Mid-Atlantic Deer Section -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

No matter where you live in Maryland, Delaware or New Jersey, there's likely a place in the woods close by where you may encounter the buck of a lifetime this season. (November 2008)

For the past decade or more, deer management throughout the region has emphasized the harvest of antlerless deer, specifically does. Hunters have been offered lengthy seasons, liberal antlerless bag limits and a wide range of ways to take deer.

This process was aimed at a better balance of whitetail populations -- in both age-structure and buck/doe ratios. While it's provided extensive opportunities for putting venison in the freezer, it has also upped hunters' chances of taking older age-class bucks -- trophies, in some cases.

It's been roughly a decade since Maryland's Department of Natural (DNR) revamped its deer management program, centering the cross hairs on the state's burgeoning whitetail population.

With access to generous bag limits, hunters have helped bring the deer population back in balance, resulting in a healthier herd and more older age-class animals.

"Most of our older age-class animals are found in the more urban and suburban areas, where we don't have a lot of hunting pressure," explains Brian Eyler, Deer Project leader for the DNR.

"That situation certainly gives us some bigger bucks. Also, the fertile coastal-plains soils on the Eastern Shore and southern Maryland have the ability to grow big bucks there.

"But in general, the age-class of deer in Maryland is really good. We have a well-balanced herd. We harvest a lot of antlerless deer, which helps put some age on the bucks."

Along with the factors of age and habitat, genetics is closely associated with the ability to grow big bucks. But Eyler feels that in the Free State, genetics falls behind the other two major components.

The results of a recent Maryland Trophy Buck contest, co-sponsored by the DNR and the Maryland Bowhunters' Society, back up Eyler's claims of big deer coming from both suburban areas -- where they tend to live longer -- and also from the prime habitat in eastern/southern Maryland.

Results of the 2007 contest showed the top firearms typical buck, which scored 171 7/8 and came from suburban Prince Georges County. For that year's contest, Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore produced the No. 2 buck, one that scored 167 5/8.

The remaining top five bucks came from suburban Anne Arundel, and from Dorchester and Worcester counties in eastern/southern Maryland.

The firearms non-typical results from that same year tell the same story. The top non-typical -- a 218 2/8-inch monster -- was bagged in Wicomico County. The No. 2 non-typical, a 173 6/8-incher, came from neighboring Worcester County.

Big non-typicals were also bagged in Dorchester, Kent and St. Marys counties. During the 2007 contest, the suburban counties of Prince Georges and Montgomery also provided top-ranking non-typicals.

Bucks from the Eastern Shore and suburbs also took most of the top honors in the muzzleloading and bowhunting categories.

"We are working hard to get as much land open to hunting as we can," noted Eyler. "But a lot of those areas are still out of our hands, and those areas serve as deer sanctuaries."

Which public lands offer the best crack at a buck with a big rack?

The odds go to wildlife management areas on the Eastern Shore. Such tracts include a significant portion of swampy, marshy habitat where deer can avoid hunters. They provide out-of-the-way areas where bucks can hang around long enough to grow impressive headgear.

"When you get over on the Eastern Shore," said Eyler, "I think you'll have a good chance at an older buck on any of the public hunting lands.

"A lot of those public lands over there have areas that are hard to hunt. But folks willing to put in the time and effort have a really good chance."

Both southern and eastern Maryland have a good number of state-owned wildlife management areas. In the southern region, one of your best bets is 1,723-acre Myrtle Grove WMA. Here hunters will find a mix of natural and manmade wetlands, which lie along Mattawoman Creek.

Myrtle Grove WMA is located in Charles County. Chicamuxen WMA is another Charles County possibility. Chicamuxen Creek flows through this 381-acre parcel, which features a mixture of timber and marshland.

Several other state-owned tracts that permit deer hunting are located in southern Maryland. For more information about them, visit the Web site www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/wmasouthern.asp.

Hunters in eastern Maryland may find an old buck skirting the edges of several marshy WMAs. Among them is 4,000-acre Millington WMA in Kent County. This extensive tract contains a wide variety of habitats including agricultural lands, marshlands and hardwood forests.

Worcester County's WMAs are highlighted by public tracts that border both the Nanticoke and Pocomoke rivers. The Nanticoke River WMA covers 1,700 acres; nearby Pocomoke River provides another 1,016 acres of river-bottom habitat.

In Dorchester County, the Linkwood WMA offers up 313 acres of forestland dominated by oak, maple and loblolly pine.

In Somerset County, the best public offering might be in 1,130-acre Maryland Marine Properties WMA. Expect to find a blend of marshlands and forestland on this property.

More information on eastern Maryland public lands can be obtained at www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/wmaeastern.asp.

Central Maryland's suburban-urban public deer-hunting opportunities are highlighted by the availability of the tracts surrounding Prettyboy and Liberty reservoirs. These areas are limited to bowhunting only. They require a special permit, but there is no longer any deadline for applying for one. You'll find a permit application in your annual hunting regulations booklet, or download one from www.dnr.state.md.us/huntersguide/lnpapp.html.

You must carry the permit with you while hunting.

Delaware is in the midst of reevaluating it

s deer-management policies. The state's Division of Fish and Wildlife is currently working with a stakeholders committee, establishing a deer-management program for the next decade or so.

"Looking back at our big buck records on a county level, it really shakes out pretty evenly as far was where they've been harvested," said Joe Rogerson, a Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife deer management biologist.

"Of our three counties, Kent County is probably a bit lower than the other two, in terms of big bucks.

