Georgia's 2008 Deer Update -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

In the Peach State, even unpromising spots can yield uncommon bucks, but certain areas are in a class by themselves when it comes to big whitetails. (November 2008)

Killing a trophy-class whitetail buck is one of the greatest achievements in outdoor sports. Rare creatures to begin with, they certainly don't attain trophy status by running at full tilt toward every grunt call they hear. A perfect storm of factors must come together to produce a trophy buck -- and then the hunter has the unenviable task of somehow outwitting one of the best opponents that nature can field against the human predator.

Just as very few high school athletes are blessed with the inborn speed, strength and agility to become an All-SEC running back, only a relatively small number of white-tailed deer carry the antler genes necessary to rate enrollment in the Boone and Crockett Club's all-time record book. However, even as a natural running back needs to work hard in a nurturing environment to achieve maximum results, a buck genetically programmed to grow a breathtakingly symmetrical rack of mammoth proportions won't end up as a hunter's trophy unless many other elements fall into place.

The buck must live in an area with good habitat and plenty of forage, be part of a healthy herd structure (to prevent excessive competition), and possess either the smarts or the luck to avoid getting plastered on the highway as well a keen ability to avoid hunters and other predators. When all of these influences are in play, a trophy rack results.

As mentioned previously, Georgia is fortunate among Southeastern states to have more than its share of deer represented on B&C's list of bucks taken by gun hunters, and the Pope & Young Club list for bowhunters. Considering the minimum score required to make those record books, it obviously takes a special animal even to get on the list, much less score near the top. A score of 170 points is required to make B&C as a typical rack; for non-typical racks, the minimum score is 195. For bowhunters' kills to make P&Y's all-time records, a typical rack must score 125 points, a non-typical 155. Not that many bucks out there carry around those kinds of credentials to start with, and if you manage to outwit one, you've accomplished something and deserve recognition.

Every year, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources teams with Georgia Sportsman and the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association sponsor the Georgia Big Deer Contest to recognize hunters who have taken a trophy deer in the state. The four categories in the contest mirror the record books, with categories for non-typical and typical racks for both gun and bow kills.

Past performance is often a solid predictor of future success, so Georgians intent on harvesting a record-book deer this coming season will do well to take note of the areas of the state that consistently produce big deer. It's not that lightning can't strike anywhere in Georgia: It can, and does. But certain areas provide the highest likelihood of crossing paths with a trophy deer.

Of our 159 counties, 50 have produced deer for the all-time B&C record books, so the chances of seeing a trophy deer are not limited to just a few areas of the state. And 20 percent of those, the top five counties overall for producing trophies -- Macon, Colquitt, Worth, Dooly and Jasper -- have given up 28 percent of the whitetails on the all-time B&C list.

In studying the records, one thing becomes apparent: Counties in the southwestern and upper coastal plain areas of the state produce a lot of trophy deer. Farming dominates the landscape there, and agricultural lands in general produce bigger deer by reason of their bounty of forage. A deer in the heart of the North Georgia mountains is dependent on what the area's infertile soils naturally produce, while a deer in farm country in South Georgia is getting a big assist from local farmers.

It might seem contradictory on the face of it, but deer in the most-heavily developed areas of the state also have an edge. The low hunting pressure in urban areas combines with plenty of landscaped yards, home gardens and other sources of forage to help whitetails stay fat, happy -- and growing. A deer that learns to look both ways before crossing the road can lead a pretty good life in the middle of suburbia.

The final puzzle piece: management. In the 1960s, deer management in Georgia primarily amounted to restoration. As deer numbers increased statewide, hunters began harvesting surplus animals, frequently under bucks-only regulations. Over the years, management of the overall population through harvest was fine-tuned as biologists used bag limits, season length and either-sex hunting days to control and improve the herd.

A slightly different approach to this traditional form of deer management is Quality Deer Management. In QDM, additional efforts are made to manage the age structure and sex ratio to improve herd and hunt quality. This involves protecting young bucks while harvesting enough does to keep the population below the habitat's carrying capacity. As protected bucks advance into older age-classes, they produce a more natural age-structure and more opportunities for hunters to target ever more mature bucks.

Like any other management strategy, QDM brings both advantages and disadvantages; you really can't have one without the other. Basic biology doesn't permit both density -- a deer under every oak tree -- and quality -- half of those deer under all of those trees wearing Boone and Crockett-grade racks. The development of individual deer is related to the size of the herd. Put simply, the more mouths are going after the same food, the smaller the owners of those mouths are going to be. To revisit our analogy of the All-SEC running back: You may come from a long line of professional athletes, but if you get nothing more to eat every day than a bologna sandwich and a can of beans, and you have to run two miles to get it before someone else does, you're probably not going to be suiting up on game day anytime soon.

The hunt continues to be the primary tool for herd management. Antler-restriction regs are no cure-all -- they won't produce trophy deer in every woodlot in Georgia. They're tools that can be used in conjunction with other practices to work with the basics of what Mother Nature has provided.

Statewide, hunters can harvest two bucks each season. One of those whitetails must have at least 4 points 1 inch or longer on one side of its rack, except in counties with special antler restrictions. In Hancock, Harris, Meriwether, Montgomery, Randolph, Talbot and Troup, bucks harvested must meet the 4-points-on-one-side restriction; in Dooly and Macon, only bucks with a minimum outside antler spread of 15 inches can be harvested.

