Ohio's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Where To Find Our Best Deer Hunting

Ohio's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Where To Find Our Best Deer Hunting

Last year's heavy rains made most hunters stay at home. That, biologists think, will mean more deer available for Buckeye State hunters in 2008. (October 2008)

Simply put, Ohio's 2007-08 deer harvest didn't meet all expectations.

However, the reduced kill wasn't the result of low deer numbers.

Nor is it necessarily any indication of how the 2008 season might be.

The results of the 2007-08 Ohio deer-hunting seasons resulted from poor weather and at least one significant change in the regulations.

Throw in a disease outbreak of historic proportions, and reaching a conclusion -- or making a prediction -- can be challenging. But after sorting through all the news, both good and bad, prospects for 2008 appear to be very good.

Was deer biologist Mike Tonkovich satisfied with the season?

"Yes and no," he said.

The No part started with a dismal drop in the deer kill on opening day of the statewide gun season.

"It was a decrease of record proportions for us, but there was a good reason. It rained hard all day, and it rained much of the rest of the week. After a 50 percent reduction in harvest our first day, amazingly enough, we still ended up that week within 7 percent of last year's harvest.

"Hunters did pretty well in terms of recovery. So from that standpoint, I was very pleased that we made that much of a recovery.

"But then we lost another period of normally good hunting to bad weather," the biologist continued.

"We had a two-day firearms season in December. If you were fortunate enough to have hunted the first few hours of Saturday, you'd have been in good shape. But anywhere from 9 a.m. to noon that day, the weather turned sour. It stayed that way for the rest of the day and Sunday, and pretty much ruined that season for us."

Poor results in the firearms seasons did not end there, either.

"Going into the year's last firearms season-- our statewide muzzleloader season, which runs from the week between Christmas and New Year's Day -- we had two strikes against us.

"Whether hunters were soaked to the bone during the previous two hunts and had yet to recover, or if they just lost interest, participation was off. And the harvest declined for the second year in a row.

"I believe some of the reduction in participation was probably due to hunters simply getting tired of being run out of the woods by the weather, even though the weather wasn't bad," Tonkovich said.

"I mean, it wasn't great weather, but it wasn't bad weather. It was just an average year, but after getting washed out twice, I think many hunters lost interest.

"Another thing that may have contributed to some of that lack of interest was that after adding that December gun season, the muzzleloader harvest declined two years in a row," he noted. "We put a two-day firearms season about 10 days ahead of the statewide muzzleloader season. And, lo and behold, the harvest went down two years in a row!

"I anticipated some of that would occur if hunters looked at that December gun hunt as an early muzzleloader hunt," Tonkovich said. (Both shotguns and muzzleloaders were legal firearms during that season.)

"And I think that's what happened. Hunters simply chose to participate in that mid-December season rather than waiting until the end of December to hunt with a muzzleloader."

Undoubtedly, many hunters had used up their vacation time well before the muzzleloader season, planning to hunt the rut in more favorable weather instead.

Most of us must apply for vacation days many months in advance. But the weather over the long term is unpredictable and this year, a lot of hard-earned vacation days were probably wasted.

Last year, Mother Nature played another cruel trick in Ohio with the worst outbreak on record of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD).

Southeastern Ohio's counties were the hardest hit, but the disease was felt in the southwest and at least as far north as Interstate Route 70.

"We lost a lot of deer, we know that," Tonkovich said.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife received many phone calls reporting deer with symptoms of EHD. In some localities, the outbreak had devastating effects. The extent of the damage is still unknown.

"We want to make it very clear," Tonkovich stated, "the Ohio Division of Wildlife made no attempt to quantify the number of deer that died as a result of epizootic hemorrhagic disease," To do so would have been impractical, he said. But it's believed that mortality from EHD should have no large effect on the hunt this year.

The Yes part of Tonkovich's response to his satisfaction with the 2007-08 season resulted from a change in antlerless regulations.

