Tennessee's 2006 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Our Trophy Bucks

The rut is upon us and now's the best time to find a big buck. Here's where the trophies come from in Tennessee. (Nov 2006)

Numbers are important in most hunters' eyes when it comes to deer harvest records. In the last issue, we broke down the overall harvest trends with our complete look at where Tennessee's highest deer harvest comes from in terms of numbers where the deer factories are, so to speak.

Now we'll turn the focus to where Volunteer hunters traditionally find trophy bucks and maybe even point out some spots you may have overlooked in the past.

A RECAP OF LAST SEASON

Tennessee hunters will long remember the 2004 whitetail season, or at least until that record-producing season is outdone. The 2004 deer season was the best of all time for Volunteer deer hunters: We harvested 179,542 whitetails. The 2005 harvest didn't collapse, but hunters did definitely kill fewer deer than they did during the record 2004 season. The 2005 total was 166,379 deer.

As most of us know by now, the 2004 record year was driven by the creation of Unit L and its harvest, which added over 14,000 deer to the overall total from the counties in that area alone. In addition, the record-breaking season was also fully supported by the opening weekend successes of the muzzleloader and gun hunts. Those two opening weekends alone contributed nearly 40,000 whitetails to the harvest in 2004.

NO PERFECT DIAMONDS

The 2005 hunts did include many highlights. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) Annual Harvest Report notes many things, but the biggest that stands out is the number of older class bucks that are being found by Tennessee hunters, thanks to the statewide three-buck bag limit. The TWRA believes that the growing quality of deer harvested here in Tennessee may be one of the best-kept secrets in the South. The agency said high numbers of quality deer, coupled with long hunting seasons, make Tennessee a true diamond in the rough among deer states.

But this diamond is not without flaws. Wildlife managers said although Tennessee would never be thought of as a "big buck" state because of its lack of high-quality, horn-producing soils, the Volunteer State definitely warrants the label of an "old buck" state. Statistics now back up this claim.

From an all-time yearling buck harvest of 80 percent in 1989, the percentage of yearling bucks harvested has been dropping for almost 15 years now. In 2005, the yearling buck harvest hit an all-time low of 50 percent. That's to say one out of every two bucks harvested in Tennessee in 2005 was from an older age bracket (2 1/2 years of age or better).

In comparison, Kentucky, now known for its trophy deer, harvested approximately 56 percent yearlings where hunters have a one-buck bag limit statewide. Looking farther at harvest percentages, Tennessee harvested 0.96 bucks 2.5 years old or older per square mile, while Kentucky harvested 0.55. Not only have Tennessee hunters been decreasing their harvest of yearlings, during the same decade, the percentage of 7- and 8-point bucks in the harvest has essentially doubled.

But herein lies the problem with trophy bucks in Tennessee. Our state is not overly blessed with the fertile soils found in Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio and other states that grow bucks with massive racks. One other factor that drives the quality of antlers from season to season, other than fertile soils with high mineral content, is the overall hard-mast production.

A year with high acorn production has two general influences that are important to hunters. First, it causes deer to travel shorter distances to feed. Some deer barely need to venture out from the thickets to find food during the acorn season and that makes deer much harder to hunt. Second, because the deer are harder to hunt that year, a higher percentage of the deer live through the season.

Last year was a good hard-mast year in most of the state, and that could bode well for hunters this year who are looking for older, bigger bucks.

There's no way of solidly predicting the mast crop from year to year, but we do know that there was a bumper crop of hard mast in 2005. That should equal a healthier deer herd featuring bucks with better antler growth in 2006.

We're already seeing an older age-class of bucks in the population, thanks to the statewide buck bag limit and because hunters themselves have grown more selective over the years. Add to this that only 3 percent of hunters actually harvested two bucks in 2005, so the odds for taking a trophy in 2006 are increased.

But before we get any deeper into expectations of killing nice bucks this season, let's review the rules of the game. As we all already know, Tennessee is divided into three deer units. No more than one antlered buck can be harvested per day. The statewide antlered buck limit remains at three, except a hunter may take no more than two antlered bucks in Unit B. Three antlered bucks can be harvested in Unit A, but the total on statewide hunts cannot exceed three bucks in any combination.

However, there are one or two exceptions. The only way a hunter can exceed the three-buck bag limit is through the harvest of certain bonus deer. Bucks taken on designated TWRA-managed hunts that are designated as bonus bucks will increase your tag limits. But you'll want to closely review the WMA listings and limits in the TWRA's 2006 Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide. Also, some bucks taken on either national wildlife refuges or other federally managed lands are designated as bonus deer. You'll also want to review the regulations at each of these facilities when hunting there.

THE MAN BEHIND THE MATH

Daryl Ratajczak, Tennessee's big-game program coordinator, said no earth-shattering changes came out of the deer-hunting season session of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Commission meeting last May. Franklin County and Smith County were added to Unit L, but there were no large-scale new regulations passed that affect buck hunting.

You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone more satisfied right now with the state of Tennessee's deer herd than Ratajczak. The three-buck bag limit appears to be working well and our percentages of older bucks in the harvest are outdoing many other big-deer states. Ratajczak said from an age-structure standpoint, Tennessee's harvested deer herd ranks among the best in the nation. But percentages can be, he said, misleading under some circumstances, since they paint what he called "a rosy picture." That's why at last May's commission meeting, Ratajczak gave up on percentages and went straight to the raw data to compare Tennessee's deer harvests with that of Kentucky. He said biologists look at data to make decisions, not by what they see in the woods.

