‘Average’ season in the books

Published 10:42 pm Thursday, February 4, 2010

It may take a few more years to determine what an “average” deer season is with the advent of the three-buck limit for the 2007-2008 season. But as far as Chris Cook, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) wildlife biologist who specializes in white-tailed deer, can tell, the 2009-2010 season completed last Sunday will likely fit in the “average” category.

Cook, who queried WFF biologists and deer processors around the state and reviewed deer harvest data collected from Alabama’s wildlife management areas (WMAs), said the success deer hunters experienced pretty much ran the gamut of what could be expected.

“In some parts of the state, it was average or maybe a littler better than average,” Cook said. “In others, it appeared a lot slower than in a typical year. That was the story even within some of our WFF districts with some areas having a good year and others being below average.

“Everyone seems to attribute (the slow areas) to the same factors – a lot of acorns throughout the state and good browse growing conditions (rain and mild temperatures) on into hunting season. We had some really cold weather that knocked the browse back in late December and early January. This impacted the deer movement and deer sightings, especially considering the way many hunters choose to hunt these days. They tend to sit on a food plot whether there is food in the woods on not.”

In addition to a record-breaking cold snap for the first half of January, hunters also had to deal with downpours on most weekends during the latter part of the season.

“Our wildlife management areas were affected the same way,” Cook said. “Some had a really good year and some were off. The WMAs likely were more affected by the weather than by food availability and hunting tactics. Participation was way off on most weekends with a lot of rain. When the weather was good, the WMAs usually had good hunts.

“I guess this would be a typical year. It wasn’t a unanimously good year or a bad year from one end of the state to the other. When you start talking statewide, most years are going to be highly variable.”

Cook said he talked to several processors and one expressed an observation that the three-buck limit had affected the animals brought to his facility

“His perception was there were a lot less yearling bucks brought in to be processed,” Cook said. “Of course, deer processors won’t see every deer that’s killed in an area, but his perception was there were more bucks two years or older brought in than in the past. There’s no way to tell whether that’s attributable to the buck limit or not.”

Of course, the weather has a great deal of influence of what the hunters and processors see.

“When you have a mild winter and lot of acorns, the number of deer killed is going to be down,” Cook said. “If we get cold weather prior to the rut and during the rut, the deer harvest is going to be great. Cold weather at the end of the season also can really improve the harvest due to a lack of available food. I know some processors were turning people away during the 2008-2009 season when the weather got cold because they didn‘t have any room in their coolers to hang more deer. I didn’t see that in my part of the state this season.”

Cook also said rutting activity across the state was as varied as the hunting success. He said the ancestry of the deer herd has a significant affect on when rutting activity occurs. Deer from Michigan were stocked in Lawrence and Winston counties in the 1920s, while some other areas were stocked with deer North Carolina. These areas have maintained an early rut in November and early December. Deer from Texas and Wisconsin and some of the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia were stocked in many Georgia counties that border the Chattahoochee River. Those deer also rut much earlier than most native Alabama whitetails and appear to influence the early rut dates we see in portions of the counties that border this part of Georgia. In most of Alabama, deer were stocked from the populations in southwest Alabama, hence the later rut experienced in most of the state.

“Oakmulgee WMA was one of the areas originally stocked with deer from North Carolina in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” Cook said. “Deer in that area have retained the earlier rut of their ancestors. They rut in early and mid December. Hunters typically take bucks that are chasing does and bucks were beat up from fighting on the hunts in late November through mid December.

“On the other hand, one of the biggest bucks brought to the check station this year during one of the December hunts showed no signs of actively participating in the rut. His tarsal glands were not stained dark like is typical for a mature buck at that time of year. His ear was split and he was beat up from fighting, but he didn’t appear to have been making scrapes or anything. I guess there is always at least one oddball in the crowd.”

Cook said intense herd management can influence the date of the rut; however, management can only do so much. Genetics is probably the most influential factor, at least here in Alabama.

“You can’t move the rut from January to November, but I have seen the peak of breeding moved earlier by a couple of weeks through intensive herd management,” Cook said. “On one particular property in Hale County, the hunters were very aggressive with doe harvest and very selective on what bucks were taken. After seven years, their average date of conception had moved from January 24th to January 8th. In the seventh year, none of the deer collected were bred later than January 14th.

“Not everybody may want to go to that extent, but with a more moderate approach, you can definitely shorten the (breeding) window and do a better job of ensuring the does are bred on the first cycle.”

WFF sends out a mail survey each year to gather information about the hunting seasons and when this year’s data is analyzed, Cook doesn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. The impact of the three-buck limit will take more time to quantify.

“When all the numbers come in from the mail survey I think it is going to end up being what should be considered an average year for statewide deer harvest,” Cook said. “But because of the buck limit, the ‘average’ year is going to be different from what it was three years ago. It’s going to take a little while to see how the buck limit will affect the long-term harvest trends.”

Cook did say there were some very nice bucks taken during the latest season and a rainy year and abundant mast crop probably contributed to that fact.

“I saw several exceptional bucks taken this year, including a 160-inch buck from Greene County and a 15-point taken from Stockton, which is a really nice buck for anywhere in Alabama, especially Baldwin County,” he said. “The supervising wildlife biologist in southeast Alabama told me he personally observed more big bucks taken in his area this year than in any year he can remember. We had some really nice bucks taken on our WMAs in west central Alabama, as well. People have told me of taking more big-bodied deer (200 pounds plus) this season. The abundant rain during the late spring and summer should have made conditions very good for growing antlers, and the heavy acorn crop helped deer put on additional weight last fall.”