Whether you're looking for a hat-rack buck or some meat for the table, here are eight public land areas that'll put you in the thick of good hunting this season!
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Throughout much of the eastern United States, deer managers are struggling to bring blossoming deer numbers under control. Since hunting is the most effective tool in this battle, it means Maryland sportsmen can look forward to continued liberal deer regulations.
Deer management is by no means simple. Some of the more troubled areas are ones located in populated locales, where urban sprawl limits hunting. Places such as this are prime for bowhunters. Efforts are being made to expand hunting opportunities and effectiveness. The early antlerless muzzleloader hunt has also been a positive component of deer control and is on the slate again this year. At the time of this writing, proposals were being considered to allow the limited use of crossbows during certain seasons.
One barometer of the health of a deer herd is the buck-to-doe ratio. In nature, nearly half of the fawns produced are male. Most hunters would find that hard to believe on the first day of gun season, particularly hunters who spend time on public land. At times, it seems there are 30 or 40 antlerless deer for every one carrying headgear. The reason for this is that traditionally bucks have been removed from the population much more efficiently than does. In the past even "meat hunters" oftentimes would take a buck over a doe, if possible.
This mentality is slowly but surely changing. Liberal bag limits over the state's four deer areas encourage the taking of antlerless deer. As more and more hunters become better educated in the aspects of deer management, they realize that they are, in fact, the real deer managers. This was illustrated in last season's record deer harvest.
Overall, the deer harvest was up 12 percent over that of the previous year. During the 2002-03 season, Maryland hunters bagged 94,114 deer. Perhaps of even more significance is the fact that the antlerless harvest was up by 27 percent, while the buck harvest dropped by 2.5 percent. Sportsmen bagged 40,042 antlered deer and 54,072 antlerless deer last season, the vast majority being whitetails. While the bulk of the deer were taken during the regular firearms seasons, it's interesting to note the significant contribution made by archers and muzzleloaders. Firearms hunters accounted for 51,290 deer, while bowhunters bagged 19,088 and muzzleloaders added 23,736.
White-tailed deer abound throughout the many habitats found across Maryland. The adaptable deer can be found in good numbers in the mountainous regions of western Maryland as well as the densely populated portions of central Maryland. Deer thrive in stands of hardwoods adjacent to the fertile fields of the Eastern Shore, as well as the uplands located just off tidal marshes. Free State sportsmen don't have to travel far to be close to deer.
Many components must be considered when deciding where to hunt. Certainly access to hunting land is a major factor. Not everyone has access to private land. If you don't, it's not too late to lay in the groundwork to get on such. The major hunting seasons are still a ways away, and folks may be willing to allow a well-mannered hunter a chance at some prime hunting ground. Bowhunters, in particular, have a better crack at accomplishing this. But the time to act is now. Make your requests well in advance of any planned hunts. Landowners tend to look negatively at hunters knocking on their doors dressed in hunting garb.
Another component of the "where-to-hunt" equation depends on what you are looking for. Is a bragging-sized buck your goal, or are you just looking to put venison on the table? In either case, a look at past harvest records may point you in the right direction. Harvest numbers can lead you to what might be underrated areas. Counties where the antlerless harvest has been on the increase might be a better bet to find a buck that has survived a season or two of hunting pressure. It takes at least four years for a buck to begin to attain its potential in terms of antler growth. You'll want to look for areas that hold more than yearling bucks.
Take, for example, Anne Arundel County. Last year, the antlerless harvest rose over 83 percent during the firearms season. During the bow season, another significant increase occurred in terms of antlerless harvest, as 27 percent more antlerless deer were taken than the prior year. Howard and Montgomery counties have also experienced this trend.
The thinning of the antlerless herd should begin to bring the buck-to-doe ratio back to a more natural number. As this occurs, the age structure of the buck population will improve, meaning older, larger bucks. So it makes sense to pay attention to numbers like this when looking for areas to hunt bucks, especially when the numbers have been favorable for a string of years.
