2018 Deer Forecast: Big Opportunities (and Bucks) Await Hunters

The 2018 deer hunting season is shaping up to be one of the best ever for hunters in search of a big buck. Here’s our exclusive regional deer forecast for key states across America.

By Brian Lovett

2018 Deer Forecast: Big Opportunities (and Bucks) Await Hunters
Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor

Despite facing many challenges, deer hunters across the country have good reason to expect big things from the 2018-’19 season.

Whitetails, muleys, blacktails and Coues whitetails continue to thrive throughout America’s varied landscapes, and vast areas of state, federal and other publicly accessible properties still provide rank-and-file hunters with millions of acres to roam. Further, hunters are shooting a higher percentage of older bucks than ever before.

In fact, the Quality Deer Management Association’s Whitetail Report 2018 said yearling bucks only comprised about 35 percent of whitetail bucks taken nationwide during the 2016 season. That’s a stark shift in hunting philosophy from the “brown-is-down” mentality prevalent a few decades ago. Issues such as predation, increasing urbanization, chronic wasting disease, decreasing hunter numbers and periodic outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease complicate the modern deer hunting scene, but the overall outlook remains rosy. Here’s a brief regional forecast to put you on the track to success this deer season.

Northeast

Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor

Some might question the state of whitetail hunting in a region with high human populations and heavy urban and suburban development. However, wildlife managers across the region agree that Northeastern deer numbers and hunting opportunities remain good. In fact, hunters have a better chance at taking an older buck nowadays, and they can still find good public land on which to escape the crowds.

  • Herd trends: Biologists report deer herds in almost every state are steady or increasing.
    • Rhode Island might be the exception, as Dylan Ferreira, senior wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said harvests there have been trending downward since 2008.
    • Dan Bergeron, deer project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, said populations there are up.
    • Joe Rogerson, wildlife biologist with Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, described the state’s deer numbers as “robust.”
    • And longtime titans Pennsylvania and New York also appear promising for 2018.
  • Good public-land opportunities: Pennsylvania is well known for its state game lands, which hunters can navigate using the Game Commission’s mapping center.
    • The Adirondack and Catskill mountains in New York offer thousands of square miles for hunters.
    • Brian Eyler, deer project leader with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said most Eastern Shore wildlife management areas have good hunting.
    • Nick Fortin, deer project leader for Vermont Fish and Wildlife, recommended Birdseye Wildlife Management Area.
    • David Stainbrook, deer and moose project leader for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, pointed hunters toward state properties in the western part of the state.
  • What to expect this season:Jeremy Hurst, big-game unit leader with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, expects the state’s 2018 buck harvest to be about the same as in 2017 (The New York Department of Environmental Conservation reported the 2017 estimated deer take included 95,623 antlerless deer and 107,804 antlered bucks.)
    • Christopher Rosenberry, deer and elk section supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said 57 percent of bucks harvested there in 2017 were 2.5 years or older, and the state now has the oldest buck population in memory.
    • Carole Stanko, chief of New Jersey’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, said hunters there should expect another good season.
    • Bergeron said prospects look “very good” in New Hampshire.
  • Hot states or areas: Stanko said agricultural regions of New Jersey should again offer good action.
    • Hurst recommended central and western New York, plus suburban areas.
    • Most of West Virginia should produce good buck harvests, according to Christopher W. Ryan, supervisor of game management services with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

Southeast

Photograph by Brian Lovett

Southeastern whitetails have faced challenges in recent years, with an influx of coyotes and reduced fawn recruitment. Harvests in many areas were down the past decade, but biologists say the short-term outlook is mostly upbeat. Further, the region leads the country in terms of older age-class whitetail bucks in the harvest. Deer 3.5 years old and older made up more than 70 percent of the buck harvest in Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, according to the QDMA’s Whitetail Report 2018.

