From the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to Green Ridge State Forest, plus three other picks, here are five of the Free State's best public lands for deer hunting. (December 2006)
Maryland, like nearly every state in the continental U.S., is faced with an almost impossible task when it comes to white-tailed deer management. Wildlife managers are being asked to control deer populations in areas where hunting has been curtailed and in some instances, completely eliminated.
Until recently, most state parks were off-limits to all forms of hunting. Decades of non-wildlife management in these parks eventually resulted in serious destruction of forest understory plants, leading to severe erosion of forest topsoil. The repercussions of this became evident when small streams that once flowed clear and cold were transformed into shallow, silted ditches that no longer support viable aquatic insect community and diverse fisheries.
To validate that this was, in fact, occurring, Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife managers established deer-exclusion areas in several state parks. Essentially, these exclusion areas were nothing more than fenced-off locations that deer could not access.
Within the confines of the exclusion area, forest understory plants thrived, while just a few feet away the landscape was barren. Everything edible to a height of 6 feet had been consumed by starving herds of whitetails. In some locations, plants once deemed inedible by deer had been consumed as well.
The Warren Bridge area of Loch Raven Reservoir, where hunting has not been permitted since the early 1940s, provides some insight to the havoc that can be wreaked by hungry herds of deer. To the non-hunting community, the view into the forest is beautiful. There is an unobstructed view for several hundred yards into the stands of loblolly pine and towering hardwoods.
For the casual observer, this park-like appearance may be something to behold. But to a forester or wildlife manager, it's a nightmare come true.
The consequences of this can be seen just a short distance away while driving over Warren Road Bridge and looking north at the massive sandbar that has developed in the reservoir's upper reaches. Just three decades ago, depths beneath the bridge ranged from 20 to 25 feet. Today, because of severe erosion and siltation, depths rarely exceed 10 feet. The sandbar has grown from just a small patch of silt to an island that measures nearly 300 yards long and 100 yards wide.
Granted, much of the siltation is the result of unabated development upstream. But a significant volume of silt continues to wash into the impoundment from the nearby watershed lands, laid bare by huge numbers of deer.
Compounding the problem is the loss of viable hunting lands throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Much of this can be attributed to the attrition of small to mid-size farms, lands lost to development. Multi-million dollar homes, shopping malls, industrial parks and dense housing complexes -- locations where hunting is out of the question -- have displaced stands of field corn, soybean, sorghum, wheat and other grains.
The small parcels of woodland situated between developed areas are heavily populated with deer and other wildlife species. But because of their proximity to inhabited buildings, hunting is prohibited.
Consequently, the only viable option remaining open for avid hunters, especially deer hunters, is to pursue their favorite pastime on public lands where hunting is still permitted.
In Maryland, more than 50 such areas still exist, but some locations are now in jeopardy of being closed. Just a year ago, Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich put forth a mandate that would eliminate several prime forested areas statewide and sell them to the highest bidder.
While some parklands were saved by public outcry, many others will soon be in the hands of developers who will quickly begin construction of massive housing complexes.
Some existing sites limit the number of hunters that can access them. Others are so vast that a person could hunt for a week and never encounter anything other than large numbers of white-tailed deer and other wildlife.
Most of the largest wildlife management areas (WMAs) are situated in the remote mountains of western Maryland. However, some of the more productive sites are less than an hour's drive from metropolitan Baltimore. Here are several to consider.
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUNDS
The Aberdeen Proving Grounds (APG), a massive military complex, has been in existence longer than most folks have been alive. Covering thousands of acres along the shores of Chesapeake Bay and encompassing two major river systems, the facility's terrain is primarily dense, lowland swamp interspersed with towering stands of hardwoods, loblolly pine and an assortment of forest understory plants ranging from greenbrier to honeysuckle.
Ironically, APG was the last stronghold for deer during the late 1930s, a time when the species was in jeopardy of becoming extinct in Maryland. Obviously, this is no longer the case.
