Georgia, which has more than 57,000 square miles of land, is one of the most biologically and geologically diverse states in the entire country — and that's a good thing for Peach State deer hunters.
With a Georgia hunting license, one can track a buck through oaks and hickories on the steep slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, draw a bow in the cornfields and peach orchards of the Upper Coastal Plain or set a tree stand on one of Georgia's barrier islands.
Such varied terrain can make management of the state's deer herd a challenge, but the Georgia Department of Natural Resources works hard to maintain a deer herd that provides excellent hunting opportunities both statewide and regionally.
So, wherever, and however, hunters choose to chase Georgia's deer, here's what can be expected for the 2016-2017 season.
number of SIGHTINGS WILL BE UP
No matter where they go, hunters across the state should see more deer than they did last year, according to Georgia state deer biologist Charlie Killmaster.
"I expect deer sightings to be up in the 2016-2017 season due to the decreased harvest last year; we're going to have more fawns hitting the ground, and if you look at our fawn recruitment rate from last year it was a little on the higher side, which is good," said Killmaster. "Those two things together lead me to believe that as long as we have good weather, we're going to have a pretty productive deer season."
The decline in deer harvest numbers in 2015 affected the harvest of both bucks and does, but there was a sharper decline in the antlerless segment.
"The total buck harvest went down and the total doe harvest went down, but the total doe harvest went down buy a much larger degree," Killmaster said. "We had an approximate nine percent decline in the buck harvest and a 19 percent decline in the doe harvest."
A large portion of the decline is due, Killmaster believes, to a regulation change that was done by design — restructuring the either sex days for a large portion, mainly in the northern half, of the state.
"The first two weeks of the season were buck only as opposed to either sex and we made some adjustments mid-season as well," Killmaster said. "During the pervious regulation cycle those buck-only dates were toward the end of the season and we restructured that toward the front of the season."
The obvious result of less does taken in 2015 is an increase in the deer population this season, Killmaster says this
is by design. "If you take a look at the deer management plan we have set goals by the physiographic regions. All of the physiographic regions with the goal of stabilizing and slightly increasing the population, or just increasing the population, we achieved those goals," he said. "We're not trying to increase it by any substantial amount, we're just trying to get it up a little and stabilize it at that level."
Though those population increases mean hunters may see more deer, they don't necessarily mean that they bring more home.
"I don't expect the doe harvest to increase by any measure," Killmaster said. "It might come up a little bit because I think weather was somewhat of a factor this past season on the overall decline, but our goal with those regulations is to keep it down. That's not to say that the hunters won't figure it out and work around it and just kill the same number of does at a different time of the season.
In 1972, Georgia's deer population was estimated at more than 250,000 animals, more than enough for every single hunter licensed that year — 220,900 — to take one home.
But just one in every four Peach State hunters bagged a deer — only 51,000 kills were registered with the state in 72. Since then, Georgia wildlife management officials have done an admirable job of growing the deer population, which peaked at well over a million animals in 1998.
Hunter numbers didn't quite keep pace, growing by only about 10,000 in the 40 years between 1972 and 2012. But, every year, those hunters became smarter and better equipped. By 1992, the number of deer being harvested were higher than the number of licensed deer hunters in the state, which sounds somewhat sketchy, but simply illustrates the perfectly legal practice of filling more than one deer tag in a season. By 2012, deer population numbers were dropping again, but by design.
"We've had regulations designed to reduce the population for nearly two decades now," said Killmaster. "But we've accomplished the goal of reduction and now we're trying to get it at a good level and keep it there."
While, according to the 10-year plan, the statewide deer population is currently at an ecologically appropriate level, local populations vary widely across the state.
REGION BY REGION
Georgia's 57,000 square miles of land is naturally broken up into five physiographic regions, which are defined by the shape and type of land they contain — the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian Ridge and Valley, Piedmont Plateau, Upper Coastal Plain and Lower Coastal Plain.
Although state wildlife officials say that the deer hunting in each of these regions stays pretty standard from year to year, that's not to say there aren't fluctuations depending on hunter numbers, regulatory changes and weather patterns across the state.
