Normal Mast Crop Bodes Well for Deer Hunters
By DAVID RAINER
Dry weather continues to be the rule as fall hunting season approaches and that may allow Alabama hunters to enjoy an advantage that hasn’t been available in several years.
Instead of the bumper mast crop of the previous few years, the acorn crop appears to be back in the normal range, which means some trees have acorns and others don’t. Hunters, therefore, will be able to focus more on the mast-producing trees. Plus the dry weather has left most of the vegetation available to the deer woody and unpalatable, which should benefit hunters, according to Chris Cook, wildlife biologist with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.
“The dry weather is definitely causing the available food to be depleted quickly,” said Cook, who co-authored Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer in Alabama with fellow biologist Bill Gray. “The acorns have started falling and the deer are really going to be focused on that food source because that’s about all they have right now. We haven’t had any rain to sustain the plants that can grow into the early fall. When we get rain, these will grow on into the hunting season. That’s not the case this year.
“The season should start off pretty well with the deer being more active, having to search for food. That should continue through most of the hunting season. But after last year who knows, because I sure thought the cold weather would have made them feed a lot more than they did. Hopefully, we’ll get a typical year as far as rain and temperatures go, as well as more normal food availability.”
Cook was referring to the 2009-2010 season when an unusually cold winter got hunters’ hopes up only to be left with disappointment when the deer didn’t behave as expected.
“I think a lot of it had to do with the conditions,” he said. “This past year, it rained just about every weekend, it seemed like. In most parts of the state where the rut usually happens in January, we got cold weather around Christmas and the first of the year when deer sightings usually start to increase. That’s usually what everybody wants, but apparently it got too cold and the deer just stopped moving. It could have been a combination of factors, cold weather, moon phase, rain or whatever, but the deer herd’s reaction really was a surprise.
“When I talked to other biologists around the state, they all saw the same thing. They were starting to see some rutting activity – bucks cruising around looking for does. Then we got that really cold weather and the deer just went into a hole and didn’t come back out.”
Last year’s estimated harvest of 289,000 deer was the lowest since the 1989-90 season. The harvest for 2007-08 was 342,000 and the 2008-09 season harvest was 363,000.
All three years were well below the harvest before Alabama implemented a three-buck limit in 2007. For the three years prior to the buck limit, the harvests were 437,000, 441,000 and 437,000. With an estimated deer herd between 1.5 and 2 million, Cook expects there will be plenty of deer available this season.
“We’ve had three back-to-back-to-back really slow years, so the harvest has to be higher than before,” he said. “On the buck side, a big factor has been the limit. That appears to have affected the number of bucks people have been taking. There have been some other factors, as well. If you look at the three years prior to the three-buck limit and the three years since, there’s been a slight decline in hunters. However, the man-days have been basically the same, so the effort has not really fallen.”
Cook said hunters this year should see those deer that weren’t taken in the last three years and some of the bucks that have been passed up will be one year older and one year larger, which should translate into bigger body size and larger antlers. Cook said the annual mail survey provides irrefutable evidence that the number of bucks killed has declined.
“When you compare the last three years to the three years before the limit, there has been a 33-percent reduction in number of bucks killed compared to prior to the limit,” he said. “That’s a significant reduction. If you look at the doe harvest, it has declined but not to the extent the buck harvest has. That also may be because of the buck limit. Some people may be a little more reluctant to shoot a doe – afraid they might accidentally shoot an antlered buck and have to count it against their buck limit.”
Cook said the environmental factors also affected the deer harvest with a bumper acorn crop playing a big role, especially with the modern hunters’ gravitation toward food plots.
“If there are plenty of acorns in the woods, people aren’t going to see as many deer on the foot plots,” he said. “Unfortunately, hunters spend a high percentage of their time in a food plot in the afternoon. That’s a small sample of a deer’s day, but many people put all their eggs in that basket to try to kill a deer. That’s almost always a bad gamble, especially when there is plenty of food in the woods. If you target one little time of day when deer might come to a food plot and it doesn’t happen, you’re out of luck.”
Of course, weather patterns with lots of rain and really, really cold temperatures will not only affect deer movement, it also impacts hunter activity.
“It seemed like it rained every weekend during gun season,” Cook said. “That’s when the bulk of the deer get killed. I think another influence of the limit is the thought in some hunters’ minds that if they shoot a buck early in the season, that’s one less that they get to shoot during the rut. It’s not like they’re going out and killing three and they’re done. Many hunters are careful not to reach their buck limit too quickly.”
The buck limit also appears to have affected the doe harvest, as well. Some hunters have been hesitant to shoot does for fear of taking a button buck or spike by mistake, which would mean one less buck the hunter could take later in the season.
Cook said as hunters get more efficient at identifying does, he hopes the annual doe harvest will surpass that of the pre-buck limit.
“We’re distributing information on how to identify deer,” he said. “The main confusion is between adult does and buck fawns. At the first of hunting season, the size difference is so noticeable. Unless you’re shooting a single deer, you should be able to tell the difference. My advice is to give a single deer the benefit of the doubt, unless the doe is really close and you can see for certain it’s not a young buck. But even a 40-50 pound deer 150 yards out in food plot can fool you.”
Cook said some tips for identifying deer start with the ears and head.
“The ears on a fawn look huge compared to the length of its head,” he said. “On a mature doe, it’s obvious the head is a lot longer than ears. Then look at the body. Hunters should always look at a deer’s body. An adult doe’s body length is longer than her height. This gives a rectangular appearance, like a suitcase. A fawn’s body is blockier and tends to be the same length as its legs, more like a briefcase outline.
“Young bucks are typically the most active and most visible throughout the hunting season. They’re learning new things and are being exposed to the rut for the first time. Nobody wants them around. Does don’t want them around and mature bucks don’t want them around. So be cautious when you see a single deer come out in the middle of day or early in the afternoon.”
Cook said having a pair of quality binoculars is invaluable to the conscientious hunter.
“Using binoculars is a good rule of thumb for several reasons,” he said. “From a hunter safety standpoint, some hunters want to use their scope to identify objects in the field. If it ends up being another hunter, your muzzle is pointed right at them. That violates a basic hunter safety rule – never point your firearm at something unless you are absolutely positive about the target. Quality binoculars allow a hunter to better identify a potential target before they touch the trigger. I invested in a good pair of binoculars about 15 years ago and they have been well worth the cost.”
Visit http://www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/game/deer/deerbook.pdf for a free download of the deer biology and management book.
PHOTO: (By David Rainer) Early in the season, it is very easy to tell the difference between mature does and the young of the year. As the season progresses and the fawns lose their spots, it becomes more difficult to identify the mature deer, which is why quality binoculars are invaluable when a hunter tries to differentiate between a mature doe and a young buck.