Some state WMAs also operate under antler restrictions, and many private landowners are expressing interest in managing deer through antler restri

ctions in the hope of producing trophy bucks. Depending on where you hunt, antler restrictions may be part of the formula.

In the effort to identify the areas offering you your best shot at producing trophy deer this season, we'll break down this large, diverse Peach State along the lines of the seven game management regions defined by the Wildlife Resources Division. By looking at each, we may discover what hunters can expect in their neck of the woods.

"I don't expect the upcoming season to be drastically different from the last couple of years," said game management biologist Adam Hammond. "For most of the region, the oak mast was almost nonexistent last autumn, due to the late freeze that occurred in April 2007. Higher elevations were basically unaffected by the freeze, though, and actually had a bumper crop of white oak acorns and a decent crop of red oak acorns.

"Despite these regional fluctuations in oak mast, overall the region's deer are doing fine. Good areas to target for number of deer and size of bucks will be related to the amount of agriculture. The more agriculture present, the more deer and larger bucks.

"If access can be gained to private hunting land in Cobb and Douglas counties, these areas have good trophy potential. The high degree of development means that there is low hunting pressure and that bucks generally live longer."

Although this region does take in some Piedmont counties, it chiefly comprises the highlands of the upstate area.

"Last season the northeast Georgia mast crop was about a complete failure below 2,000 feet in elevation," explained wildlife biologist Kevin Lowrey. "Above that it was excellent to spotty. The mountain WMAs are on U.S. Forest Service land, and have suffered in recent years, due primarily to poor habitat quality resulting from an aging forest.

"Without significant timber harvest or natural processes like storms or pine beetles creating early-successional habitat, the forest canopy is shading the forest floor and sunlight cannot stimulate the necessary forbs and grasses the deer need to be productive.

"Top counties in our region for trophies are Forsyth County for urban metro bucks, Barrow County and Hart County," the biologist continued. "About 30-50 percent of the bucks harvested on mountain WMAs will be older than 3 1/2 years old.

"Chestatee WMA has been harvesting several big deer the last four years. Warwoman and Lake Burton WMAs are also notable trophy areas in the mountains. Dawson Forest is a trophy deer producer as well. Being managed as a quality deer area, more than 40 percent of bucks harvested there will be more than 3 1/2 years old."

Spanning the whole state from east to west in the upper half of Georgia of the Piedmont, this region includes some prime deer habitat. "Washington, Hancock and Burke counties are our top three for trophies," senior wildlife biologist I. B. Parnell pointed out. "The metro Atlanta counties of Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton also offer opportunities for harvesting an older age-class buck, but these are archery-only counties.

"Our best public areas for trophy bucks are Di-Lane, Tuckahoe and Oconee WMAs," he tossed in.

Wildlife biologist Charlie Killmaster predicted a good season for this group of counties clustered to the southwest of Atlanta. "For quality, this should be a good season," he stated. "The population is lower in some areas than it has been in the last few years. This is actually a good thing, as populations are now at a healthier level resulting from widespread quality deer management and the willingness of hunters to harvest does to improve the health of the herd.

"Harris, Taylor and Troup counties have the oldest age-structure for bucks. The top three WMAs in our region are B.F. Grant WMA, Joe Kurz WMA and Cedar Creek WMA. Hunters have good success on these areas, and there are some good-quality deer as well."

Wildlife biologist Julie Robbins, who monitors this region, feels positive about the coming season. "This year was a bumper mast crop," she noted, "and this ought to translate into higher deer densities and larger deer size this upcoming hunting season.

"Our best counties for trophies are those with the most productive soils. Lee, Worth and Dooly counties seem to produce the most trophy bucks. Our best WMAs for the chance at a big deer are River Creek and Flint River, since both are quality deer management regulation WMAs. Chickasawhatchee WMA isn't under QDM regulations, but usually produces some good bucks as well."

The Altamaha River cuts through this region sprawling across the southeast corner of Georgia on the coastal plain, and its fertile bottoms provide worthy deer habitat. Well represented on the big-deer lists, Region 6 boasts five counties that have recently produced trophy deer: Laurens, Dodge, Pulaski, Wilcox and Ben Hill. Also, Montgomery County has Quality Deer Management regulations in place, making it a better-than-average area for book bucks.

Senior wildlife biologist Brooks Good provided an overview of this area. "Overall, the deer herd is doing well," he noted. "Deer on the coast tend to be smaller than in other areas, but that doesn't mean there aren't trophies for hunters down here.

"The mast crop was very good this past year, and since deer had forage late into the season, the deer should be in good condition.

"Our top counties are Wayne, McIntosh and Camden. These counties produce quality animals on a regular basis."

* * *

From mountains to coast, Georgia offers hunters some of the best trophy deer potential of any state in the Southeast. While some areas are a little better than others, anywhere in the Peach State can produce a trophy buck to set the heart racing, and maybe even one for the record books. Do your homework well before the hunt begins and put together a game plan setting you on an intercept course with that deer of a lifetime. The task certainly won't be an easy one -- but nothing beats the satisfaction of reaching the pinnacle of your deer hunting game and harvesting a Georgia trophy buck.

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