Now's the time to be planning for the coming archery season. If it's a trophy rack you crave, these are the counties you should be considering. (July 2010)
Rusty Osborne of Monticello shows off his 187 4/8 P&Y buck from DeKalb County at the 2009 Georgia Outdoor Writers Association Awards Banquet in Augusta.
Photo by Polly Dean.
The summer months are the time for serious bowhunters to prepare for the coming archery season. The season begins September 11 and it's not too early to update equipment and practice shooting. But one of the most important factors in determining whether you will arrow a whitetail this autumn is the property that you have access to hunt.
There are 159 counties in Georgia and while they all contain deer, they are not all created equal when it comes to producing trophy bucks. Due to many factors, some areas will produce bigger bucks and healthier deer. These counties are the ones that the trophy-minded archer should target. Of course, hunting these locations does depend on getting access to land in them.
One indicator of a county's whopper whitetail worthiness is how many bucks from them are entered into big buck contests. One such contest is the Georgia Big Deer Contest sponsored each year by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, Georgia Sportsman magazine, and the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association. This contest tracks the typical and non-typical bucks taken by archery and firearms each season.
The minimum size of a typical bow buck for this contest is a Pope and Young Club score of 120 points. For non-typicals a 145 score gets a buck in the contest. By taking a look at past entries in the contest we can track the counties across the state that have produced trophy whitetails with regularity.
In the northern portion of the state, Fulton, Dekalb, Cobb, and Morgan are top producers for trophy bucks by bow. In the last four years, Fulton has produced 12 entries, Dekalb yielded nine bucks, Cobb gave up seven, and Morgan registered six bucks that scored over 120 P&Y.
The notable characteristic is that three of the top four bow buck counties in the north are situated in metro Atlanta. Fulton, Dekalb, and Cobb are all highly developed counties containing human populations of hundreds of thousands. You might think that there is little deer habitat in these areas and you would be correct. But the few patches of woods do contain deer.
Not only are there deer in the scattered wood patches, but some very nice trophies are taken from them each year. But why do so many big bucks come from these counties?
"It's a function of genetics, age, and nutrition," said Georgia WRD Biologist Chuck Waters. "The lay of the land and the ownership patterns are different, and there is less pressure."
There is much less hunting pressure in the metro Atlanta counties because firearms deer hunting is not permitted. Only archery hunting is allowed in these suburban counties and it is far less effective in killing deer than guns.
"More bucks are seen but not killed because of archery," Waters added.
To successfully harvest a deer with a bow, the animals have to come closer to the hunter and provide a shot opportunity. The bowhunter has to evade detection, estimate the distance correctly, avoid buck fever, execute an accurate shot and complete the tracking job to claim his prize. Many times a hunter may encounter a good buck, but all the above factors do not come together. That buck lives another day and has the possibility of surviving the season to grow bigger next year.
The nutrition available in metro areas, surprisingly, is better than one may suspect. Many suburban deer munch on well-maintained lawns and gardens. Golf courses and parks are other feeding areas for metro deer, mainly at night. These areas tend to have highly nutritious plants because they are fertilized. With deer populations that are relatively low, the available plants are less likely to be over-browsed and provide deer with ample nutritious groceries.
Some of these suburban bucks are more than nice trophies: a few of them have been some of the largest bucks taken in the entire state. In 2007, Jay Maxfield killed the state record non-typical archery buck. That monster from Fulton County scored 213 4/8 P&Y. The state's largest typical buck by bow in 2008 was from Fulton County. That winning buck scored 148 6/8 and was taken by Randy Birchfield. Fulton also produced a 174 3/8-inch non-typical giant in 2008 by Brian Taylor.
The third largest buck killed in the state in 2008 -- and the largest by bow that year -- was a bruiser scoring 187 4/8 P&Y from Dekalb. Rusty Osborne arrowed the non-typical behemoth. Taylor McCann bagged the largest bow buck in 2004, a 174 7/8 inch whopper from Dekalb.
It's also worth noting that in 2007, the top three non-typical archery bucks by in the state were taken in Fulton (Jay Maxwell's 213 4/8), Forsyth (186 7/8), and Cherokee (178 2/8), all of which are metro Atlanta counties.
While its clear that trophy potential exists around Atlanta, finding a place to hunt usually is just as hard as getting a shot at a big buck. There is very little public hunting land in metro Atlanta counties. A bowhunter's best bet is to locate landowners and politely ask for hunting permission. This is easier said than done, but persistence may pay off.
The other top-producing county in North Georgia for big bucks by bow is Morgan. Located in east central part of the state around Madison, the county has yielded six entries in the last five years. In 2005, Loy Banks bagged a 171 6/8 P&Y beast that was the largest bow-kill in the state that year.
"Morgan County has always had good size deer, and that's attributed to good soil quality," said WRD Biologist Nick Van Sant. "There is a lot of agriculture, row crops, and dairy farms. The farms produce food that has been fertilized, such as winter wheat. There is better nutrition and it all goes back to the soil quality."
Van Sant also believes that genetics play a big part in how regularly an area yields good racks.
