Georgia Drought, Blessing Or Curse For Deer Hunters?
Drought conditions don’t do any favors for the deer, but it can be an advantage for Georgia deer hunters if they adjust.
It’s difficult to even get a handful of Georgia deer hunters to agree on anything, but every deer in the state is in complete agreement that it was a hot and dry summer.
During those times, it’s natural that deer hunters want to know how the drought will affect the deer and their hunting seasons. The answer to that is really quite simple, experts say. The deer are hardy, and they are going to adapt by changing their normal routines. Whether or not hunters are willing to adapt and change their routines is the key to whether they have successful seasons or not.
Fresh on the minds of many Georgia hunters was that strange 2016-2017 season when two-thirds of the state suffered through one of its worst droughts ever while southeast Georgia went unscathed.
Any discussion as to how current drought conditions compare to the one in 2016 should begin with input from the National Weather Service.
Meteorologist Ty Vaughn, of the National Weather Service in Peachtree City, says Georgia is among the southeastern states that for months was stuck in a period of persistent high pressure late this summer and fall. That typically results in reduced rainfall. He explained what Georgia experienced was a flash drought. He said that is defined as a quickly evolving drought caused by both a rainfall deficit and abnormally high and prolonged temperatures.
Vaughn said Georgia experienced high temperatures nearly 10 degrees above historic averages through most of September and the first half of October. That kind of heat can parch the earth. Evaporation can dry up small bodies of waters like puddles, shallow ponds and even narrow and shallow streams just as badly as a much longer drought.
“These temperatures in the high 80s to high 90s were pretty steady since the end of May,” Vaughn said. “Most of that time the daily highs were 95 and above. There were quite a few days in Macon that reached 100 and above. When you get temperatures like that, it can be the same as a prolonged drought like we had in 2016.”
Georgia was finally met with cooler temperatures at the end of the first week of October. By mid October, a lot of hunters received several doses of rain, and many received a good soaking by Tropical Storm Nestor on the opening weekend of gun season.
Even with that rainfall, there are still rainfall deficits in large portions of the state. For up-to-the-minute drought conditions in your hunting area through October into November, refer to www.weather.gov/ffc/rainfall_scorecard and www.drought.gov/drought/states/georgia.
The drought had an impact this deer season. Georgia bowhunters reported changes in deer movement as hard-packed fields stood where food plots would normally be. Roving groups of deer, as well as feral swine, were seen desperately seeking food and water as some streams, creeks and ponds went gone dry.
Georgia’s WRD state deer biologist Charlie Killmaster says simply put, a drought affects what deer are used to, but they adapt.
“How a drought affects deer is relative,” he said. “If a drought comes during antler growth and when the does are nursing, that is different from when a drought comes this time of the year. If a drought comes when does are nursing and they are on marginal habitat anyway, they may actually abandon their fawns.
“Then again, we had radio collars on deer in southwest Georgia during the drought in 2016, and the data showed that the drought didn’t affect the rut at all.
“So, in the great scheme of things, it’s really hard to define a correlation of how the drought affects deer statewide. It’s even hard to pinpoint how a drought affects deer movement because that change in movement is already substantial this time of the year, anyway. If a drought results in a significant habitat decline, their range will change in size so they can get adequate resources.”
Georgia is not the only southeastern state that has been dealing with drought conditions. Alabama has been hit equally hard. Chris Cook, the Deer Program Coordinator for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, says a drought greatly upsets a deer’s normal routine. While that’s not good for the deer, it can be great for the deer hunter, he said.
“A drought will upset the usual timing of the availability of foods,” he says. “This is the time of the year when a deer’s natural foods begin to get a little scarce anyway, but a drought compounds the issue. A drought can make the browse go dormant earlier. In other words, there’s less food available sooner.
“The deer are going to eventually go to the acorns anyway, but more so during a drought. If there is a limited amount of other foods, they’ll go to the acorns and stay there. That’s good for the hunters, especially if the food plots don’t come up.”
Cook says water availability is rarely an issue for deer, but a drought can change that.
