Weather permitting, Bayou State deer hunters should have a banner season in 2003-04. Biologists are bullish on our whitetail prospects.
By Glynn Harris
I have plenty of insulated hunting clothing - enough to keep me warm in the harshest of conditions. Unfortunately, I seldom got to wear my nice new duds back in the 2000-01 or 2001-02 deer seasons. Instead of snuggling down in all that warm and toasty winter wear, I'd top my turkey hunting clothing with a light jacket, and that'd usually be all that was needed, even in December. Though I didn't get cold, I also didn't see very many deer.
But this past season (2002-03) was a different matter. Those heavy garments, reinforced by a warm hat, gloves, heavy socks and a balaclava, were welcome. We had very little snow and ice, but we definitely had cold weather. How did this effect deer movement in Louisiana? My deer sightings were off the charts! In fact, I took a doe on opening morning, and had numerous opportunities to take others. That afternoon, while sitting in another stand hoping for a chance at a buck, I saw 21 deer cross my shooting lane in a two-hour period.
My experience was not isolated, either. Practically every deer hunter I talked with said the same thing. It seems that the more seasonal fall and winter weather put the deer on the move. Thus, sightings and the deer harvest were both up last season.
BIOLOGICALLY SPEAKING ... David Moreland is the deer dtudy leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. I visited with Moreland in researching this article so as to predict more accurately what the upcoming deer season will be like. In order to see into the future, it was necessary to revisit the past couple of seasons for comparison.
"Overall, we had much more normal weather this past deer season, with a few exceptions," Moreland explained. "For example, it was warmer and wetter than usual in October, which hurt food plot production. From November on, however, our weather was more like what it should be for the time of year. During the 2001-02 season, November temperatures were ridiculous. We had over 20 days when daytime temperatures were 70 degrees or higher. Deer aren't going to move during daylight hours with winter temperatures this high. Last season, however, it was a different matter with colder temperatures, and the deer responded.
Cool weather this deer season means more deer movement and a bigger harvest. Photo by John J. Woods
"There was one thing that helped the deer but hurt the hunters last season, and I expect it to play a role in the 2003-04 season. We had a bumper crop of acorns over much of the state last season, which gave the deer plenty to eat, in addition to natural forage. What this meant, though, was that hunters who waited around corn feeders or who sat over food plots didn't see as many deer as they would have had the acorn crop been slim.
"Most hunters who were successful last season went where the deer were," Mreland said. "Instead of sitting over corn or planted wheat, they were more mobile, using climbing stands to go to the food source being used by deer. Finding oaks - especially white oaks that were dropping lots of acorns - usually resulted in better results in harvesting deer. From early mast surveys this spring, we saw a lot of flowering in oak trees, which leads us to believe that we will have another good acorn crop this deer season. Knowing this, hunters might want to adjust their strategies for deer hunting. Instead of planning to sit over food plots or corn feeders, I would suggest that they do some serious scouting to find those areas of high acorn production."
CARRYING CAPACITY Louisiana's deer numbers have been high for at least the past decade, and one has to wonder if the state is approaching carrying capacity for the available habitat.
"Overall, Louisiana has plenty of deer," said Moreland in response to this concern. "In some areas, habitat changes are occurring that affect the availability of food sources and, thus, the number of deer an area can hold. For example, in areas where predominately hardwood forests are being converted to a pine-dominant forest, there is not as much hard mast available for deer. However, the first few years after timber is cut, forage plants proliferate, providing a good food source for deer. Some intensive herbicide treatments to control undesirable species might knock back desirable species of forage plants for awhile. Deer might not use such areas until forage plants begin growing.
"In the 1970s, much of the hardwood forests in the Delta were removed and the rich soil was utilized as farmland. However, farming today is not nearly as profitable as it was back then. Thus, we are reclaiming much of this land, planting hardwoods to restore these areas to their former state. This won't happen overnight, but one day there will be thousands of acres of hardwood forests growing in those areas where, until recently, soybeans grew."
DEER HEALTH What are some other issues for the upcoming deer season that Louisiana deer hunters might want addressed?
