By Mike Bleech
January in Ohio finally feels like hunting season. Barring unseasonably warm weather, chill temperatures keep deer moving during the day. With the modern, weatherproof clothing available to hunters, the elements pose no problem, except sometimes when driving to your favorite hunting area.
Perhaps best of all, the early-season crowds are mostly gone. Some of the great places that were overrun with hunters during fall can be yours alone.
“Between 5 and 7 percent of the total archery harvest is recorded in January,” said Mike Tonkovich, Ohio Department of Natural Resources wildlife research biologist. “But I think there is a core group of people who really look forward to the January season for its challenges and opportunities.”
Here is a look at 10 of the best places to go for great public land deer hunting in Ohio this month:
“Anywhere you have croplands abutting woodlands you’ll find deer feeding on crops,” said Dan Huss, a District One wildlife management supervisor. “Once the crops are harvested you’ll see more deer concentrated in small woodlots.”
Pay special attention to drainage ditches that connect woodlots. Deer take advantage of the cover along these ditches to travel undetected between feeding and bedding areas.
“If you can get on the outskirts or into urban areas you should find lots of deer,” Huss said.
He specifically suggested that sportsmen seek permission to hunt areas bordering land where hunting is not allowed, especially around Columbus. Hunting pressure tends to be light just about everywhere in the district. “During much of the week you can have an area to yourself,” Huss noted.
Winters in District One tend to be less harsh than in the northern counties closer to Lake Erie. “During the last several years we’ve had very mild winters,” Huss said. “I think a lot more bowhunters that hunted that January season.”
According to Huss, there are two public lands that provide good January bowhunting for deer in District One: Delaware and Deer Creek wildlife areas.
Delaware WA is between Route 42 and Route 23 across the border between Delaware County and Marion County. From Columbus it is a short drive north on Route 23 and then east on Route 229.
The wildlife area borders Delaware State Park, where hunting is not allowed. Although most of the shared border is through the middle of Delaware Reservoir, hunting can be good where the border is on dry land.
“Generally, the closer you get to the state park or the private land the more deer there will be,” Huss said.
The terrain of Delaware WA varies from flat to rolling. Reverting fields with grasses, brush and briars cover about half of the property. A small amount is cultivated with timothy, clover and prairie grasses. Nearly 40 percent of the area is in hardwoods in various stages of maturity including cottonwood, ash, elm, beech, maple, hickory, walnut and oak.
Deer Creek WA covers 4,085 acres in Fayette, Madison and Pickaway counties. Like Delaware WA, it’s adjacent to a state park and a lake.
“Deer Creek has a fairly high deer population, and hunting the border between the state and private land is a good tactic,” Huss said.
The area’s flat to gently rolling terrain is covered by a mix of habitat types. About a quarter of the area is cultivated for row crops. Another quarter is second-growth hardwood forest and brush. The wooded area, which is mostly on the east side of Deer Creek, features a mix that includes oaks. Watch for the presence of acorns on the ground, which will attract deer to the vicinity. The remainder of the area is native grasses and other meadows, reverting fields and food plots.
Deer Creek WA is about four miles south of Mount Sterling on Route 207. Take Interstate Route 71 south from Columbus to Route 62, and then continue south on Route 62 to Mount Sterling.
For more about the January deer-hunting opportunities in District One, contact the ODOW’s Wildlife District One office, 1500 Dublin Road, Columbus, OH 43215, or call (614) 644-3925.
“Around here a lot of the January deer hunting is going to be confined to woodlots because most of the crops will be gone by this time,” said Scott Butterworth, an ODOW wildlife biologist.
January weather conditions in this region tend to be harsh, with temperatures usually below freezing, some snow, and stiff winds. Woodlots tend to be small in this corner of the state, which concentrates deer in relatively small areas. Although deer might be reluctant to leave the safety of these woodlots, getting into these areas without being detected can be challenging. Approach and enter these small woodlots with care, using the wind to keep your scent from bedded deer.
Conservation Reserve Program lands may also contain some deer, so make an effort to gain access to participating private lands.
Butterworth named Willard Marsh Wildlife Area as one of the better public options for a January bowhunt. “This area has thick cover,” he explained, “and it’s one of the few large blocks of forest cover in this district.”