  • Herd trends: Most states reported relatively stable deer herds and higher numbers of older bucks. Johnathan Bordelon, deer program manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said his state experienced increased production the past two years. Georgia reported a slight increase, and Kentucky’s herd is growing.
  • Good public-land opportunities: Kyle Sams, deer program biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Rolling Fork Wildlife Management Area in Larue and Nelson counties is an upcoming hotspot.
    • Chris Cook, deer program coordinator with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Barbour Wildlife Management Area is probably his state’s top public property for deer hunting.
    • Florida’s many wildlife management areas — including Aucilla, Osceola, Big Bend, Three Lakes and Green Swamp — feature abundant acreage for hunters.
  • What to expect this season: Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, described his state’s outlook as “great.”
    • Charlie Killmaster, state deer biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said 2018 “looks like another excellent season ahead in Georgia.” Biologists in most other states were also fairly optimistic, assuming hunters enjoyed seasonal weather conditions.
  • Hot states or areas: Sams said western, central and northern Kentucky should be good.
    • Charles Ruth, big-game program coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said Aiken and Orangeburg counties looked promising.
    • Bordelon said the northwestern pine/hardwoods portion of Louisiana should continue to be productive.
    • Killmaster said the northeastern portion of Georgia’s piedmont is the hotspot for buck harvests.

Step Outside Deer Preview Regions


Northeast: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Jersey.

Southeast: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia

Midwest: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio

Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska.

Southwest: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas

 

Midwest

Photograph Courtesy of QDMA

Most hunters would consider steady or even increasing deer numbers as relatively good news. But in the big-buck hotbed of the Midwest, that’s reason for considerable excitement. Relatively mild winters and good growing conditions should mean the region’s whitetails — and mule deer, in the western extremes — will be big and healthy this fall.

  • Herd trends: Harvest heavyweight Wisconsin has experienced three consecutive mild winters, so deer numbers in northern forest units have recovered, and southern and central ag units have abundant — often overabundant — deer.
    • Minnesota deer numbers look very good, and Michigan populations appear to be increasing.
    • Populations in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana all look strong, and the Dakotas and Ohio were on the upswing.
    • Whitetail and mule deer numbers look good throughout Nebraska, according to Luke Meduna, wildlife biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
  • Good public-land opportunities: Tyler Harms, wildlife biometrician for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said Stephens and Yellow River state forests remain great places for quality deer hunting.
    • Barbara Keller, cervid program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, pointed hunters toward Peck Ranch, Whetstone Creek and August A. Busch conservation areas.
    • Tom Micetich, retired deer project manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the Shawnee National Forest, U.S. Corps of Engineers reservoirs and Mississippi River-area properties are worth investigating.
    • Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have abundant public land, and the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas also offer walk-in programs that allow public hunting on private property.
    • The Oglala National Grassland, Bessey Ranger District of the Nebraska National Forest and the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey remain attractive options for hunters.
  • What to expect this season: Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin and Indiana should again produce plenty of large bucks.
    • South Dakota muley and whitetail numbers were increasing, according to Steve Griffin, wildlife biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
    • Kevin Wallenfang, big-game ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, expected the buck harvest there to be similar to that of 2017.
    • Michael J. Tonkovich, deer program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said hunters should see increases in the buck harvest and total harvest this fall, thanks greatly to conservative antlerless regulations the previous two years.
    • Ashley Autenrieth, deer program biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said hunters should see more deer this year than in 2017.
  • Hot states or areas: Northeastern and south-central Iowa continue to be good areas for large bucks and quality hunting, Harms said.
    • Upper Peninsula Michigan deer are rebounding well after severe winters in 2013 through 2015, Autenrieth said.
    • Erik Thorson, acting big-game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the central part of the state has the highest deer numbers.
    • Keller said whitetail prospects in southern Missouri continue to improve.
    • Wallenfang said Wisconsin’s farmland zones should hold lots of deer.

