Best Big Buck States for 2014: Georgia
October 31, 2014
Charlie Killmaster is the main deer biologist for Georgia, and closely monitors Peach State whitetails. He is optimistic about Georgia's deer herd and sportsmen's chances at a trophy.
"Georgia has great potential for producing quality bucks, in fact, the best potential of all 'Deep South' states," Killmaster said. "Looks like we are shaping up for a pretty typical season. So far there are no indications of an above or below average year for mature bucks."
One of the best indicators of big bucks each season is the annual Georgia Big Deer Contest, sponsored by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, Georgia Sportsman magazine and the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association. The contest has four categories including typical and non-typical firearm and typical and non-typical archery.
Hunters who harvest bucks in the most recent deer season submit their bucks after they are scored on the Boone and Crockett (B&C) scoring system. This system, which is a compilation of the total inches of antlers, must meet a minimum score for each category. For typical bucks taken with a firearm, the minimum score is 145 inches, non-typical gun is 170 inches, typical archery is 120 inches and non-typical archery is 150 inches.
During the 2013-14 season, there were a total of 65 entries. The typical archery category had 39 entries followed by 21 typical firearm entries. Four entries were submitted for the non-typical gun and one for non-typical archery. With a lower minimum score and more deer hunters using archery gear, the typical archery category usually has the highest number of entries.
The largest non-typical buck taken last season was with archery gear by Mikell Fries in Evans County. Fries arrowed a most unusual buck with both an odd rack and body. The rack scored an incredible 223 6/8 inches, but was in velvet when Mikell bagged him. The hunter saw the buck the previous year and noticed through trail camera pictures that the buck never shed his antlers and that they just kept growing. The buck also had undeveloped testicles, a small body and was still in velvet in October.
The largest buck taken with a firearm was a Dodge County buck killed by Sam Little that scored 166 1/8 inches. The highest scoring non-typical gun kill was a 170 3/8-inch buck from Lanier County taken by Nathan Livingston. Mathew Lane harvested a 153 5/8-inch buck with his bow in Lee County that was the top typical bow buck. Of the 65 entries, 13 scored over 150 inches. Any buck entered into the contest is a bona fide trophy, but the few that score over 150 inches are truly Georgia giants.
Despite all the entries, there are always a few that slip through the cracks and are not entered into the contest for a variety of reasons.
One of those was by Darron Whitman who joined a new hunting club in Talbot County last year. He began getting trail camera pictures of a particularly large buck that he nicknamed "Jack" because of being blind in one eye. Whitman hunted the area through bow season with no sightings but was careful to stay out of the buck's bedroom. In early November he got trail cam pictures of Jack at dawn for two mornings in a row.
"I knew time had come to make my move," Whitman said.
After pondering and praying about his stand location, Whitman headed for his tree.
"Just after sunrise, I glanced at my watch," said Whitman. "It was 6:58 a.m., over my shoulder I saw a 10-foot-tall pine tree thrashing 3 feet side-to-side at about 120 yards."
The buck rubbed three more trees and moved closer to the excited hunter.
"At 40 yards he came into an opening in the grown up cutover. I took a deep breath and put the crosshairs dead on his shoulder and let my .280 go to work."
Whitman's buck ran but quickly fell. The 12-pointer scored 167 B&C inches and exemplifies the kind of trophy that the Peach State can produce.
There are five geographical regions in Georgia and each one has its own characteristics and trophy potential. Of course, the habitat varies in a state as large as Georgia that has both beaches and mountains. Some regions are better than others, but there really isn't a "bad" region to hunt deer in the Peach State, regardless of whether you're looking for meat or antlers.
BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS
The Appalachian Mountains in north Georgia are some of the most picturesque areas of the state, containing mountains up to 4,000 feet in elevation. It runs from Chatsworth to Clayton to Dahlonega and contains thousands of acres of the Chattahoochee National Forest and numerous wildlife management areas.