About two-thirds of the area is wooded. The remainder is a mix of brush and open areas, which include sharecropped fields. The area’s brushy habitat is likely to attract deer that were dispersed on surrounding private croplands earlier in the season. Several drainage ditches have been cut to provide waterfowl habitat, and these are active deer travel lanes.
The Willard Marsh WA is in southwestern Huron County about three miles west of Willard via Route 224 West to Section Line Road; turn south to access the wildlife area.
From the Cleveland area, take Interstate Route 71 south; from the Akron area, take Interstate Route 76 west. At the junction of I-71 and I-76, turn onto Route 224 west to Willard.
Butterworth also pointed to Killdeer Plains WA, featuring 8,627 acres straddling the border between Wyandot and Marion counties about eight miles south of Upper Sandusky. From Upper Sandusky, take
Route 67 south about a mile to county Route 115, and then proceed south to the wildlife area.
From the Toledo area, take Interstate Route 75 south to Route 15 on the south side of Findlay, and then continue southeast on routes 15 and 23 to Upper Sandusky.
This is a large area with some scattered small woodlots. Butterworth also noted that special youth hunts held on the first three Saturdays in January tend to get the deer moving.
The terrain here is mostly flat, except for rolling hills close to the Little Sandusky River at the east side of the public land. About two-thirds of the area is open meadows and cropland. The remainder is a mix of woodlots, brush and wetlands. Scout for travel corridors between woodlots.
More information about hunting in the northeastern counties is available by contacting the Wildlife District Two office, 952 Lima Avenue, Box A, Findlay, OH 45840, or call (419) 424-5000.
District Three is the epitome of urban and suburban sprawl, especially around Cleveland, but also near Akron, Canton, Warren and Youngstown. Somewhat surprisingly, the district also holds a lot of deer and several public lands with various habitats. A lot of the better January bowhunting opportunities are around the cities where non-hunting areas act as propagation areas for deer.
The best way to harvest some venison, maybe even bag a trophy-class buck, might be by seeking permission to hunt lands adjacent to the no-hunting zones. It shouldn’t be hard to convince landowners that you’d be performing a service by helping to keep the deer population in check.
The Spencer Lake Wildlife Area covers just 618 acres, but hunting pressure is low during the January bowhunting season. Deer use the area’s brushy sections for cover once human activity decreases and the cold weather moves in.
The proximity of Spencer Wildlife Area to the southwest side of Cleveland makes it worth a look. It is about two miles east of Spencer in Medina County. From Cleveland, take Interstate Route 71 south to the Medina exit, and then follow Route 162 west.
The Grand River Wildlife Area is much larger, at 6,993 acres, and is the largest wild area in the northeastern counties. It probably offers more and better deer hunting than any other area close to the urban areas.
The Grand River WA is a reasonably short drive east from Cleveland by way of Route 422 to Southington, and then north on Route 534 to the area headquarters. From the Warren-Youngstown area, follow Route 422 west to Route 534. From Akron, take Interstate Route 76 east to Route 534 at Lake Milton.
This area’s flat to gently rolling terrain features varied habitats ranging from wetlands to hardwood forest. The Grand River cuts diagonally through the wildlife area. Slightly less than half the area is hardwood forest. The largest forested area is on the west side of the river. Elsewhere, smaller woodlots are scattered between a mix of brush, crop fields and natural or maintained openings, wetlands and open water.
For a hunt in different habitat and terrain, try the Highlandtown Wildlife Area in Columbiana County. Steep hills cover most of this area’s 2,265 acres, with elevations ranging from 1,060 feet to 1,340 feet. Most of the habitat is hardwood and conifer forest with some mix of cropland, reverting fields and brush. Conifers provide ideal winter cover.
Try still-hunting in the conifers during or immediately following snowstorms and during extremely cold weather. Scout for trails between oaks and conifers if there are still acorns on the ground.
Highlandtown Wildlife Area is in Columbiana County about eight miles south of Lisbon. Take Route 11 south from the Warren-Youngstown area to Lisbon and then travel south on Route 164 to the wildlife area. Various township roads lead into the public land from Route 164 and Route 39, which intersects Route 164 off the southwest corner of the wildlife area and forms part of the southern boundary.
More information about deer hunting in the northeastern counties is available by contacting the ODOW’s Wildlife District Three office, 912 Portage Lakes Drive, Akron, OH 44319, or call (330) 644-2293.
