North Carolina's 2007 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

North Carolina's 2007 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Where can you find a well-antlered buck this season? We've analyzed North Carolina harvest data to find out. (November 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

While the demographics of deer hunting have been shifting over the seasons, North Carolina hunters continue to show a preference for harvesting antlered bucks over harvesting antlerless deer. In fact, for the last seven years, the buck harvest preference to the doe harvest ratio has remained constant at around 60 to 62 percent.

Many things have happened over the past three decades to make taking antlerless deer more convenient, including a trend toward higher deer populations and herd densities in most parts of the state, liberalized either-sex harvest regulations and seasons that have grown steadily in length. Yet, hunters continue to vote their preference with their modern rifles and shotguns, bows and arrows and muzzleloading firearms.

As we noted in the October issue of North Carolina Game & Fish, the year 2006 set a record season for overall deer harvest in the state. That record total deer harvest also was accompanied by another milestone: a record antlered buck harvest, with a total of 85,458 antlered bucks taken by Tar Heel State hunters.

The previous record was set in 2001, with an antlered buck harvest of 78,805. In 2005, the antlered buck harvest was 78,096; in 2004, it was 76,840; and in 2003, it was 76,459. These were the top five all-time high seasonal antlered buck harvests, with a whopping 11.5 percent difference between the top year and the fifth-place year of 2003 and a 7.8 percent difference between 2006 and the second-place year of 2001.

Antlered bucks comprised 55.4 percent of the total 2006 harvest of 154,273 whitetails, with the remaining harvest consisting of does and button bucks, which are bucks too young at less than one year of age to have grown their first set of visible antlers.

Evin Stanford, the North Carolina Wildlife Commission's deer biologist, weighed in with his opinions and a detailed analysis of what the harvest statistics mean for the majority of the state's hunters, who obviously are more concerned about harvesting an antlered buck than a doe.

'In many areas we would like to see a greater percentage of does in the harvest,' Stanford said. 'One way to do it is to shoot a higher number of does; the other is to shoot fewer antlered bucks. We'd like to see antlered buck harvest stabilize because it's really jumped up over the last two or three years. There's a lot of interest in quality deer management, but we realize there's a high percentage of the bucks still being harvested that are only yearling bucks. Typically, a third of does in the harvest are yearlings, yet the yearling antlered bucks we are seeing in the harvest comprise 60 to 80 percent of the bucks harvested, meaning there's a high turnover rate in the antlered buck segment of the herd. If hunters want to shoot trophy deer, they are going to have to let those younger bucks mature.'

In North Carolina, there are two factors that overwhelmingly control buck harvests. The first is the total number of deer and second is the amount of hunter effort. The ratio of the number of bucks to the number of does is relatively similar across the state, so it is not really a factor in the total number of bucks harvested.

The state's deer herd is stabilizing in many places but is stabilizing at very high densities. In some areas, it continues to increase, especially in parts of the western and northwestern mountain regions. An expanding deer herd translates into an overall higher harvest and therefore a corresponding increase in the antlered buck harvest.

Put simply, the more deer there are, the more antlered bucks there are and that's half the equation leading to the 2006 antlered buck harvest record, with the other half being hunter effort.

To show the effects of hunter effort, let's take a look at the two-buck rule. Stanford said that is tricky because of other trends that have occurred concurrently with the rule.

'A lot of places like the northwestern and western two-buck rule areas have also had increasing season lengths, so that makes analyzing the effect of the two-buck rule difficult,' he said. 'My preliminary evaluation of the harvest trends shows hunters in those areas may have lost any benefit of the two-buck rule by asking for extended hunting seasons. However, my preliminary statewide evaluation of the two-buck area indicated that it had reduced overall antlered buck harvest approximately 10 percent over the entire two-buck area and doe harvest had increased approximately 17 percent in the two-buck area. In four-buck areas, the antlered buck and doe harvests have increased 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, which keeps the ratio essentially the same. Still, it's difficult to make the comparison because there are other variables like changes in season lengths, so I will have to study the rule in more detail over time.'

