With 57,513 square miles of terrain that varies from steep mountains to sand dunes located within 159 counties, Georgia has its share of white-tailed bucks, many of which are handsome trophies. But the big-racked trophy deer are not evenly distributed and some areas produce more than others. Understanding why can help hunters find one this Fall.
Georgia typically produces several dozen trophy deer each season that score in the 140- to 170-inch range on the Boone and Crockett scoring system. Indeed a buck in this category is the goal and dream of many Georgia hunters.
Last season there were 15 bucks with racks scoring over 150 inches, four measuring in the 160s and five bucks with more than 170 inches of antlers. There are usually just a handful of bucks that exceed that magical 170-inch benchmark to qualify for the record book and last season none of the five were typical racks but had non-typical antlers.
Each season the state of Georgia has a Big Deer Contest to monitor and recognize the biggest bucks taken each season in the Peach State. There are four categories divided up by firearm and archery, and typical and non-typical racks.
The rankings are based on the Boone and Crockett scoring system, and to qualify for the contest, each buck has a minimum score for each category. Typical gun kills must meet the minimum score of 145, non-typical gun is 170, typical archery is 120 and non-typical archery is 150 inches of which there were none last season.
The contest is an excellent indicator of not only the amount of trophy bucks being taken, but also the locations where they're being killed. Certain trends are revealed and hunters can gain valuable insight on where to target a buck next season.
For the 2014-15 Georgia deer season there were 69 entries overall in the contest. This compares to 65 entries the previous season. Bowhunters arrowed 36 typical bucks and gun hunters entered 28. Of the 159 counties in the state, 40 had at least one entry, and 13 counties had two or more.
At the top of the list is Worth County in southwest Georgia with six entries. Lee and Harris counties had five entries and three contest bucks each came from Schley, Macon, Meriwether, Fulton, Walton and Sumter counties.
With two entries each, the list is rounded out with Dougherty, Baker, Randolph and Newton counties.
Looking at the geography of the counties with entrants, the overwhelming numbers of trophy bucks were taken in the southwest section of the state. The Central Piedmont portion also has good representation, and metro Atlanta makes a decent showing.
To the contrast, there were no bucks entered from the Ridge and Valley area in the northwest, the Blue Ridge Mountains in the north or the lower coastal plain along the coast. That's not to say that there are not some fine trophies in these areas, there were just none entered in the contest last season.
Hunters wanting to target a true Georgia giant, the best bet is in the southwest. The region south of Columbus down to Albany and Bainbridge and east to Tifton is a hotbed of giant whitetails in the Peach State.
The seven county area that includes Macon, Schley, Sumter, Lee, Worth, Dougherty, Baker and Randolph produced 26 entries in the contest.
These include the top typical archery buck scoring 158 6/8-inches taken by Clint Strange in Schley County and the top typical gun kill, a 164 2/8 inch buck from Sumter County shot by James Austin Scott.
This region produces not only the most big bucks, but also grows the bucks with the largest racks in the state.
"The fertile soils of those areas is the reason that most of the agriculture in the state is found there," said Charlie Killmaster, GDNR biologists.
"With heavy agriculture, cover rather than food becomes the limiting factor and deer can more easily reach their full genetic potential," said Killmaster.
When it comes to growing trophy bucks, the most important factors are land use, soil fertility, age and genetics. When these combinations come together, white-tailed bucks can grow fat and sport large racks.
Fertile soils that grow nutritious plants, whether natural or agricultural, will produce bigger healthier deer. Add proper genetics and give the bucks a chance to grow a few years and trophy bucks will abound.
"The habitat quality in that area is generally good and is capable of growing larger bucks," said Theron Menken, GDNR biologist.
"In general the areas around the Chattahoochee and Flint River drainages are more fertilelands than other parts of the state. Many of the counties in this area also have antler restrictions limiting the number of younger bucks being harvested, contributing to an older age structure across the landscape."
Bucks harvested in Harris, Meriwether, Talbot and Troup counties must have a minimum of 4 points of 1 inch or longer on one side.
Another factor that influences the number of quality deer coming out of the area is the fact that there are quite a few larger land holdings in the area that are managing specifically for trophy bucks. All this combine to provide excellent potential.
"Dooly and Worth counties have always produced large bucks, but many of the large deer we are seeing are coming from other agriculture-heavy counties," said Brent Howze, southwest biologist.
"Hannahatchee WMA has had several large bucks taken in the past few years. River Creek and Flint River WMAs have also produced high-quality bucks."
According to Howze, habitat is the most important variable for producing quality deer, while pressure determines whether hunters see the animal. He also says that deer on Chickasawhatchee WMA has increased in both body and antler size over the last couple of years, which has been attributed to habitat improvements such as timber thinning, wildlife opening and prescribed fire.