"There is the continuing concern about chronic wasting disease, the devastating disease that has affected deer in states west of here," Moreland said. "We are constantly on the lookout for any evidence of CWD in Louisiana. Last year, we asked hunters to save the heads of harvested deer for us to check for CWD. We did necropsy on over 1,200 deer taken last season and found no evidence that the disease has entered Louisiana.
"However, last year we did have a severe outbreak of another disease that we see virtually every year to some degree among our deer herd. This disease, epizoÃƒ¶tic hemorrhagic disease - more commonly known as 'blue tongue' - affected our deer herd especially hard in the southeastern parishes and in the Atchafalaya Basin.
"As early as August, we began receiving reports of sick and emaciated deer in those areas. Necropsy on these animals revealed EHD. The reason this area was hit particularly hard had to do with two tropical storms that flooded the area, forcing the deer to move to what higher ground they could find. The sheer numbers of deer concentrated on those small areas helped the disease to spread. Once it had taken out the weaker animals, however, the disease subsided and those that weren't affected developed immunity to EHD. As a result, I don't expect EHD to be as bad a problem this coming season. A positive effect of this outbreak is that the disease removed a good many weaker animals. Therefore, this should keep the deer population more in balance with the habitat."
HUNTER RECRUITMENT Moreland has noted a subtle change in deer hunters over the past decade or so, and this causes him a d
egree of concern.
"Our deer hunting population is growing older," he observed, "and we're not getting as much recruitment of young hunters as we did in the past. Youngsters today have so many activities to compete for their time, whereas it used to be that nearly every kid grew up hunting. Also, there is a growing interest in seasoned deer hunters to only take older-age bucks. This is good, because it lets yearling bucks get some age on them, but too many does are passed up while waiting on a trophy buck."
As a result, Moreland believes, the old system of allowing hunters to take any six legal deer per season may be on its way out. "The state was on the verge this year of proposing a tagging system with a two-buck limit which would carry with it a mandatory reporting system to give us a better handle on the deer harvest. However, it was felt that an election year was not a good time to try to get this passed, so it has been postponed a year. I feel that eventually we'll be operating under something other than our six-deer-per-season limit. I would imagine we'll eventually go to a tagging system with a limit on the number of bucks you can take with a more liberalized doe limit, but with the option of purchasing an extra buck tag. Eighty-five percent of our hunters surveyed prefer a more quality buck program, feeling that a 6-point buck should be the minimum.
"This past season, the parishes of Pointe Coupee, Iberville and West Baton Rouge operated under an experimental program where a buck had to be at least a 6-point. This tri-parish area will again have these regulations in effect for the coming deer season. From all accounts, most hunters in that area liked these restrictions."
A FEW OF LAST YEAR'S BEST BUCKS With the fact firmly established that Louisiana has plenty of deer, the next obvious question would be which areas of the state are more likely to produce trophy bucks.
"The state's deer hunters have said, for the most part, that they would like to have more opportunities to take a quality buck, with at least a 6-point buck being the minimum," Moreland said. "Fortunately, the state has some areas that have traditionally produced big deer, not only in body size but in antler growth.
"This past season, and for that matter, the last couple of years, Avoyelles Parish has produced some dandy bucks. This area features lots of bottomland habitat interspersed with farms that provide the habitat for deer with good genetics to prosper.
"For example, on Jan. 4, 2003, Anthony LeMoine of Marksville took a big 14-point buck on Lake Ophelia National Wildlife Refuge in Avoyelles Parish with a muzzleloader that had a 21-inch inside spread and scored 154 4/8 (on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring system).
"Allen Gaspard, also of Marksville, used his muzzleloader to take a big 13-point buck in Avoyelles Parish on Jan. 10, 2003 that sported a 22 3/8-inch inside spread and scored 174 6/8.
"In addition, on Dec. 1, 2002, Jeramie Bordelon, Moreauville, took a 10-point buck in Avoyelles Parish with a 22 4/8-inch inside spread - a buck that scored 153 3/8."
While Avoyelles Parish no doubt took home the top prize in producing outstanding bucks last season, other areas also yielded some impressive bucks. Here are a few other trophy bucks that Louisiana hunters took last season.
