After a record-setting harvest last year, biologists predict an even better season this year for Tennessee deer hunters. (October 2007)
Photo by Kenny Bahr.
Sometimes the best way to start a deer forecast is by looking at the past. Tennessee hunters set a harvest record back in 2004 when we harvested 179,542 whitetails. The 2005 season was also a banner year, with 166,071 deer tagged by Volunteer hunters, but was a bit of a letdown after such a great hunt the prior year. However, the truth is, the letdown was expected: The mast crop was so strong that year that the deer didn't have to travel much. Able to feed in or near their bedding areas, they spent less time moving past hunters' stands during daylight. Couple that with some extreme weather conditions on opening weekend, and you can read the writing on the wall.
Last year in our 2006 Deer Outlook, we predicted a turnaround and were right on the money. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) told us that a down year in 2005 with increased mast and a healthier herd would translate into a good deer season in 2006 -- and it did. For the first time in history, Tennessee hunters took over 180,000 whitetails during last year's hunts.
With the aid of the TWRA's Web site, hunters were able to keep an eye on the harvest as it developed statewide. When the end of the season came, Tennessee hunters harvested an astounding 174,937 whitetails on the statewide hunts alone. That's nearly as high as the overall harvest record set in 2004.
Add the wildlife management area (WMA) harvests of 7,156 to that total, and you get our new all-time harvest record of 182,093 deer killed.
Go ahead and pat yourselves on the back -- but get ready at the same time to set a new record in 2007. The factors are right for a prime deer-hunting season this year, too. Let's take a look at where the deer came from in 2006 and why the upcoming season should be the best of all time once again.
THE 2006 DEER HUNTS AND BEYOND
Daryl Ratajczak didn't get the position of TWRA's big-game program coordinator without knowing plenty about deer and deer habits. Knowing what he knows, Ratajczak said he and other biologists weren't surprised about the record whitetail harvest in the Volunteer State during the 2006 seasons. With two back-to-back years of excellent hard-mast production, he actually predicted the new record harvest in last year's Deer Outlook. He said he expected the new record but was a little surprised at just how big a harvest we had last year.
The state's big-game coordinator is also a deer hunter and knows that heavy mast crops can make the deer hunting harder. But ultimately, good mast years have an important benefit: Years with plenty of food in the woods lead to good survival rates, add to the health of the does in the herd, and aid bucks in growing antlers. With that said, Ratajczak had the upcoming 2007 hunts on his mind.
"Let me make a bold prediction," Ratajczak said. "We'll break 200,000 deer in 2007 -- or get real close."
He bases his prediction on a number of factors. First, very favorable conditions are likely to be in place this year for hunters: Last April's late freeze is expected to decimate hard mast production all across the state. He said low mast equals a big harvest, and the herd is primed for it. Hunters can expect a big effect from the April freeze on this year's hunts. Ratajczak said we'll see harvest increases across the board in 2007, with nearly every county in the state producing more deer.
The same hopeful situation will exist at WMAs across Tennessee in 2007. The WMA harvests have been increasing steadily since 2003 and were over 7,000 deer for the first time or at least since records were kept in 1950. The 7,156 public-land deer taken in 2006 may have been a record, but the take should be even higher this season. Ratajczak said the WMA structure has changed greatly over the years with some areas added and other lost. However, the biggest difference at any successful WMA is the fact we're seeing better quality deer coming from those hunts. He said the moral of the story is public-land hunts still offer a good option for Tennessee hunters.
Each year, weather plays a significant role in our deer harvest. In 2006, Ratajczak said most of the season featured great hunting conditions. In 2005, the opening weekend of the muzzleloader hunt was way down because of unusually warm weather. One year later in 2006, the weather was prime and hunters took over 12,000 more deer on the opening muzzleloader weekend.
He added that last season each weapon's opening weekend had pretty nice deer hunting weather, and the harvests showed it. Since the opening weekend of any hunt has the highest participation, they are crucial to a successful harvest year. In 2006, Ratajczak said the weather around the prime rutting period in mid-November was also good and helped to lead to the new harvest record as well.
All of Tennessee is not created equal. Richer soils with bountiful row crops in Region I and Region II produce healthier deer and a more numerous herd. In East Tennessee, Ratajczak said the deer herd is still increasing, and that increase fits the management plan. Regions II and IV are still managed with the mindset that you don't want to over-harvest does. Doe survival leads to growth where it's needed. In the eastern portion of the state in Unit B, the management plan is still about protection.
There's been enough herd growth in Unit B in recent years that the TWRA proposed adding two more either-sex days to the muzzleloader hunt in the east. Instead of having only the first three days of the muzzleloader hunt include the option of shooting a buck or doe, hunters in Unit B will be able to harvest one deer of either sex on the first five days of the opening muzzleloader segment. From Saturday through Wednesday, all deer should be fair game in Unit B in 2007.
In Region I and Region II, management is more focused on limiting herd growth. That's why you see more liberal limits in these areas. Ratajczak said most all of Middle Tennessee counties are located in Unit L, where three does can still be harvested per day. In the west, where you find most of Unit A, Ratajczak said the deer herd for the most part is in great shape. There's still some room for growth as managers try to maintain the herd there.
Despite the liberal limits in Unit L, Ratajczak said there is some reason for concern. There are still more bucks being harvested in Unit L than does. Of the Unit L total harvest, only 46 percent are does. If the trend continues, Ratajczak said deer managers would have to look at other options to increase the doe harvest in Unit L.
In 2007, Ratajczak said five more counties will be added to Unit L as well. T
hey are Chester, Decatur, Houston, McNairy and Stewart. The only addition this year to Unit A limit status will be in Cumberland County.
