Photo by Ralph Hensley.
Tennessee hunters not only set a new all-time season harvest record last year, the data captured by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) also makes it clear that more and more older, quality bucks are showing up in the harvest.
There’s never been a better time to deer hunt in the Volunteer State. There’s a decent chance hunters will set a new harvest record in the 2007 deer seasons, and your chances for taking a trophy buck are increasing. Let’s take a look at where the big bucks came from last year and also what hunters can expect from Tennessee woods in the coming season.
QUICK 2006 RECAP
Last year, the TWRA told us that a down year in 2005 coupled with increased mast and a healthier herd would translate into a good deer season in 2006 — and it did. For the first time in history, Tennessee hunters took over 180,000 whitetails during last year’s hunts.
When the end of the season came, Tennessee hunters harvested an astounding 174,937 whitetails on the statewide hunts alone. That’s nearly as high as the overall harvest record set in 2004. Add the wildlife management area (WMA) harvests of 7,156 to that total, and you get our new all-time harvest record of 182,093 deer killed.
2006 BIG-BUCK FACTORIES
Take a look at the state map of the top counties for 11-point-or-better bucks. There is one key feature that stands out above everything else: Seven out of the top 10 big-buck counties lie in Region II. Hardeman and Henry counties in Region I may battle it out from season to season as to which one produces the most total deer, but when it comes to the Big Boys Club, Region II is on the top of the heap.
The other significant numbers story (one which the map doesn’t show) is the dominance of Montgomery County when it comes to big bucks. The number of 11-point-or-better bucks coming out of Montgomery County isn’t just astounding, it’s almost scary when compared with the rest of the state.
Montgomery County hunters harvested an astonishing 74 bucks with 11 or more points in 2006. That’s far and above any other county, though Williamson County’s harvest of 57 big bucks is very impressive. In the third spot for big antlered deer, Dickson County also had a respectable harvest of 55 bucks. Lincoln County was also among the state’s elite: Hunters there took 50 of the 11-point-or-better bucks.
Maury County was fifth in this category with a harvest of 48 big bucks. Region I sees its first representation in the top 10 with a harvest of 47 big boys in Fayette County in the sixth spot. Henry County and Stewart counties tied for the seventh position with an equal harvest of 45 bucks with 11 points or more. Davidson and Sumner counties in Region II were also equal to the task with a harvest of 41 trophy bucks last season to round out the top 10.
That’s where most of the 11-point-or-better trophies came from, but not all of them. Hunters have a decent chance at an older buck just about anywhere in the state. In Region III, Scott County led the way with 23 of the 11-point-or-better bucks, followed by Roane County’s 20 and Rhea County’s 19 big bucks. In Region IV, three counties took top honors for big bucks. Campbell County was best for big bucks in 2006 with 12 harvested followed by Anderson and Greene counties with seven bucks with 11 or more points.
One other statistic worth paying attention to is that from 2005 to 2006, the majority of Tennessee counties saw increases in the numbers of 7- and 8-point bucks as well as 9- and 10-point bucks harvested in a single season. Many of these bucks, of course, are great trophies, and across the board, Tennessee bucks are becoming older, more mature and more likely to have nice racks.
Are our WMAs rebuilding when it comes to bigger bucks? The answer is a resounding yes! For example, the 2005 WMA hunts produced 913 bucks with 7 and 8 points, 280 deer with 9 and 10 points, and 54 bucks with 11 or more points. In contrast, the 2006 WMA season produced 1,250 bucks with 7 and 8 points, 347 bucks with 9 and 10 points, and an impressive 90 bucks with 11 points or better. That’s a significant increase in quality in just one season.
Take a look at the 2006 Harvest Of WMA Bucks table with this article. You’ll quickly see that three WMAs stand head and shoulders (and horns) above the rest. When it comes to 7- and 8-point bucks, Fort Campbell was the leader with 187 of these quality bucks harvested last year. Catoosa WMA wasn’t far off that mark, with 181 bucks with 7 and 8 points tagged. Land Between The Lakes (LBL) also kept up its reputation for producing quality bucks — 125 of them last year with 7 and 8 points.
In the 9- and 10-point category, Fort Campbell also led the way with 66 bucks taken. Again, Catoosa WMA was second with 45 bucks with 9 and 10 points harvested. And LBL was third with 40 bucks with 9 and 10 points in the bag. When it comes to 11-or-more-point monsters, Fort Campbell was also tops with 25 trophies taken. In this category, LBL’s large and long-standing pool of older deer generated 15 bucks with 11 or more points. Catoosa WMA settled for the third spot for big trophies with 10 quality bucks with 11 points or better.
Other WMA buck harvests are worth noting, too. In the 7- and 8-point category, 117 bucks were killed at Cherokee WMA, 69 at Eagle Creek, and 56 came from Oak Ridge. In the 9- and 10-point bucks category, the Cherokee WMA saw 21 whitetails harvested, while Oak Ridge had 28. There were no other WMA harvests worth mentioning in the 11-points-or-more category with the exception below. This trophy distinction is dominated by Fort Campbell, LBL and Catoosa WMAs.