"In spite of all of the bad news, we ended up with a harvest of 232,854 deer, which I think was down from 237,316 in 2006," Tonkovich noted.

"So we were off by only less than 2 percent from the prior year.

"In large part, our bowhunters saved us. They took to the woods fast and furious last year because we offered them a reduced-cost permit good for an antlerless deer only during the first eight weeks of the season. Many archers snatched up the opportunity and really went after the antlerless deer."

The new permit option offered something perhaps unprecedented -- a reduction in the cost of a deer tag!

This created a revealing change in some hunters' strategy.

"It became apparent that without the antlerless permit, hunters shot antlerless deer early on because they were available and bucks were not," Tonkovich pointed out.

"And then as the rut started picking up, the daily composition of the harvest shifted heavily towards bucks. It remained that way through the first eight weeks of the season.

"This year, we saw the interest in bucks pick up a little bit during the rut. But as the expiration date of that permit loomed, hunters shifted back toward antlerle

ss deer because they wanted to fill the antlerless tags they had already purchased.

"I think that guys were not necessarily passing up bucks," Tonkovich said, "so much as they were shooting antlerless deer when they saw them.

"In the end, it reduced the buck harvest, but not because the population of antlered deer was any smaller. It's just that you can't shoot a buck when you're dragging a doe out of the woods."

Possibly this alone accounted in large part for the 16 percent drop in the 2007 buck kill.

The rest can probably be ascribed to poor weather on the opening days of the firearms seasons, when the greatest number of hunters are afield -- which makes bucks most vulnerable because hunting pressure tends to keep them moving, so that they're much more likely to be seen.

"During those first eight weeks of the archery season, when the special antlerless permits were valid, the antlerless harvest was up 45 percent from the previous year," Tonkovich said. "During that same period, the antlered deer harvest was down 4 percent.

"We had a significant increase in the antlerless harvest and actually saw a small reduction in the buck harvest during that same period.

"Overall, given the two weather obstacles that occurred, we were really pleased with the performance of that permit," he concluded.

1. Coshocton8,417
2. Tuscarawas7,651
3. Licking7,523
4. Guernsey7,212
5. Muskingurn8,857
6. Knox6,686
7. Harrison6,334
8. Holmes5,802
9. Jefferson5,461
10. Ashtabula5,223
11. Belmont4,955
12. Carroll4,917
13. Athens4,858
14. Hocking4,696
15. Washington4,650
16. Meigs4,482
17. Perry4,344
18. Columbiana4,293
19. Noble4,192
20. Monroe4,178

That total harvest of 232,854 deer constituted an increase in antlerless harvest of 2 percent, and a 16 percent decrease in the antlered deer harvest.

Despite what may sound like a doom and gloom report, the 2007-08 season produced the second-highest deer kill on record in Ohio.

The usual counties again led the state in total deer harvest. Coshocton County hunters ran away with the top spot, recording 8,417 deer -- a full 10 percent better than second-place Tuscarawas County, with 7,651 deer.

Tonkovich strongly praised Ohio hunters for their cooperation in harvesting antlerless deer. This is the major method for managing the deer population and the health of the herd.

But does this mean that the Ohio Division of Wildlife is now satisfied with the deer population?

"Not really," Tonkovich said. "I'd like to see us move the herd lower in eastern Ohio. I'd say we're satisfied with the western part of the state, particularly the northwest and west-central counties.

"In some of our southwestern counties, perhaps we need to do a little better job there. But by and large, most counties in eastern Ohio still have more deer than we'd like."

This clearly indicates where hunters can look for the better hunting prospects this year. Of course, one major problem is that most hunters must hunt on public land.

"Every year, access becomes more of an issue," Tonkovich said.

"More land is being leased. And of course, when you lease land, access becomes a major issue for the hunters who used to hunt there.

"Deer are abundant everywhere, so leases are limiting our ability to manage the deer herd."