Ratajczak said that before

1998, Kentucky hunters were harvesting more older age-class bucks than their Tennessee counterparts. Since 1998 and the three-buck bag limit inception, Tennessee has produced more older age bucks. Looking at the raw numbers, more than half of Tennessee's bucks harvested are 2 1/2 years old or older. Kentucky has yet to claim that milestone.

Comparing apples with apples in 2004, Kentucky hunters harvested 28,000 older class bucks compared with 42,000 in Tennessee. That raw figure difference has been increasing steadily for the last five years. In that period, Kentucky's harvest of older bucks increased from 18,000 to 28,000, while Tennessee's rose from 32,000 to 42,000. On top of that, the numbers show that Kentucky hunters harvest about one buck over 2 1/2 years of age for every two square miles, and Tennessee hunters take one buck of that caliber in only one square mile.

THE BIG BOYS CLUB

Webster's dictionary actually has a definition for trophy that says "something captured in hunting." It doesn't say how big or small but something prized. That definition may be broader than yours or mine, but it does remind us that trophies are trophies in the eyes of the beholders. Who's going to knock a kid for shooting a 3-pointer on a juvenile hunt or someone else culling a spike for freezer meat?

However, there are those bucks that stand heads and shoulders above the average shooter. And there are those counties from year to year that seem to produce the most of them.

If you'll turn your attention to the state map of where big bucks were harvested in 2005, you'll see where we're headed. We've again highlighted the Top 10 Counties for producing the big boys along with the Top 3 Counties in each region of the state. Giles, Robertson and Sumner counties are new additions to the elite club this year, with Cheatham, Davidson and Dickson counties falling out of the top ranks.

In the Top 10 trophy hotspots, Montgomery County was again the leader of the pack in 2005 with 47 bucks having 11 or more points. The next closest pursuer for top big-buck honors was Williamson County with 38 monsters. Maury County hunters were only slightly outdone with 35 big bucks taken for third place.

For the fourth, fifth, and sixth positions in the 11-Point-Or-Better Club, Hardeman, Henry and Stewart counties will have a whole season to sort things out, since each of these counties took 34 big bucks last year. Robertson County stood alone in seventh place with 31 bucks having 11 points or better, followed closely in the eighth slot by Giles County with its 30 big boys. Fayette County and Sumner County rounded out the Top 10 in a tie with each having harvested 28 big bucks last season.

In a region-by-region look, Hardeman, Henry and Stewart counties with the three-way 34 big-buck harvest tie were the best in Region I and Montgomery's statewide leading 47 bucks with 11 points or better led Region II, followed by Williamson and Maury counties. Region I and Region II usually dominate the big-buck totals as well as the harvest totals. This year's no different, but now we'll shine a little bit of the spotlight on the big-buck counties in Region III and Region IV.

Fentress County hunters led the way in Region III where they took 16 big bucks with 11 or more points. Marion County was a close second with 14 big bucks tagged. The third-place race is where things get a little tight. Scott County, Morgan County and Roane County all had a harvest of 12 big bucks each. Marion County is a newcomer into the regional Top 3 spot. Claiborne County is also a new addition to the big bucks club, replacing Anderson County from the prior year in Region IV. Claiborne County was third in the region with several big bucks sporting 11 or more points, followed by a first-place tie between frequent flyers Campbell County and Sullivan County each harvesting nine bucks with quality antlers.

THE BEST TROPHY PUBLIC HUNTS

Many hunters' best chances for taking a trophy will come on pubic land. For some, that may be their only encounter with a big buck in their lifetime. There are quite a few WMA and federal hunt opportunities out there, but a select few stand out for their trophy potential.

Fort Campbell might have been outdone for the first time in a longtime for overall harvest, but when it comes to sheer numbers of big bucks on public land, Fort Campbell rules. Deer hunters on the federal property took 134 bucks with 7 and 8 points, 43 with 9 and 10 points, and nine with 11 or more points. The only area to outdo Fort Campbell in any category was Catoosa WMA with 135 bucks with 7 and 8 points taken. And the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge held its own by taking just as many 9- and 10-point bucks (harvesting 43 of them) to match Fort Campbell in that category. The closest in the 11 or more points category was the Land Between The Lakes, with eight bucks sporting 11 or more points.

AN INSIDER TIP

Ratajczak knows more than numbers when it comes to Tennessee deer. He said Stewart County and Montgomery County always rank at the top of the list when it comes to big bucks. These two areas have the best habitat and herd conditions for growing big deer: fertile soils and really good age structure.

When you turn to top WMA hunts, Ratajczak said Presidents Island is the best all-around opportunity for a trophy deer on a per-hour-of-hunting basis, but the draw hunt slots are limited as we all know. Fort Campbell as always is also on the top of the list, and the veteran biologist said Oak Ridge and Catoosa with their restricted antler harvests are top choices for hunters as well. They've really come back after the trophy regulations were put in place.

Find more about Tennessee fishing and hunting at: TennesseeSportsmanMag.com

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