New Jersey's High-Harvest Deer Zones

New Jersey's High-Harvest Deer Zones

Here are five of the Garden State's top zones to try this firearms season, no matter whether you seek a big buck or a fat doe. (December 2005)

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Garden State deer hunters enjoyed a reasonably good season last year when they turned some 69,456 deer into various venison steaks, chops and burgers stashed in their collective freezers. The season was at least a bit better than the previous year's when the overall harvest stood at 63,786 whitetails.

This year promises to be even better, if Mother Nature and her whimsical weather patterns cooperate. And weather conditions often determine the final outcome -- or count, if you will -- of the final season tally.

In New Jersey, one will be hard-put to find a place where there are no gunners. No matter where you go, there will likely be other hunters. The idea, however, is to minimize the crowding, and Mid-Atlantic Game & Fish thinks we can do that for you, at least to a certain extent. Consequently, here are some lands accessible to the public within five popular, high-harvest deer management zones (DMZs) that will at least up the ante for downing a deer, while at the same time offering some semblance of a quality hunt.

First, to get a better grip on what's in store for deer hunters this season, let's take a look at last season's harvest rates within the state.

Deer hunters will eagerly tell anyone willing to stand still long enough to listen, about the comparatively poor conditions during last season's six-day firearms hunt, which takes place for one week each December. Keep in mind, there are many additional deer seasons in New Jersey, including muzzleloader, fall and extended season archery, as well as various and sundry permit seasons.

Yet, it is the six-day firearms season (commonly called the buck season by most graybeards) that counts most and generates the most enthusiasm. It is the equivalent of the opening day of trout season in the Garden State. Nearly every hunter, whether that hunter is primarily a bow or frontloader fan, turns out for the buck season.

Additionally, firearms deer hunters invariably pray for a cold week, preferably one that offers at least a covering of snow. That is exactly what nature provided on opening day in New Jersey's northern climes last year. However, in keeping with New Jersey's reputation, those so-called ideal conditions didn't last long.

Certainly, it didn't snow throughout New Jersey on the kick-off of the six-day season last year, with only northern counties like Sussex, Hunterdon and Warren benefiting from the white stuff. Nevertheless, weather conditions throughout the state were good, but all of that was about to change.

No sooner had Mother Nature teased us with what appeared to be the answer to a deer hunter's prayer, than she retained the moisture but cranked up the thermostat. For the most part, and depending upon whether you hunted South Jersey or the state's northern reaches, the remainder of the week would have made a duck ecstatic. It rained -- no, make that deluged -- in some areas.

Despite nature's ill-timed temper-tantrum monsoons, the harvest rate for last season's six-day firearms season wasn't all that bad, as hunters downed some 12,332 bucks as opposed to the prior season when the tally for the same season stood at 10,588, an increase of 1,744 deer.

In addition, the first day's take for the 2004-05 season was down considerably at 3,636 compared with the 2003-04 season that tallied 5,279 deer.

In the optimistic column, this season's acorn crop (a fairly good barometer of how deer fare as they go into the winter) is rated between good and exceptionally good, depending upon geographic location. Translation: We should have an excellent six-day firearms season this year.

Another factor that influenced last season's increase is a program initiated by officials of New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) and subsequently supported and approved by the state's 11-member Fish and Game Council, called the Community-Based Deer Management Plan. The plan allows community officials, in conjunction with division personnel, to study a town's deer problems and then offer specific days and times during which hunters can participate in special hunts. Deer taken in this manner are also counted in the overall harvest, and thus aid in boosting the harvest figures.

Let's look at DMZ 2. Lying in the hilly, nearly mountainous country of Sussex County, DMZ 2 in a few instances actually borders New York State and heads west to border the famous, albeit truly mountainous country of the Delaware River Water Gap National Recreation Area.

Within the confines of DMZ 2 lie public lands that most deer hunters would die for, including Kittatinny Valley State Park, Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and Wawayanda State Park. Before continuing on with descriptions and locations of these areas, however, hunters unfamiliar with this region should know that Wallkill River NWR is designated as a "special regulations area," and hunters should consult the current Hunting Issue of the Fish and Wildlife Digest before walking into this 7,500-acre refuge with gun in hand.

Space prohibits listing each prerequisite for every special regulations area, but we will do so in this instance to offer an idea of what "special regulations" may mean and how to determine each requirement.

In the instance of the Wallkill NWR, all standard deer hunting regulations that apply to WMAs and public land also apply here, including seasons, bag limits and even the number of seasons (bow, gun, muzzleloader); but deer gunners wishing to hunt Wallkill NWR are required to obtain a signed access permit prior to hunting. The permit is free to juvenile hunters, but adult hunters will have to spend $10 for the permit. And the permit must be carried on the person at all times.

