Temperatures are falling, days are shortening and hunters are invading the woods. Every year, there are new regulation changes and impacts on the deer herds that all come into play to determine the success of hunters.
The last couple years have been rough on both deer and deer hunters across the country. From Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) to severe winter kills, deer numbers have been down in many places. But on a positive note, lower densities mean more space and resources for the deer which could lead to bigger bucks. So what is the deer hunting outlook for your area this season?
From Maine to Pennsylvania, the Northeast is not necessarily known for producing giant bucks as much as it is known for heavy-pressured hunting and deep-rooted traditions. For many in this area, it’s about being afield with friends and family. Though just like anywhere, the pursuit for a “Big Woods Giant” is always on. Growing up in Pennsylvania, the opening day of gun season for deer was a holiday, literally.
Schools and many blue-collar jobs were closed the Monday after Thanksgiving as nearly a million deer hunters headed into “Penn’s Woods.” I spent some time in the woods of Pennsylvania recently, and talked to some of the hunters to see what they have been seeing.
The acorns have been really abundant in many areas, and as crops continue to be harvested, deer will hone in on this as the primary food source. Reports are that some big bucks have been seen in Pennsylvania, so it should be a good year.
Just to the North, New York state deer biologist, Jeremy Hurst, points out that many areas in central and western New York are above desired deer densities.
“In these areas, the Department of Environmental Conservation is urging hunters to focus on antlerless harvests,” he said.
It is important to take your time and make sure to harvest a doe. Often a single, antlerless deer roaming about will be a button buck. Also again this year, crossbows will be allowed with some restrictions.
In Delaware, a healthy and abundant deer population will attribute to hunters being able to harvest up to two bucks and an unlimited number of antlerless deer. Deer and furbearer biologist, Joe Rogerson adds, “Hunters in Delaware will have ample opportunities to hunt deer in Delaware, both in terms of time and areas. At five months, the statewide deer season is one of the longest of any state in the country and within each of Delaware's 18 Wildlife Management Zones hunters can find at least one public hunting area.”
Gun hunters can also find nearly eight weeks of shotgun or muzzleloader opportunities at some point during the season.
Further up the Eastern seaboard, hunters can expect excellent deer hunting opportunities in Massachusetts. State deer and moose biologist, David Stainbrook, states, “The biological data our staff collects each year suggests a well-balanced age structure of deer, which means there are plenty of quality mature bucks out there statewide. Additionally, with a little leg-work and door-knocking, hunters can find areas with high deer numbers in eastern parts of Massachusetts where public hunting access is limited.”
Massachusetts also emphasizes that hunters can seamlessly check in their archery or primitive weapon harvest online, rather than brought to a check station.
“Last year (2013), over 70 percent of deer harvested during archery and primitive weapons seasons were checked online, rather than brought to a checkstation,” adds Stainbrook.
As the perennial “big buck powerhouse” area, the Midwest is always held at the highest of expectations. But in recent years, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) threats and EHD outbreaks have put a hurting on the local herds. In addition, average harvests in 2012 coupled with the massive EHD outbreak led to a dramatic drop in herd numbers, which was reflected in long-time harvest lows in 2013 for many states, including Illinois and Missouri.
But as many hunters “harp on” the outcomes of seasons past, it’s time to look at the bright future. Bright? Without a doubt! With more space and resources available to the deer that are left roaming the landscape, the ability to reach maximum genetic potential exists … all they need is time to age.
With 2012 being the big EHD outbreak year, any two-year-old buck still alive is entering this season four years old. In most areas of the Midwest, that means they have likely reached 95-plus percent of their total antler potential. So there are likely some giants running around this year.
From a forecast standpoint, the total harvest in Ohio will be down 5 to 7 percent this year, according to Mike Tonkovich, Deer Program Administrator for Ohio DNR.
“The reason for this is two-fold: The population is down slightly, but mostly the reduction is due to regulatory changes designed to protect antlerless deer with the hope of stabilizing populations in many areas of the state,” Tonkovich said.
To exercise this decision, Ohio DNR disallowed the use of the reduced-cost $15 antlerless permit in 29 counties. Hunters are strongly encouraged to visit the Ohio DNRwebsite before buying those permits to be sure they are valid in the county they intend to hunt. Ohio also did legalize a limited number of straight-walled cartridge rifles for use during the statewide and youth firearms seasons.
In Indiana, it is actually shaping up to be a quiet year. Not necessarily in hunter success, but mainly there are no major rule changes taking effect this year, and better yet, no EHD to report for 2014.
“The deer herd is down from previous highs, but plenty of deer remain in the southern part of the state,” states Chad Stewart, Deer Program Coordinator for the Indiana DNR. “Hunters in the North can expect continued lower numbers, with some places obviously worse than others.”
Like much of the Midwest, there are lots of reports of oaks producing abundant acorns.
Kevin Wallenfang, Big Game Specialist for Wisconsin DNR, encourages deer hunters to check out the DNR’s website because there are a lot of new changed going on for 2014.
“We’ve got low deer numbers primarily in the northernmost part of the state, with good to excellent numbers elsewhere,” Wallenfang said.