The last two seasons have had relatively good weather in the mountains, as well as in the Coastal Plain, so hunters could actually get out and hunt, according to Stanford.

One boost to the deer herd, including the number of antlered bucks available to hunters, was a low incidence of hemorrhagic disease mortality over the last few years. The most severe outbreak was in 2002 when 20 to 25 percent or more of the deer herd could have succumbed to the disease in some areas of the state.

Now, many of the counties with the highest buck harvests -- Alleghany, Northampton, Caswell and Halifax, for example -- have very robust deer herds again. Some of these top buck harvest counties are more rural than others and therefore have larger deer populations. Others are close to high-density human population centers and that translates into having plenty of hunter pressure, which also accounts for high buck harvests. Combining the two factors, large numbers of deer with large numbers of hunters, is what makes most counties top the antlered buck harvests for each district.

To sort out things like large water bodies and urbanized areas with little deer habitat for comparing deer populations and harvests on an equal footing, commission biologists use a formula that gives them the antlered buck harvest per square mile of actual deer habitat.

Alleghany County topped the state, with 7.94 antlered bucks harvested per square mile of habitat (abh/sm). It has both a very dense deer herd, with upward of 45 deer per square mile, and also gets plenty of hunting pressure. Many acres of pasture lands on the escarpment, with fertile soils and hardwood stands, make it a deer paradise compared with other parts of the state. The county has a maximum either-sex season and the season has been expanded from 18 days five or

six years ago to the current 25-day season. Numerous hunters have discovered this northern mountain county, driving it to become No. 1 in the state for antlered buck harvest.

The best counties for harvesting a buck in 2007 in each district of the state are very likely to be the same counties that were best in 2006. There may some county line variability this year, but the general location of the best counties in terms of antlered buck potential should remain essentially the same. For example, Alleghany County has no commission game lands, but just across the county line to the south of Alleghany County is Wilkes County, with 6,700 acres in the Thurmond Chatham Game Land hailed by hunters as a top place to take a trophy buck.

In District 1, Bertie County was the top county with 3.58 abh/sm, followed by Gates County with 3.50 abh/sm. The total antlered buck harvest was 2,197 in Bertie County and 1,008 in Gates County. Both of these counties have high deer densities along the Roanoke River corridor, with 45 or more deer per square mile along the river and 35 to 40 deer per square mile along the remaining deer habitats in those counties. In Bertie County, the Roanoke River Game Land has excellent hunting. In Gates County, hunters will find plenty of antlered bucks on Chowan Swamp Game Land, which has over 21,000 acres of deer habitat.

In District 2, Pitt County was the top county with 2.76 abh/sm, followed by Pender County with 2.69 abh/sm. The total antlered buck harvest was 1,330 in Pitt County and 1,928 in Pender County. Pitt County does not have any territory in game lands. However, the rapidly growing human population center of Greenville translates into high hunting pressure on the surrounding agricultural land. In the northern part of Pitt County, the Tar River bottoms support a good deer herd, and in the southern part of the county, the Neuse River floodplain also supports deer densities as high as 35 deer per square mile.

In Pender County, Holly Shelter and Angola Bay game lands, along with private lands along the northeast Cape Fear River, have similarly high deer densities. The combination of the high human population supplying deer hunters from the greater Wilmington area, plenty of hunting territory and high deer densities make Pender County a top spot to take an antlered buck.

In District 3, Vance County was the top county with 5.72 abh/sm followed by Northampton County with 5.66 abh/sm. The total antlered buck harvest was 905 in Vance County and 2,462 in Northampton County. These counties have 45 or more deer per square mile, with the Roanoke River watershed harboring plenty of big bucks in the fertile habitat. The soil fertility, along with abundant agricultural and forested land use practices, creates good hunting territory, although there is not much in the way of public hunting lands. Vance County Game Land is a small public land in the county for those who can't find private land. These counties are not extremely near human population centers. Nevertheless, many hunters seek them out as traditional places to hunt for large antlered bucks.