Another consistent trophy buck producer is the metro Atlanta area. Despite having a lot of people, cars and buildings, the counties around Atlanta give up several big-racked bucks every year. The reasons for this include low hunting pressure, archery-only areas and fertile lawns and gardens for the deer to feed on.
Last season, there were three bucks in the Big Deer Contest taken from Fulton County, two from Newton County and one each from Rockdale and Cobb. Bucks from Bibb and Clarke counties, metro Macon and Athens respectively, also made a showing.
The central Piedmont portion of the state has been a consistent trophy deer factory over the years for quantity and quality of bucks. Several trophy bucks were taken in middle Georgia last season including Walton (3), Newton (2), Rockdale, Jones, Putnam and Warren counties.
The Piedmont has rolling hills and hardwood drainages. Much of the area was small farms in the past, but much of the region is now planted pine plantations. The Piedmont gives up trophy bucks every year, but not quite in the size and numbers of southwest Georgia.
One of the trophy hotspots not situated in the southwest is Walton County, located just east of Atlanta. Walton is close to the burgeoning capital city, but still largely rural with fertile soils and some agriculture. Jarrod Daniel has hunting property in Walton County containing a large kudzu field.
He observed a nice deer feeding in the field every summer for six years, as it grew bigger each year. However, he never saw it during deer season, until this past November.
Daniel started the morning hunting a hardwood ridge bottom, where he saw a spike and a doe. Then, around 9:30, he decided to get down from his stand and walk around. After a little while, Daniel viewed a doe running with another, larger deer following behind.
"When I saw him behind her, he was about 60-70 yards away and I knew he was a shooter," recalled Daniel. "I raised my gun, found an opening and waited. Luckily, he had slowed up when he came through the next opening and I found his shoulder and squeezed the trigger."
Daniel was pretty sure about the hit as the deer disappeared into the thicket, but he still waited about 10 minutes before heading toward where the deer was standing at the shot.
"When I got about halfway there I saw his white belly off to the right about 30-40 yards," Daniel said. "I walked over slowly and when I saw his rack I got excited."
The buck was a massive 8-pointer scoring 154 inches, which is quite high for only 8 points. The rutting buck was following a doe, which got him up and moving during daylight hours. Daniel was in the right place at the right time and nailed a lifetime trophy.
Walton County also had 137-inch bowkill by Chris Phelps and a 178-inch non-typical gun kill by Bryan Burel last season.
"Areas with good soils and agriculture tend to produce better deer, but areas of suburban development can produce good bucks as well," said Brent Womack, biologist over the Ridge and Valley region in northwest Georgia.
"Counties with good amounts of agriculture include Polk, Bartow, Floyd, Gordon and Murray. Cohutta (WMA) has historically produced some high-quality bucks due to the older age classes.
Although the hunting can be tough and the deer population low, if you do see a buck it is likely to be a good one."
Will Ricks, biologist for the Lower Coastal Plain area is optimistic for the season, saying the trophy deer of his region come out of Wayne County, which has a good mixture of bottomland hardwoods, pine forests and agriculture. He also says that two of the best WMAs in the area are Paulk's Pasture and Sansaville.
Of course, Georgia has nine counties with antler restrictions meaning "antlered bucks may be taken only if they have a minimum of four antler points of 1-inch or longer on one side of the antlers."
This is currently the restriction statewide on any hunter's second buck allowing for one lesser buck to be harvested. But in Hancock, Harris, Meriwether, Montgomery, Randolph, Talbot, and Troup counties, bucks of this size or larger are the only ones that can be legally killed the entire season by any hunter.
Macon and Dooly counties take it further by requiring a buck's rack to have a minimum outside spread of 15 inches.
This restriction allows for more trophy deer to survive their younger years to grow into older bucks with larger racks. A hunter's chance of seeing and killing a trophy deer in these counties should be higher than most areas of the state.
However, only four of the nine counties had entries in the Georgia Big Deer Contest last season. Those counties include Harris (5 entries), Meriwether (3), Macon (3) and Randolph (1). The entries from Meriwether County all scored in the 140s, while two of the Harris county bucks scored 162 and 173 inches.
There are, however, plenty of trophy bucks throughout the state that are not entered in the contest; others successfully eluded hunters.
As such, trophy white-tailed bucks are found all across the great state of Georgia, but the southwest, Piedmont and metro Atlanta areas consistently produce more heavy-horned bucks because of fertile soils, agriculture and conditions that allow bucks to live longer, the ingredients to growing a Georgia giant.