Ohio hunters who thought their opinions didn't count got a bit of a surprise earlier this year. In January, the Division of Wildlife held "Deer Summits" in each of its five regional district offices. According to Dave Kohler, the agency's head of wildlife management and research, "The summits were designed to give hunters information on the condition and trends affecting Ohio's deer herd and to open the doors to better communications between agency personnel and the state's hunters."
During the summits, hunters were asked to provide their opinions on a number of deer-related questions. Shortly after that, the standard-procedure open houses at the districts and a statewide hearing held centrally also accepted public comment after the announcement of proposed regulations.
The final package includes reduced bag limits in most counties and removal of antlerless permits in all but 10 counties. No county had a bag increase and counties that allow larger bag limits and antlerless permits are urban counties that are still in need of population reduction.
The statewide bag limit was reduced from nine to six and an early October statewide antlerless-only muzzleloader season created two years ago was suspended, much to the delight of bowhunters who had to give up buck hunting during that season. One straight-walled cartridge rifle, the .450 marlin, was added to the existing list of legal hunting rifles during the deer-gun and youth deer-gun seasons.
THE STATEWIDE PICTURE
Across the state, hunters checked a total of 175,801 deer during all 2014-2015 hunting seasons. That's down from the 191,503 harvest during the 2013-2014 season.
According to Dr. Mike Tonkovich, the state's deer program administrator, the new bag limits and removal of antlerless permits should have the desired effect on this year's harvest and on the future of the deer population. Tonkovich and fellow deer biologist Clint McCoy agree that barring weather anomalies, this year's harvest should be down 4 to 7 percent, with more of the pressure being taken off does.
McCoy said, "Even though last year's harvest was down 8 percent from the previous year, our buck harvest was only down 2 percent, so the difference was less antlerless harvest, which was our intent."
Although the early muzzleloader season won't be a part of this year's package, the state added an additional two days of gun hunting on Dec. 28 and 29, leaving some hunters to question whether that change by itself won't increase this year's harvest.
Tonkovich, however, says the two extra gun hunting days shouldn't have the impact people might expect.
"Additional days simply disperse pressure, which ultimately lowers hunter success. We know more hunters in the woods move more deer, which makes for an increased harvest," he said. "On top of that, people are hunting differently — they don't move, they don't drive, even during gun season they hunt pretty much like they do during archery season."
McCoy notes that about 6,000 deer were taken during the early muzzleloader season last year, but all were antlerless, which won't be the case during the extra gun days. Less pressure on antlerless deer will help stabilize the herd in some areas and encourage growth in others.
The wildlife agency's annual deer hunter survey indicated a continuing decline of interest in gun seasons. Participation during Ohio's traditional seven-day gun season last year went down from 79 to 69 percent of respondents and muzzleloader participation went from 41 to 33 percent. In contrast, archery increased from 79 to 82 percent. Archers accounted for 81,650 of the 175,801 deer taken in the state.
WHERE TO FIND THE BEST HUNTING
The Ohio counties that reported the most checked deer during the 2014-2015 season were Coshocton (5,727), Licking (5,281), Tuscarawas (4,883), Muskingum (4,748), Ashtabula (4,418), Knox (4,191), Guernsey (4,181), Holmes (3,625), Harrison (3,448) and Carroll (3,406).
Coshocton County also reported the most deer harvested in 2013-2014 (6,270). Coshocton, Licking, Tuscarawas and Muskingum had been in the top five the year before and Ashtabula moved up from sixth place the previous year.
"As always, eastern and southeastern Ohio will offer the best opportunities simply because there's more habitat and because there is the most public land there," said Tonkovich.
CENTRAL — WILDLIFE DISTRICT ONE
Central Ohio is prime deer habitat.
"A mixture of woodlots, thickets, pasture, and row crops such as corn and soybeans provide the key ingredients to grow a healthy and relatively high-density deer herd," said Gary L. Comer, Jr., Assistant Wildlife Management Supervisor for the wildlife agency.
Comer says that while there are limited public land opportunities in this region, hunters do enjoy success each year on the three main wildlife areas (WAs), which are Big Island, Delaware, and Deer Creek.
While it's past the application period for this year (applications were due by July 31), interested hunters should think ahead about applying next year for the controlled hunts at the Transportation Research Center located in Logan and Union counties.
Comer says these hunts provide quality access to hundreds of acres of private property that receive very little hunting pressure. For more information, see the controlled hunting & trapping events section at www.wildohio.gov or contact the regional Wildlife District office.
NORTHWEST — WILDLIFE DISTRICT TWO
The Division of Wildlife's acting communications manager John Windau says Northwest Ohio's abundant croplands provide an excellent food source for deer, although a few areas seem to stand out because of the high quality food and increased cover.
For example, the area where Crawford, Richland, and Huron counties converge seems to consistently produce above-average sized deer. Most of this area is in private ownership; however, Willard Wildlife Area is located in the muck farming region, next to several vegetable farms. The highly fertile soils of the area produce thick woods, marshes, and brushy areas for deer to hide and feed. For public lands well worth the visit try Killdeer Plains in Wyandot County and Resthaven in Erie County.
