Deer hunting in North Georgia's mountain realm is a completely different ballgame from that in the rest of
the state. So what's it really like? (August 2007)
Barry Hollifield killed this handsome 8-point buck at Chestatee WMA during the 2006 season.
Photo courtesy of the Georgia WRD.
The pre-dawn darkness was cold, the stars were still out, and the mountainside was steep from where I'd had to leave my old car. It was late in the rut period in Union County, and I knew from past experience that I had more than an hour's climb ahead of me. The goal was a blown-over oak on the edge of a laurel thicket; there, a deer trail crossed a saddle, and a good-sized hemlock had been rubbed bright and shiny by the buck I hadn't seen yet.
The forecast was for a clear morning with the temperature several degrees below freezing. I tried hard to move quietly through leaves that crunched loudly underfoot if I was careless.
My rifle of choice that day -- and this was nearly 50 years ago, before any of the companies now making muzzleloaders even existed -- was a .50-caliber percussion muzzleloader that a friend and I had rebuilt from parts of four different old guns. The rifle was short and heavy of barrel, but with a healthy charge of black powder and round ball, it was accurate enough to keep three shots on a poker card at 50 yards from a steady rest.
I settled into the now-brown but still leafy branches of the oak just as the sky was turning rosy in the east off the far side of the saddle. I'd just gotten my breathing slowed to something approaching normal after my climb when I heard crunching steps coming through the leaves scattered under the heavy cover of the laurel thicket. I was ready and focused before the buck even stepped into view. The range was less than 20 yards. The light was good enough now that I could clearly see the shining 6-pointed rack and his breath condensing into steam in the cold mountain air.
When the big .50 boomed, the smoke obscured the whole scene, but as it lifted and blew away, I could see brown legs kicking in the leaves.
This was no record-book buck, but it was a nice one, and it was my first high mountain deer. I was hooked! From that day on, I was a "mountain man." No matter how many and how heavy-horned my flatland deer have been, my most memorable and meaningful hunts have been in the North Georgia mountains.
Today, however, just what constitutes a trophy buck in the rugged mountain counties, and what size of deer can a hunter reasonably expect to find there? The area we're talking about comprises the 16 mountain counties at the top of the state, where the lands of Chattahoochee National Forest and other public hunting possibilities may actually exceed the amount of private hunting lands -- a condition definitely not found farther south.
To start the search for an answer, I checked the all-time Boone and Crockett Club records for the last decade, the Georgia Big Deer Contest entries over the same period, and the all-time record book for Pope & Young Club bucks.
There were no B&C entries from the mountain counties, and only three firearm entries from the 10-year period in the Big Deer Contest. The annual Big Deer competition is jointly sponsored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Sportsman and the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association. It recognizes the top gun- and bow-killed typical and non-typical bucks taken each season. Minimum qualifying scores for firearms are 145 B&C for typical racks and 170 for non-typical. The Pope & Young Club recognizes typical archery kills of 125 P&Y and 155 for non-typicals.
From 1967 through 2005, only 15 mountain bucks were listed out of the more than 450 deer on the P&Y all-time list from Georgia.
The banner year of 2003 was a high point in time for big mountain deer, as all three firearms bucks entered in the Georgia Big Deer Contest as well as two P&Y bucks were taken that season. Keith Collins' Pickens County buck led the gun list with a B&C score of 161 3/8; the other two gun kills scored 149 5/8 and 147 7/8. The archery book bucks that year were Avery Hice's Gilmer County 140 P&Y and Paul Winterman's Dawson County 133 5/8. Additionally, the top archery buck in the Big Deer Contest for 2005 was Eric Brown's 155 3/8 P&Y deer, taken in Murray County.
Talking with the regional wildlife biologists who oversee the highlands of the state and the wildlife technicians who manage the WMAs provided a much clearer picture of what an upland trophy is in Georgia.
Biologist Kevin Lowery covers the northeastern portion of this area, working from the Gainesville WRD office. Most of his work involves the WMAs, but he hears about deer from the Chattahoochee National Forest and private land as well. He feels that the best private-land bucks come from Union, Lumpkin and White counties in his northeastern zone. On national forest lands outside the WMAs, hunters have had the best results from Lumpkin and Habersham counties.
Lowery stressed that the hunters who succeed regularly in the mountains, especially on national forest and WMA lands, really work at hunting this rugged country. "Newcomers won't see a lot of deer," the biologist emphasized, "and won't find them close to the roads. Since much of the public land, including the WMAs, is so rugged and remote, with little road access, our mountain bucks have a better chance of growing old than those farther south.
"Having quality deer is more a matter of what's happened in the forest recently rather than which county."
Lowery cited the lingering effects of Hurricane Opal on timber at Chestatee WMA, where winds opened the forest canopy up, allowing new browse to spring up. That and the recent good production of extensive white oak acorns in that area contributed to the harvest of 23 bucks with antler spreads of 17 inches or better harvested over the past two seasons. According to Lowery, a good mountain trophy buck -- one that a hunter might reasonably expect to bag if all goes just right -- would be one scoring in the 120 or 130 range on the B&C scale, with the truly exceptional deer in the high 140s or better.
Last season's results from a couple of mountain WMAs in Lowery's area illustrate both the trophy potential and age structure.
At Chestatee WMA, 34 percent of bucks taken were aged at 4 1/2 years or older, with an average of 7.3 points and a 16.4-inch spread. The 3 1/2-year-old age-group made up 13 percent of the harvest, averaging 7 points and a 15-inch spread. The 2 1/2-year-old age-group accounted for 21 percent, and the 1 1/2-year-old group represented 32 percent of the take. A non-quota public hunt wh
ose 4 1/2-year-olds made up the largest percentage of kills is outstanding!