Despite having special scenery, the overall deer density is low compared to the rest of the state. This is due primarily to poor habitat and soils and very little agriculture. The deer depend heavily on the annual acorn crop, which varies each year. What the region does have going for it are the remote areas that see very few hunters. Some of the mountain areas are far from roads and give the adventurous hunter the chance to get away from other hunters.
"The mountains provide for fewer deer, but they can live to older age classes," said Kevin Lowrey, GWRD biologist.
Trophy hunters seek out older bucks, and in some of the remote portions of the mountains, the diligent sportsman can find a mountain monster.
The outlook for the Blue Ridge Mountains is not optimal this season, but there is the possibility of a good buck.
"With the bad mast crop last year, I am sure antler development and body weight will suffer," said Lowrey. "If this rainfall continues to provide high-quality browse this summer, maybe we can overcome the setback from last year's poor mast crop."
During last season's Big Deer Contest, one buck was entered from the north Georgia region. Eddie Brock killed a 126 4/8-inch Pope and Young buck in Hall County. Generally, the more southerly portions of the Blue Ridge Mountain region have better bucks.
"Madison, Hart and Franklin counties all still have quite a bit of agriculture and could produce a great deer," said Lowrey. "Dawson Forest WMA has the most trophy potential."
RIDGE AND VALLEY
Steep parallel ridges characterize the northwest portion of the state between the cities of Dalton and Rome. The region has many respectable bucks, but none were entered in the Georgia Big Deer Contest last season.
Georgia WRD biologist David Gregory monitors the Ridge and Valley region and said, "mature bucks, 3.5 years or older, are harvested regularly in Northwest Georgia. As part of our deer herd monitoring program, we collect age data from various cooler lockers throughout our region to monitor harvests. Our region personnel collected 181 deer that were aged as 3.5 years and older, comprising 22 percent of our collections. Now do understand, this may or may not represent the exact proportion of the age occurring in the woods, nor may represent the percentage of the actual harvest. However, one way we use this is to tract harvest over time using similar methods such as trend data. So the mature/trophy potential in northwest Georgia is good, based on the parameters of a buck that is 3.5 years of age or older."
With cooler surveys showing 22 percent of harvested bucks being 3 years old or older, there is a decent chance that a hunter will encounter a trophy buck during the season.
"Trophy bucks can be found in all counties, but often areas were deer densities are the lowest produce some of the largest trophy bucks, such as on Cohutta WMA and surrounding areas in Fannin and Gilmer counties," said Gregory. "Of course, hunters willing to do a little homework and find private land to hunt in Cobb County can be rewarded with some impressive deer at times. In the southern portion of our region in Carroll, Haralson, Polk and Paulding counties where agriculture increases, deer often find a few extra groceries to help keep them in a little better condition to grow some nice antlers."
The center of Georgia, from Columbus to Augusta, is the Piedmont Region. It has long been a producer of mature bucks. In the 2013-14 Big Deer Contest, there were 21 bucks entered that met the minimum size. This included four from Fulton County and three from Putnam and Harris counties. Forsyth, Coweta and Monroe all had two big buck entries.
All the counties in the Piedmont have produced trophy bucks and have the potential to do it again. Some areas tend to have more big bucks killed regularly, but it depends on habitat enhancement and land usage. The metro Atlanta area, in particular Fulton County, always seems to produce several whoppers each year. Most of metro Atlanta is archery only and has very little wooded and undeveloped land. But the property that does have woods can have a healthy population of whitetails and big bucks.
Last season there were four bucks in the Big Deer Contest from Fulton. Frank Vaughn had a super season taking a 128- and a 130-inch buck, while Bill Dyches arrowed a 140 2/8-inch buck. Jay Maxwell already held the state non-typical record buck from Fulton County (213 inches in 2007) when he bagged a 141 3/8-inch buck to add to his collection. Bob Coombs also killed a 170-class drop-tine buck from Fulton that was not entered in the contest.