"Morgan is closer to where deer from Wisconsin were stocked back in the 1950s and '60's. Those deer seem to be a little bit bigger," he observed.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has 1450 acres of land that is open for bowhunting around Lake Allatoona. The Cobb County Department of Recreation and Cultural Arts manages the hunts on the COE property. Permits are issued on a first come, first served basis.
Additional public land bowhunting in the metro Atlanta area is available at Lake Lanier Islands and Buford Dam by quota drawing. These properties are also owned by the COE.
The Clayton County Water Authority allows bowhunting on its approximately 4000 acres. It was previously limited to Clayton County residents, but is now open to other archers on a restricted basis. Hunters can apply to bowhunt one of six weekends for a cost of $30.
While Clayton County has not been one of the top big buck producers in the Georgia Big Deer Contest, it still has good hunting and gives up several trophies each fall.
Public hunting areas in and around Morgan County are B.F. Grant Wildlife Management Area, Hard Labor Creek State Park, and Redlands WMA.
B.F. Grant WMA is a 12,000-acre trophy buck public area that has a pair of two-day archery hunts in September that are open to anyone. Hard Labor Creek State Park has quota only hunts. Redlands WMA has an early four-week archery season on its 37,500 acres.
In the southern portion of the Peach State, five counties stand out in regards to producing big archery bucks. But the most dominant trophy producer by far is Dougherty County. Since 2004, Dougherty has put 18 bucks in the Georgia Big Deer Contest. The next closest county is Macon with seven.
Located in southwest Georgia near Albany, Dougherty has coastal plain terrain.
"The habitat is a lot of forested wetlands, upland pines, major creek drainages, agriculture, and good soil fertility," said WRD Wildlife Biologist Julie Robbins. "All these factors combined with low hunting pressure help produce big bucks."
Dougherty's agriculture includes fields of peanuts, soybeans, and grain sorghum. These all contribute to providing deer with nutritious food to grow bigger. According to Robbins, another factor is the large private plantations. These numerous huge tracts are restricted to hunting by a privileged few. That low hunting pressure and good land management provides refuges where bucks can grow old and big.
Other southern counties with more than two entries in the Big Deer Contest are Macon with seven, Worth and Lee both with five each, Harris has produced four, while Schley, Screven, and Irwin each yielded three in the last five seasons.
It is interesting to note that geographically, Dougherty, Lee, and Worth counties are contiguous. That area in southwest Georgia is along the Flint River and has rich soils. Abundant agricultural crops thrive in the fertile dirt and produce big racks for the whitetails that graze on them.
Macon and Schley counties are also adjacent geographically and they too are in the Flint River corridor.
Public land hunting is available in Dougherty County at the Albany Nursery and Chickasawhatchee WMAs. Albany Nursery WMA has one month of archery hunting from mid-December to mid-January, but the entire tract is only 300 acres in size. Chickasawhatchee is much larger at 19,700 acres. It hosts bowhunts starting in September and then again for a month starting in mid-December. This Dougherty County WMA is known for big bucks, but has firearms hunting between the two bowhunts.
Lee, Worth, Schley, and Irwin counties have no public land open to deer hunting. Montezuma Bluffs Natural Area is in Macon County and has 500 acres open for archery hunting from November to mid-January. Just across the Macon County line in Dooly County is the Flint River WMA, which holds several bowhunts for trophy bucks. Harris County is home to Blanton Creek WMA that has an early archery hunt on its 4,800 acres.
Much farther to he east, Screven County is nestled between the Savannah and Ogeechee rivers with their fertile flood plains. The Tuckahoe WMA is situated in Screven County and has 15,100 acres on which two early bowhunts take place.
NORTH VS. SOUTH
Chances are, you will do your deer hunting fairly close to home or at wherever you have been able to find some hunting property. But if you had the choice, are your chances better in North or South Georgia for a trophy buck with your bow?
The traditional line of demarcation between the regions is a line roughly from Columbus to Macon to Augusta. In tallying the number of Georgia Big Deer Contest entries from 2004 to 2008, we can get an idea of the productivity of each region. According to the contest entries, there's not much difference in the regions: 79 came from the north and 74 from the south.
As mentioned earlier, Dougherty County in southwest Georgia produced 18, or 24 percent of the southern total. The Flint River corridor in that same area southwest Georgia was equally dominant in the harvest. The southeastern coastal counties gave up the least number of trophies.
Of the 79 entries in the northern portion of the state, 35 were taken in the metro Atlanta counties of Fulton, Dekalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton, Rockdale, and Forsyth. That equates to 44 percent of the northern total. The North Georgia mountains produced the fewest.
From these statistics, it looks like a bowhunter's best for a big buck is to head to either the Albany or the Atlanta area. Indeed if you hunt these areas, your odds are better than average to get an opportunity to arrow a big-racked buck.
Another factor to consider are the top end bucks that are taken with archery gear. North Georgia has produced seven bucks in the last four years ranging from 171 4/8 to 213 4/8 P&Y.
By contrast, the south's highest scoring bow-kill in that same time period was 156 P&Y. Dougherty County's 18 bow bucks were all less than 145 inches.
The bottom line, however, is that both regions offer some very good prospects for arrowing a trophy buck this year. Chances are more will be taken in the south, but the ones from the north may be much bigger.