With all that said, you still can’t overlook the state’s top trophy destination and most highly sought big-deer hot-deer draw hunt. Presidents Island WMA only produced six bucks with 9 and 10 points and an additional three bucks with 11 or more points, but they were all world-class takings; Presidents Island has a small draw pool compared with most other WMAs.
WORDS OF WISDOM
Daryl Ratajczak, the TWRA’s big-game program coordinator, likes our buck prospects in 2007 as much as he likes our odds at setting a new overall harvest record. After two back-to-back seasons of good mast crops, the deer herd is healthy. A healthy deer herd means healthy does and good fawn recruitment over the last couple of years. Ratajczak said the mast crop two years ago was even better than last year, and the deer are in excellent shape. Ratajczak fully expects to break last year’s record this season with a harvest somewhere near or at 200,000 deer.
“We’re in the glory days of deer
hunting now,” Ratajczak said. There is a trend toward seeing more Boone and Crockett bucks.
Ratajczak said it would be hard to pick out where the next record buck would come from, but he just as quickly said Williamson County has that kind of potential. He explained that it’s a rich county with big sanctuary areas because of the big estates found there. They become havens to big bucks once the season opens. The bigger deer just disappear into these million dollar estates during deer season. Davidson County and its associated Nashville suburbs are a close second choice for Ratajczak.
There are also two easy choices for Ratajczak when it comes to knowing which WMAs may be the ultimate producers of big bucks. He said Presidents Island, of course, is the given. And as he noted last year, Yanahli Refuge WMA is still a sleeper in his book. These areas are so good because of the food found there in rich soils. Both areas are sharecropped through the TWRA’s cooperative program. There are hundreds of acres of crops each season in the form of soybeans or corn. They allow big bucks to keep growing when other food isn’t available.
A few years ago, Unit L was created to deal with an overabundance of does in Region I and Region II counties. Ratajczak said the problem now is that too many bucks are still being harvested from Unit L. Hunters have an opportunity to take 300 does or three bucks, and bucks are still accounting for 53 percent of the overall harvest in the liberal unit. Plenty of does are still being killed, but Ratajczak said the counties that have been in the unit for a while have a doe harvest now hovering in the mid-40 percent range. Counties that are newly introduced to Unit L usually have around a 57 to 59 percent doe harvest, but the newness quickly wears off. If the trend continues, Ratajczak said the agency might have to consider a new regulation to insure that more does are harvested.
“It’s not about buck management anymore,” Ratajczak explained. “The greatest focus now is educating the deer hunter.”
He went on to say that doe management is the new key to deer management overall. Although there are no new regulations on tap this year that will affect the buck harvest statewide, what happens with the doe harvest has a direct effect.
“Management needs to be focused on does,” Ratajczak added. “Doe harvest is not only good, but it’s necessary to keep the herd healthy.” He said it used to be illegal to shoot does, and many hunters still have the mindsets that it’s not a good thing. That’s one reason why there are a few changes in deer hunting regulations this year that allow for increased doe opportunities. For example, hunters in Unit B will be able to have two additional days to harvest a doe with a muzzleloader.
The three-buck bag limit still exists in most of the state (the exception being the two-buck limit in Unit B). Ratajczak said the Unit B buck harvest has flat-lined as he expected, and there are no real harvest differences with either a two-buck limit or a three-buck bag limit there.
With all that said, Ratajczak still believes that Tennessee hunters will kill a record number of bucks this year. He said this is a safe assumption because the does and bucks are very likely to have to move more this season than they have in the recent past to find food. Remember, we’re on the tail end of two great mast crop seasons and still killed a record number of deer last season. After this past spring’s big April freeze, the mast crop is expected to be decimated. That means deer will have to move and will be more vulnerable to hunter efforts. This season may be the year of the food plot.
Ratajczak said the younger, inexperienced bucks may be taken first, but if hunters will be patient, they’ll probably get a reward in the number of big bucks as well.
AN AGING DEER HERD
As increasingly older bucks appear in the whitetail harvest each year, the TWRA likes what it’s seeing. In the last couple of years, the agency has been proud to note that Tennessee’s buck harvest ranks right up there with deer herds from other more popular trophy states.
In fact, the TWRA said if you harvested a buck last season, the odds are that it was an older aged-class deer. Even with more liberal bag limits, Tennessee’s buck age structure continues to be impressive: More than half of all bucks harvested in the state are 2 1/2 years of age or older.
The agency said if you compare the Volunteer State’s harvest of older-aged deer with that of Kentucky, it’s obvious that our regulations aren’t hurting the production of older aged-class bucks. The agency also points out the main difference between the two states is that Tennessee continuously harvests more older aged-class bucks than its northern counterpart. That’s a testament that Tennessee deer hunters are passing up younger bucks for the older buck options.
Many counties are experiencing the highest number of quality bucks being checked in than at any other point in modern history.
Another 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. Because of the high mast crops seen in 2005 and 2006, the 2007 hunts should offer hunters a better opportunity for crossing the path of a quality buck.
As Ratajczak said, these are the glory days of deer hunting in Tennessee. When I began chasing whitetails in Tennessee, the deer herd was estimated at near 400,000 animals in the early 1980s. It’s the year 2007, and the herd is approaching one million deer. And it’s a herd with older aged bucks out there for the taking.
Find more about Tennessee fishing and hunting at: TennesseeSportsmanMag.com