Deer can be found in every corner of the Peach State, but some areas produce far more of them than do others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a whitetail. (October 2007)
Photo by Kenny Bahr.
Georgia deer are caught between a freeze and a hot place this year. We had a late April freeze that hurt both the hard and soft mast crops in much of the state and devastated the acorn crop in some of North Georgia. Then fires in South Georgia burned thousands of acres of habitat. Both events will affect your hunting.
In the mountains of North Georgia, the loss of much of the acorn crop has hurt deer, and will disadvantage hunters. Such a predicament causes deer to move less and to stay close to any source of food they've located. If you find food, you find deer, so planting fall and winter food plots is an important strategic move that will draw the animals in when you want them.
The fires in South Georgia are a mixed blessing. Where they open up areas of thick pine trees, a lot of browse grows for deer in places that have been poor for them in the past; the open areas produce food for several years until the pines again thicken into pine barrens. The bad news is that those fires burned the oak trees, too. Bottomlands where lots of acorns provided deer with an excellent food source in the past will take many years to recover -- again making fall and winter food plots vital.
The best news: Georgia's deer herd is in good shape statewide. Numbers are stable in most areas, with some increases in spots and little in the way of decreases. In most parts of the state, the chances of seeing deer and putting meat in the freezer are excellent.
An estimated 1.2 million whitetails roam Georgia. This past year, hunters killed about 320,000 deer, which seems like a lot -- until you run the reproduction figures. In very general terms: If half the herd is does, and each averages two fawns a year, the herd could double in one year; hence our long season and liberal limits. Even though hunters can take 12 deer a year -- only two of which can have antlers -- most don't take anywhere near that. Last year 242,000 licensed hunters killed an average of only 1.3 deer per hunter, so if you killed more than one deer last year, you were above average.
To break those numbers down further: 195,000 licensed resident hunters took 254,000 deer. Add to that another 25,000 non-resident hunters that harvested 36,000 deer and 22,000 honorary license hunters that took 29,000 deer and you see the statewide impact of hunting on the deer herd.
Deer harvest increased from just over 245,000 kills in 2005 to more than 319,000 during the 2006 season. For the year before last, it took 14.59 days of hunting to kill a deer; that improved this past season to 12.72 days hunted per deer killed. Higher success rates should also mean more hunters sticking with the sport during the coming year.
When it comes to deer, Georgia is split up into regions for various purposes. First, the four broad physiographic regions: Blue Ridge Mountain, Ridge and Valley, Piedmont, and Coastal Plain, each area with individual geophysical characteristics. The state is also divided into game management units, which are distributed among the physiographic regions with regard to governmental boundaries; each of these is administered from a management office, which is responsible for all kinds of game-related issues within the area, including running the wildlife management areas. The offices almost match up with the Law Enforcement offices.
The nine deer management units are concerned more with area-specific deer management, each containing similar habitat and herds exhibiting similar characteristics. These smaller units help with planning the number of doe days for similar herds, as well as other management practices.
Even within the DMUs a lot of variation is seen. Breaking it down to the county level yields more particularity, but tremendous differences can be seen within a county, too. Although one county may generally have good hunting for numbers rather than for trophy bucks, you find big deer in some places even within that county.
A look at each DMU will give you an idea of the vast variety of habitat and herd quality in Georgia; the information even may help you decide on where to hunt.
Most of north Georgia's higher mountains and steeper valleys are included in DMU 1, which runs from the state line on the east almost all the way across to Alabama. The terrain is tough on deer, and populations are generally the lowest in the state.
Deer are very dependent on the acorn crop here, and the late-April freeze damaged any trees developing when it hit. Some oaks in the higher zones that had not started putting out leaves when the temperatures dropped may have acorns this year, so to find the deer, you should hunt higher elevations rather than down in the valleys.
Ken Riddleberger, regional supervisor for GMU 2, which includes much of DMU 1, said that, as both the hard and soft mast producers were hurt, hunters need to scout more to find deer. The deer try to conserve energy when food is scarce, and food plots will help if you can plant them where you hunt.
The top WMAs in this area show the difference between deer herds here and further south. Dukes Creek has the best hunter success rate, 10.1 percent, followed by Coosawatee, 9.8 percent, and Rich Mountain, 6.9 percent -- far below the success rates farther south, but the best in this region.
Cutting across North Georgia from the Alabama line to the South Carolina border, DMU 2 includes the steeper, rolling hills south of the mountains. A more productive area with some excellent spots within it, it spans two game management units; it's much wider on its west end.
Adam Hammond, a game biologist who covers part of the DMU, reported that the habitat varies a lot from north to south, especially in the western end. Generally, the more-southerly counties are better for deer. A good bit of hunting pressure falls on public lands in this region, but deer populations hold steady.
The success rates at WMAs in this area vary quite a lot, ranging from a high success rate at tiny J.L. Lester of 43.8 percent, to Berry College's 23.3 percent success rate and Crockford/Pigeon Mountain's 11.1 percent.
