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Oh, deer! Where is home to the best hunts?

4/18/2006
Bob Walker poses with a trophy buck taken right outside of Philadelphia. 

Somewhere along the line, the nature of deer hunting changed a bit. Where once it was strictly a rural sport, reserved either for the cornfields of farm country or the deep woods up North, now it's becoming an urban game.

Throughout the United States, the rise of suburban deer herds has created something of a deer-hunting irony. While we like to think the biggest deer are living and hiding in the most remote, most desolate parts of the state, odds are, we're more likely to find the next state record lurking behind the local 7-Eleven.

Why? In a word, access.

In suburban areas, where almost all of the land is private, the bucks have had a chance to grow. But that is starting to change. In these, the top-seven deer-hunting cities — according to resource managers and other wildlife and hunting sources across the country — public attitude toward deer is starting to shift from novelty to nuisance and access is coming open.

1.) Louisville

Location: Northwest Kentucky

Population: 269,063

First chartered by the Virginia legislature in 1780 and named for Louis XVI of France, Louisville traces its roots to a humble portage town near the falls of the Ohio River. Since then it has become known for many things: Churchill Downs, the setting of the now-infamous Kentucky Derby (first held in 1875); final resting place of Zachary Taylor, 12th U.S. president; and home to some of the largest whiskey distilleries in the country.

But, of late, Louisville is making a name on the backs of its great, big deer. Over the course of recent history, Jefferson County, which is made up almost entirely of Louisville, has produced a 178-class non-typical, a 160-class typical and Kentucky's third-heaviest deer — a hog that spun the scales to a stunning 283 pounds dressed.

According to David Yancy, assistant deer biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, tight access and the relative lack of hunting pressure are chief driving factors behind the large deer. But if you get into a spot, at least you're assured a hunt; deer densities in Jefferson County sit at 19 per square mile and antlerless tags for the county are unlimited.

For more information, contact the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources at 800-858-1549.

2.) Milwaukee

Location: Southeastern Wisconsin

Population: 628,088

Of the 96 or so square miles that Milwaukee covers, nearly half that was added through annexations between 1945 and 1960. As a result, within the technical city limits, you'll still come across farmlands and fields of corn, soybeans, winter wheat and alfalfa, interspersed by small woodlots. In other words, deer habitat.

And it is habitat that requires a heavy hand. Most of the units in the area have an objective of 15 to 20 deer per square mile, but this year, the state will enact a more liberal harvest structure — called 'T' regulations — to increase harvests. They need it. One unit 10 miles north of the city has an objective of 15 deer per square mile; currently, it has 27. And a few parks within city limits (ones that unfortunately are off-limits to hunting) have densities of 70 to 100 deer per mile.

According to Tom Isaac, a wildlife biologist with Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, most of the city suburbs are open to bowhunting, with select areas on the fringes of town open to shotguns.

Is it worth hunting? You be the judge. Unlike other units in the state, Milwaukee's Unit 77M doesn't close for gun season, meaning it offers more than four months of uninterrupted bowhunting. And as for the deer, last year the suburban county of Kenosha gave up a slammer, a 197 6/8 typical and Wisconsin's second largest typical on record.

For more information, contact the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at 608-266-2621.

3.) New York

Location: Southeast New York

Population: 7,322,564

It's no accident New York is called the "Big" Apple. At a surface area of 309 square miles and a burgeoning population, it's the largest city in North America. But if you head just 20 miles north of the small island of Manhattan, up into the county of Westchester, you'll find the word "big" is more frequently applied to the deer.

Certainly that's the word Rich Johnson was using in 1998 when he rolled through New York suburbia on his way back from a hunt. With him was a buck of the ages, a 180 1/8-inch monster and the largest bow typical deer taken in New York. And, believe it or not, that deer died not 40 miles from the Empire State Building.

"Access is the key," said Dick Henry, a biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "It's tight, and that lets the bucks get big." It also keeps the hunting good. In Westchester County, which is a bow-only area, bucks outnumber does in the harvest (665 to 562 in 1999) and tags are liberal. To control the herd, Henry pushed for a system that rewards successful hunters; now for every six deer taken in Westchester, four of them are bucks.

For more information, contact the Region 3 office of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation at 914-256-3098.