Remember, however, that you are, in fact, a deer manager. If you plan to concentrate your efforts on buck hunting, consider taking the steps necessary to harvest a doe or two as well to keep things in balance.
When looking at the numbers, percentages only tell part of the story. Consider Allegany County, a traditional destination for many Maryland hunters, particularly during the gun season. Last season, the antlered buck take dropped 6.5 percent, while the antlerless harvest increased by 42.5 percent. Even though percentage-wise the table leaned to the antlerless side, many more bucks were taken than does.
During the firearms season, 2,555 bucks were bagged in Allegany County, while only 1,834 antlerless deer were harvested. A hunter looking to simply put meat in the freezer may well want to consider a place like Allegany County, where tagging out on a doe will help balance the deer herd. And if you feel taking a doe is less of an accomplishment, understand that most experts feel that a mature doe is tougher to harvest than a mature buck.
What follows is a closer look at some public hunting opportunities in what could be considered underrated counties. In general, public hunting lands are more extensive in the western part of the state, though deer densities may be lower in terms of deer vs. available habitat. Central, eastern and southern Maryland lands have plenty of deer, but they tend to be smaller. Therefore, the savvy hunter might consider working toward accessing private land, areas where the deer harvest needs to be increased the most.
What follows is a look at several public lands located in the "underrated counties" previously listed.
Public hunting land is at a premium in the Montgomery County area. That makes 2,000-acre McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area (WMA) an important site in a part of the state that
is witnessing a decline in wild places due to development.
This WMA contains a mix of habitats. Streams interspersed with ponds bisect the woodlands. Mature hardwoods are present in the uplands, and wetlands, too, will be found here. This area is located near Seneca Creek State Park, which plays host to a 1,000-acre parcel that also allows hunting.
The McKee-Beshers WMA is located near Gaithersburg. It is easily accessible by taking Exit 39, River Road, off the Capital Beltway. Travel west about 11 miles toward Potomac to the intersection of River Road and state Route (SR) 112, also called Seneca Road. Turn left and go approximately 2.5 miles to the McKee-Beshers area.
Additional information on the specifics regarding deer hunting on this wildlife management area can be obtained by phoning (410) 356-9272.
Carroll and Howard counties contain the 276 acres that make up the Hugg-Thomas WMA. This area is quite small, but deer hunting is available on a permitted basis.
The habitat found on the management area is mostly a mix of hardwoods and softwoods. Hickory and oak are common, and the terrain is made up of gently rolling hillsides.
This area is easily accessible from Interstate 70. Take the SR 32 exit, and travel north. More info regarding hunting can be obtained by calling (410) 356-9272.
SENECA CREEK STATE PARK
Seneca Creek State Park covers about 6,500 acres in Howard County, and surrounds Seneca Creek, a tributary to the Potomac River. Found within the state park is a 1,000-acre tract on which hunting is permitted.
The hunting area is located along River Road. Maps are available and boundaries of the hunting area are well marked. This state park is located next to the McKee-Beshers WMA.
For more information, call the park office at (301) 924-2127.
PATUXENT RIVER STATE PARK
Located in Howard and Montgomery counties, the Patuxent River State Park covers 6,700 acres and contains tracts that allow hunting.
The park encompasses 12 miles of the upper Patuxent River, and is composed of a mix of rolling hills covered in hardwoods and reverting farmlands.
Like Seneca Creek State Park, the hunting areas are well marked. Since these parks are of a multi-use nature, and are shared with other outdoor enthusiasts, it's important to familiarize yourself with the rules concerning hunting here. Information on this park can be obtained by calling the Seneca Creek office at the number above.
This park can be accessed from SR 97. Take the SR 97 exit off Interstate 70.
DANS MOUNTAIN WMA
Located along the northern ridge of the North Branch of the Potomac River, Dans Mountain provides rugged, forested terrain. Bean-shaped and lying in somewhat of a north-to- south manner, Dans Mountain WMA is about nine miles long and two miles wide.