With the most public land and leading the state in deer harvest numbers every year, District Four is the place to be for Ohio’s January bowhunters. This area it is not the crowded place it was during the earlier deer hunting seasons. January bowhunters tend to hunt close to home, so most hunting pressure now is found around the state’s population centers.
Wayne National Forest is the biggest chunk of public land in the state. It is broken into three units: the Marietta, Athens and Ironton units. Each of these is composed of numerous individual tracts that are interspersed with private lands. Hunters must have written permission to hunt on private lands in Ohio, so acquire a map and study it well before planning a trip this month.
Wayne NF offers the ultimate opportunity for inexpensive public hunting in Ohio. Though weather conditions might be rough during winter, hunters who are prepared for cold-weather camping may hunt from primitive campsites with no other expense except getting here.
The key to locating deer in January is finding what and where they are eating.
“At this time of year there’s still some mast on the ground,” Tonkovich explained. “Browse becomes important, too, so hunters should be thinking about hunting in areas where there’s an understory, heavy brush that deer can reach.”
Browse becomes critical if there is no mast on the ground.
“If you’ve had no acorns, obviously you’ve got to concentrate your efforts on browse. We have lots of honeysuckle here in southeast Ohio. That’s going to be one of the deer’s major winter foods,” Tonkovich said.
Another clue to January deer hotspots can be hay and alfalfa fields on adjacent private lands. Deer will move back and forth between the fields and thicker cover on the national forest, but they probably will not move far.
Several hiking and off-road-vehicle trails remain open through hunting seasons. Off-road vehicle operators must have a trail permit. These may be purchased at Wayne NF ranger stations and visitor centers or at various vendors in communities around the forest.
The various tracts of the national forest stretch across southeastern Ohio. Your first steps for preparing a hunt should be getting rules and maps by contacting the Wayne NF supervisor’s office and Athens Ranger District, 13700 U.S. Highway 33, Nelsonville, OH 45764, or call (740) 753-0101.
Woodbury Wildlife Area can be one of the better state lands in the district for a January bowhunt. This is one of the largest tracts of publi
c land in the state, covering 19,050 acres. A large portion of this area is reclaimed strip mines, which provide excellent deer habitat. More than half of the land is wooded, about a third is open fields and there is a good mix of brush and wetlands.
Woodbury WA is about five miles west from Coshocton, in west-central Coshocton County. From the Columbus area, take Route 16 northeast toward Coshocton, turning north on Route 60 to the wildlife area before Coshocton.
More information about hunting in District Four is available by contacting the Wildlife District Four office, 360 East State Street, Athens, OH 45701, or call (740) 594-2211.
Habitat in District Five ranges from wooded areas in the south to vast agricultural lands in the north where there are only scattered small woodlots.
“I’d suggest Tranquility Wildlife Area in Adams County,” said Dan Frevert, wildlife management supervisor for District Five. “It’s a large wildlife area. It has a good mixture of forest land, brush, old pastures.”
Terrain in this 4,254-acre area is gently rolling. The forest, which covers about 40 percent of the area, is a mix of oak and hickory on higher, drier ground with maple, beech, elm and ash on the slopes and in the bottoms. Brush, including cedar thickets, covers another 40 percent. The remainder is grass, cultivated or ponds.
Tranquility WA is in northern Adams County. Take Route 32 east from the Cincinnati area to Route 247 north at Seaman, and then turn right onto Route 770 to the wildlife area. From Columbus, take Route 62 south to Hillsboro, and then Route 73 south to Route 770 and south to the wildlife area.
Frevert also suggested Indian Creek WA, a 1,799-acre public land in Brown County. More than half of the land is open ground, either cultivated, prairie grass or low brush. The rest is wooded, wetland or thick brush that can hide a surprising number of deer and offers them good winter cover. With lower hunting pressure in January, deer trickle back onto the public land from surrounding private lands to use that winter cover.
Terrain is mostly flat except where Indian Creek and Little Indian Creek cut small valleys. “There are a couple of streams that run all the way through it, so these are good corridors,” Frevert said.
Indian Creek WA is a short drive from Cincinnati east on Route 50 and then south on Snowhill Road to the area headquarters.
For more information, contact the Wildlife District Five office at 1076 Old Springfield Pike, Xenia, OH 45385, or call (937) 372-9261.
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