Interested in bagging your first deer of the year? Then take a serious look at some of these high-harvest counties in Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. (October 2007)
Photo by Kenny Bahr.
Wildlife managers are achieving the goal of balancing deer populations with both available habitat and social concerns.
But opportunities remain plentiful for hunters who simply want to put some venison on ice.
What follows is a three-state compilation of the latest harvest trends and deer-management information, along with top picks in the way of public lands for the coming fall seasons.
Maryland deer hunters experienced a season relatively typical of those that have taken place in recent years.
This fall, the outlook is for more of the same.
"Last year provided a buck harvest that was almost stable, which pleased us," reports Doug Hotton, deer project leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife and Heritage Division.
"The antlerless harvest declined somewhat, and that didn't please us. In deer management, you sometimes experience an aberration before you return to the trend of increasing antlerless harvests.
"So at this point, it's nothing to get excited about. But it did get our attention, the fact that the antlerless harvest decreased when previously it had been increasing."
During the 2006-07 combined deer seasons, according to DNR statistics, hunters harvested 91,930 white-tailed deer during the bow, firearm and muzzleloader seasons.
That's a 2 percent decline from the 2005-06 season -- in other words, a negligible change.
Statewide, the antlered harvest of 33,114 deer was similar to last year's harvest of 32,837 deer.
The antlerless harvest decreased from 61,215 deer to 58,816.
That relatively stable antlered harvest suggests the deer population in rural counties is stabilizing at current levels.
In Deer Management Region A, comprising Allegany and Garrett counties, the DNR said that revised regulations -- put in place last year to stabilize a too-rapidly declining deer population -- appear to be working.
The antlered harvest increased from 4,922 deer in 2005 to 5,246 in 2006.
Over the two most recent seasons, the antlerless harvest increased from 3,637 deer to 4,013.
Hotton said that he expects a comparable harvest this coming season, as since the regulations will be close to those in place last year.
"The regulations didn't change a whole lot," explained Hotton.
"We are in the second of a two-year cycle of regulations, so we're expecting a very similar harvest.
"The biggest change that did occur will be that of Sunday hunting in three additional counties.
"That measure was recently passed by the Maryland legislature, which is a positive thing as far as deer management is concerned.
"The counties added are lower Eastern Shore counties -- specifically Somerset, Worcester and Wicomico.
"The Sunday hunting opportunities will mirror those already in place in Dorchester County."
Dorchester County's hunting regulations permit hunting this year on the following Sundays: Oct. 14, 21 and 28 and Nov. 4 and 11.
These dates occur during the bow season; the Sunday hunts are allowed on private land only.
These same regulations should apply to the added lower Eastern Shore counties this year. But be sure to consult your current Hunting and Trapping Guide.
"Besides the five bowhunting days, there will be one Sunday for firearms hunters in these counties," said Hotton. "That will be the Sunday following Thanksgiving.
"Again, this is for private land only."
Having abolished its deer check-station program two years ago, Hotton said the call-in Web site reporting system is functioning well.
The deer-management community has faith in the results the new system is furnishing.
"We are in the second year, and it continues to show itself to be a great system," he notes.
"The trend we had been getting before with the check stations -- in regard to trends of buck-to-doe harvests and other trends -- continue to fall into place. So we're really pleased with hunters' response.
"Before we made the plunge two years ago, we had examined other states that had done the same thing.
"We talked at length with them. Their positive response encouraged us to embark on the same process."
Hotton said there are numerous public lands, particularly in the central and eastern portions of the state, where hunters can expect a good chance at putting venison in the freezer.
The Chesapeake Forest lands, which include nearly 60,000 acres in four eastern Maryland counties, continue to serve as excellent examples of public land in a deer-rich portion of the state.
"We've got a really good system on our Web site ( www.dnr.state.md.us) where you can download maps of the Chesapeake Forest lands," noted Hotton. "In terms of simply harvesting a deer, another good option is the special hunts that take place on certain state and county parks."
