Does and big bucks alike are there for the taking if you know where to go for some later-season deer hunting.
Once the winter holidays approach, many deer hunters put their gear aside for the season whether they've bagged a deer or not.
Some figure that all the easy deer will have been taken by the close of the December 16-17 bonus gun season, and feel that it's just not worth the effort to take to the woods with archery gear or bear the elements with a muzzleloader in hand during the primitive arms opportunity January 6-9.
Seasoned whitetail hunters welcome those attitudes among their less-avid peers; it means they have the woods and fields to themselves during a time of the year and at a point in the season when many actually prefer to be hunting.
Awhile back I talked to Mike Rex of the Buckeye Big Buck Club (BBBC) about late season trophy deer hunting. Now a member of the Ohio Wildlife Council, Rex remains active in the club and a serious whitetail hunter, and he surprised us both with some stats he discovered when poring over the record books.
"I was surprised a bit by a couple of the counties that the books show producing big late-season whitetails," Rex admitted, adding, "Wherever you live and hunt in Ohio, there's no reason to put away the muzzleloader or bow this time of year just because you think there aren't any big deer around."
In talking to various wildlife officers in some of the counties Rex revealed as producing large late-season deer, a pattern developed. Many of the counties included acreage that is off-limits to deer hunting, and provided a refuge for pressured whitetails to retreat to. When hunting activity wanes late in the season, these whitetails venture out of refuge areas in search of food.
If those closed areas are adjacent to public hunting land — or private acreage that welcomes deer hunters — the deer are fair game for hunters who take advantage of the opportunity. The action can be outstanding for does, and more productive than most think for mature bucks and the occasional trophy that slips out of the sanctuary for a chance at a meal.
The following counties in each of Ohio's five wildlife districts have produced notable numbers of BBBC-qualifying bucks, and contain public-hunting areas that may be more productive than others for deer hunters.
CENTRAL OHIO'S WILDLIFE DISTRICT ONE DEER
Union County in northwest central Ohio has produced a bumper crop of December-and-later deer that made the BBBC record books over the years. The combination of abundant agricultural lands and mast-producing woodlots makes Union County a productive place to pursue both bucks and does.
Or, rather, it does if you have permission to do so on private land. There is nary an acre of land open to the public for hunting across the entire county.
However, adjacent counties offer public-hunting opportunities that are worth exploring. Delaware Wildlife Area (WLA) in its namesake county gets a fair share of whitetail hunting pressure during prime time from Columbus to the south. But once gun season concludes archery and primitive arms hunters have the place to themselves, especially during the week.
And with plenty of deer on the hoof hiding out in the thickest parts of the public area and venturing onto the private woodlots that surround the area, the late-season deer hunting can be productive. The same is true at Alum Creek Wildlife Area.
Maps and more information on hunting deer in Union County, and at Alum Creek and Delaware WLAs, is available by visiting the Wildlife District One office at 1500 Dublin Road, Columbus, 43215; 614-644-3925 or at wildohio.gov
NORTHWEST OHIO'S WILDLIFE
DISTRICT TWO DEER
In Wildlife District Two, Wyandot County has been a big-buck producer for late-season whitetail hunters, and is usually at the top of the post-gun-season list in northwest Ohio — at least going by the BBBC books. Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area is a prime player in that regard.
Most of its 9,000 acres are fields with some water and woods, including 3,000 acres set aside as a waterfowl refuge where there's no hunting of any kind allowed. That means there are plenty of protected places for deer to frequent when the hunters are out in force. Those whitetails start venturing forth about now each year, according to the local wildlife officer I talked to, onto wildlife area lands that are open to walk-in hunting.
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The landscape at Killdeer is flat, with little natural drainage; however, land adjacent to the Little Sandusky River on the east edge of the area is a bit rolling. Some two-thirds of the wildlife area is in cropland and grassland. The balance is divided almost equally between woods and shrubby coverts and water.
The water areas include more than 1,000 acres of marsh, a 360-acre green tree reservoir, an upground reservoir, and 125 ponds ranging from less than an acre to 50 acres in size, providing water sources and cover for late season deer.
Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area is located eight miles south of Upper Sandusky. Wyandot County Road 115 provides access from State Route 294, two miles west of Harpster, and from State Route 309, eight miles west of Marion. State Routes 67 and 294 border the area on the west and north.
Further information may be obtained at wildohio.gov.
NORTHEAST OHIO'S WILDLIFE
DISTRICT THREE DEER
Northeast Ohio in general, and Wayne County in particular, offers plenty of public deer-hunting opportunities for large numbers of hunters who pursue whitetails in Ohio's most populated region. BBBC record book numbers point to Wayne County as among the best in the district for producing qualifying racks bagged each December and January.
