Tennessee's 2008 Deer Outlook Part 2: Our Trophy Bucks

Tennessee keeps plenty of statistics on where the biggest bucks come from. Here's what the trends show. (November 2008)

As we discussed in Part I of this article last month, epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) appears to have played an important role in why Tennessee's overall deer harvest was significantly lower last season. Nor surprisingly, the 2007 buck harvest was also affected, but there is a silver lining in this deer cloud.

With somewhere around 60,000 deer falling prey to the disease, there was more food available for remaining deer and they were less pressured because of the EHD factor.

The media scare created by the outbreak left many hunters at home instead of in the woods. Less pressure and more food should equate to a healthier herd this fall and that prediction includes the general health of our bucks.

Hunters shouldn't expect to break the overall harvest set back in 2006 when over 180,000 whitetails were harvested, but we can expect to see some seriously healthy deer in the woods.

Among those deer will be some very nice bucks. Tennessee keeps plenty of statistics on where the biggest bucks come from. Here's what the trends show.

The 2006 harvest of 182,093 seems a distant number compared with the final harvest take of 164,413 in 2007. It's definitely going to take a season or two to rebound from last year's EHD effects in terms of total harvest numbers.

Of our 95 counties statewide, only 19 of them had a harvest increase in 2007. In addition, the totals for every weapon category were decreased.

The wildlife management area (WMA) hunts, which help add to the overall statewide harvest, were also down significantly because of lack of hunter participation and EHD. In 2006, we took over 7,000 on WMA hunts, but only just under 6,000 last year. Overall, deer managers and biologists calculate that we lost somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 potential deer in last year's final harvest figures.

It's no secret that the densest populations of Volunteer deer reside in Middle and West Tennessee. It stands to reason that's where most of the big bucks come from, and they do.

Hardeman County led the state in overall deer harvest, but that's not the case when it to comes to the bigger bucks. Hardeman did lead the harvest in the number of bucks with 7 and 8 points, but for bucks with more than 8 points, Hardeman County was not the leader.

Fayette, Henry and Montgomery counties led the state in the harvest of bucks with more than 11 points in 2007. Fayette produced the most of these bucks, with 68 being tagged, followed closely by Henry and Montgomery counties' equal take of 64 big bucks each. Giles County deserves an honorable mention with its total of 51 bucks with 11 or more points -- a dozen more than Giles County hunters killed in 2006.

Not surprisingly, there's a fairly strong correlation between counties where hunters kill many 9- and 10-point bucks with counties that produce high totals of bucks with 11 or more points. Montgomery County, for example, was not only among the leaders in the latter category, but was also best when it comes to bucks with 9 and 10 points -- hunters here took 273 of those high-caliber bucks. Fayette County was next with 266 bucks tagged with 9 and 10 points. Maury County hunters put their county in the statistics highlights with 249 bucks with 9 and 10 points.

In the 7- and 8-point buck category, after Hardeman County, you'll find Lincoln County with 931 bucks followed closely by Giles County's 930 bucks sporting 7 and 8 points. Fayette County also had a very respectable harvest of 7- and 8-pointers with 884 of them taken. Also, note that Fayette County was one of the few counties last year that had an increase in all three of these big-buck categories -- if you have hunting land there, it deserves your attention in 2008.

Looking at the statewide map and table of big bucks harvested accompanying this article will show you exactly where the big boys come from in each region.

Just as is the case with the overall deer harvest, the number of big bucks taken drops way off outside of Region II.

In Region I, Fayette led the way in the number of bucks harvested with 11 or more points, followed by Henry and Stewart counties. In Region II, Montgomery was tops in the bucks with 11 or more points, followed by Giles and Lincoln counties.

In Region III, respectable numbers of bucks with 11 or more points harvested are found in the cluster of Cumberland, Fentress and Morgan counties. Cumberland County led the way in the plateau region with 29 big bucks harvested, followed by 27 in Fentress County and 23 in Morgan County.

Totals are lower again in Region IV. Campbell County was best there with eight bucks harvested with 11 or more points, followed Greene County with seven trophies. Johnson, Monroe and Sullivan counties all checked in for the third spot with six bucks each with 11 or more points.

Cumberland County also led the way when it comes to bucks with 7 and 8 points in Region III, with 346 of those quality whitetails harvested. And it's no surprise, Cumberland County was also best in the 9- and 10-point bucks harvested, with 94 of them taken. Hawkins County was far above all of the other Region IV counties with 390 bucks harvested with 7 and 8 points. And yes, Hawkins County also led the way with 42 bucks tagged with 9 and 10 points.

As far as overall number of bucks harvested, Hardeman County, the overall statewide deer harvest leader, had the most number of antlered deer taken in 2007 with 2,804 bucks checked in. Giles County was second best with a total of 2,630 bucks harvested. The top five buck producers statewide was rounded out by Fayette County's 2,475, Henry County's 2,355 and Lincoln County's 2,160 bucks harvested overall. Of the 158,873 deer harvested statewide, Tennessee hunters took 87,596 bucks.

It's also worth mentioning that of our 95 counties statewide, 15 of them posted a buck harvest of over 1,500 antlered deer.

Despite the EHD outbreak, Tennessee hunters did find successes on our public lands. When it comes to numbers, Land Between The Lakes (LBL) retook the top spot among WMAs when last year's public land numbers were tallied. The total harvest in 2007 on WMAs was 5,983 deer, a decent number but well below the 2006 harvest of 7,156 whitetails.

