Final preparations are under way as deer hunters scout and hang stands on their favorite stomping grounds, or narrow their search for productive new areas in their quest to put venison on the table and arrange a trip to their favorite taxidermist. A review of last season's harvest data in comparison with previous years is a good place to start such a quest.
One of the biggest changes that may have an indirect bearing on deer seasons in Tennessee is the promotion of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Big Game Coordinator Daryl Ratajczak. The man who has been in charge of deer hunting statewide for the past few years is now the TWRA Chief of Game. So this will likely be his last time to tell us about other developments impacting deer hunters in the Volunteer State for a coming season.
"The biggest change in deer regulations for 2011 will be a change in the modern firearms season," Ratajczak said. "We're going to run a continuous modern gun season from the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and run straight through to January 1st. The juvenile hunt will follow on the first weekend in January."
The TWRA's justifications for the dramatic season change are focused on hunter satisfaction.
"There has been numerous public comments over the years that people want hunt with a firearm during the peak of the rut," Ratajczak said. "Some were concerned that the peak of the rut was during the December archery season in West Tennessee. What we propose is that the seasons will be: archery, muzzleloader, gun and done. The seasons used to go back and forth quite a bit between different weapon types."
Other recommendations are increasing antlerless opportunities. Benton and Hardin counties will move into Unit L, and Ratajczak noted that there will be several more opportunities in Unit A counties. Since the regulations are numerous in Unit A, Ratajczak recommended that hunters refer to the TWRA's Hunting Guide or their web site, www.tnwildlife.org, for up-to-date season and bag limit changes.
"It's not necessarily whitetails," Ratajczak said, "but we're going to have our first ever red deer season in January in Claiborne County. The red deer are a non-native species, so we want the people who own land there to kill any red deer they see. We want them to wipe them out."
The change in the whitetail archery season in December will impact other species, too.
"Since we are eliminating the December archery season," Ratajczak added, "we are moving the fall turkey season to October."
So what does he see for the coming hunting season?
"For the past few seasons we have held steady, so it would be tough to waiver," Ratajczak said. "If you look at the harvest for the past four seasons, we were only off by one or two percent in our predictions."
That would mean the season will be par for the course, totaling a kill of between 160,000 and 165,000 deer.
Ratajczak's prediction for last season was for harvest numbers to stay level, and they practically did. The overall harvest climbed .06 percent from 161,829 in 2009, to 162,811 last season.
The antlered buck harvest fell 4.63 percent last season, from 83,555 to 79,859. The doe harvest climbed 5.72 percent from 68,079 to 72,213. Button buck harvest grew 5.33 percent and antlerless buck harvest grew 4.18 percent. If the two categories for bucks without antlers were combined, the group showed a 5.34 percent increase over the previous year.
Deer hunter participation remained level.
Giles County has been a top producer for many years, with 1988 being the first season that this county topped the 5,000 mark for deer killed. It still ranks in the top spot, even though the total harvest dropped nearly two percent. The antlered harvest dropped just under one percent, and the doe harvest dropped 1.25 percent.
Henry County's total harvest of 5,055 was just 22 animals greater than the previous season, but Fayette and Hardeman counties' drop in harvest numbers last season propelled it into the second slot statewide. Fayette County climbed one slot, from its No. 4 ranking, by posting 4,699 deer killed. Hardeman County dropped in harvest to 4,635 deer killed, compared to 5,033 the previous season. Lincoln County maintained its fifth position by climbing slightly to 4,378 deer killed. Franklin and Montgomery counties maintained their sixth and seventh spots, respectively, by recording 3,664 and 3,492 deer taken. Weakley and Madison counties swapped the ninth and tenth positions. Weakley recorded 3,392, and Madison County hunters tagged 3,259 deer.
Carroll, McNairy, Wayne, Lawrence and Hickman counties again occupied the eleventh through fifteenth spots. The first three of this group maintained their positions, while Lawrence and Hickman swapped.
Of special significance, Bedford, Rutherford and Wilson counties topped the 2,000-mark for the first time last season. Moore and Davidson also topped the 1,000-mark for deer tagged for the first time last season, too.
On a regional basis, the TWRA Region 1 in West Tennessee has taken the top spot among the regions for the last four years. A total of 52,574 deer were taken, which were augmented by the top rankings of such counties as Hardeman, Henry, Fayette, Madison and Weakley, respectively. These five counties account for almost 40 percent of the region's total, with a tally of 20,991.
In Region II, Giles continues to be the champion in regards to deer harvest. Other powerhouse counties lending a hand in racking up harvest numbers were Lincoln, Franklin, Maury and Montgomery. These five counties in Region II reported 20,030, or more than 35 percent of the region's total.
Last season's Smith County rise in the ranks can be credited to being moved into Unit L in 2009, when 2,598 deer killed. Last season, Smith County's harvest leveled off and dropped slightly to 2,548. The number of bucks killed in Smith County only fell 10 animals, to 1,077.
