Deer Forecast

The general consensus among Southern deer specialists is that more does need to be killed to manage the herds and grow larger bucks. As a result, many states are jumping on the quality deer management bandwagon by implementing stricter guidelines for shooting bucks. In states where QDM practices have already been enforced, hunters are pleased with the results. More big bucks are being harvested than ever before. Overall, Dixie hunters should expect only a few changes from last season, notably more opportunities to shoot antlerless deer and extended bow seasons in some states.

ALABAMA

State wildlife officials blunted attempts by legislators to extend deer season into February and allow hunting near supplemental feeders, but changes include the use of crossbows and scopes on muzzleloaders.

Crossbows will be allowed for the first time from October 15 to January 31. A five-day primitive-weapons season, which includes muzzleloaders and crossbows, will run November 15-19, with gun season opening November 20 and including all weapons.

State whitetail biologist Chris Cook says a record number (507,800) of deer were killed during the 2002-03 season, the last for which figures are available. That includes an estimated 258,978 bucks and 248,822 does, based on mail surveys of hunters, from an estimated herd of 1.75 million.

Ample rainfall last spring contributed to abundant forage, with hunters reporting fewer deer feeding in planted fields. That may happen again, as a warm winter and decent spring rainfall led to an early greening.

"An abundance of food other than food plots, including both browse and mast, kept deer off most food plots for much of the season and made hunting these areas unproductive," Cook says.

Contact: Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (334-242-3465; www.outdooralabama.com).

ARKANSAS

Buck harvest increased 11 percent last season from the 2002-03 totals, with approximately 74,960 bucks killed from the 108,476 total deer reported to state officials, says state whitetail biologist Cory Gray.

Doe harvest dropped 43 percent statewide, and 44 percent fewer deer were taken with muzzleloaders than during the previous season. This drop is believed to be the result of a shift in season dates.

"Doe harvest dropped because of a statewide bag limit reduction to one," Gray says. "In years past hunters could kill up to four does. In some areas, the does were being overharvested."

Hunting over bait will be prohibited from January 15 to February 15. Gray says wildlife commissioners considered ending bow season earlier since food sources were scarce at that time.

"Instead of reducing bow season, they just decided to reduce the baiting," Gray says.

Contact: Game and Fish Commission (800-364-4263; www.agfc.state.ar.us).

FLORIDA

Ten public hunting areas will require bucks to have at least three points per side to be legal, including the new Box R Ranch WMA in Franklin County.

Eight areas will switch to the three-point rule, including the following WMAs: Bluewater Creek, the Hutton Unit of the Blackwater, Flint Rock, Camp Blanding, Halfmoon, Hilochee, Hickory Hammock and DuPuis WEA. The Dexter Mary Farm Unit of the Lake George WMA was opened last season and began with the three-point restriction. Statewide surveys have been in favor of the changes.

"Half the hunters wanted some sort of QDM rule and half didn't," says state deer management leader John Morgan. "So the commissioners decided not to change the statewide rule."

"In Florida a forked-antler rule protects about two thirds of our yearlings," says Morgan. "A three-point rule protects about ninety percent of the yearlings."

Morgan says commissioners felt it was worth changing only some WMAs after evidence showed the forked-antler restriction produced an increase in survival rates of young bucks.

Antlerless deer harvest increased by about 10 percent in the 2002-03 season, the last for which figures are available.

Contact: Fish and Wildlife Commission (850-488-3831; www.myfwc.com).

GEORGIA

Another good year is expected on the heels of last season's 18 percent increase in the harvest totals, especially with hunters continuing to take advantage of antlerless opportunities.

More than 61 percent of the 484,000 deer killed last year were does, a 14 percent increase from the previous season. Buck harvest rose by 25 percent to 188,000, but with 10 antlerless deer allowed this year (along with two bucks), numbers should continue to increase.

"The buck increase was because we were in the second year of antler restrictions," says state whitetail leader Kent Kammermeyer. "One of the two bucks hunters may kill must have at least four points on one side. Also, in autumn of 2002 we had a tremendous amount of rain, and that depressed the antlered buck kill."

Head to the Piedmont region, which produced more than half of all the deer killed in the state, including 165,400 does. Two Boone and Crockett bucks were killed in Hancock County last season, the first book deer recorded there. Hancock has about 35 deer per square mile, according to Kammermeyer, and is one of nine QDM counties in which both bucks a hunter may kill must have four points or better on each side.

The southwestern Flint and Chattahoochee river drainages are traditionally strong areas, with county QDM restrictions assisting fertile soils and Wisconsin-strain genetics.