Adam Smith of Eunice, hunting on the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area on Nov. 29, 2002 downed a big 12-point buck with a 22 1/2-inch inside spread. The buck scored 146 0/8.
The Willow Point bowhunting-only area in East Carroll Parish produced a big 10-point buck for Randy Stevenson of Luling. Stevenson's trophy had a 22 3/8-inch inside spread and scored 143 7/8.
Across the state in Claiborne Parish, Eric Rachal of Alexandria was hunting on Nov. 9, 2002 when he shot a 10-point buck with a 21 5/8-inch inside spread and scoring 156 5/8.
Next door in Webster Parish, Ronald Prince of Minden took a 9-point buck on Nov. 26 that scored 143 4/8. Prince's buck had an inside spread of 22 3/8 inches.
On Jan. 28, 2003, Vic Sages of Baton Rouge was hunting in Concordia Parish when he took a 9-point buck with a 19 4/8-inch inside spread that scored 133 6/8.
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE NEW SEASON It goes without saying that Louisiana has annually produced its share of genuine trophy bucks. But that was last season. What are the prospects of Louisiana hunters taking a trophy buck during the 2003-04 deer season in the state?
"I see no reason to think it'll be any different this next season," Moreland offered. "All the conditions are there for our state's hunters to continue to see and take wallhanger trophies buck next season."
We asked Moreland to predict which public areas of the state are more likely to yield quality bucks for hunters this coming season.
"In the Shreveport area, the Loggy Bayou Wildlife Management Area, located south of Shreveport, traditionally gives up some big deer each year. The area is relatively small, 4,211 acres, and consists of bottomland that is subject to annual flooding.
"The Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Management Area, located south of Ruston, is a popular area because of its long season and big deer population. While hundreds of deer are taken here each year, most of the more mature bucks are taken during the bucks-only segment, which occurs in late December each year.
"Southeast Louisiana hunters have access to some quality public areas for deer hunting, and many of these are known for producing trophy bucks. The Sherburne Wildlife Management Area, located west of Baton Rouge, consists of 42,690 acres of bottomland located within the Atchafalaya floodway. Hunters who don't mind going into the heart of this area are the ones who usually bring out the biggest bucks.
"The twin wildlife management areas, Red River and Three Rivers - both located in Concordia Parish in eastern Louisiana - are excellent areas for deer hunting. Combined, they total over 62,000 acres of prime deer habitat.
"In the southwest portion of the state, around the Lake Charles area, there are three wildlife management areas, two of which annually produce some good bucks. The Boise-Vernon area, located near DeRidder, just north of Lake Charles, has done well the past several years, and we expect it to continue into this coming season. The West Bay WMA, while occasionally yielding some decent bucks, is not known as a trophy deer area. Fort Polk Wildlife Management Area, located near Leesville, should be good this year. However, because it is part of an Army base, accessibility to hunters can change quickly if the Army has maneuvers or military exercises going on."
A type of deer hunting that has grown in popularity over the past several years is that seen in the special "youth hunts" scheduled on public lands each fall. Trad
itionally, these hunts are held prior to opening these areas to the general public. (Hunters should contact their area LDWF office for applications and regulations for youth hunts.)
"I think this is one of the more important things we do as LDWF employees. When we provide a quality setting for a youngster to perhaps go on his first deer hunt with an excellent chance to take his first deer, we're perpetuating hunting into the next generation. As I noted earlier, our population of hunters is growing older and we're not getting the recruitment of youngsters into the sport. There are so many things today that compete for leisure time, and, unfortunately, not as many youngsters are taking up hunting as they did in the past," Moreland stated.
THE BOTTOM LINE Perhaps we have shed some light on the state of the state's deer hunting prospects for next season to assist hunters in planning where to hunt during the upcoming season. Based on what happened last year, we can give you some insight into the best spots to try in 2003-04. However, there is one factor that neither you nor I can predict.
"The bottom line," said Moreland, "is the weather. If we get good weather, we'll have a good season. If we don't, we won't."
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