Georgia is unique among the southern "numbers of deer" states in that it produces more Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young bucks than any state around it. "As far as the Deep South goes, I consider Georgia to be one of the best trophy states," said Charlie Killmaster, Georgia's deer project coordinator. "We definitely have quality.
"As far as quantity, I'd say we have a very good average deer population. We have a few pockets that are pretty high, but in most parts of the state we're not overabundant."
He said the fairly severe drought Georgia has suffered through this summer may have some short-term effects – "the productivity of females may be down some, antler quality may be down some" – but any long-term effect will be negligible.
Bottom line: Is Georgia the best-kept deer secret in the South?
Deer Population: 900,000 – down from 1.4 million in 1997
Economic Impact of Deer Hunting: $900 million
Numbers are best "on our barrier islands out on the [Atlantic] coast," Killmaster said. "We have very high deer densities out there, and hunter success is exceptional. Other than that, excessive deer populations are typically in suburban areas, like around Atlanta."
"Our best quality area is west-central Georgia, in particular the floodplain around the Flint River. That's where we produce the biggest bucks in the state."
The Atlanta area also has some good bucks because it's archery-only. "With lower hunter success, the deer population and age structure go up," he noted.
Current Status of the Deer Population: 1-5 scale with 1 being poor and 5 being optimal
"I'd give it a 4 this season," Killmaster said. "We had a really high harvest rate this past year so I would expect a little bit of a lull, but it's bounced between 4 and 5 for the last several years."
Status 5 Years From Now
"I'll say a 5. Back in the '90s we were overabundant, and the quality of deer suffered. But the last two years we finally got the population right at optimum – the proper density for the habitat we have available. So in the next five years, we ought to be producing some really good-quality bucks and still have good deer density."
Biggest Factors Over the Next 5 Years
Killmaster is watching "a combination of two things" in the short term. The first is "a higher level of predation, particularly from coyotes, than we've had in the past – which has actually helped us get the deer population down, I believe."
The second is educating hunters so they shoot "the appropriate number of deer for the size of the property they're hunting. We have a really liberal season length and bag limits, so it's really up to the hunters not to over-harvest deer on the properties they hunt, mostly with respect to does. We can counteract that predation by backing off on the harvest."
Any Doom and Gloom?
Killmaster doesn't foresee any large deer population declines in his state. But if that were to occur, "We have a lot of wiggle room in our regulations, so we can reduce harvest pressure on deer and accommodate any major issue."
He did note that the state has "one sensitive [deer] population, in the mountains. That would be my greatest fear of more [population] declines – from a combination of habitat issues [trees not being cut like they used to be], disease and predation. They need to cut trees bad," he added. "There's virtually no early successional habitat in the mountains. On Google Earth it looks like a black hole there, just solid dark green."