How do I come by this fabulous wealth of information? The same way everyone does should they desire to hunt a special regulations area. In the Hunting Issue of the Fish and Wildlife Digest, you'll find a list of all special regulations areas. The list offers requirements, costs (if any) and any additional conditions. The digest also includes phone numbers and addresses, as well as Web addresses. For example, the phone number at Wallkill NWR is (973) 702-7266, and the Web site at which this information can also be obtained is

Kittatinny Valley SP isn't mentioned in the special regulations section in the hunting edition of the Wildlife Digest, and according to my sources at the division, the

lack of mentioning any special provisions means that hunters may take advantage of any or all deer seasons as long as they abide by the game code, and the specific regulations of the DMZ in which the state park is located, but hunters should never assume a specific state park or forest is open during all seasons, and thus should check with administrators listed at that particular phone number before hunting, according to Joe Penkala, supervising biologist for New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife.

"Hunters should always call prior to the season, since all state parks and forests are regulated according to the game code and the DMZ within which that particular state park or forest is located. It could be, and is entirely possible, for instance, that a particular state park or forest may have its own additional requirements."

Incidentally, the phone numbers to which Penkala referred are also listed for each state park and forest in the division-issued New Jersey's Wild Places and Open Spaces. The phone number for Kittatinny is (973) 786-6445.

Finally, in DMZ 2, hunters may avail themselves of 13,422 acres of prime deer country at Wawayanda State Park, located so far north in Sussex County that parts of this tract extend into New York State. Again, the same rules apply. All of the state's game codes are in effect here, but it is wise to call ahead, if only to be certain there are no "last-minute" restrictions. Access to Wawayanda is reasonably easy from county routes 94 or 515. The phone number for Wawayanda SP is (201) 853-4462.

Next, let's address the ever-popular DMZ 8. Hunters should understand the hunter population is probably greater than the local deer population. Nevertheless, there are some high-harvest areas with public-access hunting grounds that are worth a try.

Within DMZ 8 is Hacklebarney State Park, consisting of a modest 892 acres. For our purposes, that is not nearly as large as we would like, but this is also an exception, since those few acres hold a sizable deer herd that, in comparison, does not receive nearly the hunting pressure of nearby Black River WMA.

Next is what I've often referred to as a sleeper. I've tried to shy away from listing WMAs because most experienced New Jersey deer hunters know precisely where state WMAs are located and what they can expect when hunting them, but this is an exception.

Again, this is one of those state parks not listed in the special area deer hunting information in the digest, but you've been warned: Call ahead of the season to determine whether there may have been any last-minute changes that could close the park on certain days or perhaps there may be the closure of a specific area within the park. In addition, some parks restrict the number of hunters on particular days. You get the idea. Call first.

Hacklebarney SP is easily accessed by U.S. Route 206. The phone number for the park is (908) 638-6569.

Next is what I have often referred to as a sleeper. I've tried to shy away from listing WMAs because most experienced New Jersey deer hunters know precisely where state WMAs are located and what they can expect when hunting them, but this is an exception.

The Ken Lockwood WMA isn't nearly as crowded as other WMAs in the immediate region, and this WMA is also found in DMZ 8. Known for its famous trout fishing rather than hunting, Lockwood WMA does offer surprisingly far less hunter pressure than other larger and more popular WMAs. Admittedly, I've never hunted this WMA during opening day of the six-day firearms season, but I have hunted it during the middle of the week and during muzzleloader season. Much to my surprise and delight, I found there was not a blaze orange jacket behind every tree.

Certainly, the gorge is hilly, and sometimes even steep, but if an old curmudgeon like me can make it to the top, so can most deer hunters, especially those half my age, or less.

The gorge is composed of a mere 260 acres, and you must be cognizant of where you are hunting, since the Hunterdon Learning Center as well as Hunterdon County Parks property border the southwest side of the gorge along the roadway through the gorge. The properties are posted with a setback safety line, but by climbing the (unposted section) hillsides, one ends up in some real estate that looks like it was custom-made for deer and deer hunting. Again, be careful of where you hoof it in your travels so as not to cross over into that safety setback area.

The Ken Lockwood Gorge WMA is easily accessed from secondary Route 513, which runs through the villages of Long Valley and Califon.

Now, let's go on to DMZ 10 where the six-day firearms season produced a total of 674 deer during the prior season and 557 last year. Now that may not sound like a lot of deer to some, but with the exception of DMZs like 8 which, incidentally, produced 1,019 deer, DMZ 10 was one of the better deer producers in the entire state.

For those sportsmen who are unfamiliar with DMZ 10, the region lies west of state Route 31, south of Interstate 78, and north of state Route 173. The western edge is bordered by the Delaware River. Within its confines lies a comparatively lesser-known deer-hunting area called the Musconetcong River WMA comprising a demure 602 acres, not exactly what we had in mind concerning "lots" of open space.

