Ohio's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Where To Find Our Biggest Bucks

Buckeye State deer experts are predicting another banner year for hunters, with more and bigger bucks showing up all over Ohio. This is one deer season you won't want to miss! (November 2008)

This fall, the outlook for trophy buck hunting in Ohio looks tremendous, and by no stretch of the word.

"I expect that we would see a buck harvest on a par with last year or slightly higher," said Dr. Mike Tonkovich, Ohio Division of Wildlife deer biologist.

"More importantly, I expect to see a few more older bucks in the harvest this year, simply because of all the bucks that hunters passed on last year to shoot antlerless deer."

Last year's outlook for was also "good," yet there was a drop in the total deer harvest.

Does this mean that deer outlooks are not very accurate?

Of course, no forecast can be expected to be 100 percent accurate every year. In this case, last year's lowered buck harvest can be blamed on the terrible weather -- and this is no cop-out.

According to Tonkovich, a combination of factors caused the buck kill to be lower than anticipated. On the opening day of the statewide firearms season, heavy rains cut the opening-day harvest by about 50 percent.

And then on the opening day of the two-day December firearms season, miserable weather moved through the state, hitting sometime between midmorning and noon.

Ohio's deer hunters are very fortunate because they all have a reasonable chance of tagging a trophy buck just about anywhere in the state.

"I was in southeast Ohio and remember it vividly," Tonkovich said.

"I was getting a Christmas tree that day. Around 10 a.m. it started snowing, and the woods were completely white for about two hours.

"On the drive home, we counted six cars in the ditch. Then around noon or one o'clock or thereabouts, it turned into a rain-sleet-snow mix. And that's pretty much what it did for the rest of the day.

"It was just miserable! The harvest was down fairly significantly, and I blame that on the weather."

The new antlerless license tags that were valid during only the first eight weeks of archery season probably also cut down the buck take: Many hunters took advantage of those tags while they were still valid.

During the statewide muzzleloader season, held between Christmas and New Year's last year, participation was down as well, probably due to holiday demands.

All told, the buck kill was reduced significantly during the three main firearms seasons.

Throughout all of last year's deer seasons, the antlered deer kill was down 16 percent. The antlerless kill was up 2 percent. Combined, the deer take was about 2 percent lower than the previous year.

Maybe to deer managers, who had hoped for a greater harvest. But from a historical perspective, it was Ohio's second-largest deer harvest on record: 87,648 antlered deer and 145,206 antlerless deer, for a total harvest of 232,854.

This fall, that lower overall might turn out to be the best possible news for buck hunters -- specifically for trophy buck hunters. (Continued)

"One philosophy of liberalizing antlerless opportunities is that if you're successful in increasing the antlerless harvest, it will take some pressure off the antlered deer population," Mike Tonkovich pointed out.

"In fact, recent research out of Pennsylvania shows that 90 percent of the bucks still alive at the end of the hunting season will be around the next year.

"I don't think that archers purposely pass up a buck in favor of shooting a reduced-price doe," he added. "I think they shoot 'meat does' when they present themselves, and that takes the hunters temporarily out of commission. If you kill a doe and are taking it home, you can't be in the woods to kill a buck, so that saves some bucks. I'd say we should see a nice crop of bigger bucks harvested fall of '08."

However, there is a complicating factor. Tonkovich pointed out that Ohio experienced its most significant outbreak to date of insect-borne EHD, or epizootic hemorrhagic disease, which is fatal to deer.

Unlike the more devastating CWD, or chronic wasting disease, EHD is not passed contagiously from deer to deer, nor is it passed through the foliage they eat.

EHD is much more common in the Southeast, but last summer's hot weather and winds from the south combined to exacerbate the problem.

Once cold weather arrives, the insects die, and the disease disappears along with them.

"It was largely a problem in the southeastern region, but it made its way into many of our south-central end even some of our southwestern counties," Tonkovich said.

"It crept up as far as Interstate Route 70, so we're talking about counties like Guernsey, Muskingum, and Belmont, and then down as far as Brown County, and perhaps even into Clermont County in the southwestern part of the state."

Serious trophy hunters should understand the necessary ingredients -- a formula, let's call it -- for producing big antlers, and make their hunting plans accordingly.

But he noted that the outbreak may not have been as devastating as some concerned hunters perceived it to be.

"Based on harvest data across the region, EHD had a major impact at local levels," Tonkovich said. "And within townships, some sections may have suffered significant losses.

"Even though there's no scientific literature to support it, some experts believe that bucks tend to die from EHD at a disproportionate rate. So the number of bucks that survived the disease remains to be seen. I'm going to be optimistic and say that the deer that were spared last year will be around for hunters this fall."

EHD affected some of the best trophy deer-hu

nting counties in Ohio.

Nonetheless, last year's list of leading buck-producing counties remained static.

Coshocton County led with a kill of 2,909 antlered deer. Licking was second (at 2,758), followed by Tuscarawas (2,585), Guernsey (2,561), and Muskingum (2,460 antlered deer). Harrison, Jefferson, Knox and Belmont counties all had antlered deer harvests of over 2,000.