"Northern New Castle County is so heavily urbanized that many refuge areas are off-limits to hunting," said Rogerson.

"With that lack of hunting pressure, deer are able to reach those older ages. So a hunter who knocks on the right doors and gets permission to hunt some of those areas -- that have had little to no hunting pressure for years -- will have a good chance of connecting with one of those older-age deer."

"Conversely, Sussex County gets much higher hunting pressure. Its landscape is dominated primarily by agriculture. Miles upon miles of woodlots mixed with corn and soybean. You can't get a whole lot better as far as habitat and nutrition go.

In areas where antler restrictions have been applied, they've met with varying results and hunter acceptance. Delaware has experienced positive outcomes from the 15-inch minimum stipulation bestowed on two of its larger wildlife areas.

"We have two wildlife areas bordering each other that have antler restrictions," said Rogerson. "One is in Kent County and the other New Castle, with the two separated by a river. The Woodland Beach Wildlife Area covers around 5,000 acres, while Cedar Swamp entails around 3,000 acres. There are some private parcels mixed within the two, so neither is a contiguous tract.

"Any legal buck on those two areas must have an outside spread of at least 15 inches. The exclusion is for hunters 16 and younger and senior hunters, where 'normal' bucks are legal game. But for the general hunting population, the rack must be 15 inches wide -- which is roughly from ear tip to ear tip."

This antler restriction, coupled with the toughness associated with hunting this marshy area, adds up to plenty of older, trophy-caliber bucks.

Last season, hunters in this area discovered remains of two extraordinary bucks that apparently had succumbed to epizootic hemorrhagic disease. One buck was in the 180- inch category; the other reportedly sported a 26-inch spread.

"Hunters hate to see that or hear about that," notes Rogerson. "But it's certainly evidence that deer of that caliber are out there."

Indeed, some of the all-time largest bucks to come from Delaware were harvested during the past few years.

Neal Dukes bagged the No. 2 typical in October of 2006. He used a muzzleloader to down the 182 0/8-inch New Castle County buck.

The top all-time non-typical was harvested in January of 2005. That 208 4/8-inch trophy from Sussex County was taken by Keith Lee.

The No. 2 and No. 3 all-time non-typicals were also harvested during the Past five years.

Another component that plays in favor of older age-class deer is the agency's buck permit policy, which limits the number of younger bucks that any hunter can take.

"In Delaware, a hunter is allowed one buck of any size," explained Rogerson. "We call it our 'hunter's choice tag.' It can be used on a buck or a doe, a spike or a 20-pointer.

"The second tag is a quality buck tag that can be used only on a buck with an inside spread of at least 15 inches.

"So essentially, we've limited the number of bucks a hunter can take to two. That's the most you can take. You can't by any additional buck tags. And if you harvest two bucks, at least one of them is going to be 2 1/2 years or older.

"Prior to that, Delaware hunters were limited to just one buck. We received a lot of pressure from hunters who wanted to take an additional buck. We have enough bucks on the landscape to provide that, but we wanted to minimize the pressure on our 18-month-old bucks."

Though Woodland Beach and Cedar Swamp have the advantage of the 15-inch antler restriction, Rogerson said that trophy bucks probably do exist on many of the state's coastal wildlife areas.

"Walking conditions are tough. Biting insects like those areas, too. But some of these areas are seeing more deer hunting pressure, especially during the shotgun season."

Log on to the agency's Web site at www.fw.delaware.gov/Hunting/Pages/Wildlife.aspx for the status of any new regulations, such as a proposed additional hunter orange requirement for ground blinds.

The Garden State's multi-faceted nature is reflected in its complex deer-hunting regulations. New Jersey features extensive areas of suburban sprawl, and such development limits hunting as a deer-management option. Likewise, rural/agricultural settings are an element of the deer-hunting picture. And as do Maryland and Delaware, New Jersey hosts not only exceptional bucks nurtured on prime habitat, but suburban bucks that avoid hunters by living out their lives in woodlots adjacent to homes and shopping malls.

New Jersey's deer seasons are managed by up to eight separate sets of regulations. Each set governs seasons and bag limits for a number of deer management zones (DMZs).

Some DMZs have had antler restrictions (such as a minimum of three points on one side). The experimental antler restriction, initiated in an effort to increase the numbers of older age bucks, has met with limited success. Be sure to study this year's regulations for any changes in antler restrictions, as well as other regulatory changes.

According to Carole Kandoth, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Deer Project leader, the prime areas for finding a trophy buck are found in the agricultural areas in the northern half of the state. Counties such as Hunterdon and Monmouth tend to head up each year's list in terms of overall deer bag. They're well represented in each year's Deer Classic, which honors several categories of outstanding deer harvests.

During last season's Classic, the top two typical shotgun harvests -- bucks that measured 167 7/8 and 160 1/8 -- came from Hunterdon County. Monmouth County had two of the top three non-typical shotgun kills. The top non-typical shotgun buck was a 159 2/8-inch buck from Middlesex County.

Other counties represented in the latest Classic include Somerset, Gloucester, Sussex, Morris, Cumberland, Salem and Warren.

Larger New Jersey WMAs located in top trophy-producing counties and

worth investigating include Assunpink and Turkey Swamp WMAs in Monmouth County, as well as the Clinton WMA in Hunterdon.

Assunpink covers over 6,000 acres, while Turkey Swamp and Clinton entail 3,843 and 1,953 respectively.

Listings of New Jersey WMAs can be found on the agency's Web site, www.njfishandwildlife.com/wmaland.htm

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