One of the biggest changes is the new crossbow season that runs concurrently with the archery season, however, it does require a separate permit than the normal archery tag.
Missouri was one of the hardest hit states during the 2012 EHD outbreak. Because some areas were hit harder than others, deer populations vary within the state going into this season.
“Generally speaking, populations in northern, central, and western Missouri have had population declines as a result of regulations to increase antlerless harvest and hemorrhagic disease outbreaks,” states Emily Flinn, Deer Biologist with Missouri Department of Conservation. “These combined have caused populations in some areas to decline below desired levels.”
In response, Missouri has reduced the number of firearms antlerless permits to allow populations to gradually increase to acceptable levels.
Probably the most underrated area for deer hunting, the South has been the sleeping giant for recent whitetail hunting. From the river bottoms of Mississippi and Louisiana to the coastal plains of North and South Carolina, the South, without a doubt, has one main thing going for it … age. In order for a buck to get big, they have to get old. With lower hunter densities than most of the Midwest and Northeast, the South seems to hold more mature deer.
Virginia is typically a pretty consistent state in terms of deer hunting regulation changes, but 2014 brings one very big change – Sunday hunting! Something I’m sure many deer hunters will thoroughly enjoy with an extra day to try and get afield. Much of the state sits at a low to average deer densities.
“The 14-percent increase in the fall 2013 deer kill was unexpected and probably related to the statewide hard mast failure,” states Matt Knox, Deer Biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. This year hunters should expect a more “average” harvest.
“We are expecting another year of 200,000-plus deer being harvested,” said Cory Gray, Deer Program Coordinator with Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. “Arkansas experienced a very mild summer with plenty of rainfall, so the vegetation remained palatable with anticipated high fawn recruitment rates.”
Last year was the first time Arkansas hunters checked more females than males, which as the buck to doe ratio balances, hunters may experience more intense rutting activity.
“The good spring and summer rainfall statewide has improved habitat conditions over some of the dry years experienced in recent years, and should result in increased recruitment and deer health,” states Scott Durham, Deer Program Manager for Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Like most years in the South, EHD cases have been reported, but would be considered “normal.”
Charles Ruth, South Carolina DNR’s Deer and Turkey Program Coordinator states, “South Carolina's deer harvest trends have declined over the last decade in most areas of the state.” He goes on to add, “In addition to extremely liberal antlerless deer harvests in the past, other factors like habitat change related to forest management, and coyote predation on deer fawns have played a role in this reduction.”
Deer densities remain high in most parts of the state, and hunter success rates are approaching 70 percent in recent years.
In Oklahoma, mild summer weather and timely rains have brought much needed relief too much of the state.
“Field reports from spotlight counts are showing deer numbers have increased from last year,” adds Erik Bartholomew, Big Game Biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Persimmons and other soft mast are looking good as well this year, which can be very productive during early season hunting.
Persimmons are a great early season source of food to hunt over. They are only attractive to deer for a short time, so when it is timed right, it can lead to a great harvest opportunity.
Reports from the coast to the mountains in North Carolina seem to indicate that many areas have experienced strong acorn and wild grape production this year. Evin Stanford, Deer Biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission adds, “That means hunters hunting over large agricultural fields, food plots, and/or bait piles may see fewer deer than in typical years, unless they focus their hunting efforts in forested areas where deer are foraging on these food sources.”
One of the few states reporting at least a moderate level of hemorrhagic disease, the counties in the eastern and northern piedmont counties are most likely to see the disease.
Last season in Georgia, the DNR implemented a reduction in the number of either-sex days for most of the state.
“This was the first reduction of antlerless hunting opportunity in over a decade, and despite the reduction, harvest increased for both bucks and does in the 2013-14 season,” states Charlie Killmaster, State Deer Biologist for the Georgia DNR. “Unless we see a big boost in fawn recruitment this year, I expect hunters to see reduced deer sightings this coming season,” he adds.
The Georgia DNR is currently working on a new long-term deer management plan, which contains some great action items that will be very beneficial to hunters, including a harvest reporting system and potential deer management assistance program.
In Alabama, the daily bag limit for antlerless deer during the gun season was reduced to one antlerless deer per day for a portion of north Alabama prior to the 2013-14 hunting season. Chris Cook, Deer Studies Project Leader, adds, “Much of the justification for reducing the bag limit was based on declining deer harvests and observations by both hunters and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries staff in the region.”
For the 2014-15 season, the daily bag limit during the antlerless deer gun, muzzleloader, bow and arrow, spear, and special youth (under 16) seasons will be one antlerless deer per day in addition to one antlered buck per day.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Deer Biologist, Cory Morea, states, “A new antler regulation was implemented in Hunting Zone D, in order to protect 1 ½-year-old bucks.”
Other zones are also under consideration by the Commission as well.
The 2014 deer season and is shaping up to be a good one, but hunters will have to work to fill out their tag in many areas. From low herd numbers to “bumper” acorn crops, the deer sightings may be low. But after many having a disappointing 2013, things can only get better from here!
For more information about the “Bone Collector" guys, check out their show page. Or follow their 2014 season on their official Facebook page.
For more information about the “Bone Collector"guys, check out their show page. Or follow their 2014 season on their official Facebook page.