Louisiana's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Louisiana's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Deer can be found in every corner of Louisiana, but some areas produce far more whitetails than others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a deer this fall.

There are a few things about deer hunting that are fairly certain. For starters, whitetail deer are the most popular big game animal sought by Louisiana hunters. Deer hunting in the Bayou State results in millions of dollars spent by state hunters in the purchase of hunting property, lease of hunting lands, the mushrooming sale of off-road utility vehicles, guns, ammo, and hunting gear. In a word, when the subject of the approach of the "season" is brought up in Louisiana each fall, it's not all about football; the season many of us long for is deer season.

There is another given when the subject rolls around to deer hunting. It's the relationship timber companies have in the success -- or lack of it -- in deer hunting.

A good example is what has happened on my own hunting club. Between the 2008-09 deer season and the 2009-10 season, something drastically changed on our 2,000-acre hunting lease in Jackson Parish. During the season two years ago, our hunting success was hardly worth the money and effort we expended. This past season, our production bordered on outstanding.

What was the difference? During the spring and summer between these seasons, the timber company leasing the land on which we hunt did an extensive thinning operation on our club. Whereas much of the property had become choked with not only mature pines, but a profusion of other vegetation, this past season was vastly different. In areas where you could scarcely see 10 feet earlier, the openings created by the thinning resulted in natural shooting lanes 200 yards long.

Granted, the deer loved the earlier scenario with abundant cover and browse, but deer hunting efforts were unrewarded because hunters didn't have opportunities to see the deer in the thickets. Only during the rut when deer were more on the move was there much activity.

During the 2009-10 season our club bagged significantly more deer, both antlerless deer, as well as bucks. Much of the credit goes to the timber company's thinning operation. (Continued)

While my hunting club enjoyed better success than the previous season, the state's two-year-old reporting system based on a tagging system indicated a slight decline in the overall reported harvest for 2009-10.

"According to the reporting system in effect now, the overall harvest was down some 8 percent," said Wildlife and Fisheries deer study leader Scott Durham. "The non-program private land harvest was the primary contributor to the reduced harvest, as this segment of the harvest report was 10 percent lower than the prior season. However, the public lands harvest was actually up 6 percent."

Scott Durham also shed some light on the effect that adverse weather may have had on the overall deer harvest this past season.

"Incredible rainfall amounts in October and December hurt the harvest effort for sure, primarily in the northern parishes where there were frequent heavy rains and repeated flooding in areas where much of the state's harvest occurs," said Durham.

I can attest to that; the majority of our club consists of lands best described as upland mixed pine and hardwood with intermittent streams. I have a favorite deer stand I was never able to visit during the season. An adjacent stream that overflowed each time it rained kept the woods road I travel to the stand under water from October until season's end, an occurrence that has not happened in that area in at least 10 years.

"We actually had to close the season for a short period around Christmas in some of the southern river parishes below Baton Rouge because of high water. Constant rains would not let the water recede. High water in these areas concentrated deer in smaller confined areas, which would give hunters an unfair advantage. In addition, we had to close several wildlife management areas for brief periods because of flooding and lack of access for hunters," Durham added.

Another factor that contributed to the reduced harvest in some areas was having too many deer on areas where food resources had declined.

"In some of the pine dominant lands around the state, we saw a reduced carrying capacity which translated to a reduced harvest. Some of these lands couldn't support the deer, with some disease outbreak evident. We had the highest number of cases of hemorrhagic disease that I have ever experienced on some areas. We had cases reported from nearly every parish," said Durham.

Another factor that has resulted in increased competition for food sources as well as the spread of disease is the burgeoning explosion of the feral hog population. Virtually every parish in the state is experiencing this problem.

In an article in a Deer Management Assistance Program newsletter published by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, biologist N.J. Stafford reported on how feral hogs can virtually wipe out food sources utilized by deer.

"I first noticed their serious negative impact on native wildlife in 1984 on the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. It was October and the swamp cow oaks were dropping their best crop of acorns in years. You could hardly walk under the oaks for fear of twisting an ankle on the pecan-sized acorns. There were literally thousands of pounds of acorns strewn across the forest floor. Surely the deer, wild turkey, raccoons and squirrels would be maintained fat the healthy throughout the winter," Stafford stated.

"Returning to the site one month later, I found the entire section of woods devoid of acorns. It was as if they had evaporated. Upon closer inspection, I found a network of hog trails and rooting under every oak tree I inspected. Acorns that in past years would have lasted months to feed wildlife were gone."