Where should serious trophy buck hunters go for their best chances of getting into the Buckeye Big Buck Club list of record bucks?

Counties with the most new entries in 2007 were Licking with 226, Tuscarawas (22), Knox (16), Muskingum (15) and Richland and Hardin, with 12 new entries each.

In truth, huge bucks are taken virtually all over Ohio. But even close examination of the list of record-book bucks doesn't tell the whole story, maybe not even the most significant story. Serious trophy hunters should clearly understand the necessary ingredients -- a formula, let's call it -- for producing big antlers, and make their hunting plans accordingly.

In its simplest form, that formula is: Genetics + Nutrition + Age = Trophy bucks.

Though all of the factors are necessary to produce the final result, in Ohio, as in most places, genetics is the least important. There's no practical way to make use of that factor, except by citing those areas that have produced trophy racks as proof that the proper genetics already exist.

In Ohio, the number of entries in the Buckeye Big Buck Club per county closely corresponds to the total deer harvest, the amount of land available for hunting and the number of deer hunters who participate.

Nutrition is an absolute necessity, but is generally not a major problem in Ohio, except in the southeast-region counties in District Four -- the most forested, least cultivated areas.

In this region, according to biologist Tonkovich, beam diameter, which is a standard measure of a deer's condition, has been doing down:

"The forest that remains is of lower quality -- with less nutritious browse available now than existed when deer numbers began to increase all over Ohio. In the 1930s and '40s, when much of the farmland in the southeast region was abandoned, that created ideal deer habitat.

"Now, those areas have matured into pole-size stuff and mature timber, which provides a lot less browse.

"This means far fewer deer at the same level of quality than early-successional habitat can produce and sustain.

"What it boils down to is that you can't have your cake and eat it, too," he concluded. "If we're going to have more deer on lower-quality habitat, we've got to accept the fact that overall, their size and antler growth is going to decline. This is the reason behind the increased availability of antlerless deer tags."

But Tonkovich remains optimistic.

"We're certainly not even close to being in dire straits," he said. "When you look at the percentage of breeding fawns, we're still at 30 to 35 percent, which most southern states would die for. But by Ohio's standards, that percentage has declined over the past decade, from a high of 50 percent at one point.

"And antler-beam diameters are tied to that as well," Tonkovich added. "Beam diameters are the single best indicator of overall herd health, and that includes reproductive rates. A couple of years from now, we're going to start collecting that data again. I suspect we'll find that instead of 35 percent of the fawns breeding -- which is what we found back in the mid- to late 1990's -- it may be in the high 20s now.

"The gradual decline in beam diameters may also continue," he said. "We will collect data for a three-year period to avoid that 'snapshot' scenario where you're getting a poor picture just because you've studied only one year's worth of data."

This is strictly an eastern Ohio situation, Tonkovich noted. In western Ohio, beam diameters are not declining.

Age probably is the most important factor for producing trophy racks in Ohio -- and everywhere else. It generally takes at least three years and more often, four years for bucks to grow racks that make the record books. So the best way to bag a big buck is to hunt where deer have the best chances of growing old.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for deer hunters is to understand that if they want to increase their chances for taking a trophy-class deer, they must pass on smaller bucks (including some "big" smaller deer). It may take all season to find a record-book buck, but they may be found in every county in the state.

Ohio's deer hunters are very fortunate because they all have a reasonable chance of tagging a trophy buck just about anywhere in the state.


All things considered, how is the trophy buck potential this year?

"Tremendous, and you can quote me on that," Tonkovich stated. "If you really want to get down to brass tacks, I would argue that if you were to start looking at deer harvests per unit -- or if you start expressing numbers of bucks per capita or per unit of land area available to hunting -- we would be No. 1 for sure.

"I'm not going to get in a shouting match with another state saying, 'No, we've got better bucks than you!' because there are a lot of factors that go into it," he asserted.

"Hunter experience and costs, hunter densities and those kinds of things must be factored in. When you look at the human population density in Ohio and the number of bucks, lands available for hunting and the like, you can express those numbers in some form and bring every state down to a common denominator. And I'd say we'd float right to the top.

"Ohio is not a giant state to begin with, and there's not a lot of places where you're not tripping over other hunters. The southeast region is a different story, and the western half of the state is planted to soybeans.

"How many acres of deer habitat does western Ohio have? Not very many. So this means half of our state produces most of our big bucks."

All things considered, last year's drop in deer harvest still yielded the second-highest harvest in the state.

A mild winter means the odds are high for another record deer harvest, with improved opportunities to find bigger bucks.

For more information about deer hunting in Ohio, you can write to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, 2045 Morse Road, Columbus, OH 43229-6693.

Or call 1-800-WILDLIFE, or log onto www.dnr.state.oh.us,

For Ohio travel information, contact the Ohio Tourism Division, 77 South High Street, Columbus, OH 43215. Or call 1-800-BUCKEYE, or log onto the agency's Web site at www.DiscoverOhio.com.

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