Ossabaw’s 2005 Hunt Report: Thick, Wet and Covered With Acorns

Several conditions kept harvest numbers below the Ossabaw norm.

GON Staff | December 27, 2005

Most hunters picked for one of the Ossabaw Island quota deer hunts this season found the hunting tougher than normal, at least compared to the heyday for high hunter-success rates in the late 1990s. Several factors have changed the way hunters have to go about collecting venison and pork.

For the first time in a long time Ossabaw hunters saw standing water along the routes as they were carried to and from hunting areas.

“We had 10 inches of rain back in the summer (from a tropical storm), and it flooded every low area,” said Jim Simmons, area manager for Ossabaw. “There was enough rain before and after the storm that the water stuck around.

“During the last two years of the drought (which ended in 2002) the only place you could find fresh water on the island was in an alligator hole. You could see where deer had been down on their knees drinking water out of the alligator hole.”

David Harn, Michael Harn, both from Pembroke, and Richard Rogers, of Niceville, Fla., killed this trio of does on their second afternoon of the 2006 hunt at Ossabaw Island.

It seems the deer on Ossabaw are enjoying the fact that they don’t have to climb into a gator hole to drink.

“We thought all the water on the island would push deer to the high ground — we were wrong,” said Jim. “A lot of the animals coming in on the harvest are wet. They’ve been using the water as cover.”

Along with deer and hogs being able to bed in flooded areas, places where it’s hard for hunters to get, game is finding thicker habitat than they’ve ever seen.

“I think the thicker vegetation has to do with the lower population of deer and hogs on the island,” said Jim.

The lack of water during the drought dropped the fawn-recruitment rate by a staggering amount. During the drought that recruitment rate was only two fawns per 10 does (1 1/2-year-old and older). Does either didn’t get bred or aborted their fawns. In normal recruitment years, eight of every 10 does produced a fawn.

Russ Toole, of Cumming, killed this boar hog, which field-dressed 125 pounds.

Ossabaw’s hog population has been cut at least in half because of the drought and several years of trapping and shooting efforts.

“When I got here (1998) you could ride around and see 30 pigs a day — you don’t see that anymore,” said Jim.

At that time the island’s hog population was estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 animals. Today, the estimated number of hogs is between 1,500 and 2,000 pigs.

Prior to September the job position to trap and shoot hogs went vacant for four months due to budget constraints. However, seasonal help was hired in September, but that position runs out in May.

“We’re hoping it will turn into a full-time position,” said Jim. “He’s killed several hundred hogs, easy. We did lose a good number of turtle nests this year while we didn’t have anybody in that position.”

The lower population of hogs and deer is already showing an improvement in Ossabaw’s landscape.

“Up until that drought none of us had ever seen a live-oak seedling over here, and after three years of drought they’re fairly common,” said Jim. “We’ve got some exclosures that’ll tell us more information long term about the effects on vegetation.”

Thicker vegetation and the increase in water has the fewer hogs and deer plenty of places to hide, making them tougher to kill.

The factors behind the decrease in hunter success don’t stop there.

“I’ve never seen this many acorns over here,” said Jim. “The game can step out of those thickets, feed and go right back in.”

Several hunters on this year’s December 1-3 firearms hunt reported very little deer and hog sign in the live-oak flats. Game sign was great next to thickets, marsh and the newly flooded areas.

“You had to really hunt this year,” said Jim. “In past years you could pretty much sit down anywhere.”

The island’s first three-day rifle hunt has traditionally been one of the state’s premier quota hunts. It still takes a double or triple rejection to get on that hunt. Were hunters disappointed in the tougher hunting this year?

“I’m not,” said Jeremy Mabry, of Bostwick. “I killed a doe and a big hog and saw all kinds of game and sign.”

Jeremy said it took a day of scouting his area before he figured out what the game was doing.

Overall, 72 hunters killed 32 deer for a 44.4 percent hunter-success rate. Thirteen of those deer were bucks, and four of them were 5 1/2 years old or older.

“For a three-day hunt it’s still a pretty impressive success rate,” said Jim.

Yes, indeed that’s a staggering success rate on a WMA quota hunt. However, when you compare the 112 percent hunter-success rate from the 1999 hunt, it’s got some hunters questioning whether they’ll make a return trip for a 50-50 crack at a deer.

“There’s a segment of the hunting population who enjoys the island and would come out here no matter what kind of hunt it was or what kind of success to expect,” said Jim. “Then there’s a segment of the hunters who come out here for the 100 percent success.”

Also on that hunt, hunters killed 22 hogs. Lower hog numbers and more WRD activity trying to kill hogs has made them tougher to hunt, too.

“They’re holding on these little isolated hammocks and places out of reach,” said Jim. “One thing we noticed on the first December hunt is that people who would go to the far reaches of their area and get on little marsh hammocks and inaccessible areas were having really good luck. Then they had a heck of a drag back.”
Employees with the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS) attended several hunts. They were collecting blood samples testing for Epizootic Hemmorhagic Disease, or blue-tongue, a disease caused by a virus carried by biting gnats. Typically, the disease begins to appear in late summer and ends with the first hard frost, which kills the gnats that transmit the disease.
Those test results won’t be available until early 2006.
“Ossabaw traditionally has been an area of little (EHD) activity,” said Dave Stallknecht, an associate professor with SCWDS.
The last outbreak of EHD, with wide-spread mortality, on Ossabaw was back in the 80s.

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