2015 Trophy Deer Forecast: North Carolina
October 21, 2015
The deer harvest suffered a severe decline during the 2014-15 hunting season (see Part 1 of our deer forecast in the October Issue). While hunters showed nearly the same preferences in the ratio of bucks and does that they harvested, they allowed a higher percentage of button bucks to go, which could translate to better antlers coming seasons.
The 2014-15 antlered buck harvest of 73,439 was down 15.1 percent from the 2013-14 harvest of 86,558. The total harvest decreased 18.3 percent from 188,130 to 153,629. The buck-to-doe harvest ratio increased from 46.0 percent to 47.8 percent. This ratio is similar to previous seasons; 2009-10 was the last time that more than half the deer hunters decided to shoot were bucks.
Most hunters who take only one deer tend to harvest a buck and only a small percentage of hunters take two or more deer. As discussed in last month's issue, hemorrhagic disease lingering in some areas and a heavy acorn crop kept harvest numbers down for bucks, does and button bucks.
No regulation changes occurred that would account for the small increase in the ratio of bucks to antlerless deer. Some hunters continue asking the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to enact a number of regulations that might change the buck-to-doe ratio in the harvest.
One such suggestion is an "earn-a-buck" rule that would require taking an antlerless deer before harvesting an antlered buck. Another would be a system of antler point restrictions, which would tend to increase recruitment of older-aged bucks (and, at least in the short run, decrease the number of bucks killed by hunters). Another proposal is an extension of the two-buck rule in effect for the piedmont and mountains to coastal districts.
The Commission has resisted such efforts to restrict antlered buck harvest, preferring to manage the deer population in its entirety rather than micro-manage the buck population through complicated regulations like those imposed by other southeastern states.
The Commission continues to allow hunters on private property to achieve antlerless deer harvest goals through the bonus antlerless report card program that allows the purchase of unlimited antlerless deer licenses at two per card for a $10 fee.
Last season the top 10 counties in total antlered buck harvest were: Northampton, 1,932; Halifax, 1,801; Bertie, 1,616; Wilkes, 1,536; Anson, 1,481; Bladen, 1,432; Pender, 1,357; Craven, 1,347; Duplin, 1,332 and Edgecombe, 1,328.
During the 2013-14 season, Wake, Franklin and Moore counties made the top 10 but were replaced in 2014-15 by Anson, Craven and Edgecombe.
A better way of gauging hunter success than total buck harvest within a county, however, is "antlered buck harvest per square mile of huntable habitat" (abpsm). This statistic is the number of bucks harvested per square mile of habitat where hunting and hunting regulations can affect the deer population.
This method of presenting harvest data provides a more accurate picture of how good the hunting is in smaller counties when comparing them to large counties that may have higher harvests simply because they have more acreage.
Counties that made the 2013-14 top 10 in terms of abpsm included: Mecklenburg, 3.70; Northampton, 3.69; Alleghany, 3.51; Forsyth, 3.48; Cabarrus, 3.24; Gaston, 3.23; Stanly, 3.11; Edgecombe, 2.83; Hertford, 2.77 and Lincoln, 2.75. Hunters should pay attention to the counties because there was a lot of jockeying for position.
Some traditional counties were replaced by other lesser-known buck producers. Franklin, Halifax, Vance, Wake and Warren counties were replaced by Cabarrus, Gaston, Stanly, Hertford and Lincoln.
The top two counties in each district for abpsm included: District 1, Hertford, 2.77 and Gates (replaced Bertie), 2.68; District 2, Craven, 2.14 and Pitt, 2.02; District 3, Northampton, 3.69 and Edgecombe (replaced Vance), 2.83; District 4, Bladen, 1.67 and Brunswick (replaced Harnett), 1.33; District 5, Alamance (replaced Caswell), 2.63 and Guilford (replaced Person), 2.50; District 6, Mecklenburg, 3.70 and Cabarrus (replaced Richmond), 3.24; District 7, Alleghany, 3.51 and Forsyth, 3.48; District 8, Gaston, 3.23 and Lincoln, 2.75; District 9, Polk, 1.79 and Madison, 1.15.
In District 1, Bertie, Hertford and Gates counties have excellent deer habitat along the Chowan River and have a good mix of farmland and forestland on the uplands. Three ingredients — river floodplains, farmland and extensive forestland — create the top hunting opportunities in most of the state's best antlered-buck hunting counties.
Chowan Swamp Game Land has 21,156 acres in Bertie, Gates, Hertford and Chowan counties, where hunters reported harvesting 110 deer, of which 53 were antlered bucks. Hunters reported harvesting 19 deer, including 12 antlered bucks, at the 30-acre Chowan Game Land. (Because it seems unlikely that 19 deer were killed on only 30 acres, it is likely that some hunters reported tht they were hunting "Chowan Game Land" when in fact they were hunting the similarly named — but much larger — Chowan Swamp Game Land).
In District 2, Croatan Game Land offers 160,724 acres of excellent deer hunting in Carteret, Craven and Jones counties. Croatan hunters reported killing 470 deer (112 fewer than in 2013-14) including 232 bucks (46 fewer than in 2013-14). Also in Craven County, 4,925-acre Neuse River Game Land produced 41 deer, including 19 antlered bucks.
In Pitt County, excellent deer habitat occurs along the Tar River, Contentnea Creek, and private timberlands in the northeastern and northwestern areas of the county.
In District 3, the Roanoke River Wetlands Game Land has 35,772 acres of floodplain and a small proportion of upland habitat in Bertie, Halifax, Martin and Northampton counties. It is open for deer hunting by permit only.