One of the larger WMAs in the state, this 8,376-acre parcel sits between SR 36 and U.S. Route 220 in Allegany County. Consisting mostly of mature, second-growth oak and hickory, Dans Mountain also has areas of mountain laurel and rocky outcroppings. Access into the interior of the WMA is limited, so even though the habitat here is of a "mountain" type, hunters have a decent chance of encountering a nice buck. Because of the tough-to-hunt areas, bucks sometimes get the chance to reach 2 to 3 years of age when good antler growth develops.
Dans Mountain can be accessed from SR 36 to the west and Route 220 to the east. A couple of roads reach back into the interior of the tract, including one that runs near the top of the ridge. Other back roads branch off near the upper and lower ends of the tract, and parking areas can be found along these.
Dans Mountain WMA is proximate to hunters from the Frostburg and Cumberland areas, which are located north of here.
WARRIOR MOUNTAIN WMA
A bit east of the Dans Mountain tract, hunters will find a 3,950-acre parcel called Warrior Mountain WMA. Though the habitat here is quite similar to that of Dans Mountain, and much of western Maryland for that matter, the terrain is not quite as steep.
Warrior Mountain WMA is located east of Cumberland and south of Interstate 68. Walk-in access is good into the interior of the tract, via roads that wind through the management area. Parking lots are located along the eastern edge of the tract off Warrior Mountain Road, at the north central portion off Fire Tower Road and Oliver Beltz Road. Along the eastern portion of the tract, Cresap Mill Road has two parking areas.
State Route 51, which runs along the North Branch of the Potomac south of the Warrior Mountain WMA, can be used to get into the general area from that direction. Cresap Mill Road intersects with SR 51. A primitive campground is located at Warrior Mountain, and may be available during the winter hunt for the truly hardcore outdoors person. Call (301) 478-2626 for more details.
BILLMEYER-BELLE GROVE WMA
Two separate parcels located in eastern Allegany County make up the Billmeyer-Belle Grove WMA, which covers a bit over 1,000 acres.
Former game farms operated by the Department of Natural Resources, these two tracts today provide additional hunting opportunities to the land-rich areas of Allegany County and western Maryland.
Numerous logging roads and trails bisect these mountainous tracts of second-growth timber, making access into the interior a breeze. Situated just off Interstate 68, about midway between Cumberland and Hancock, Billmeyer-Belle Grove provides easy-to-get-to hunting for sportsmen coming from that area. The urban areas of Hagerstown and Frederick are also within a very reasonable drive.
On the Billmeyer tract, parking is provided along the eastern edge of the property via Mountain Road. On Belle Grove, which is the smaller of the two properties, parking can be found at both the north and south ends of the parcel along Watson Road.
GREEN RIDGE STATE FOREST
Located between the Warrior Mountain and Billmeyer-Bell Grove WMAs is the nearly 40,000 acres of the Green Ridge State Forest. Besides the extensive land found here, the Green Ridge tract offers hunters a wider variety of habitats due to ongoing timbering operations. Though mature woods offer fine deer habitat, their "big-woods" nature doesn't provide easily identifiable edge habitat. This can make such places a bit intimidating and difficult to hunt. Not so at Green Ridge, which has forested areas in various growth stages.
Numerous roads and trails cut back into the interior of the Green Ridge State Forest, which is the second largest forest in Maryland. The forest is south of Interstate 68, with its southern border being that of the North Branch of the Pot
omac River. Secondary roads such as Oldtown, Stafford, East Valley and Green Ridge roads run north to south through the area. State Route 51, Mertens, Tunnel and Kirk roads give some access from the east and west.
Primitive campsites are located throughout the forest, as well as at the state forest headquarters. For more information and maps, contact this office at (301) 478-3124
As Maryland's deer hunting program evolves, seasons and bag limits are becoming more complex. Be sure to carefully consult the booklet provided with your license. Detailed information is also available on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Web site: www.dnr.state.md.us.