In District 4, Bladen County was the top county with 2.57 abh/sm, followed by Cumberland County with 2.21 abh/sm. The total antlered buck harvest was 1,870 in Bladen County and 865 in Cumberland County. The Cape Fear River lowlands offer excellent big-buck habitat in these counties, along with abundant forest and farmlands.

In Bladen County, Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land and Suggs Millpond Game Land offer some good hunting.

In Cumberland County, Fort Bragg Army Post offers public hunting and is the source of one Boone and Crockett buck and one set of antlers that scored nearly high enough to make the record book. Fort Bragg has special regulations for hunting and is allowed only where and when it does not conflict with troop training. A special Fort Bragg orientation and hunting license are required.

In District 5, Caswell County was the top county with 5.63 abh/sm, followed by Granville County with 4.66 abh/sm. The total antlered buck harvest was 1,761 in Caswell County and 1,533 in Granville County.

These two counties are in the northern Piedmont and accessible easily to residents of Raleigh, Durham and Cary, as well as other northern Piedmont cities, so hunting pressure assures a high buck harvest. These counties have over 45 deer per square mile. Caswell Game Land in Caswell County is traditionally a good place to go for hunting antlered bucks on public land. Part of Butner-Falls of the Neuse Game Land is in Granville County and is also a great place for finding antlered deer.

In District 6, Anson County was the top county with 3.94 abh/sm, followed by Rowan County with 3.83 abh/sm. The total antlered buck harvest was 1,762 in Anson County and 1,049 in Rowan County. The Yadkin-Pee Dee River corridor holds plenty of bucks and is near Charlotte, Concord and Kannapolis, so hunting pressure from these high-density human habitats keeps the antlered deer harvest high. The biggest driving factor for buck antler production is the nutrient-rich soils, but there is an agriculture component and excellent mast production. Alcoa Game Land in Rowan County and the Pee Dee Game Land in Anson County offer some public hunting. Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge in Anson County offers permit hunts and is an excellent place to harvest a big buck.

In District 7, Alleghany County was the top county with 7.94 abh/sm, followed by Yadkin County with 3.85 abh/sm. The total antlered buck harvest in Alleghany County was 1,142 and 796 in Rowan County.

Alleghany County and Yadkin County are farther upstream along the same Yadkin-Pee Dee River corridor as Anson and Rowan counties and also have high deer densities at 45 deer per square mile and above. Winston-Salem keeps these counties well supplied with deer hunters to keep the antlered buck harvest high.

In District 8, Lincoln County was the top county with 3.35 abh/sm, followed by Mitchell County with 2.55 abh/sm. The total antlered buck harvest was 510 in Lincoln County and 475 in Mitchell County. Lincoln County has been coming on strong in the southern foothills region with an expanding population and an average of around 30 deer per square mile of habitat. It's right next door to Mecklenburg County, so hunter participation is high.

Mitchell County is interesting in its inclusion as a top buck producer because it has a fair amount of public-hunting lands in the Pisgah National Forest. Still, it's a small county compared with some other top buck harvest counties. But the northern Pisgah territory is one of the few places in the state where the deer herd really seems to be growing. Most of the deer population increases in Mitchell County have been on private land rather than on public game lands, however, and the state's biggest interest in quality deer management is in that part of the state.

In District 9, Polk leads the district with 1.89 abh/sm, followed by Madison County with 1.00 abh/sm. The total antlered buck harvest was 307 in Polk County and 368 in Madison County. Having plenty of public hunting land in Pisgah NF helps Madison County maintain its status as a buck producer and the Green River Game Land helps keep the buck harvest high in Polk County.

In terms of mountain counties, Polk is an overt oddball with a relatively high deer density of 30 or more deer per square mile over most of the county. Nevertheless, the county is included in the far western region where places at the higher elevations in Nantahala have only five to eight deer per square mile. That's what makes Polk County such a standout in the mountains. It has more flatlands and river valley habitats conducive to small farming operations with good soil fertility. Madison County like Mitchell County is in the northern Pisgah region, with many bucks in the timber management areas of the national forest.

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