“In spring and summer, the plants that deer eat are primarily made up of water, maybe almost all water,” he said. “It really doesn’t take a pond, a lake or creek to meet a deer’s water needs. It may need a puddle or two, but that’s it. But when you get a drought and there’s not enough moisture in the plants and it becomes difficult to find a puddle, the deer are forced to move more in search of both food and water.”
How do you make a dent in a rainfall deficit? Let GON plan a story on how to hunt during a drought, and then a tropical storm will blow up out of nowhere and pass over the state on the opening day of gun season. Y’all are welcome!We actually planned this story a few weeks back when conditions were bone dry and there was literally no rain in sight. Thankfully, the National Weather Service now says they expect drought conditions to continue to improve in the Southeast.This article will be online, and unfortunately it’ll be a story we’ll have to turn to at some point. Keep this info in mind when the next drought hits. To keep up with the current status of the drought in your hunting county, go to www.weather.gov/ffc/rainfall_scorecard and www.drought.gov/drought/states/georgia.
Editor’s Note: The below hunter interviews were conducted in early to mid October, before Tropical Storm Nestor soaked much of the state.
Georgia deer hunting veteran John Stanley says past droughts have taught members of his hunting club in Rockdale County some expensive lessons in planting food plots. He said they were much more cautious this year.
“We spend $4,000 a year on planting food plots,” the Lawrenceville resident explained. “In 2016, we planted and lost it all and had to re-plant. We were smarter this time around. We waited until the forecast called for rain.”
Stanley said before his club planted in mid-October, the area had gone two months without any significant rain.
“The main thing we learned in 2016 and to a lesser degree last season is there isn’t anything you can do about it,” he said with a laugh. “You have to take advantage of the drought if you can. You have to hunt differently.
“You do your scouting and try to find the native plants because they are going to be the ones that retain the most moisture. The muscadines fell early because of no rain, but their leaves hold moisture better, and the deer will eat them. That’s also true of greenbrier, bramble and ragweed. They all survive better.
“You also have to concentrate on the water sources. I’ve been bowhunting 50-something years, and seldom have I ever seen deer actually go to water, but they are doing that now. The deer normally get the water they need from the plants they eat, but they can’t do that during a drought.
“We’re lucky at our club. We have some pretty good water and we’re fine. I’m hearing stories from south Georgia where people are taking tractors and backhoes and digging holes. They are damming up creeks and filling up containers and filling up those holes. That’s how drastic it is.”
Stanley says in his years of hunting, he’s made several observations during droughts. He said it affects the way he hunts when it is dry.
“I’ve noticed in the drought years that the water oaks and red oaks drop earlier,” he said. “Whether there’s a drought or not, the deer are going to find the big northern red oaks. They flock to those. You’ll see a lot of bucks on red oaks. I spend a lot of time on the foods they are feeding on, and I know that they switch from red oaks and water oaks to white oaks.
“Another thing I do is to hunt the swamps. They are normally hard to hunt, but during a drought it is easier to hunt them. They don’t completely dry up. Those plants that are normally underwater and get no sunlight are more productive during drought years. You can see the deer tracks and trails easier. You know the deer have got to be feeding on the native stuff in swamps because there’s more to eat there.”
Richie Green, of Jefferson, who hunts a management area in Wilkinson County and private land in Twiggs County, says the lack of rainfall and the heat have been brutal.
“We’ve gotten 2 inches of rain since May 29,” he said when we spoke on Oct. 15. “There’s a pond coming into our town I’ve been seeing my whole life, and I never saw it dry until 2016. I’m guessing it is two weeks away from drying up again.
“This drought is worse than in 2016 because of the heat. These 100- and 103-degree days have made our food plots a dust bowl. We planted them at the end of June, and we got 2 inches of rain that weekend, and they came up, and it hasn’t rained since.
“We just had to plow up what we had already planted, and we had to wear dust masks to do it. We’re just waiting until we can plant them again.”
Green said he’s seeing things in this drought he has never seen before.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “We’re having pine trees and water oaks literally dying. We’re having hogs on tracts of land where we’ve never had hogs before. They are traveling around looking for water and something to eat. I’ve got one tract I’ve hunted for eight years, and it only has a little bit of water left on it. There are three ponds, and two of them are completely dry. The one pond they drain into is about dry.”