The local wildlife officer I talked to mentioned a pair of public hunting areas in the district that produce quality deer late in the year. The first is Funk Bottom Wildlife Area, a destination composed primarily of agricultural land that often floods late in the season, explaining why Funk is more famous as a waterfowling destination than as a deer-hunting one.
Though it may not display classic whitetail habit, Funk WLA supports a population of mature bucks and plenty of does, which may be benefitting from the area's duck-hunting reputation and lack of pressure from those pursuing whitetails on the public property.
The 1,498-acre wildlife area is in portions of Wayne and Ashland counties. State Route 95, running east-west, goes through the middle of the area, from Blachleyville east, through Funk and Lake Fork to the west. The area lies in the glaciated central hills region of Ohio, with flat to moderately rolling topography resulting in the majority of the wildlife area consisting of seasonally flooded moist soil meadows and bottomland hardwoods.
The other late-season destination to consider in Wayne County for overlooked deer hunting opportunities is Shreve Lake WLA. At 228 acres it's small, offers moderate to steeply rolling topography located a mile-plus west of Shreve, north of state Route 226. County Road 149 is on the western boundary, Clinton Township Road 138 is on the eastern boundary, and Clinton Township Road 316 runs east and west through the area.
At the other end of the size spectrum, Killbuck WLA covers 5,671 acres in portions of Wayne and Holmes counties, extending north from Holmesville to three miles south of Wooster between state Route 83 on the east and state Route 226 on the west.
The landscape features a shallow glacial outwash valley with elevations that vary from 840 feet at the floor of Killbuck Creek near Holmesville to nearly 1,000 feet on hillsides parallel to the valley floor. More than half the area consists of marsh and swamp that is often flooded, making Killbuck the state's largest remaining marshland outside of the Lake Erie region.
It also holds plenty of deer that find abundant cover in the dense habitat that borders the wetlands — as well as the swamps themselves. Once the shooting stops at the end of gun season, these deer relax a bit, leave the thick cover to feed, and put themselves in range of archery and, next month, primitive arms hunters.
Further information about deer hunting at Funk Bottoms, Shreve Lake and Killbuck wildlife areas may be obtained by contacting the offices at Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, or from Wildlife District Three Office, or by visiting wildohio.gov.
SOUTHEAST OHIO'S WILDLIFE
DISTRICT FOUR DEER
District Four's Gallia County has been a consistent producer of large late-season bucks over the years, based on the record books compiled by BBBC. What's more, Gallia's County's bag limit has been increased from two to three deer for the 2017/2018 season.
According to Gallia County Wildlife Officer Roy Rucker, the Crown City Wildlife Area would be tough to beat as a public area to consider for late season deer hunting, whether pursuing bucks for the wall or does for the dinner table. Rucker pointed out that there are portions of the Wayne National Forest and AEP ReCreation Lands holdings in Gallia County as well.
The 11,119-acre Crown City WLA is in portions of Lawrence and Gallia counties approximately 3 miles south of Mercerville. The primary access to the wildlife area is from State Route 218 and State Route 790. Crown City Wildlife Area's interior can be accessed by many township and county roads, with the most popular access to the area being from State Route 790 and State Route 218.
There are no improved facilities at Crown City Wildlife Area and signage is placed as necessary to help wildlife area users locate wildlife area property, so parts can be a challenging area to navigate — which is all the better for dedicated deer hunters who know to get away from the crowd.
The area's terrain features numerous small streams and is rolling to rugged in topography, with elevations that vary from 515 feet to 1,060 feet above sea level. Much of the land that comprises Crown City Wildlife Area has been subjected to surface mining, and now consists primarily of forestland. About a third is in grassland/open land and a few pockets of wetlands and ponds exist.
SOUTHEAST OHIO'S WILDLIFE
DISTRICT FIVE DEER
Southwest Ohio's Wildlife District Five
BBBC records indicated that southwest Ohio's Butler County has been a "big buck" producer in recent seasons. Problem is, as with Union County, there's not a lot of public land open to hunting in Butler County and most of those quality deer fall to hunters who have permission to hunt on private land.
But there are a few places the public can go; county wildlife officer Aaron Ireland pointed out one: 192-acre Pater Wildlife Area.
Located 6 miles south of Oxford near the village of Reily, about two-thirds of Pater acreage is in woods, mostly along Indian Creek, which runs through the middle of the WLA. The balance is open, consisting of cropland and meadow fields.
A map and more details on deer hunting at Pater Wildlife Area are available from Rush Run Wildlife Area, 1989 Northern Road, Somerville, 45064; (513)726-6795, from the Wildlife District Five Office, 1076 Old Springfield Pike, Xenia, 45385; (937)372-9261, or at wildohio.gov.
Places like Pater may be the key to late season success on public land, for many hunters overlook the smaller wildlife areas. But whether hunting public land or private, the key to harvesting a whitetail this time of year is being out there in the first place.