But the Musconetcong WMA is worthy of mention because of one factor. Most of the deer killed in DMZ 10 are taken on private lands, and Musconetcong River WMA offers hunters at least an opportunity to get in on some of the excellent action in DMZ 10.

Now it's on to one of my favorites, if only because I've spent some time in and around the area of DMZs 3 and 6 which, incidentally, are the regulatory DMZs for the Newark Watershed Property in Morris, Passaic and Sussex counties. This vast property has all the prerequisites of a deer hunter's Valhalla, and it is composed of a sprawling 35,000 acres. For our purposes, we're combining DMZs 3 and 6 into one unit, thus we are addressing five DMZs containing good hunting and, with any luck, fewer hunters.

One must read the digest carefully to determine the precise DMZ in which they will be hunting, and all the regulatory provisions within each of the two must be understood. For instance, DMZ 3 requires that any buck taken must have at least one antler of 3 points, and in DMZ 6, hunters must have a valid Antlered Buck Stub from their current license whenever harvesting an antlered deer (as in all other DMZs). In addition, all seasons apply, but hunters must have a Watershed Access Permit before hunting.

It can become a bit confusing, but by reading the digest and speaking with the folks at Newark Watershed, it is worth the effort to untangle the confusion.

One of my trapshooting cronies, Elmer Favaro of Sparta, once told me he was "spoiled." "Bob, the last season I hunted the watershed property, I didn't see another hunter. I firmly believe th

ere are deer on this tract that have probably never seen a human."

The emphasis on "probably" is his. But he added a caveat. "The same goes for bears. The place is loaded with bears. Nevertheless, I don't think I've ever hunted anywhere in New Jersey where I've found less hunting pressure," he said.

The contact number for Newark Watershed is (973) 697-2850. A season permit costs $30, but is good for all of the various deer seasons. One last caveat if you will. You're going to have to be one of those proverbial early birds to obtain your permit. The only way to obtain one is to appear in person at the watershed's administrative office at 224 Echo Lake Road in Newfoundland, New Jersey. No permits are issued over the phone, Internet or by mail. If you're like me and get rankled every time a hunter ambles past your stand during the prime time of sunup or dusk, give the Newark Watershed tract a try.

Another area within DMZ 6 is Allamuchy Mountain State Park. In my own vision, this state park is merely a junior-sized version (7,624 acres) of the Newark Watershed property and supports a sizable deer herd. The positive aspect of Allamuchy concerns hunting pressure. Though it is a popular deer-hunting area, and you will certainly not find yourself alone there, it is, nonetheless, far less pressured than some nearby WMAs. Allamuchy SP is easily accessed by I-80 or by going through Hackettstown, north on state Route 183. The contact number for Allamuchy is (201) 852-3790.

Finally, let's take a look south to DMZ 26. What makes this DMZ so unusual is not its location, nor does it offer deer hunting that would necessarily be rated far above all else. In fact, deer harvest numbers here are in keeping with surrounding zones, but its uniqueness lies in the fact that within DMZ 26 is Wharton State Forest, all 110,481 acres of it.

Quite naturally, this isn't going to be one of those regions that are considered top-rated for secluded or solitary hunts. However, neither will you find New Jersey's traditional complaint of "a hunter behind every tree." Instead, the layout and general size of Wharton SF is conducive to hosting "a lot, a whole lot of hunters," according to one of my cronies who has hunted this tract. What he meant was the region offers the elbowroom required for a quality hunt.

But the Musconetcong WMA is worthy of mention because of one factor. Most of the deer killed in DMZ 10 are taken on private lands, and Musconetcong River WMA offers hunters at least an opportunity to get in on some of the excellent action in DMZ 10.

Wharton State Forest is in Burlington County and may be accessed by U.S. Route 206 or secondary Route 542. The contact number for Wharton SF is (609) 561-3262.

A few Christmases ago, my wife and I were at a holiday social gathering when I heard her explaining to a tiny knot of listeners about all the time I spent in the woods, on the trap range, fly stream or surf-casting. One of the folks in the gathering asked her if she ever considered divorce? "No," she said. "Never did I consider a divorce. Murder, yes, but never a divorce."

So, if you're like me and spend too much time in the woods rather than attending to household chores, give one of these places a try. You may find that little draw or swale or hillside, or an outcropping of rock that overlooks a small spring where deer come to slake their thirst, fits you like an old pair of many-times-washed blue jeans. And it will be your place, forever, held in a safety deposit box of the mind, to return to season after season to look for that special buck, or perhaps even a scale-busting doe. In my case, I'll settle for just being out there.

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