By John N. Felsher
People often talk about the “good old days” of hunting, but when it comes to whitetail deer, days don’t get much better than right now.
About 30 million whitetail deer roamed eastern North America when the first settlers arrived on the Atlantic Coast. These settlers, and the Native Americans before them, depended heavily upon deer for food, clothing and other items.
Since forests and prairies stretched unbroken for thousands of miles and human populations remained small, few people cared about conservation. Anyone who wanted meat could kill a deer whenever the opportunity presented itself. By the late 19th century, the human population stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and large tracts of virgin forests and prairie fell to axes, saws and plows.
As habitat declined, deer populations, and most other big game species as well, plunged to dangerous levels. Some species vanished entirely. By 1900, only about 400,000 whitetail deer remained scattered in pockets of Canada and the United States. Deer disappeared completely from many areas. The population in Louisiana dropped to about 70,000 animals.
Sportsmen across North America began massive efforts to keep whitetails at harvestable levels. They pressured lawmakers to outlaw market hunting, establish seasons and limits and preserve remaining habitat. They banned the shooting of does and greatly limited buck harvests.
Slowly, deer populations rose. Animals expanded into any suitable habitat they could find. By the 1950s, biologists learned how to dart and tranquilize deer. They began to use rockets or cannons to carry nets over entire deer herds. State biologists began to capture surplus deer from some areas and transport them for restocking into areas with low populations. Deer populations mushroomed.
“In Louisiana, we restocked deer in the 1950s and 1960s,” said David Moreland, the deer study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “In 1969, we made our last big deer release. In 1970, we opened up most of the state to deer hunting. By 1975, the entire state was opened as deer herds were beginning to build up.”
As recently as the late 1960s and early 1970s, seeing a deer track in many Louisiana forests electrified the hunting community. Many areas stood devoid of deer for decades. However, by the mid-1970s, deer re-established themselves throughout most of the state and country. Populations continued to rise rapidly, as did the popularity of deer hunting.
Today, between 20 and 25 million whitetails – almost as many as when colonists walked the alleys of Jamestown – spread out throughout most of North America into any available habitat. About 11 million American sportsmen pursue the most popular game animal in North America.
Deer expanded into new areas where whitetails never existed. Now, sportsmen throughout North America can find whitetails, the most widespread deer in the world, nearly everywhere except the extreme Arctic, the tops of the Rocky Mountains and some deserts of the Southwest. Subspecies even expanded south into Central and South America.
Ironically, suburban sprawl increased deer populations. Not really creatures of dense forests, deer prefer edges and transition zones. They adapt readily to living next to mankind and the stratification he creates. As populations soared, deer became pests in many areas. They browse on golf courses and lawns. They can ravage fruit or nut orchards or crop fields and relish many exotic and expensive garden shrubs. Many communities encourage archers to thin the populations of suburban deer herds.
While North America supported only 400,000 whitetails a century ago, Louisiana alone harbors more than a million deer today. About 200,000 Louisiana hunters bag between 220,000 and 250,000 deer each year. The state sells about 145,000 big-game licenses each fall. The state sells an additional 35,000 muzzleloader licenses and about 30,000 archery licenses. These figures do not include 30,000 lifetime license holders or people exempt from buying licenses because of age, disability or other factors.
“Our archery license numbers have been dropping,” Moreland said. “Our hunting population is getting older. Many older hunters are no longer hunting. In the next 20 years, we’ll probably see a decline in the hunter population. We are not recruiting the younger hunters like we should.”
More known for numbers than trophies, Louisiana does produce some quality deer in areas. Each year, a few trophies make it into the Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young record books. A buck killed with a modern firearm must score at least 130 on the B&C system to qualify for the state recognition program and 160 for the state record book. A bow kill must score 90 for the recognition program, 110 for the state record book and 125 to enter the P&Y book. For muzzleloaders, a buck must score 110 for the recognition program, 120 for the state list or 130 for national recognition.
“In the 2003-04 season, we saw quite a few big deer taken throughout the state,” Moreland said. “The best one that I know about was a 149 4/8 bow kill from East Feliciana Parish. There were several other Boone and Crockett class deer taken. Populations vary across the state. The parishes with the higher densities are ones with hardwood bottomland habitat along the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya rivers. The river bottomland habitats also have the potential to grow the largest deer.”