Fresh on Green’s mind is the drought of 2016 that affected much of Georgia.
“It’s tough to even see a deer now,” said Green. “I killed two does with my bow, and both were going to or coming from the only bit of water we have.
“It’s hard to stay out there in this heat. You have to wash your clothes between every hunt because you sweat so much. I have two sets and when I come in from the morning hunt, I throw that set in the washer and put on the other set for the afternoon hunt.
“And it takes twice as long to get to your stand now. You can’t just go crunching through the woods to your stand. The deer will hear you from a mile away. You have to carefully take every step. It’s a chore this year.”
Green says until substantial rains come again, he has no option other than to find a water source and hunt there, even if he has to create his own.
“I’m seriously considering building my own water source,” he said. “I have a 250-gallon plastic tank that I can fill up and put it on my 4-wheeler. I just hope I can get it through the woods. If I can, I’m going to leave it for sure.”
Matthew Gilbert, of Loganville, hunts 1,300 acres of family land in Hancock County. He said he is applying what he learned in 2016 to his planting and hunting this season.
“We planted in 2016, and it did terrible,” he said. “It rained right after it sprouted, and then we didn’t get any more rain and everything died. We decided to wait longer this time. We planted rape several weeks ago. It’s pretty hardy and doesn’t take much moisture to germinate. We plan to plant wheat when we finally get some rain. There’s not a single food plot anywhere I have seen right now.
“It’s so dry that we’re actually losing pine trees and even a few hardwoods. I’m not talking about browning up a little bit. I’m talking about dying. All the undergrowth in the woods is actually thinning out it is so dry.
“We have creeks on our property and the upper ends of those creeks have water, but the lower ends are almost dry. The only thing I can figure is all the tree roots are sucking up water as the water flows down.”
Gilbert says his trail-cam photos are revealing where he needs to hunt.
“I’m seeing something I have never seen before,” he said. “A good bit of the deer in the photos have mud on their ankles. They are definitely going to that water.
“I’m focusing on being in the woods near the water oaks. The water oaks are dropping, and it’s the only thing for the deer to eat right now. The persimmons are still holding to the trees and the muscadines are only fair. The white oak acorns are really sparse. The deer are wearing the water oaks out.”
The drought has changed his hunting strategy, Gilbert said.
“Normally, we’d be hunting the woods in the mornings and the food plots in the afternoons, but that’s out of the question right now. Maybe it will change if we get some rain.”
Gilbert says the conditions are so bad, it has zapped his enthusiasm.
“It’s been so hot I just haven’t been in the mood to hunt,” he said. “Our property even looks so much different than it ever has this time of year. Our pecan groves are always filled with lush grass, and there’s not even any grass.”
Tim Dangar, of Ball Ground, hunts in Cherokee, Rabun, Dawson and Lumpkin counties, and he says he is seeing a noticeable change in north Georgia deer movement this season.
“The deer everywhere are in a nocturnal pattern a lot earlier than normal,” he said. “I attribute that to it just being cooler at night. Our cameras are seeing very little movement except for a few does a little bit right at daylight and a little bit right at dark. Everything else is moving at night.
“You usually don’t see that until after the season begins and hunters start leaving their scent in the woods. That and the normal hunting pressure situation makes them move after dark, but that started well before the season began this year. I think it was because it’s just so much cooler at night and its easier on the deer to move at night from a pure heat standpoint.
“We learned in 2016 that if you plant and don’t get any rain to germinate the seeds, the turkeys and other birds are just going to scratch them up. I remember that in 2016 we went 42 days without a drop of rain, but we didn’t have the heat to deal with then. It was dry, but if you remember, it was cool in September and October of that year. It was beautiful weather to hunt in in 2016.
“There was an over-abundance of acorns that year. I remember that. All that food put the deer and bears in hyper production. I had cameras up in Dawson and Lumpkin counties and in the Chattahoochee National Forest, and I saw bears with three or four cubs and a fair number of deer with triplets.
“There’s only a decent acorn crop this year. There are no food plots. I don’t think we’ll see good reproduction next year.”
Drought conditions come and go. When they’re here, remember that deer adapt. The question comes down to how hunters will respond.
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