NORTHEAST — WILDLIFE DISTRICT THREE
Communications specialist Jamey Emmert said an overlooked wildlife area offering lots of deer — and public land on which to pursue them — is Highlandtown Wildlife Area in Columbiana County, about 8 miles south of Lisbon.
This isn't the easiest wildlife area to access due to serpentine roadways leading to it, but according to Emmert, it's well worth the drive.
"Steeply rolling terrain mixed with flat hilltops and valleys make for an excellent combination. Deer can be located in the abundant brushy cover, cutover timber stands, pines, and heavily wooded areas. A bonus is the fact that additional public hunting is available on the adjacent Yellow Creek State Forest. Two tracts in excess of 400 total acres sit west and north of the wildlife area," she said.
The well-known Grand River Wildlife Area, in Trumbull County, recently grew by an additional 65 acres. The new parcel, accessible from Brigden Road, adjoins the existing wildlife area. The habitat consists of dense, bottomland hardwoods offering terrific habitat for whitetails. Emmert noted that hunters who scored a draw for the popular controlled hunt at Ravenna Arsenal in Portage County will be in for excellent chances.
"Plenty of jaw-dropping bucks are taken each year and it's not uncommon for a hunting partner to have success harvesting does," she said.
SOUTHEAST — WILDLIFE DISTRICT FOUR
According to Jim Hill, district wildlife management supervisor, the 39 wildlife areas in this region offer many quality deer hunting opportunities.
"Certainly, our highest deer densities are to the north; however, our numbers are strong throughout. To the north, I would suggest Woodbury (19,202 acres), Tri-Valley (15,181 acres) and Egypt Valley (17,327 acres)," said Hill.
He adds that all three WAs were previously surface mined and are reverting to a great mix of deer habitat, meaning a hunter will encounter thickets, hardwood forests and cropland on all three.
"In the central part of the district, I would suggest Waterloo (2,696 acres), Wolf Creek (3,911 acres) and O'Dowd (6,696 acres). These are much more wooded wildlife areas but the forest stands have multiple oak species mixed throughout," he said.
When acorns are available, hunters would be wise to first seek out those falling from white and chestnut oaks.
To the south, Hill recommends Cooper Hollow (5,744 acres) and Crown City (11,120 acres) as excellent choices. Cooper Hollow is much more wooded but in many areas has a high percentage of oak in the forest stand. Much of Crown City was surface mined and — like Woodbury, Tri-Valley and Egypt Valley — has a good mix of grassland, brush land and forest.
For those wanting to hike in to get away from crowds, Hill suggests the American Electric Power (AEP) ReCreation Lands (about 60,000 acres) in Morgan Muskingum and Noble Counties. Check on obtaining a free permit to hunt there at www.aep.com/environment/conservation/recland/.
Hill also recommends the three units of the Wayne National Forest which amount to nearly 242, 000 acres.
"Last but certainly not least, the Zaleski State Forest, which is contiguous with the Waterloo WA is 28,000 acres. I would especially recommend this option to those wishing to get off the beaten path and find a remote area to hunt," said Hill.
For people who like to hunt in the hill country of Ohio, Assistant Wildlife Management Supervisor for the regional office, Bruce Terrill, recommends the 4,254 acre Tranquility Wildlife Area in Adams County.
The area has a good mix of forest and brushland with pockets of grassland and agriculture spread throughout. This, combined with the varied terrain, should lead most hunters to find a preferred place to hunt.
"Paint Creek Wildlife Area in Highland and Ross Counties may be more appealing to those who favor hunting river bottoms and agricultural areas," said Terrill.
He added, "This 5,090-acre wildlife area lies at the north end of Paint Creek Lake with about one third of the area in meadow and grain crops and the remainder equally split between woodlands and reverting fields. For those who wish to extend their hunting trip, camping and some additional hunting are available at the adjacent Paint Creek State Park."
It's a good idea to study the wildlife area maps prior to a visit. For information on wildlife areas, hunting regulations, licenses and permits visit wildohio.gov.
FOR THE FUTURE
The Division of Wildlife is adopting a new goal-setting process for deer populations.
Tonkovich said, "The new process will move us away from a static goal, to a much more "interactive" goal-setting process. For this year's regulations, we're relying on comments people have made at public meetings in addition to what we know about the biology of the herd."
For the future, they will be surveying both hunters and landowners; the deer hunter portion of the survey will go out in November and the farmer attitude survey goes out in September. Results from these surveys will be used in setting regulations for 2016.
Tonkovich believes that given where they've been (the deer harvest peaked in 2009) most hunters will want more deer.
"At the same time, we're anticipating farmers may be a bit more positive about deer given that populations have been reduced to goal levels in most areas. So, the regulations we've put into place reflect our belief that people want to see a lesser harvest. Next January when we get the results of the new surveys, I believe it will confirm this and tell us to stay the course. I would anticipate 2016 regulations to be very similar to what you're seeing this year," he said.