GON’s 2005 Georgia Deer Special
After an off year in 2004-05, Georgia deer hunters anticipate a better season ahead — and bigger bucks.
Georgia’s deer-harvest numbers from last season are in, and they prove what a lot of hunters knew already: the 2004-05 season was an off year for Georgia deer hunting.
What the survey numbers say is that deer harvest dropped by 16 percent last year. The buck harvest dropped 15 percent to the lowest level since the 1984 hunting season. Doe harvest also dropped, by 17 percent. But while nearly every number the state uses to quantify the deer harvest was in decline, there is a silver lining to the down year.
The low harvest figures from last season surprised no one. Deer-cooler checks and hunter opinion last season reflected difficult times in the deer woods for many hunters.
“Deer hunters were less successful last year,” said DNR Assistant Director Todd Holbrook, who tracked the status of the Georgia deer herd for years as Chief of Game Management. “There was a 19 percent decline in hunter success from 2003-’04 to 2004-’05 that drove the decline in harvest (hunter success dropped from 59 percent to 51 percent). Hunters saw it, and we heard about it at the public meetings. It was real, and it shows up in the survey data.”
Overall, last year’s deer harvest total was the lowest since the 1994-95 season when 347,000 deer were killed.
Retired WRD wildlife biologist Kent Kammermeyer expected the data to bear out a low-harvest season.
“The statewide WMA harvest numbers were down 21 percent,” said Kent. “The statewide harvest should have reflected that pretty closely because all the factors were universal — three hurricanes, warm, rainy weather, frost that didn’t come until late, a lot of vegetation in the woods, an excellent acorn crop with acorns laying everywhere. And the food plots were knee high in November, which is unusual.”
Kent and many other deer managers suggest that with all that food in the woods, deer didn’t move much, lowering hunter success.
Hunters, facing tough conditions, may not have been flexible enough in their approach to hunting and didn’t move much either, says Kent.
“There has been a recent trend for hunters to depend on food plots and not even go into the woods,” said Kent. “If the deer aren’t on the plots, the hunters go home.”
With abundant food in the woods, the deer did not use food plots as heavily as usual.
“The reduction in harvest was likely not from hunters who hunt a lot,” said Todd. “The guy who is out there 20 days or more and usually kills two or three deer probably did all right. The reduction in harvest came from people who go occasionally and only kill one. We had a substantial increase in the number of hunters who did not kill one deer.”
The deer per hunter rate dropped from 1.6 in 2003-04 to 1.3 last year.
Buck harvest dropped to 138,000 deer, the lowest kill since the 1984 season.
Two key factors have combined to drive buck harvest down. During the 2002-03 season, a statewide regulation went into effect that required one of the two antlered bucks in the bag limit have at least four points on a side. The impact of the regulation served to protect many yearling bucks from harvest.
The second factor reducing buck harvest is widespread voluntary quality-buck restrictions. Many hunters simply are not killing yearling bucks.
“If you look at buck harvest over the past three years, it averages 150,275,” said Todd. “Compare that to the 10-year average prior to the new regulation of 201,039 bucks per year. It is looking like that 150,000 range may be our new equilibrium instead of 200,000, but it will take a couple of years to tell.”
Hunter numbers and participation continue to be of concern. Hunter numbers have dropped 8 percent since 2001. Hunter participation is also dropping. Last year the days-hunted-per-hunter rate dropped by 10 percent.
“Participation by hunters was down,” said Todd. “I don’t know why. It may have been the weather, or it may have been that they weren’t seeing deer so they didn’t go back.
“One of the crunches we will have to watch for this fall is days-per-hunter and whether some hunters participate at all,” said Todd. “Fuel prices are high enough now to discourage some people from participating. That could have a huge impact on the harvest level.”
With Hurricane Rita bearing down on refineries in Texas and the threat of even higher gas prices, hunters who travel long distances to their clubs or to popular public hunting at places like Piedmont Refuge, Ossabaw Island WMA, Chickasawhatchee WMA and others, may decide to stay home.
There is a silver lining on all the low numbers from last season: most of those deer that were not killed during an off year last season are still out there. The state estimates that Georgia’s deer population is relatively stable at around the 1.2 million range, a population level that it has held for the past 15 years.
Kent maintains that it was primarily environmental issues that drove the harvest down last season, and not a sudden decline in deer numbers.
“The deer are still out there,” said Kent. “I am convinced that the harvest will go back up this fall.”
Another statistic from last year that bodes well for hunters this fall is the percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest. Last year the percentage of 1 1/2-year-old bucks in the harvest fell to 42 percent, down from 45 percent a year earlier and the lowest percentage of yearlings in the harvest in modern Georgia deer hunting. What that means is that hunters, by regulation and by attitude, are letting young bucks walk. A greater percentage of the bucks in Georgia’s woods are in the 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-plus age groups than ever before.
“If there is good news from last year’s numbers it is that if we get decent weather and good hunter participation, we should have an excellent year,” said Todd. “I don’t expect the buck harvest to jump back up to the 175,000 to 200,000 range, but it should be strong — somewhere in the 150,000 to 175,000 range. You don’t want it much higher than that if you want to reap the benefits of the antler restriction. I think you are going to see more 2 1/2-year-old bucks in the harvest. We should have bankrolled a few bucks, and we have pushed the age structure a little higher.”
Two weeks into archery season, bowhunters are reporting seeing good numbers of deer and some good bucks. GON has heard of at least nine Pope & Young-class bucks taken this year to date. Soft mast is plentiful, and white-oak acorns spotty — which may help hunting success. If cold weather will replace the late summer heat, and hunters hit the woods, we may in fact be on the front end of a rebound year for deer hunting after last fall’s slow season.
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