunters places to go and opportunities to deer hunt that those hunters might not otherwise have. Biologists are also quite pleased with the WMA harvests considering that the WMA system as a whole is not experiencing as much as hunting pressure as it did in the past.

Ratajczak also said to keep in mind that many smaller WMAs are lessening their restrictions this year by allowing hunting openings that will be similar, if not identical, to statewide seasons and limits. Be sure to double-check this year's hunting guide for locations near you with increased opportunities.

TOP COUNTIES BY HARVEST PER SQUARE MILE

All other things being equal, the bigger a county is the higher the deer harvest it will have. But for an individual hunter sitting in a deer stand and hoping to fill a tag, the most important question is not how many deer are killed in the large county he's hunting in, but rather how dense the deer herd is in the area he's hunting now.

In other words, if you're trying to put some venison in the cooler, deer density where you hunt is more important than the size of the county you're hunting in.

In some cases, the bigger the area, the more deer you'll have harvested. So it stands to reason that the bigger counties usually have more deer killed. It also stands to reason the top deer harvests even per square mile come from Unit L while the Unit B counties fall towards the bottom. But it's interesting to see how productive per square mile some of the smaller counties really are in terms of deer killed per square mile.

Hardeman County might be the top dog when it comes to overall deer harvests, but it's not the top county in terms of deer harvested per square mile. Ratajczak said Meigs County in Region III is the highest deer density county in the state.

Meigs County had a harvest of 10 deer per square mile last season, followed Henry County with a harvest of 9.2 whitetails per square mile. Roane County and Hardeman County both had a harvest of 8.8 deer per square mile. Giles County is the fourth most productive county per square mile with 8.5 deer taken. The fifth most productive spot is a tie as well, with both Fayette and Lincoln Counties having 7.9 deer harvested per square mile.

The seventh and eighth spots go to a couple smaller, sleeper counties. Both Moore and Smith Counties produce 7.6 deer per square mile.

On the flipside, of the top three counties in Region IV — Hawkins, Claiborne, and Sullivan — none exceeded a harvest of more than 3 deer per square mile.

TOP PUBLIC LANDS BY HARVEST SQUARE MILE

Many of the top WMAs in terms of deer harvest per square mile have limited acreage. In some cases, this may mean larger fluctuations in harvest from year to year; it may mean that access is limited or in some cases you'll have company on your hunts.

That said, however, the harvest per square mile data is surprisingly good. If you think that the best deer hunting is always on private ground, some of these WMAs will be a shock.

Hiwassee Refuge's harvest of 121 total deer might not have been the highest overall harvest in the state, but Hiwassee is only 2,500 acres and yet hunters there killed 31 deer per square mile last season — a remarkably high harvest rate.

Williamsport WMA, with a harvest of 29.4 deer per square mile on its 1,722 acres, puts it in the second position in this category among public lands. Williamsport features only 2.7 square miles of hunting.

Normandy WMA was a close third, with a

deer harvest of 26.5 per square miles on 750 acres. Normandy features only 1.2 square miles of hunting which produced a total harvest of 31 deer overall last year.

Yuchi Refuge features a mere 3.7 square miles of hunting but produced a harvest 23.8 deer per square mile and a total harvest of 88 deer in 2008.

The fifth spot per square mile harvest went to Haynes Bottom WMA with a harvest of 17.1 deer per square mile and total of 26 deer.

Honorable mention goes to Bark Camp Barrens WMA with a total harvest of 72 deer on its 2,800 acres. That equates to 16.5 deer tagged per square mile.

All of these WMAs might not be the biggest or the most noted WMAs out there, but for any hunter near them, they deserve your hunting attention since they produce the top deer harvests per square miles.

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