Coupled with the feral hog problem is Louisiana's unpredictable weather. Some years, drought is the problem where fo

od sources dry up from lack of moisture. Other years, like the one just past, too much water creates its own set of problems. The upcoming hunting season will depend largely upon what Mother Nature has in store for the Bayou State.

"Just like every other year, deer hunting success will be weather-driven," opined Durham. "During the coldest days of winter, hunters should stay focused, change their hunting tactics, hunt the best food sources and be aware of the occurrence of the rut in the area they hunt.

Vernon was the top parish for deer harvested last season. Photo by Polly Dean.

"Hunting success or lack or it should not be measured over the short term. Hunters and managers should focus on the long term and rate their success over a number of years," he added. "There will be good years, bad years, years when we have to endure floods, mast failures, drought. All these things impact hunting success because they impact deer populations.

"I must admit that the increasing incidence of disease, flooding stressors and recent low lactation rates we have observed in some of the parish DMAP data we have been going over does give us cause from concern. Recruitment can be impacted by low fawn survival, predation or deer mortality.

"One of our main jobs and that of those groups having control over the land is managing habitats over the long term," said Durham. "Our state's deer herds are driven by the land use practices, which include property development, forestry practices, agricultural endeavors and environmental factors, all of which have an effect on habitat quantity and quality.

"If I had to gaze into the crystal ball and make a prediction, I am optimistic about the future of our deer herds in Louisiana but it is our job to consider every factor and be realistic about those concerns or potential concerns we encounter."

There are some areas of the state, obviously, that harbor the best potential for producing the best deer herds and as a result provide some of the best hunting.

"Soils and habitats that are highly productive, areas such as our upland and bottomland hardwoods, will continue to have the most deer per habitat acre. The large rural mixed pine/hardwood habitats of the north and northwest parishes will still likely produce the most deer over all.

"On the other hand," said Durham, "soils of low productivity or low diversity with little sunlight reaching the forest floor will be the low-end for deer in Louisiana."

Although the majority of the state's hunters sit quietly on deer stands waiting for a deer to saunter by, hunting deer with dogs is still allowed in many areas and is one of the long-held traditions utilized by thousands of hunters each fall and winter. Louisiana is blessed with an abundance of rural acreage that is state-owned and open to the public for hunting. Included are more than 50 wildlife management areas plus six national wildlife refuges, practically all of which allow deer hunting.

Included in the public areas offered by Louisiana are some 1.1 million acres, much of which is prime wildlife habitat. These areas are scattered throughout the state, meaning that no hunter has to travel a long distance to be within a few hours driving time of topnotch deer hunting areas.

In looking over the public lands around the state, Durham pin-pointed some that he feels should offer the best chance for deer hunters to collect some venison this coming season.

"There are several that stand out as being some of the best areas our state has to offer. In no particular order, I'd say those areas that should offer some good hunting this coming fall and winter are Sherburne, Jackson-Bienville, Red River, Three Rivers, Buckhorn, Union, Fort Polk, and Clear Creek. Most of these are medium to large sized areas that provide good sunlight and available browse which translates to the best chance at hunter success," Durham stated.

Interestingly, some of the areas Durham named differ sharply from other prime areas. Sherburne, for example, is classified as bottomland hardwoods populated with cottonwood, sycamore, gum, hackberry, ash, willow, cypress, overcup oak and bitter pecan. Mid-story species are box elder, maple, red mulberry, and rough-leaf dogwood. Ground cover is sparse due to shading and prolonged inundation. But, species that do appear are rattan, greenbriar, rubus, trumpet creeper, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, and milkweed. Much of the area supports a lush stand of ferns as well.

In contrast, the north Louisiana hill country is home to the Jackson-Bienville WMA, described as gently rolling hills bordering the Dugdemona River and five intermittent streams. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of the area can be considered bottomland. The forest products company Weyerhaeuser and the private landowners intensively manage the area for timber. Habitat is highly diverse due to the varying timber harvest schedule, the interspersion of the hardwood areas, and more than 40 miles of utilities rights-of-ways. Adding to the diversity is the substantial acreage Weyerhaeuser has committed to providing nesting and feeding habitat for numerous colonies of red-cockaded woodpeckers, a federally endangered species. This land is regularly burned as part of the management plan.

The Red River/Three Rivers WMA rests on some of the state's most fertile lands although much of the area is poorly drained, with frequent overflow from the Red River, Mississippi River and Cocodrie Bayou. When water levels permit, this area in east central Louisiana provides some of the state's best deer hunting.

We have hills, swamps, big open woods and small clumps of woods hugging the coastal marsh. From red clay to rich alluvial soils and pine trees to palmettos, Louisiana offers plenty of diversity, all of which adds the appeal of chasing whitetails in the fall and winter.

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