In general, Ohio's hunters can anticipate that their best chances for successful hunts on public lands will be on the Wayne National Forest and state wildlife areas in the southeast -- or even in parts of the northeast districts. The top-producing counties lie along both sides of the border between districts Three and Four.

Hunting in southeast Ohio's District Four is a somewhat different game than in other parts of the state, where deer are not attracted to mast crops because agriculture plays their most important dietary role.

District Four is a different story.

"Mast is very important there," Tonkovich said.

Hunters who take the time to scout for good mas

t should reap dividends. Spend a couple of weekends scouting for productive oak stands, and your deer hunting success should improve.

In the southwest region, look at mixed habitat on wildlife areas including Tranquility Wildlife Area in Adams County, Fallsville Wildlife Area in Highland County or Indian Creek Wildlife Area in Brown County (where a 180-class typical was taken with a bow last season).

Tonkovich made a bold prediction for the 2008 deer season:

"Given the expansion of antlerless permits and barring any weather events, I would anticipate a record harvest this year -- perhaps as high as 240,000 deer. We have some room to grow because last year's harvest was a little bit shortchanged.

"I believe we've got plenty of deer to carry forward to this year."

1. Coshocton5,508
2. Tuscarawas5,066
3. Licking4,765
4. Guernsey4,651
5. Knox4,465
6. Muskingurn4,397
7. Harrison4,007
8. Holmes3,900
9. Ashtabula3,463
10. Jefferson3,204
11. Carroll3,178
12. Athens2,984
13. Hocking2,936
14. Belmont2,924
15. Washington2,900
16. Meigs2,880
17. Perry2,821
18. Noble2,725
19. Richland2,691
20. Columbiana2,653

The antlerless permit, new last year, was valid for only the first eight weeks of the archery season. But this year, unfilled permits will be valid for use in Zone C during the gun seasons.

"But there is a kicker," Tonkovich noted. "Those tags must be purchased before the gun season opens.

"You can't just arbitrarily decide to come down to southeastern Ohio and hunt if you don't have a tag purchased before the gun season begins. If you do, you're out of luck.

"That's why I use the term 'unfilled' tags, not un-purchased tags," Tonkovich noted.

"You must buy your tags before the gun seasons open, and the tags will be valid only during the gun season in Zone C. This gives hunters a little extra incentive to kill additional antlerless deer and focus the pressure on Zone C.

"How much impact will it have?" Tonkovich wondered. "I don't know, but what concerns me is if many of those hunters who filled their freezers to capacity last year did so out of the sheer novelty of doing it.

"This October, when they go to the freezer and see they still have one or two deer left, they may decide not to shoot as many antlerless deer in 2008.

"I'm not sure if this is kind of a cyclic thing -- and how much of an impact the hunters harvesting a lot of deer last year will have on the '08 season."

In other words, the major factor in determining whether 2008 will be a record-breaking season will be how much venison Ohio's hunters care to eat. One option, of course, is to donate unwanted venison.

Several organizations in Ohio are fighting hunger by helping hunters donate a portion or all of their venison to folks who need it.

To make a donation, contact Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry in Ohio. All participating meat processors will give the FHFH discounted price to hunters donating venison.

The SCI Program Against Hunger helps share nature's bounty with the hungry.

Deer hunters may donate venison to Ohio food pantries by telephoning 1-800-WILDLIFE. Venison will be accepted during any of the Ohio deer seasons.

Any butcher or processor interested in participating in any of these programs may contact the ODOW at that same toll-free number.

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

You can also telephone 1-800-WILDLIFE toll-free, or log onto the agency's Internet Web site at www.dnr.state.oh.us.

For more Ohio travel, information, contact the Ohio Tourism Division, 77 South High Street, Columbus, OH 43215.

Or you can call 1-800-BUCKEYE, or visit the agency on the Internet at www.DiscoverOhio.com.

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