Northwest

Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor

If you like variety and big country, you’re in luck: Deer biologists have plenty of good news about whitetails, mule deer and black-tailed deer in this region, depending on the location. Public-land opportunities remain wide open, and managers said most herds feature good numbers of older-class bucks.

  • Herd trends: Deer populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming were increasing and, in many areas, recovering well from recent hard winters.
    • Blacktail numbers on Kodiak Island, Alaska, also look good after a severe winter two years ago.
    • Washington’s deer numbers look solid, and blacktail and whitetail populations in Oregon are relatively stable.
  • Good public-land opportunities: John Vore, game management bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said eastern Montana and the Missouri River breaks offer good public-land deer hunting.
    • Grant Frost, senior wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said all of Wyoming’s many public areas provide deer hunting opportunity.
    • Idaho has more than 50 million acres of publicly owned land, including the Boise, Bitterroot and Couer d’Alene national forests.
  • What to expect this season: Daryl R. Meints, deer and elk coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said whitetail and mule deer hunting should be good this fall.
    • Vore had similar expectations for Montana, and Frost said Wyoming hunters should find more mature bucks than in recent years.
    • Meints cautioned hunters that 2017 continues to be an active wildfire season, so hunters should stay up to date on the latest fire info.
  • Hot states or areas: Nathan Svoboda, area wildlife biologist for Kodiak, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he anticipates fairly good blacktail hunting on Kodiak Island.
    • Frost said the eastern two-thirds of Wyoming should offer the best deer opportunities.
    • Vore recommended public ground in eastern Montana and the Missouri River breaks.

Southwest

Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.

Biologists say the varied opportunities in this broad region — blacktails in California; Coues whitetails in Arizona and New Mexico; whitetails in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico; and muleys in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico — are mixed but strong overall for 2017-’18.

  • Herd trends: Whitetail numbers in Texas and Oklahoma should be very good. Mule deer herds in Utah are stable.
    • Nevada muley numbers have increased slightly but remain lower than the peak in 2015, according to Covy Jones, big-game program coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
    • Dustin Darveau, terrestrial wildlife specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said deer numbers in the northern and eastern portions of Arizona remain stable, but populations in the central and western parts of the state have been significantly affected by drought.
  • Good public-land opportunities: Dallas Barber, big-game biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, recommended Kaw, Black Kettle and Three Rivers wildlife management areas.
    • Jones said Utah’s Central Mountains Manti Unit is a great public area.
    • Cody Schroeder, mule deer staff specialist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, pointed hunters toward Ruby Mountain Wilderness Area 10 and Toiyabe Range Area 17.
  • What to expect this season: Whitetail prospects in the eastern part of the region seem especially bright. Barber said Oklahoma had a fantastic 2017-’18 season for big whitetails, as hunters took more than 30 bucks with racks larger than 200 inches. The western part of the state experienced some drought this summer, but he looked for the area to rebound quickly.
    • Texas’ whitetail population has increased about 27 percent since 2005, according to Alan Cain, white-tailed deer program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
  • Hot states or areas: Schroeder said Lincoln County, Nevada, has produced large bucks recently.
    • Barber said southeastern Oklahoma was a big-buck hotspot in 2017-’18.
    • The Edwards Plateau, in south-central Texas, has that state’s highest deer population, Cain said.
    • The Jemez Mountains in New Mexico’s Sante Fe National Forest are a great spot to hunt mule deer, according to Orrin Duvuvuei, deer and pronghorn biologist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

Key Links to State Game Agencies

Northeast

1) Maine: https://www.maine.gov/ifw/hunting-trapping/hunting-laws/season-dates-bag-limits.html

2) Connecticut: https://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?q=597514

3) Rhode Island: dem.ri.gov/programs/bnatres/fishwild/pdf/huntabs.pdf 

4) New Hampshire: wildlife.state.nh.us/hunting/deer-wmu.html

5) Delaware: http://www.eregulations.com/delaware/hunting

6) Pennsylvania: https://www.pgc.pa.gov/HuntTrap/Law/Pages/SeasonsandBagLimits

7) New York: https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/28605.html