The annual hunting guide, as well as the Web site, contains detailed information on such special hunts and how they are administered.
The early muzzleloader season has been in place for over 10 years now, and offers still more great chances for hunters eager to bag a deer.
"For folks looking to put venison in the freezer, the early muzzleloader season is a good opportunity," said Hotton.
"In Region A, there are three days. In Region B there are thre
e days, plus the six additional days of antlerless hunting."
Hotton notes that despite fewer hunting days being available, hunters take more deer during the early muzzleloader season than during the two-week late muzzleloader season.
The Idylwild Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Caroline County near Federalsburg is a 3,800-acre public land that Hotton feels is a good choice for deer hunters. Idylwild WMA contains a mix of bottomland and upland, and cover ranging from mature hardwoods to loblolly and Virginia pine forests.
As with Maryland's, New Jersey's 2006 deer harvest ran on a par with recent seasons, with a slight downside.
"In general, last season's deer harvest was nearly the same or slightly above the previous year," said Carole Kandoth, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife's (DFW) deer project manager. "There was a decrease in the southern portion of the state, in the Pinelands."
The 2006 season provided a total harvest of 56,673 deer, down a bit from the 59,652 taken in 2005. As usual, the top county was Hunterdon, with 10,697 deer being harvested. Other top counties included Sussex, Warren, Burlington and Somerset.
To manage New Jersey's whitetail numbers, a rather complex plan is used, including various bow seasons and firearms seasons. At one time, the herd was managed on a county basis, but the state is now divided up into 67 deer management zones (or DMZs).
According to the DFW, these DMZs are areas with similar herd characteristics, hunting pressure and deer habitat. Highways, rivers and other easily identifiable landmarks bound these zones. Various sets of regulations are formulated each year to tailor deer-hunting regulations to specific deer-management areas.
Last season's highest deer harvest took place, as usual, in the north-central portion of the state. DMZ 8 accounted for the top deer kill, with 4,968. That included 1,524 deer from the fall bow season, 573 via the permit bow season, 50 from the youth day hunts, 804 from the six-day firearms season, 575 from the permit muzzleloader season and 1,364 from the permit shotgun season. Another 78 deer were taken during the winter bow season.
New Jersey's deer harvests have dropped a bit, stabilizing from the high kills experienced during the late 1990s and early 2000 seasons, when harvests sometimes reached well over 70,000 deer.
During our discussion, Kandoth predicted this fall's seasons would produce harvests much in line with those of the past couple of years.
"I have no reason to believe the hunt will produce much different results this fall than from the previous few seasons," she said.
"Harvest peaks have leveled out. I don't see why this fall would be any different."
At the time of our interview, the state's Fish and Wildlife Council was about to vote on potentially significant changes in the harvesting of bucks.
Kandoth suggests that hunters check www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw, the DFW's Web site, for the latest on any such changes.
With a bit over 300,000 acres of land in the state open to public hunting, managing the deer herd is a significant challenge.
For hunters looking to put deer in the freezer, though, she felt Garden State hunters have plenty of opportunity.
"It's pretty easy to get multiple deer here," noted Kandoth.
"Two-thirds of the state has an unlimited antlerless bag limit. The highest harvest takes place in the northern portion of the state.
"Hunterdon County tends to have the highest harvest, year in and year out. There isn't a whole heck of a lot of public land up there, but there is some."
Hunterdon County's Clinton WMA provides around 1,500 acres of public hunting land in that area.
But with some 75 WMAs scattered throughout the Garden State, there are a lot of public-land areas for hunters to seek their share of venison.
Deer management has been a major focus of the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW).
Deer hunting opportunities have expanded in recent years. This fall, hunters can expect seasons of the same basic structure.
Based on last year's deer take, Delaware hunters are continuing a trend that has witnessed record or near-record harvests the past several seasons.
Biologist Joe Rogerson was still processing deer-harvest data when we spoke. He felt the 2006 bag would be right up there toward the top.