Blue Ridge WMA, Georgia's oldest public-hunting tract, also turned in impressive figures, with 20 percent of the bucks taken aged at 4 1/2, averaging 8.2 points and a 16-inch spread. The next 20 percent was 3 1/2, with 7.5 points and a 13-inch spread on average. The 2 1/2- and 1 1/2-year-old groups made up 22 and 38 percent, respectively.
The biggest rack from northeast Georgia public land last season was taken on the Chattahoochee WMA. It belonged to a 5 1/2-year-old 12-pointer that had 22 1/4-inch main beams and an 18 7/8-inch outside spread. Also taken on that area last season were four bucks with 17-inch or better spreads and two of more than 16 inches.
While these figures show what's possible in these rugged areas, the overall hunter success rate emphasizes Lowery's point that this isn't easy hunting. The success rates on the three areas discussed above were 6.1, 4.6 and 4.1 percent.
To renew an old acquaintance with Chestatee WMA, I visited with wildlife technician Frank Manning, who's served as the area manager for Chestatee for the past 14 years. He provided and overview of the area during a recent visit.
The main roads on the WMA are in good shape, with plenty of gravel, and the gated secondary roads that are open for deer hunts looked good also. This tract, like most all WMAs in the mountains, is on national forest land, some of it in wilderness designation.
Totaling 68 acres are 41 official "wildlife openings" in which Manning has planted clover, oats, sorghum, clay peas and some corn on a three-year rotation, with about 20 acres reworked each year. When I saw these food plots in February, it was obvious that they had really been used by the deer, and their importance to the well-being of the herd was obvious.
Manning, who sees good bucks come off this area every year, talked about the positive effect the very rugged terrain has on the age-structure of the bucks. "There aren't as many deer here in the mountains," he said, "but a lot of those we do have reach real maturity."
As we walked through a food plot checking, Manning picked up a fresh shed with a long main beam and 4 good points. "This one should still be around next fall," he noted, "and even bigger."
The western half of the mountain area encompasses not only a portion of the Blue Ridge Mountain physiographic region but the Ridge and Valley region in Georgia's northwestern corner as well. This latter region is dominated by a series of parallel limestone ridges with a pine or oak/hickory mix for cover, depending on soil moisture. This area can be just as rugged and challenging to a hunter as the true mountains more to the east.
Wildlife biologist Adam Hammond, who oversees this section, is headquartered at the WRD office in Armuchee. In addition to being a biologist, Hammond is also an official scorer for the Boone and Crockett Club, and in that capacity measures a good many trophy bucks from the region. When it comes to what constitutes an upland trophy in Georgia, however, he didn't cite the B&C scores he's so familiar with.
"A trophy buck is only a trophy in terms of the quality of a hunter's total experience," he asserted, "the amount of effort he has put into the taking of the animal -- not just the score tallied up on the antlers."
As he said this, I thought back to my first mountain buck that I told of at the beginning of this article, and nodded agreement.
One question that may come to mind is: Why are there fewer deer up here, with all this land, than in middle and South Georgia? "Basically," Hammond said, "the soil overall is not as good, the food is more limited, and the habitat is just not as friendly to deer." He went on to explain the effects of the acorn crop, the weather, and the lack of agriculture on the vast areas of government land in the mountains. "We don't have as many deer, but we do have a better age structure in the mountains, thanks to the ruggedness and difficulty of access, than the non-quota public hunts farther south."
While differences definitely exist between a 5 1/2-year-old mountain buck and a similar whitetail in the Piedmont, the mountain deer's still a good buck. No matter where you hunt, the "trophy" buck is the older animal.
Hammond named the best counties for bigger deer in his area: Murray, in the west, and Fannin, near the middle of the "top of Georgia."
When the question turned to WMAs, Hammond cited the 96,000-acre Cohutta WMA and 22,000-acre Rich Mountain as offering the best chance at a really big mountain buck. In both cases, the age-structure is tops, because the areas are so very rugged, and road access is more limited than in most of the region's management areas.
Not long ago, Casey Jones, the wildlife technician who oversees the western half of the vast Cohutta WMA, told me that the average "drag" to bring a buck out of Cohutta was over a mile -- and there's no level ground to ease the work in that effort.
According to Hammond, both Cohutta and Rich Mountain could give up bucks in the 130 and 140 B&C class. "However," he remarked, "any nice 8-pointer can be a trophy up here, and the norm is around 115 B&C or less for what we call a good buck."
All of the wildlife officials pointed out the need for being really familiar with an area to have any chance of regular success. The best deer come from a long way off the road, in most cases, and physical conditioning is a serious part of mountain hunting.
Frank Manning mentioned several hunters whom he's come to know. Year after year, they bring good bucks into the checking station on the Chestatee WMA. "These hunters use the small-game seasons to walk the land and start serious deer scouting in late summer. When the hunt date arrives, they know where a good buck is using, and they frequently get him."
Hunters can get WMA maps from the WRD offices and topographic maps from the U.S. Forest Service' having both to refer to is recommended. It's critical to carry a compass or GPS and know how to use them. Clouds, fog or darkness can really get you turned around in this terrain. I've taken part in more than one serious search for lost hunters who didn't come out when they should. Always let someone know your plans and timetable.
A trophy is really in the eyes of the beholder, but the consensus is that a bragging buck in the high country has 7 points or more and a spread of 15 to 17 inches. Successful hunters have shown that deer up here do sometimes score in the 150s and 160s, and from time to time may have 12 points.
The WMAs currently producing the biggest bucks are Cohutta, Rich Mountain, Blue Ridge, Chattahoochee, and Chestatee.
For the hunter both willing and able to work for
a deer, the rewards of upland trophies in Georgia can be great.