Besides bottomlands, deer thrive in a variety of habitats, although not in the same population densities. To some extent, deer inhabit virtually every type of land from Arkansas to the Mississippi River delta including pine forests, croplands, rice fields, swamps and even marshes. Herbivores, they feed upon many different types of forage including acorns, tender young leaves, stems, shoots, mushrooms and wild fruits. Deer go anywhere they can find food and safety.
“The herd is mostly stabilized,” Moreland said. “We see slight increases in some areas that are former agricultural lands being restored to hardwoods and slight decreases where forests become more pine-dominant. The long-leaf flatwoods of southeast Louisiana don’t produce many deer. Swamp habitat can produce a lot of deer, but pure cypress-tupelo swamps and marshes traditionally produce few deer. A marsh habitat doesn’t normally
support a large deer population, but some places with good habitat and limited hunting can get up to about one deer per 30 acres. Deer may go into a salt or brackish marsh to some extent, but that’s not what they prefer.”
Moreland cited several wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges where sportsmen could bag trophy whitetails. Some top public areas include Big Lake, Boeuf, Boise-Vernon, Jackson-Bienville, Little Bayou Macon, Loggy Bayou, Red River, Sherburne, Thistlethwaite, Three Rivers, Tunica Hills and West Bay wildlife management areas and Tensas, Lake Ophelia and Bayou Cocodrie national wildlife refuges.
“Many federal areas restrict hunting, but they have good populations,” Moreland said. “They cater to bow hunters. Lake Ophelia has a good muzzleloader season. Some nice bucks are killed there every year. Bowhunters looking for a big buck might consider the Tensas NWR area because they can hunt the entire rut. Gun hunters should consider Red River or Three Rivers. The Boeuf area produces good deer. For numbers, I’d go to Sherburne or Boise-Vernon. Fort Polk and Jackson-Bienville are very good. Russell Sage and Ouachita are good areas. In the southeast, Pearl River and Ben’s Creek offer good deer numbers.”
The 64,012-acre Tensas NWR in Madison, Tensas and Franklin parishes annually produces some of the biggest deer in Louisiana. One of the few remaining bottomland hardwood swamps in the South, it has changed little over the centuries. It supports high concentrations of deer with some truly magnificent animals.
“Historically, Tensas NWR has been known as one of the premier public deer hunting locations in the southeast United States,” said Maury Bedford, deputy project leader and a refuge wildlife biologist. “We get a lot of deer in the 155- to 160-pound range field-dressed. We get some deer over 200 pounds. About half of our bucks harvested are eight points or better. Some of our deer weigh more than 250 pounds field-dressed. We’ve had some people bag 12-pointers.”
Rich topsoil washed down for centuries by the nearby Mississippi River encourages deer to grow huge racks. Abundant hardwood trees, especially oaks, and nearby croplands offer deer outstanding nutrients that stimulate growth.
“Hardwood bottomland with adjacent agricultural property is generally the best habitat for producing big deer in Louisiana,” Moreland said. “Every year, the Tensas area produces deer in the 140 to 160 class.”
About 5,000 hunters typically participate in two weekend lottery hunts each November and December. The refuge also offers limited muzzleloader hunting and a lengthy archery season. Between archers, lottery hunts and muzzleloader seasons, sportsmen bag about 1,000 to 1,200 deer off the property each year.
The Lake Ophelia NWR sits near the confluence of three major rivers, the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya. Located in the Red River floodplain, the 17,500-acre federal refuge in Avoyelles Parish allows limited hunting on about 12,000 acres. The refuge restored agricultural lands into the historic fertile bottomland hardwood forests that dominated this part of the state. About 8,400 acres remain in bottomland forests. Another reforested 4,200 acres and 3,400 acres of croplands join more than 1,000 acres of bayous and lakes, including the 350-acre Lake Ophelia.
At one time, these hardwood bottomlands stretched across most of central and north Louisiana. Sportsmen still find remnants of these primal lands along the rivers, but agriculture obliterated most of the old forests. Only pockets remain in isolated wildlife management areas and federal refuges.
“The hardwood component is not what it used to be,” Moreland said. “This state is losing its rural identity. Subdivisions are springing up everywhere. We’ve seen a tremendous change in timber management. Many commercial forests are becoming pine plantations. Over time, we may see some areas failing to carry the number of deer they carried in the 1970s.”