During the past decade, APG has taken aggressive action to curtail its burgeoning whitetail population. Under current regulations, hunters can harvest up to seven whitetails from the facility. However, they must follow specific guidelines as to the number of bucks that may be taken versus the number of does. Essentially, if hunters bag a buck, they must bag at least two does before another buck may be harvested.
Additionally, a maximum of two bucks may be harvested during the season at APG. But any deer taken from the facility do not count toward the hunter's regular statewide bag limit. APG whitetails are essentially "bonus" deer.
In order to hunt APG, you must be serving on active duty in a branch of the armed forces, be retired from the military, be an APG employee, or the guest of one of the above. Hunters are escorted to specific deer stands by vehicle, and must remain in the stand until picked up at the end of the day. While the regulations are stringent, the odds of bagging multiple deer range from good to excellent.
Last season, hunters at APG bagged more than 900 whitetails, which was the highest number of deer taken from a single location. The irony of this is APG is located along the busy I-95 corridor between Baltimore and Philadelphia, and drive time from either location is about an hour. The facility is surrounded by the cities of Aberdeen and Edgewood, and munitions are tested there daily.
Despite all of this human activity, the deer herds seem oblivious
to it all. Most hunters at APG bag at least three deer per season, and a significant number of individuals manage to bag their limit every year. For additional information on hunting APG, call (410) 278-3305.
GREEN RIDGE STATE FOREST
With more than 40,000 acres and measuring 12 miles long, Green Ridge State Forest is Maryland's second-largest state forest, and among the state's top deer-producing areas.
The lush valleys of the Potomac River all hold huge numbers of whitetails, many of them trophy bucks. Much of the terrain here is nearly vertical. Slopes are covered with towering stands of hardwoods and pines, while the forest floor is alive with various species of underbrush. It's a harsh environment for humans, but prime habitat for white-tailed deer, eastern turkeys, ruffed grouse, and other forms of wildlife.
Numerous roads cross the WMA's mountains, but the area is so isolated that getting lost is just a matter of taking one wrong turn onto a dirt road that dead-ends in the middle of nowhere. Green Ridge, Stafford and Oldtown roads run along the ridges, providing hunters good to excellent access to some of the more productive locations.
During the final days of the firearms season, and well into muzzleloader season, good numbers of whitetails are taken from the highest ridges -- locations accessible only via winding footpaths that crisscross the mountains.
While bagging a big buck always presents a challenge, this is not usually a problem at Green Ridge State Forest. Last season's harvest consisted of 455 bucks and 390 does -- a total of 845 whitetails, all of them in excellent physical condition.
This particular WMA sees a fair amount of hunting pressure every season, and according to deer biologist Doug Hotton this is one of the locations where hunters have managed to bring deer populations under control. A decade ago, Green Ridge was overrun with small does. Most of the bucks rarely reached 3 years of age. Today, the ratio of bucks and does harvested tends to average 50/50, and 5-year-old bucks are not that uncommon.
One of the major benefits of hunting Green Ridge State Forest is the late muzzleloader season. By the time this season rolls around, most hunters have already bagged their deer during the regular firearms season. Consequently, muzzleloader hunters can roam the vast parklands and never encounter another person during the entire season. This time of year, the majestic peaks are often snow-covered; therefore, spotting a trophy buck foraging along one of the northern slopes late in the day is a common occurrence.
If you're in good physical condition and can tolerate cold, winter weather, Green Ridge is as good as it gets. This forestland is just 130 miles west of metropolitan Baltimore on U.S. Route 40, a three-hour drive that is well worthwhile.
INDIAN SPRINGS WMA
Located in the remote mountains of Washington County, Indian Springs WMA encompasses more than 6,300 acres of steep, hardwood-covered slopes interspersed with lush valleys created by tumbling, spring-fed streams. This particular WMA is comprised of four tracts of land situated in the northwestern portion of the county and is located just 12 miles west of Hagerstown, between Clear Springs and Indian Springs.
Numerous access points with designated parking areas that surround the WMA's perimeter, but much of the interior can be accessed only by footpaths that wind along the ridges.