"I don't think we are going to reach our all-time harvest of 14,599. But it should be over 14,000," he said.
"It looks like it will be our No. 2 (highest) harvest. The prior season had produced our No. 2 harvest. It should beat that one."
The 2005-06 seasons realized a total take of 13,670 whitetails. That year, hunters bagged 3,738 bucks, 5,962 mature does, 1,875 button bucks, 1,400 fawn does and 531 spike bucks.
For 164 of the deer taken that year, information regarding gender or age was not provided.
"The harvest of female deer ran just shy of 60 percent, which has been a goal of ours," Rogerson continued.
"In recent years, the population had gotten a little out of hand in some parts of the state, so our season structures have been targeted at harvesting antlerless deer.
"It looks like that is working."
Part of the agency's tools for deer management has been an aerial survey. Rogerson explained the reasoning behind conducting such a review.
"The survey was conducted during the winter of 2005 to 2006. Delaware is divided up into 17 separate deer-management zones.
"The way we designed the survey is to determine a population estimate not just for the entire state, but also for each of those zones.
"The habitat varies across the state. Hunting pressure is different because of urban areas and agricultural communities and such. We found out that we are approaching our goal in some of our zones. We still have some work to do in others.
"So I think in the future, hunters may see a focus, season-wise, on those high-density areas.
"It looks like things are beginning to work. Our last three seasons have provided our top three all-time harvests."
The most significant recent regulations change took place in 2004, when each Friday, Saturday and Monday in October were designated as gun days for antlerless deer.
"The bowhunters were a little disappointed because they had had October to themselves," said Rogerson.
"But overall, it's been a success. We've been able to increase our harvest by over 1,000 deer (per year) as a result of those added days.
"Once hunters got accustomed to things, I haven't heard much negative feedback."
For the coming season, no major changes will take place in regard to deer-related seasons or regulations. But as the agency collects more information, adjustments may take place in the future.
"I will be working on developing Delaware's deer management plan," reported Rogerson.
"This will get stake holders involved with designing seasons. More of what our overall deer population is going to be.
"In addition to hunters, we'll address what the agricultural producers want, along with wildlife watchers and such. So I think hunters are looking at two years down the road, perhaps a tweaking of things here and there to focus in on those high-density areas.
"In the past, any changes have been statewide. I expect hunters might soon see a site-specific thing."
Rogerson said the DFW manages deer based on available habitat within each of its zones. Deer habitat includes any undeveloped land, excluding agricultural lands.
Included are deciduous forest, coniferous forest and wetlands.
"We exclude agricultural land," he said, "because while soybean fields and cornfields may make ideal habitat during the summer months, crops get harvested in the fall, forcing deer into the woods.
"As we lose habitat to development, the density will remain the same. We will, however, adjust the overall population."
The agency's current goal for deer density is a total of 40 deer per square mile of habitat. Compared to other states, that number may seem high. But the difference lies in the exclusion of farming lands.
Rogerson said that if such lands were included -- as they are in some states -- Delaware's goal would be more in the neighborhood of 25 deer per square mile.
Delaware has limited public-land resources for the deer hunter, and this is reflected in harvest statistics.
During the 2005-06 season, according to 11,000 deer-harvest responses, 9,754 deer came from private land and 1,246 from public land.
According to Rogerson, the best public-land option remains the 2,992-acre Redden State Forest, located in south-central Sussex County.
"Redden State Forest is our largest area for public hunting in the state," he said.
"It is comprised of several tracts. It's not one large, contiguous land. It gives hunters a lot of freedom to move around into different habitat types. It is located in our highest deer density area.
"If you want to hike off the road and get away from other hunters, you can do so."
Links to Redden State Forest are found on the DFW's Web site at www.fw.delaware.gov.
Maps can be downloaded from the Redden State Forest sites.
In Part 2 of our annual deer forecast, we'll explore the trophy buck hunting aspects of the mid-Atlantic region.