8) Maryland: http://www.eregulations.com/maryland/hunting

9) Vermont: http://www.eregulations.com/vermont/hunting

10) Massachusetts: https://www.mass.gov/service-details/deer-hunting-regulations

11) New Jersey: https://www.nj.gov/dep/fgw/hunting.htm

12) West Virginia: http://www.wvdnr.gov/hunting/hunting.shtm

Southeast

13) Louisiana: http://www.wlf.louisiana.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/page/42170-sample/18lahdlr.pdf

14) Arkansas: https://www.agfc.com/en/hunting/big-game/deer/deerzones

15) Mississippi: https://www.mdwfp.com/wildlife-hunting/deer-program

16) Georgia: http://www.eregulations.com/georgia/hunting

17) Kentucky: https://fw.ky.gov/Hunt/Documents/HuntingGuideEntire.pdf

18) Alabama: https://outdooralabama.com/hunting/seasons-and-bag-limits

19) Florida: myfwc.com/hunting/season-dates

20) North Carolina: https://www.ncwildlife.org/Hunting/Seasons-Limits

21) South Carolina: http://www.dnr.sc.gov/regs/pdf/regs1819.pdf

22) Tennessee: https://www.tn.gov/twra/hunting/big-game/deer.html

23) Virginia: https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/regulations

Midwest

24) Wisconsin: https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/hunt/dates.html

25) Minnesota: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/seasons.html

26) Michigan: https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-350-79119_79147_81438---,00.html

27) Iowa: http://www.iowadnr.gov/Hunting/Deer-Hunting

28) Kansas: https://ksoutdoors.com/Hunting/Big-Game-Information/Deer

29) Missouri: https://huntfish.mdc.mo.gov/hunting-trapping/species/deer

30) Illinois: https://www.dnr.illinois.gov/hunting/deer/Pages/DeerSeasonsDeadlinesAvailablePermits.aspx

31) Indiana: https://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/8367.htm

32) Ohio: http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/hunting-trapping-and-shooting-sports/hunting-trapping-regulations/season-dates-and-bag-limits

33) Nebraska: http://outdoornebraska.gov/deer

34) South Dakota: https://gfp.sd.gov/deer

35) Idaho: https://idfg.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/seasons-rules-big-game-deer-2017-2018.pdf

Northwest

36) Montana: http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting

37) Wyoming: https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Hunting/Hunt-Planner/Deer-Hunting

38) Alaska: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildliferegulations.hunting 

39) Oregon: https://www.dfw.state.or.us/resources/hunting/big_game

40) Colorado: https://cpw.state.co.us/Documents/RulesRegs/Brochure/BigGame/biggame.pdf

41) Washington: https://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations

Southwest

42) California: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/hunting/deer

43) Arizona: https://s3.amazonaws.com/azgfd-portal-wordpress/azgfd.wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/24093438/2018-19-AZ-Hunt-Regulations_WEB.pdf

44) New Mexico: http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/download/publications/rib/2016/hunting/2016_17-New-Mexico-Hunting-Rules-And-Info.pdf

45) Oklahoma: https://wildlifedepartment.com/huntingguide/#p=16

46) Texas: https://tpwd.texas.gov/regulations/outdoor-annual/regs/animals/white-tailed-deer

47) Nevada: http://www.eregulations.com/nevada/big-game

48) Utah: wildlife.utah.gov/hunting-in-utah/hunting-information/big-game.html

 


About the Author: Brian Lovett is a longtime outdoors writer. Currently, he serves as Realtree.com's waterfowl editor and field editor for the National Wild Turkey Federation's "On the Hunt" section. He lives in east-central Wisconsin with his wife and two dogs. You can follow his musings on Facebook (facebook.com/brian.lovett.58), Twitter, and Realtree.com.

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