The WMA's main segment, situated just north of Forsythe, produced the lion's share of the 623 whitetails harvested from this WMA during the 2005-06 season. This particular region can be categorized as rugged, with towering rock-covered slopes that are frequently snow-covered this time of year. It's also where some of the county's largest bucks were bagged by both shotgun and muzzleloader hunters during the past five years.
Keep in mind that although hiking up a snow-covered mountain and bagging a trophy whitetail is a crowning achievement, dragging that monster deer down the mountain and back to your car can be even more difficult. Indian Springs WMA is not recommended for individuals in less than top physical condition.
SIDELING HILL WMA
Among the most scenic of all of Maryland's WMAs, Sideling Hill WMA is easily accessed via Scenic Route 40, the old road through the mountains that is rarely used these days. The WMA is bordered by Sideling Hill Creek, and covers just over 2,100 acres in a two-mile stretch that rises from the Potomac River northward to Scenic Route 40.
The southern sector, also known as the Orchard Section, is situated within Washington County, while the north sector is located in both Washington and Allegany Counties. The county line is Sideling Hill Creek.
Entrance to the Orchard Section is via Ziegler Road; good numbers of whitetails were bagged here during the past several seasons. A total of 417 deer were taken from the WMA, some of them trophy bucks sporting heavy, wide-beamed racks.
Most were bagged during the regular firearms season, but a few exceptional bucks were taken during the muzzleloader season as well.
The terrain at Sidling Hill WMA consists of steep rock-covered slopes, numerous slide areas, and dense stands of hardwoods.
Designated parking areas can be found at the end of Resley Road and along the WMA's southern boundary near Pearre Road. These locations put hunters within easy hiking distance of some of the more productive hunting areas. Again, the terrain is such that it's imperative that hunters be in top physical condition before venturing up these steep slopes.
FREDERICK CITY WATERSHED
Last year, a total of 336 whitetails were harvested from the Frederick City Watershed properties -- not a high number when you take into consideration the size of area. Frederick City Cooperative Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) contains over 7,000 acres of forestland in western Frederick County. It is adjacent to Cunningham Falls State Park, which adds another 3,500 acres of prime hunting territory.
Recent cuts to salvage timber killed by gypsy moths actually have enhanced environmental conditions for white-tailed deer by creating new stands of understory plants and vast open areas and fields where growing herds can be seen browsing through much of the year.
The terrain consists of rolling hills, some of which are quite steep, but pale in comparison to the towering peaks of Garrett and Allegany counties. Dense stands of hardwoods and softwoods cover the hillsides, while lush valleys with small, spring-fed streams provide deer with sufficient nutritional food and water through much of the year.
While the area receives heavy hunting pressure, the annual harvest is not nearly as high as it could potentially be. No one is quite sure about the reasons behind the modest harvest level, but Frederick City Watershed property's whitetail population continues to grow at an alarming rate.
And because of this, hunter success will likely be rising at the same rate. This is one of those sleeper areas that often get overlooked. But it's just a matter of time before the burgeoning herds begin causing significant damage to the newly emerging forest understory.
This area's proximity to major population centers such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C., contributes to its popularity, especially for short hunting trips. For additional information on hunting Frederick City Watershed properties, contact the Maryland Wildlife Division at 14038, Blairs Valley Road, Clear Spring, MD 21722; or call (301) 842-2702.
Keep in mind that while the above locations produced the highest numerical kill statistics, those figures frequently do not portray hunter-success rates. Statistically, those rates are often highest for those hunting private land in suburban areas, where hunter access is usually very limited.
However, over the past decade, hunter-success rates on public lands seem to have increased dramatically. Essentially, this reflects the growing numbers of white-tailed deer and fewer numbers of hunters, which seems to be the trend throughout the mid-Atlantic region.
While this is bad news for wildlife mangers who continue to struggle in their efforts to keep Maryland's whitetail population in check, Free State deer hunters should have another banner year.