Other counties in the Piedmont grow big bucks, too. Five Piedmont counties have antler restrictions, meaning only bucks with at least four points on one side can be harvested. These include Hancock, Meriwether, Troup, Talbot and Harris counties. Of these counties, Hancock produced a 146-inch buck by Dana Carter, while Harris gave up three. Chase Metcalf and Chris Metcalf bagged 148- and 132-inch bucks, respectively. A 152-inch buck was also killed by a bowhunter who most people have heard of, Jeff Foxworthy. Morgan County provided a 170-class non-typical buck for Grace Britt that was not entered in the contest.
WRD Biologist I.B. Parnell assesses the region's trophy potential as "fair to good depending on the county." This biologist's prognostication as the best areas in the Piedmont are metro Atlanta and Morgan, Greene, Oglethorpe, Elbert, Washington and Burke counties. He picks Oconee, Tuckahoe, Yuchi, Di-Lane, and Redlands WMAs as best public lands for a trophy buck.
UPPER COASTAL PLAIN
Since statistics don't lie, the best area by far to kill a trophy buck in Georgia is the region called the Upper Coastal Plain. This region is just south of Columbus and Macon down to Tifton and Albany. It contains expansive agricultural lands and a lower human and deer population to allow for bucks to eat well and grow old.
Last season 39 of the 65 Big Deer Contest entries were from the Upper Coastal Plain, and it produced some of the biggest bucks in the state. The top-ranking typical gun and typical archery categories were taken by upper coastal plain bucks. Ten of the 13 bucks in the contest that scored over 150 were from this region.
There are three counties in the upper coastal plain that are considered trophy counties or have antler restrictions: Randolph, Macon and Dooly. The latter two go a step further than restricting buck harvest to "four points on one side." Bucks have to have a minimum outside spread of 15 inches to be harvested in these two counties. It seems to be working in Macon County because there were five contest entries last season: 131-, 139-, 148-, 149- and 154-inch bucks.
The star counties in the Upper Coastal Plain are consistently Lee and Dougherty. Last season's contest had six bucks from Dougherty and nine from Lee. These two counties located near the town of Albany produce trophy bucks year after year including last season's top typical archery buck, a 153 5/8-inch monster taken by Matthew Lane in Lee County. Public lands in the upper coastal plain with potential include Chickasawhatchee and the Flint River WMAs.
LOWER COASTAL PLAIN
From Statesboro to Valdosta to Savannah, the Lower Coastal Plain is essentially the southeastern section of the state. It includes the coastal areas near the Atlantic Ocean and inward through the marshes and sandy soils. The habitat and soils are not as productive as the Piedmont and Upper Coastal Plain, but there are still some good bucks in the region.
Even though the Lower Coastal Plain is not known for having the biggest bucks, the two best non-typical bucks were harvested in Lower Coastal Plain counties. Nathan Livingston took a 170 3/8-inch buck in Lanier County and Mikell Fries shot a 223 6/8-inch monster with a bow in Evans County. Ben Hill County grew a 147 1/8-inch buck for Ryan Luke. Montgomery County is trophy country with antler restrictions.
Will Ricks, a WRD biologist, believes that the area has excellent potential for big bucks.
"The mature/trophy buck potential is high," said Ricks. "While intensively managed private land offers the best chance at mature bucks, WMA's each year harvest many bucks 3.5 years old and older. With heavy rainfall along the coast this spring, native grasses, forbs and woody plants have flourished and the forests are very productive. This will help the entire herd, while helping bucks reach their potential for this season. Hunters were once again satisfied with the trophy buck harvest within the region. The managed hunts brought in many 3.5 year old and older bucks.
"When using the term trophy bucks, it is important to recognize the antler scores are generally lower on the coast than the rest of the state. What's considered a trophy buck for much of the state scores over 120, while on the coast these mature bucks score from 100 to 120, and occasionally 130. With that said we see many bucks each season at the WMA hunts in the 100 to 120 range and the hunters are happy. The best county for trophy bucks in the region is Wayne County. The bottomland hardwoods of the Altamaha River offer prime habitat for coastal deer."
From the mountains to the beaches, the state of Georgia has plentiful opportunities to bag a trophy buck. Some areas produce better than others, so with a little research and scouting, you too can put a large antlered one in your sights this fall.