4.) Cincinnati

Location: Southwest Ohio

Population: 364,040

With sprawling suburbs pushing through the once-agricultural Hamilton County, it was only a matter of time before the deer got out of hand. In 1994, faced with complaints of eaten shrubbery and high-speed meetings between deer and cars, Ohio's Division of Wildlife set up an "Urban Zone" structure around Cincinnati. It allows additional antlerless tags to be purchased over the counter. Now, according to Mike Tonkovich, a state wildlife research biologist, hunters can "take a whole pile of deer."

That might not be enough. Deer densities in the county range from a low of 20 deer per square mile to nearly 180 in some county parks. Hamilton County is mostly bow-only, and as such harvests are relatively small — only 1,400 or so deer in 1999. What are not small are the bucks. Last year, Colrain Township, which is part of Hamilton County, gave up a 186 7/8 behemoth.

For more information, contact the Ohio Division of Wildlife at 614-265-6300.

5.) Minneapolis

Location: East Minnesota

Population: 368,383

The city was built on the strength of its natural resources. Through the 19th century, it served as a port city along the Mississippi River and a central distribution link between the rich timber, farming and cattle industries and the rest of the world. No surprise, then, that as the city morphs into a financial and high-tech center, it still retains its natural roots.

Harvest density maps from the state Department of Natural Resources show an average take between 1.6 and 2.6 deer per square mile in Minneapolis. Move just 18 miles north and harvests jump to between 4.6 and 7.4 per square mile, as high as any take identified by the state.

Why the difference?

It's not a lack of deer. Kevin Lines, farmland wildlife program leader with Minnesota's DNR, puts deer densities in the metro region between 15 and 30 animals per square mile. The difference stems from a lack of hunting; guys are just having trouble getting access to the herds. But if you get in, have fun; the DNR allows hunters to take up to five deer in some metro areas. If that doesn't work, there's always the 22,000 acres of the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area, just a half-hour's drive outside of town.

For more information, contact the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at 651-296-6157.

6.) Pittsburgh

Location: Southwest Pennsylvania

Population: 369,879

In this working town, there are two pillars of communal life: Steelers football and deer hunting. But while once a good hunt required a trip into the hills, the rise of suburban deer hunting has made it possible to shoot a buck and still make it back in time for kickoff.

"You can be hunting 20 minutes from town — depending on traffic," said Dan Sitler, wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "Allegheny County drops off to rural habitat pretty quickly once you get outside of Pittsburgh and our regulations of bow- or shotgun-only make for some good buck hunting. For instance, I know a guy who passed 14 bucks last year before finally shooting the one he wanted. Then, come November, I found a buck that had been hit by a car: his rack scored 155."

The harvest stats back up Sitler. In 1999, Allegheny posted 2,191 bucks and a total harvest of 7,596, an impressive take made even more so by Allegheny's ban on centerfire rifles and handguns. Another thing that makes this hunting impressive is the access, which is fairly open compared to most other urban hunts. Sitler says the towns of Fox Chapel and Upper St. Clair, and O'Hara Township are bowhunter-friendly and both North and South County Parks have bowhunting programs. In addition, Allegheny County has 2,000 acres in a co-op program and over 1,000 acres in a local wildlife management area.

For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Southwest Regional Office at 877-877-7137.

7.) Philadelphia

Location: Southeast Pennsylvania

Population: 1,436,287

Despite its standing as America's fifth largest city, Philly enjoys some outstanding deer hunting. Just ask Bob Walker, founder of Walker's Game Ear — a hearing enhancement device — and resident of suburban town of Media. "Buddy, I'll tell you, Philly has some outstanding deer hunting," he said. "In some places where I hunt, it's not uncommon for me to see 30 or so deer off stand on a single post. It's incredible."

Walker credits the population explosion with the rise of suburbia and the resulting decline in deer hunting from anti-hunting sentiments. But all that's changing. "The Philly suburbs, especially Delaware County where I hunt, have a tremendously high concentration of Lyme disease. That's changing the attitudes about deer and deer hunting. Where once hunters couldn't get access, now landowners are calling us."

In response the booming deer population, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has liberalized permits extensively, to the point where hunters can just about take as many antlerless deer as they like. And you can see this in the harvest figures. Delaware County took 1,316 deer in 1999; antlerless deer made up close to three-quarters of the take.

For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Southeast Regional Office, 610-926-3136.

This article originally appeared on ESPNOutdoors.com in May 2001.