Applicants specify preference for hunting the various tracts on Upper Roanoke River and Lower Roanoke River units. Hunters took 123 deer (56 fewer than in 2013-14) including 78 bucks (21 fewer) on the upper unit and 190 (50 more) including 113 bucks (26 more) on the lower unit.
Vance Game Land is located on a peninsula in Kerr Reservoir. Hunters reported harvesting 46 deer (29 fewer than in 2013-14) at Vance Game Land including 11 (31 fewer) antlered bucks.
In District 4, Bladen and Brunswick counties topped the abpsm category. Bladen County borders the Cape Fear River and the river's floodplain has excellent deer habitat that is well known for producing heavily antlered bucks.
The 32,263-acre Bladen Lakes and 9,588-acre Suggs Millpond game lands offer excellent hunting. Hunters took 66 deer (39 fewer than in 2013-14) at Bladen Lakes including 25 (18 fewer) antlered bucks. Hunters reported harvesting 30 deer (9 more) at Suggs Millpond including 15 (11 more) antlered bucks.
Special regulations pertaining to the Singletary Tract of Bladen Lakes prohibit centerfire rifles and hounds for hunting deer. For hunting at Suggs Mill Pond, deer hunters must buy an over-the-counter permit for hunting with primitive weapons or apply for a lottery permit for modern firearms hunts.
Located in Cumberland and Harnett counties, the Fort Bragg U.S. Army Post has an intensive deer management and deer-hunting program. Fort Bragg has the highest potential for producing trophy bucks of any public hunting area in the coastal plain.
Hunters must attend Fort Bragg's mandatory hunter orientation and obtain the post's special hunting license. All hunters must check in and out and adhere to other protocols covered in the orientation class. All hunters, regardless of age, must have a hunter safety certificate.
In District 5, Alamance and Guilford led the abpsm harvest. These counties have large areas dedicated to timber and agriculture. In nearby Person County, Hyco Game Land's 4,229 acres produced 42 deer (17 fewer than in 2013-14), including 20 (nine fewer) antlered bucks.
Mayo Game Land's 7,128 acres produced 33 (six more) deer, including 21 (one more) antlered bucks. Both are accessible by land as well as water. At Caswell County's 17,198-acre R. Wayne Bailey-Caswell Game Land, hunters reported harvesting 217 deer including 120 antlered bucks.
In District 6, Mecklenburg and Anson counties led the abpsm category. Mecklenburg has comparatively little deer habitat. However, it has a high density of hunters. Pee Dee River Game Land is located in Anson, Montgomery, Richmond and Stanly counties and has 6,829 acres in tracts scattered along the river.
It has river access to the floodplain tracts and is one of the best game lands for producing trophy bucks in the piedmont. Pee Dee Game Land hunters harvested 94 (29 more) deer including 46 (11 more) antlered bucks.
Hunters should also check into permit hunts at Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge, which produces some nice bucks. While hunters must apply for gun hunt permits during the summer, the refuge hosts a December archery hunt.
Uwharrie Game Land is comprised of many tracts totaling 50,189 acres in Davidson, Montgomery and Randolph counties. Hunters reported harvesting 326 deer from Uwharrie, including 158 antlered bucks.
Sandhills Game Land, with 61,526 acres in Hoke, Moore, Richmond and Scotland counties, is open three days per week. Hunters took 151 deer from the game land, including 115 antlered bucks. It is a known hotspot for trophy deer, due to excellent soils that produce good antler quality.
In District 7, Alleghany and Forsyth counties topped the abpsm harvest. In Alleghany County, the New River corridor and adjoining farmlands and timberlands create exceptional buck habitat.
Located in Alleghany and Wilkes counties, the 6,403-acre Thurmond Chatham Game Land offers excellent trophy buck hunting due to its location adjoining to a state park that allows bucks to grow old. The game land produced 17 deer including 10 antlered bucks.
Forsyth has a dense human population center at Winston-Salem that produces high hunting pressure on the county's limited acreage of deer habitat. The Yadkin River and rolling hills near Belews Lake have ample undeveloped timberlands that produce excellent hunting for antlered bucks.
While there is no game land in Forsyth County, the 982-acre Perkins Game Land in Davie County is a good bet. Hunters took seven deer including four antlered bucks from Perkins.
In District 8, Gaston and Lincoln counties led the abpsm category. These two counties have high hunting pressure, resulting in high antlered buck harvests (considering their relatively small areas of huntable habitat). While Gaston and Lincoln counties have no game lands, Catawba Game Land has 1,099 acres along the Catawba River in Catawba County.
This game land produced 12 deer, including seven antlered bucks. Also located in District 8 is South Mountains Game Land. It has 19,942 acres in Burke, Cleveland, McDowell and Rutherford counties and produced 39 deer (seven more than in 2013-14) including 31 (16 more) antlered bucks.
Also in District 8, Pisgah Game Land, with 505,217 acres in Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Haywood, Henderson, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Transylvania, Watauga and Yancey counties produces plenty of deer. Pisgah hunters harvested 463 (62 more) deer, including 355 (72 more) antlered bucks.
In District 9, Polk and Madison led the abpsm harvest. Polk County is always the best buck-producing county in District 9 because it consists mainly of foothills habitat rather than the steeper mountain terrain of other district counties. The 14,308-acre Green River Game Land produced 69 (23 fewer) deer, including 45 (three fewer) antlered bucks. Madison County has lots of acreage in Pisgah Game Land.
In District 9, the highest deer harvest always comes from Nantahala Game Land, which has 528,782 acres in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Transylvania counties. Hunters harvested 476 (58 more) deer from Nantahala, including 420 (87 more) bucks.