Georgia's 294,000 deer hunters should expect a productive autumn, with more opportunities to harvest a deer than any season in Georgia's hunting history, according to projections by the Department of Natural Resources.
Earlier this year, in conforming to wishes voiced by Georgia deer hunters, the Board of Natural Resources expanded either-sex seasons statewide to offer hunters more flexibility in doe harvest and aid efforts to produce quality bucks.
The changes will make the entire gun season in the Southern Zone, from Oct. 27 to Jan. 6, either-sex days. Augusta-area counties included in that region are Burke, Jefferson, Jenkins and Screven.
The Eastern Piedmont zone that includes Lincoln, McDuffie and other nearby counties will have 53 doe days - up substantially from 28.
Either-sex days in those counties will begin Nov. 10 and run through the season's end Jan. 1. The board also made the entire muzzleloader season, set for Oct. 20-27, either sex.
"This change has been a request from the public for five years," said Dan Forster, assistant chief of game management. "They want the flexibility to harvest does when it's convenient, rather than on a particular day."
The opportunity to harvest does earlier in the season is expected to aid game managers who wish to spare small-antlered bucks. Adding either-sex options to the muzzleloader season also will help that objective.
"Last year, the first two days were either sex during muzzleloader season, then buck only," Forster said. "This year, the remaining the five days are either sex during the muzzleloader season."
Muzzle loading rifle hunting is gaining in popularity, too, as state officials predicted it would.
"During the 1999-2000 season, we estimated 42,000 muzzle loader hunters," he said. "Last year it increased to 62,000, which is what we expected. We think it will go up again this year, maybe 15,000 or more."
One of the reasons is that hunters who invest in the gear to participate in the early season will continue to do so, while new hunters enter the sport each season.
"It does take a bit of transition time for deer hunters who weren't traditional muzzle loaders to buy one and become proficient with it so they can use it," he said. "Once you obtain that status, you participate year after year, and new people come into that field as well."
Georgia's deer herd is in good health this season, with harvests and reproduction rates remaining consistent with recent years.
"Right now our estimate for the harvest last year is just over 402,000 deer," he said. "It's running just over 54 percent does in the harvest. From our perspective, that's excellent."
Harvesting such a high percentage of does shows the adequacy of management and education programs, he said.
State officials estimate Georgia's deer herd at about 1.1 to 1.2 million animals statewide, which is consistent with where it's been in the last few years.
The addition of either sex days isn't likely to impact population or harvest numbers, Forster predicted.
"This year, even tough there are additional opportunities to harvest does, we believe the greatest impact is going to be the distribution of the harvest, either among different hunters or the timing," he said. "But it probably won't have a significant impact on the total numbers being harvested."
Current assessments show the herd in excellent health, due in part to adequate spring and summer rainfall.
"With the blessing of rain that we've enjoyed, and the vegetation being in better shape this time of the year compared to other years in the recent past, all that should contribute to good body weight," he said.
Although weather patterns that will determine much of the autumn mast crop are still unfolding, the outlook - for now - is excellent. "Assuming we do get a favorable mast crop, the season, as far as health and movement, should certainly be a lot better than in the last few years."
SEASON - 1998-99 - 1999-00 - 2000-01
TOTAL - 427,000 - 404,000 - 402.000
PCT. DOES - 53.2 - 50.3 - 54.9
AVERAGE DEER PER HUNTER - 1.35 - 1.4 - 1.4
AVERAGE DAYS PER HUNTER - 15.7 - 13.4 - 22
TOTAL HUNTERS - 316,527 - 293,468 - 294,619
PCT. SUCCESSFUL HUNTERS - 58.3 - 77.8 - 56.3
TOTAL GUN HARVEST - 383,000 - 343,000 - 333,000
TOTAL ARCHERY HARVEST - 44,000 - 46,000 - 50,000
MUZZLELOADER HARVEST - n - a - 15,000 - 19,000
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or email@example.com.