Contact: Department of Natural Resources (770-918-6400; www.gadnr.org).

KENTUCKY

Forty bucks made the B&C book last season, a state record and a testament to Kentucky's restrictive buck limit of one per season.

Of the top 15 counties, 8 were in the Bluegrass Region. The harvest was led by Owen County, where hunters killed 1,720 bucks and 2,094 does. Statewide, 116,540 deer were reported via mandatory telephone check-in, with the number adjusted to about 150,000 to account for reporting noncompliance.

Does in the mountainous Zone 4 portion of the state are protected from either-sex hunting. This year it's bucks-only during the modern gun and early muzzleloading seasons.

"These counties still have a young deer herd that is heavily mast dependent," says state big-game coordinator Jonathan Day. "We take a more cautious approach there because overharvest can occur. The Boone and Crockett Club deer come from all over the state, primarily due to great soils, great genetics and the one-buck limit, which allows them to age."

Archery season opens statewide September 4, one of the earliest dates in the South.

Contact: Department of Fish and Wildlife (800-858-1549; www.kdfwr.state.ky.us).

LOUISIANA

The amount of time hunters spent in the field and the statewide harvest numbers both decreased. However, the numbers were up slightly for the popular either-sex hunts.

Deer from four state WMAs--Fort Polk, Union, Jackson-Bienville and Sherburne--were examined to check forage preferences. The study indicated that red oak mast was predominant. State whitetail biologist Dave Moreland says findings of white oak mast were low, with reports across the state showing poor white oak production and moderate red oak mast production affecting antler development.

Sherburne WMA saw 104 deer killed on December 6-7 in an either-sex hunter's-choice hunt. Sherburne WMA will have a six-point-or-better antler restriction this season, joining surrounding parishes, which have been participating in a data-gathering program over the last three seasons.

Two other popular areas, the Red River WMA and Three Rivers WMA, offer Mississippi River bottomland hardwoods that flood regularly but produce deer. Last season 458 were killed during Thanksgiving weekend.

Contact: Department of Fish and Wildlife (225-765-2346; www.wlf.state.la.us).

MISSISSIPPI

Bucks now must have a 12- or 15-inch inside spread on 31 of the state's 46 public WMAs, with the latter restriction applying to those in the fertile Mississippi River Delta.

Magnolia State bucks have been protected by a four-point rule since 1995, but concerns about high-grading young deer and statewide support from hunters helped spark the change.

"The new restrictions are based on the soil physiographic regions," says state deer project leader William McKinley. "Deer are highly variable depending on the dirt they're growing on, and the Delta has some of the most fertile soil in the Southeast. It's not for trophy management; it's to improve the age structure on the WMAs and the buck-doe ratio on specific WMAs."

Monster bucks were taken in Yazoo and Madison counties last year, including a heavy-tined 14-pointer killed by Jeff Saik of Jackson, Miss. It pushed 300 pounds on the hoof and was rough-scored at 156 6/8. A new state non-typical archery record from Adams County, taken by Tracy Laird of Natchez, scored 236 1/8.

Other changes include the addition of five days of youth deer hunting, beginning the Saturday prior to the start of firearms season. It is open to anyone age 15 or younger.

Contact: Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (601-432-2400; www.mdwfp.com).

NORTH CAROLINA

Hurricane Isabel and the lingering effects of an extensive hemorrhagic disease outbreak in 2002 affected the northeastern and coastal plains regions the last two seasons.

Harvest numbers dropped because people were recovering from the September hurricane's devastation, says state deer study leader Evin Stanford.

Compared to the 2002 season, the harvest was up approximately 13.8 percent, says Stanford. More than 134,500 antlered bucks and 51,200 does were reported last season, along with 6,844 "button bucks."

At the annual Dixie Deer Classic this spring, Keith Wright's 13-point, 170 2/8 typical from Moore County led the division honors. In the non-typical division, William Ivey Jr. bagged top honors with a 183 2/8 non-typical killed in Union County.

Contact: Wildlife Resources Commission (919-733-7291; www.ncwildlife.org).

SOUTH CAROLINA

It was status quo last season, reports state deer leader Charles Ruth, with more does killed than bucks for the second straight year.

Hunter surveys show 273,504 deer killed, 135,797 of them bucks. That's good, Ruth says, as officials hope to continue efforts to maintain or reduce the overall population.

"Our population leveled off in the mid-1990s and is holding its own," he said. "We're trying to moderate it a little more. If we're killing more does than bucks we're doing a good job."

South Carolina's deer population, estimated at 900,000, is enormous for such a small state. Season harvest was down slightly last year, Ruth says, but it could rebound to about 300,000 with favorable conditions and continued antlerless harvest.