Paulding Forest, another WMA in this area, has only sign-in hunts, so specific records on success rates are unavailable. It has a solid deer population and is a promising area to hunt.
Within the urban deer zone surrounding Atlanta, lots of deer roam any a
rea that still retains natural habitat, but hunting access is very restricted, with much of the unit limited to archery hunting only. No WMAs are in the area. Some counties have an extended archery season running into January to try to keep the numbers of deer down.
Clayton County on the southern edge of the unit is probably your best bet for deer. If you can find some undeveloped land and get permission to hunt, and if you like using a bow, you may be surprised at how concentrated the deer can be.
Many of the west-central Georgia counties making up this unit are excellent for numbers of deer. Rolling hills and creek bottoms abound in the area, and the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers run through this region, creating much promising bottomland. The many acres of farmland still found her give deer the kind of habitat they favor. Historically, this DMU has the highest number of deer killed each year.
Biologist Charlie Killmaster pointed out that this region's herd is stable -- not much changed in population from last year. The highest numbers of deer are in the more-urbanized counties: plenty of habitat, but hunted lightly. Some counties in this area have Quality Deer Management regulations, which also affects the numbers of deer you're likely to see.
Rum Creek, the only WMA with detailed records in this area, has a 28.7 percent success rate. Killmaster said that other likely WMAs here include Joe Kurz and Big Lazer Creek; all have strong deer populations, and success rates are high, even though not documented like the ones with check-in hunts.
The east-central part of Georgia above the fall line is also very productive for numbers of deer, usually ranking right behind DMU 4. It too has rolling hills, extensive creek bottoms and farmlands that are excellent deer habitat. A considerable number of public hunting areas will be met with in this region, including state and federal lands.
Vic VanSant, the regional supervisor for the GMU that covers most of this DMU, noted that populations are still steady here, but suggested that if the drought that started several years ago continues, it will badly affect the deer herd. Although hunting pressure is high in the region, its large numbers of deer can support it.
Cybel, the only WMA maintaining check-in records, put up a 19.3 percent success rate. Other worthwhile WMAs in the area, VanSant said, include Redlands and Oconee, which should have similar success rates.
The flat, sandy land of the southwest corner of Georgia is part of the Coastal Plain region. Vast pine forests and swamps cover much of the unit, and some big farms are present. Farmland is good for deer production, but some of these farms are so big that, though they make lot of food available, they offer relatively little cover.
Julie Robins, the game biologist for this area, said that most of the unit has a stable deer population. Some of the historically productive counties in the region have seen a slight decrease in the herd, probably as a result of hunting pressure. Also, the planted pine forests on the increase in the area don't constitute optimal deer habitat.
Chickasawhatchee is a big WMA that offers worthwhile hunting, with a 39.3 percent success rate -- one of the highest in the state. River Creek, one of our newest WMAs, had a 22.2 percent success rate.
As the fall line creates a transition from Piedmont to coastal plain, the habitat changes rapidly. This narrow band running from just south of Macon to the South Carolina line is an area of big farms and pine tracts.
Part of this DMU is in GMU 6, and biologist Chris Baumann offered that Jenkins and Screven counties on the eastern edge of the area are usually good for numbers of deer. Agriculture plays an important part in the lives of deer in this area, and the animals take advantage of any wooded areas bordering big fields.
Di-Lane WMA's 22.6 percent hunter success rate tags it as a good bet --likewise Oaky Woods and Tuckahoe WMAs. You should see a good many deer on any of them and have a better than 20 percent chance of taking one of their whitetails home.
Covering the central Coastal Plain region, this unit's sandy soil is very poor and doesn't make for the best deer habitat. Some big farms improve specific areas, but much of the region is covered with flat pine woods.
This is also the area most damaged by wildfires last spring. Many bottomland oaks were killed, along with thousands of acres of pines. Food plots will be very important during the late fall and winter for deer here, since most natural browse is gone, area biologist Chris Baumann pointed out.
River Bend and Beaverdam WMAs had solid hunter success rates of 25.1 and 24.8 percent -- probably better than the average for this unit, mostly owing to the management practices employed on the two tracts. You can also improve the odds on your land by exercising savvy management and planting food plots.
The lower coastal plain counties make up this unit, which contains lots of marsh and swampland. Hunter success is not great, owing to the difficulty of hunting where the deer live.
Area biologist Brooks Good observed that drought has affected the area's deer by reducing mast crops this year -- a problem that started last year and has only worsened.
To show, however, how distinct different areas within a region can be, the coastal islands can have great hunting. Sapelo and Ossabaw WMAs have the highest hunter success rates of all public tracts in Georgia, with an incredible 65.4 percent rate on Sapelo and 51.4 percent on Ossabaw. Getting drawn for those hunts is harder than getting a deer. And, of course, given the sandy, very poor soils on these islands, the deer are going to be the smallest in average size in the state.
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No matter the part of the state that you hunt in, you can find deer. Pick your area, or improve your land, and the deer will be there. Or you can drive to a better area and sample a hunt at a WMA whose success rate is high. Georgia hunters have a lot of great options for killing a de