Wilson County had a dramatic rise, posting 2,027 last season compared to 1,774 in 2009, and the number of bucks shot rose from 915 to 1,043 last season.
Moving eastward into Region III, Roane County's harvest was up slightly from 2009 numbers, with 49 more whitetails bagged last season. The number of bucks killed fell slightly by 26 to a total of 1,160.
Cumberland County's total harvest dropped to 1,726, and Jackson's was up slightly, to a total of 1,912. Climbing into the third spot in Region III, Rhea County posted 1,921 deer killed. Hamilton County's overall harvest grew to 1,885 last season and it managed to maintain its fifth place ranking for Region III.
"I expect to see the Region III deer harvest increase by around a 1,000 deer in the 2011 season," said Ben Layton, TWRA the region big game biologist. "This increase will be likely due to good a acorn crop we had in most of Region III last year and the wetter than usual summer.
"With the good acorn crop, does should be in good physical condition at fawning time, browse conditions should be good for fawn rearing and survival," he continued. "Last year the best acorn crops were on the upper Cumberland Plateau. The southeastern part of the region did not have quite as good acorn crop. Harvest in this southeast section was up significantly in 2010 and harvest on the upper plateau was down. We will likely see this trend reverse in the 2011 season."
Hawkins County continues to be the deer harvest leader in Region IV with a kill of 2,250, which is down 10.1 percent from the year before. In 2009 the harvest was 2,503. Even more shocking was the 20.2 percent decrease in bucks killed. The East Tennessee county is an anomaly for east of Nashville. Despite the drop, Hawkins' high deer harvest is astounding in that it is still in Unit B.
Sullivan County ranked second in Region IV with 1,645, and passed Claiborne County, which saw a harvest of 1,407 last season. The fourth slot goes to Johnson County with 1,270 deer shot, and the fifth spot goes to Carter County with a total 1,046 taken last season.
Sullivan County's buck harvest took a nose-dive, too. Last season the kill dropped 20.2 percent, but the doe harvest rose 49 percent.
TOP WMA AND PUBLIC LANDS
In general, 2010 was an up year for public-land deer harvest. The statewide figure grew 9 percent, for a total of 5,666.
Hunter participation overall has declined over the past several seasons. It's likely that the economic downturn of the past couple of years has forced some deer hunters to give up memberships in their hunting clubs. The net result is that instead of giving up deer hunting, they moved their pursuits to public hunting areas.
Not surprising, among WMAs the Cherokee National Forest led the way, producing 546 deer in 2010. That was up for the second year in a row, from 479 in 2009. This reigning WMA champ is comprised of two massive units that total 625,000 acres. When you do the math, this area produced just one deer per 1,144 acres. That's just one deer killed per two square miles.
By just holding steady, Cherokee retained honors as the top producing WMA.
Land Between the Lakes WMA made a real leap last season. It climbed into the second slot by checking a total of 498 whitetails. Of that number, 297 were bucks and 167 were does. LBL's climb amounted to a 17 percent climb in antlered bucks and 70 percent jump in doe harvest.
Cross Creeks National Wildlife Refuge also jumped in the ranks by producing 382 deer. The antlered harvest remained exactly the same, with 69 bucks killed, but the doe harvest really jumped. Hunters put 275 does, 35 button bucks and three other antlerless bucks on the ground. That compares to 203 does, 24 button bucks and three antlerless bucks in the bag the previous season.
The AEDC WMA produced 296 whitetails last season, dropping it to the fifth spot in our top 10 list. In the fourth position among WMAs was Land Between the Lakes with 379 deer harvested. LBL was down 21 percent from the previous year's harvest.
Following close on the heels of Cross Creeks NWR was Oak Ridge WMA, which posted 358 deer killed last season, which was one less than the year before.
The AEDC fell several positions. The AEDC buck harvest dropped nearly 50 percent.
Catoosa WMA ranked next among with a total of 286 deer harvested.
Yanahli WMA joined Cross Creeks NWR as a big gainers in the top 10 WMAs last season. Yanahli's harvest regained some ground, as expected for an area that sits within the county with the highest harvest statewide. Yanahli produced 270 deer, with 113 being antlered bucks. Yanahli WMA harvests had suffered after the sharp dip in reported deer kills following the EHD die off four years ago.
The No. 9 patch of public land is newcomer to the list. The Natchez Trace WMA, which is located in the state forest of the same name and located in the western end of the state, leapt into this elite group. For the seasons hunters brought in 190 whitetails on the WMA. Of those deer, 47 were antlered bucks.
Although the Tennessee NWR didn't make the top 10 list in harvest in 2009, it did climb into the top 10 as predicted in this report last year. The total harvest edged up slightly to 190 deer, with the gain made by harvesting antlerless deer.
Several of the smaller WMAs posted dramatic drops in deer harvest last season, but their low harvest numbers look worse when comparing percentages. Generally speaking, overall buck hunting improved 3.73 percent, and doe harvest picked up 14.5 percent last season. Whatever the reason for the climb in harvest numbers on public areas in Tennessee, things should get even better this season.