"You've got areas of the state that are just better quality soils, better quality landscape for deer and just generally produce bigger deer," said Killmaster. "Other areas of the state tend to produce more deer than others but not necessarily the biggest deer in the state."
In 2015, the state's Piedmont region took top honors for hunter success rates — calculated from data gathered from hunts on Georgia's wildlife management areas (areas with 10 or fewer hunters for the year were excluded).
Four of the top 10 public areas in the state — Panola Mountain State Park, Hard Labor Creek State Park, Chattahoochee Bend State Park and Joe Kurz WMA — fall solidly in the region, while a fifth, the Almo Tract of Chattahoochee Fall Line WMA sits astride the line between the Piedmont and the Upper Coastal Plain.
The Lower Coastal Plain only had two entries to this year's top 10 WMA list, but one of them did take the No. 1 spot overall. A total of 300 hunters took to the field on Ossabaw Island WMA's 9,000 acres. Those hunters took home 196 deer — 117 bucks and 79 does — for an astonishing 64.69 percent success rate. When broken down by sporting arm some of the success rates are even more mind-boggling. For the island's either-sex archery hunt, 62 hunters took home 51 deer, which shakes out to a success rate just over 81 percent. The island's 70 primitive weapon hunters bagged 51 animals, for a 72 percent success rate.
Spirit Creek Forest WMA, located in Richmond County in the Upper Coastal Plain, actually came in with a whopping 300 percent success rate, but that's because a single hunter managed to take a buck and two does off the property.
Montezuma Bluff WMA, also in the Upper Coastal Plain, would have placed fourth, with a 57.14 percent success rate, but only seven hunters took to the field there, killing two bucks and two does.
The Upper Coastal plain placed high anyway, with three WMAs from the region making the top 10, a fact that Killmaster attributes to regulation changes last seasons.
"In some portions of the state, the Upper Coastal Plain in particular, we went a little bit more liberal on the seasons," he said. "That's pretty much the only area of the state we haven't seen any population decline, it's been fairly stable."
It's not surprising that these two areas are consistently good deer producers. According to Georgia's 10-year deer management plan, released in 2014, both of these areas registered deer populations of 25 to 30 per square mile in 2012, as opposed to just 15 to 20 deer per square mile for the lowest ranking region, the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"Mountain and Ridge and Valley are our lowest deer populations but that can even be a little bit deceiving because while the population may be considerably low in the higher elevations on the national forest land, there's actually pretty good deer hunting on the private land in the valleys," Killmaster said.
The low numbers are really a function of habitat. The closed canopy forest on the higher elevations in the mountains just isn't as productive as open space and agricultural areas.
RULES AND REGULATIONS
Flipping through the regulations will show the same rules as previous years, according to Killmaster, with a few small, but important changes.
"There are no major regulation changes regarding the seasons or bag limits from last year; it's pretty much going to be the same," he said.
However, there is a new harvest-reporting requirement that says hunters must register deer with the state within 72 hours of the kill. Hunters will mark the deer on their harvest record as they've always done but will also need to call a toll free number, log on to the Internet or use an app created by the GDNR to notify the state.
The new law has a two-fold purpose, Killmaster says: It will help the department of natural resources law enforcement division to better monitor the deer harvest, however, its primary function is as a data collection tool.
"When we go to this harvest reporting we won't have to wait for several months following the season to find out what's going," Killmaster said. "We'll know as it's happening."
It's the immediacy of the data that's appealing to the DNR. The new harvest reporting will allow the state to better track deer harvest data at the county level rather that at the regional level, as much if it is currently estimated.
"It's critical pieces of information that we have not had up until this change," Killmaster said.
The new harvest reporting law was implemented this year for the spring turkey season and will begin for deer at the start of archery season.
STATE OF THE STATE
Though many of Georgia's deer hunting hot (and cold) spots remain the same, the Department of Natural Resources continues to make changes designed to improve Georgia's deer herd and hunting opportunities. Season tweaks last year should result in more deer sightings this year, and new harvest reporting requirements will help provide data critical to improving the herd next year and for many years into the future.