The mineral content found in soils in areas like Montgomery and Stewart counties does more than grow great antlers. It makes for better crop production. Better quality food also leads to a bigger and healthier herd or greater herd density. Ratajczak said many biologists say 20 deer per square mile is too many, but he said that number is manageable and makes for some great deer hunting.
Probably the best news for Tennessee deer hunters, and biologists as well, is the lack of chronic wasting disease (CWD) here. Ratajczak said we're still clean and around 8,800 deer have been sampled in the Volunteer State since 2000. As far as he can tell, the disease that's hit other states has not breached our borders.
Ratajczak said biologists in West Virginia have found CWD by testing road-killed deer instead of deer brought to checking stations. He said Tennessee biologists can learn from this approach and plan to change their CWD testing to focus on target surveillance by looking closer at road-killed deer. He said CWD affects the central nervous system of whitetails. The key is to target deer that look or are sick. Deer that have been affected by the disease are more apt to be hit by cars. So far, so good, for Volunteer whitetails, but the TWRA will keep checking and monitoring the herd's status annually.
THE BEST OF THE BEST AND THEN THE REST
Each year for several seasons now, Hardeman County and Henry County hunters battle it out for the state's top deer-producing county. One year, it's Hardeman County and then the next, it's Henry County on top. Hardeman County hunters must have tired of the fight because they made a bold statement in 2006 with a huge harvest, leading the rest of the state for back-to-back years.
Hardeman County hunters took 6,388 deer during the 2006 hunts and led Henry County this year by nearly 1,000 whitetails. The Hardeman County harvest was also more than 500 deer better than in 2005. Henry County didn't totally fall out of grace, though: The 5,399 deer taken here was the second-highest figure for a county in Tennessee.
Giles County took its familiar spot in third among the top 10 deer producers in the Volunteer State with a harvest of 5,184.
Fayette County, Lincoln County and Carroll County hunters were also in familiar territory among the state's best. Fayette County hunters tagged 5,081 deer for the fourth spot, followed by Lincoln County with 4,709, and then Carroll County with a harvest of 4,313 whitetails. Weakley County hunters moved up the ranks from ninth in 2005 to seventh in 2006 with a harvest of 4,114.
Montgomery County hunters did take more deer in 2006 compared with 2005 but didn't keep pace with some of the other counties. Montgomery County's harvest of 4,112 was good enough for the eighth spot, but they fell down from sixth place in 2005.
Madison County and Franklin County moved into the top 10 in 2006, while Maury and Wayne counties fell out. Madison County hunters finished in the ninth spot with a take of 3,840 deer, followed by Franklin County's harvest of 3,762 whitetails for the last spot in the top 10. These top 10 counties statewide are also the best of the best in their respective areas in Region I and Region II.
In Region III and Region IV, there was little change among the names of the top deer-producing counties. In Region III, Roane County again led the way with a harvest of 2,928 deer in 2006. Jackson County was in the familiar second spot with a take of 2,464 deer, followed again by Rhea County with a harvest of 2,134 whitetails.
There was a little shake-up in Region IV, with Sullivan County moving into the top three as Greene County fell out of that distinction. Region IV was again led by the deer beast in the east: Hawkins County, where hunters harvested 2,635 deer in 2006. Claiborne County hunters were in second place again this past year with a harvest of 1,694 deer, followed by Sullivan County's third place finish with 1,320 deer tagged.
Top WMAs And Public Lands
You knew Fort Campbell couldn't stay out of the top spot among public-land hunts for long. With a harvest of nearly 50 more deer than in 2005, Fort Campbell took back over as leader of the WMA hunts with its harvest of 693 deer. As in 2005, in 2006, LBL was in the second place position with a harvest of 617 whitetails. The 2005 surprise leader -- Tennessee NWR -- produced the third-largest managed public-land harvest last season, with 615 deer tagged.
The Cherokee WMA was in the fourth place position with a harvest of 529 deer, followed by AEDC's take of 543 deer in fifth place. In 2006, Catoosa WMA increased its harvest by nearly 100 deer and moved into the sixth spot with a harvest of 469 whitetails. Chuck Swan WMA fell slightly down the ladder from fifth in 2005 to seventh in 2006 with a take of 397 deer.
Eagle Creek WMA and Cross Creeks moved into the top 10 in 2006, while Cheatham WMA and Big South Fork fell from the leader board. Eagle Creek's harvest of 361 deer was good enough for an eighth place finish. Oak Ridge fell among the top spots from seventh in 2005 to ninth in 2006. Oak Ridge's harvest was 343 deer in 2005 but fell to 284 in 2006. Cross Creeks NWR took the last of the top 10 positions with a harvest of 266 whitetails.
KNOW YOUR TARGET
With more liberal limits in Tennessee, many hunters are encouraged to harvest does, especially in Unit L, and also on quota and non-quota hunts across most of the state. More than half of the state's counties offer some sort of antlerless deer hunt. There were 48 counties participating in these opportunities last year that provide special antlerless-deer-only hunts.
The TWRA offers some suggestions to help you identify does versus button bucks if you are concerned about harvesting a fawn instead of a mature deer. Adult does are very different from juvenile deer. The mature doe is more rectangular in shape with a long neck and face. Fawns are more square-shaped and have a short neck and face.
The agency also said to wait until several deer are together, and then harvest one of the larger antlerless deer. Also, a doe's head is normally more rounded on top between the ears because a buck's head is flattened by the future base of the antlers. It's best to shoot with good visibility, since poor light and heavy cover can make determining the sex and age of deer difficult. The TWRA also said all hunters are different and what may be a small deer to some may be a trophy to someone else. There are now plenty of deer to go around in these modern times in most of Tennessee. Take your time, wait on your shot, and then harvest the benefits of a growing herd. The time to deer hunt in Tennessee is most definitely now.