Of the 5,983 public lands deer harvested last year, 3,580 of them were bucks. WMAs are for sure o

ne means that Volunteer hunters have for getting their bucks each season. Although the overall WMA buck totals as well as the big-buck totals were also down from 2006, there were still some good bucks taken. The final tally shows that there were 923 bucks with 7 and 8 points harvested, followed by 317 with 9 and 10 points or more, and then 78 bucks with 11 or more points.

When it comes to public-land buck hunting, most things have changed only slightly over the years. But the opportunities to take an older buck seem to be increasing even on public hunts. Catoosa WMA, with its quality deer management program, is a great place to harvest a good buck. There are a good number of 2 1/2-year-old deer and older to be harvested at Catoosa.

Looking at the number of 7- and 8-point bucks from managed public lands last season, Catoosa led the way with 136 such bucks, followed by Fort Campbell's 122, Cherokee WMA's 88, LBL's 76, and then Oak Ridge with 64 quality bucks.

Moving up the ladder, Fort Campbell led all public lands with 61 bucks harvested with 9 and 10 points. Catoosa was next with 51 bucks of 9 and 10 points, followed by Cherokee's 30, LBL's 24, and then Oak Ridge with 17 bucks with 9 and 10 points.

When it comes to the big boys, Fort Campbell was again best with 15 bucks sporting 11 or more points. Cherokee WMA had an impressive take of 10 trophy bucks, followed by LBL and Oak Ridge with an equal harvest of seven monster bucks with 11 or more points.

Oak Ridge WMA no longer has the antler restrictions on deer hunts. However, the effects of the quality deer management from the past can still be found. There are still some big bucks at Oak Ridge, thanks to the antler restrictions that were in effect for five or six seasons. There's always been a good chance to kill a nice buck at Oak Ridge, but for the next couple of seasons, you may have even a greater advantage. The biggest reason the antler restrictions were lifted at Oak Ridge was due to the number of deer and car collisions.

Other than the obvious big-buck choice of Presidents Island, where bucks have to have at least 9 points to be harvested on the most popular hunts, Moss Island, Laurel Hill and Yuchi Refuge are all still good destinations for crossing paths with a big-buck opportunity. Fort Campbell is and will always be a viable choice for taking a big buck. That doesn't mean if you are drawn there it's a guarantee, but it's quite possible to bag a trophy buck there.

LBL wasn't only the top WMA when it comes to numbers. It's also a great place to take a big buck. The buck-to-doe ratio is right at 1-to-1 and features a well-balanced herd. In addition, the age structure there is phenomenal right now. Of the majority of bucks there now, more than 50 percent are estimated to be 2 1/2 years old or better.

When it comes to overall numbers of bucks taken on WMA and public lands last season, Cherokee was the clear leader in the number of bucks harvested with 362 tagged in both units. But LBL was probably the strongest in relation to size with 298 whitetail bucks killed, followed by AEDC with 272. Chuck Swan's 263 bucks bagged took the fourth spot in overall buck harvest. Catoosa held the fifth spot with 254 bucks tagged, and Oak Ridge gets the honorable mention nod with 225 bucks harvested.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the EHD outbreak last year adversely affected the 2007 deer harvest. On the brighter side, last year's outbreak may be a prelude to a better deer harvest in 2008 -- not so much in numbers but in quality.

Daryl Ratajczak, Tennessee's big-game coordinator, said it'll take a couple of seasons for the overall deer numbers to bounce back from the 60,000 deer lost to EHD, but in the meantime, the deer herd should be healthier overall. He expects to see some nice bucks harvested in 2008.

What the EHD factor did on the positive side was to lower the deer density in many of the overpopulated counties like those found in Unit L. The lower density tends to result in more -- and higher quality -- food for the remaining deer. So far this year, the does seem to be in good condition, and there was no adverse effect on fawn recruitment by the EHD factor. In fact, the decrease in the deer herd opened up more food reserves when the mast crop was already low.

What biologists and managers have seen from the field this year in their thermal imaging program, Ratajczak said, is proof positive. Many, if not most, of the counties in Unit L now have a 1-to-1 doe-to-buck ratio. The harvests from Unit L also show that the harvest ratio for deer has been 50 percent does, 50 percent bucks for the last couple of seasons. That's far better than anyone expected. He said we're starting to see the fruits of Unit L's liberal limits as the deer population becomes more balanced there, and hunters interested in seeing larger and older bucks should start to reap the benefits.

With thermal imaging, biologists are able to get more accurate counts than they ever did with spotlighting methods. Ratajczak said even in the counties with restrictive doe harvests, they're finding doe-to-buck ratios of no more than 2-to-1 in most places and 3-to-1 has been the maximum recorded.

Ratajczak said Presidents Island is still your best bet for taking a buck of a lifetime, but there are certainly other counties worth your hunting efforts. He recently taught a deer scoring class, and Dale Grindstaff, a wildlife officer from Montgomery County, brought in some sheds from there. Ratajczak said Grindstaff lives in a different world than the rest of us. Montgomery County is producing some bucks with tremendous mass, and Stewart County isn't far behind. There is something in the soil in those counties that, as Ratajczak said, "produces some whoppers."

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