Contact: Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (803-734-3886; www.dnr.state.sc.us).

TENNESSEE

Unit L stands for "liberal" for 25 middle Tennessee counties in an expansion of an experimental antlerless harvest program that saw population numbers drop by about 8 percent last year.

Hunters will be able to kill three does per day and three bucks during the season in the newly formed Unit L. The season buck limit has been reduced to two in Unit B, the mountainous east Tennessee region. The statewide youth weekend is set for January 15-16 and the opening day of muzzleloader season has been moved to the first Saturday in November.

"We need to cut back some of those deer populations, and since no state is increasing in hunter numbers the only way to do it is through bag limits," says Daryl Ratajczak, state big-game coordinator.

Muzzleloading continued to increase, Ratajczak says. Mandatory tagging requirements show the total jumped to 38,291 last season, almost 6,500 more deer than in 2002-03.

Contact: The Wildlife Resources Agency (615-781-6610; www.state.tn.us/twra).

TEXAS

State deer biologist Mitch Lockwood says favorable conditions the last few years have resulted in healthier populations across the board.

"Many ranchers whom I work with in the Edwards Plateau suggest that this is the best spring in more than twenty years," Lockwood says. "I expect these conditions to positively impact antler and fawn production. We always like to see good fawn production, because it indicates healthy conditions within the habitat and, thus, the deer population."

Ample forage created by the rainfall has pushed many hunters away from supplemental feeders into brush and loafing areas, Lockwood says. More than 2,900 tracts totaling 7.4 million acres were issued Managed Lands Deer Permits last year to assist with flexible harvest goals.

This season, MLDP participants will have a total harvest number for their property instead of individual bag limits. Some tracts in the program will also have seasons that extend through the end of February.

"I have seen improving conditions of the deer populations the past few years," Lockwood says. "A big reason is that each year more private landowners have established range and wildlife management objectives and are dedicated to achieving their goals."

Contact: Parks and Wildlife Department (800-792-1112; www.tpwd.state.tx.us).

VIRGINIA

The antlerless deer bag limit has been increased by two per hunter this season to help control an estimated population of 850,000 to 1 million whitetails.

"Over the vast majority of the Commonwealth of Virginia, current deer management objectives call for the deer herds to be stabilized at their early to mid-'90s deer-kill levels," says Matt Knox, state deer program supervisor.

According to Knox, the plans "appear to be working fairly well, with the exception of the northern Piedmont and southwestern Piedmont. We have not achieved the female kill levels in these two areas to control herd growth or meet our population objective."

About 236,000 deer were killed last season, the majority (164,700) taken by firearms hunters. A check-in hotline (866-468-4263) is available for hunters to report deer kills.

Early archery season opens October 2, while the firearms seasons will open later throughout the state. All will end January 1, except for two "special urban archery" seasons. The first is September 18 to October 1, and the second is January 3 through March 26. Specific restrictions and licenses apply for the special urban archery seasons.

Contact: Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (804-367-1000; www.dgif.state.va.us).

ROAD TRIP TO KENTUCKY

With a one-buck limit and many hunters being selective, your best chance to take a bruiser in the South might be in the Bluegrass State.

More than 40 bucks qualified for the Boone and Crockett Club record books last season, including a 199 B&C typical, a 220-class non-typical and a monstrous 200-class buck entered in the Pope and Young Club archery records. Much of the land in western Kentucky is privately owned, so if someone there offers you a chance to hunt it would be wise to accept. For public-land opportunities, consider these options:

Land Between the Lakes Look to the Kentucky portion of this 170,000-acre wonderland of rolling and steep terrain and hardwoods located between Kentucky and Barkley lakes. Bucks and does with good size are abundant, and there is enough land so you can hunt an area thoroughly. Consider a midweek hunt when pressure is lighter. Archery season runs from early September through January, and gun hunts are on a point-based quota system, so you'll probably get a tag every third season if you apply each year.

Peabody Wildlife Management Area

These 60,000 acres are located in Ohio and Muhlenberg counties, which typically rank among the best in the state for quantity and quality. Plan ahead by getting a map of the WMA and a topographic map to determine terrain in your selected areas. Also, be sure to note the dates for open and quota-only hunts so you won't get crossed up. The tract ranges from swampland to ridges, interspersed with reclaimed coal mines.

For more information on the Land Between the Lakes, call 270-924-206 or visit www.lbl.org. To find out more about Peabody WMA and to get license information, call 800-858-1549 or visit www.fw.ky.gov.

For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/destinations