The 35,032-acre Pearl River WMA along the Louisiana-Mississippi state line near Slidell remains one of the best bottomlands open to deer hunting. Pearl River separates Mississippi and Louisiana about 35 miles northeast of New Orleans. The river splits into East and West Pearls with East Pearl continuing down the state line. These rivers further subdivide into West Middle, Middle and East Middle rivers with interconnected bayous and sloughs creating Honey Island Swamp.
From the north, the land slopes from upland pines to hardwood bottomlands. In the northern 60 percent of the property, oaks, bitter pecan, hickory, beech and sweetgum provide mast for deer. Periodically flooded cypress and tupelo swamps comprise another 25 percent, just north of U.S. 90, which crosses the area from east to west. Farther south, the cypress swamps transition into freshwater marshes. The river deltas eventually form brackish then salt marshes.
Although whitetail deer slog through the marshes and cypress swamps of Pearl River WMA, most deer prefer the northern hardwoods. Most people hunt either by boat or along Old U.S. 11, which runs through the bottomlands until it dead-ends in the swamp. The old highway and satellite roads offer hunters the only road access to the interior of the property. The area produces good numbers, but not many trophy deer. An average 8-point buck might weigh about 175 pounds, but deer occasionally break the 200-pound barrier.
Long-leaf pine savannahs, also called “flatwoods,” once stretched across many areas in the Florida Parishes and the western part of the state. Found mainly over sandy soils, these sparse prairies dominated by scattered long-leaf pines don’t provide enough nutrients to support many deer. However, in areas where people plant food plots, deer can grow to respectable sizes and in good numbers. On many state-owned wildlife management areas, LDWF biologists plant food plots or manage the forests to provide better deer habitat. However, many of these flatwoods now belong to huge timber companies.
“In Kisatchie National Forest, Red Dirt and Catahoula areas have some deer, but they don’t produce a lot of big deer,” Moreland said. “The forests are being managed mostly for long-leaf pine, which is a low quality deer habitat. On state lands, we have very intensive forestry management programs. In areas that we lease, we can’t do much timber management, but we do plant food plots. Timber companies use a lot of herbicide to reduce browse. That hurts the deer population that depends upon that browse for food. That reduces the quality of the habitat so the land won’t carry as many deer as it did.”
At about 604,000 acres, the five districts of the Kisatchie National Forest spread over seven parishes. The Fort Polk military reservation also offers good deer hunting at times, but sportsmen need to seek daily military clearance to enter those areas. The 54,269-acre Boise-Vernon WMA and the 62,115-acre West Bay WMA in western Louisiana can produce occasional quality deer. Most bucks range from 130 to 150 pounds.
“We’ll never see trophy deer in southwest Louisiana,” said John Robinette, an LDWF wildlife biologist in Lake Charles. “Because of the sandy soil, th
is area just doesn’t produce large bucks. We’ll see some 130- to 140-class bucks, but very seldom above that. We have good numbers. On Boise-Vernon and West Bay, we need to kill more deer.”
Deer seasons open earlier in western Louisiana than other parts of the state because deer go into rut earlier here than along the river bottoms to the east. Archery season generally starts in mid-September with modern firearms seasons in October.
“There are really three distinct rutting periods in Louisiana,” Robinette said. “Up through about Vernon Parish, rutting activity kicks off in September and peaks about mid-October. Around Alexandria and farther north, it takes place in November and December. Along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers, it happens in December and January.”
For years, Louisiana hunters could bag six deer per year. Only on certain days or with special tags could gun hunters bag does. While populations remained low, hunters didn’t want to shoot does. Now, populations have exploded almost out of control in some areas. Years of “bucks-only” regulations and mentalities caused sex ratios to swing out of balance. Wildlife mangers hope to restore more of a 1 to 1 buck-to-doe ratio, the way nature intended. As deer populations continue to grow, wildlife biologists may suggest changes to the laws, although it’s too early to tell if any of these proposals will take effect during the 2004-05 season.
“We are seriously looking into going with a two antlered-buck season limit,” Moreland said. “Under this proposal, people could still kill six deer per season, but only two could have antlers. They could shoot six does if they wished. We may also pursue a tagging system, but a tagging system is very expensive. We might go to more either-sex days, more doe tags or perhaps allow hunters to shoot does all season. We are going to evaluate the effectiveness of the experimental six-point program. We need to see how many deer moved up into the older age-classes.”
No matter what happens, deer hunters can expect good opportunities to bag animals this season and for many years to come.
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