Maryland's sika deer offer a chance at an exotic hunt in the eastern U.S.
When most people think of an exotic hunting adventure, they likely picture a trip to a faraway place. Unless you are stepping foot inside of a high fence, there are not many areas to hunt for non-native species in the continental U.S. Unless you venture to the eastern shore of Maryland.
For it is here that a small sika deer population has thrived for years. Originally native to Japan, these "miniature elk" have taken well to this part of the state's marshes and wetlands. And there is enough there for there to be a sika deer hunting season.
What's even cooler is the fact there are public land opportunities at these animals. However, killing one is no easy feat. Read on to learn more about the unique opportunity that is Maryland sika deer hunting.
How did Sika deer get to Maryland anyway?
Maryland's sika deer herds have remained in relative obscurity until recent years when their popularity has exploded. We believe you can thank the rise of YouTube hunting shows and appearances on "MeatEater" at least partially for that. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, these animals were first introduced to the state when they were released on James Island back in 1916 by Clement Henry.
A few years later, more of the animals were introduced to Assateague Island in the 1920s. The animals thrived and today they inhabit all the eastern shore counties. However, Dorchester County has the highest concentration. It didn't take long for biologists and the DNR to implement a hunting season for these elusive little guys. Mostly because they were worried about sika deer populations expanding and competing with native whitetail deer. Thanks to generous bag limits and careful management, it seems they have managed to keep the population isolated to those counties.
There are no worries about confusing a sika with a whitetail. This is a tiny deer species. We are talking about an animal that dresses in the 45 to 50-pound range for an average adult female or young male. Older males might tip the scales at 100 pounds dressed, but that's uncommon. The males have small, branched antlers that look like elk antlers. For many hunters, any sika stag is considered a shooter. Forks, and six-pointers are almost always shooters. Anything larger than that is usually considered a once-in-a-lifetime animal.
What is the hunting season for sika deer in Maryland? And what licenses do I need?
The cool thing about sika deer is the seasons are nearly identical to the seasons for whitetail deer hunting. This means you can hunt both species simultaneously if you can find an area that concentrates both. The season is broken up into three sections, archery, muzzleloader, and firearms. The dates are as follows:
- Archery hunting: September 10-October 20, October 24-November 26, December 13-December 17, January 2-January 6, January 10-January 31.
- Muzzleloader: October 21-23, December 18-January 1. Antlerless only: October 25-October 30 in Region B.)
- Firearms: November 27-December 11, January 7-January 9.
As for licenses, you will need a Maryland hunting license. Thankfully, it's an extremely affordable hunt. For residents the license is just $20. For non-residents, it's $130. You will also need an archery, muzzleloader, or bonus antlered deer stamp. The cost for these stamps is $6 for residents and $25 for non-residents. Some public hunting areas may have additional required permits and fees. Still, just factoring in license costs, this is one of the more affordable out-of-state deer seasons in which one can participate in the eastern U.S.
The bag limits are also generous, allowing the harvest of up to three animals. Only one can be antlered. However, you shouldn't expect to just stack them up once you go. As we will get into later, these deer are tougher to hunt than whitetails.
Is there public land to hunt sika deer in Maryland?
Yes, there are several options for a DIY-style hunt for these elusive little deer. The two most notable ones are in Dorchester County. There is the Taylor's Island Wildlife Management Area, which is roughly 1,000 acres, and then there is the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, which is around 20,000 acres. These areas do receive a ton of hunting pressure, so be sure to factor that into your strategy when selecting an area. Two more options include the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore. Note that these areas often require additional permits and have regulations that can vary slightly from the usual state regulations. It is recommended your contact these areas if you are considering a hunt there for more information.
Hunting sika deer is a real challenge.
Many hunters are excited to try their hand at sikas due to the unique look of the animals and venison that has a wildly different taste than you might be used to with whitetails. However, many hunters are quickly humbled with just how difficult these animals are to harvest. Remember what we said about the weights of these animals? They only stand about two and a half feet tall at most at the shoulder. Considering they like to inhabit marshy, swampy areas with tons of cover, they are considerably harder to spot than a whitetail. In many cases you are better off listening for the sound of them running through the standing water than you are in spotting them first.
Because of the swampy areas these deer like to live in, most hunters prefer to use treestands. Because spot and stalking can be extremely difficult, if not impossible in most scenarios. Sika deer are notoriously difficult to scout and pattern too. Mostly because they are wanderers who can cover a lot of ground in a day. Your best bet is to figure out where they are bedding and try to find trails feeding in and out of these spots. These deer are not as willing to come into the open as a whitetail is, which adds to the challenge. Keep an eye out for phragmites, which are a type of reed grasses. Sikas love using them for cover. Stand setups on the edges of these reeds can be quite effective.
There is one similarity to whitetail hunting. The rut is unquestionably the best time to pursue these animals because it's the most likely a time a big stag is going to make a mistake. In Maryland, this usually happens in mid-October, which means most people are either bowhunters, or they're using a muzzleloader. In any case, you'll know when the stags are close. For a small animal, their bugling is an unearthly loud scream that echoes through the woods and marshes for hundreds of yards like a bull elk in Colorado.
If you are uncertain if a stag is hanging around the area, keep an eye out for their wallows. Sika stags like to mark their territory with these scrapes. If you smell urine, it's a good sign the wallow is fresh and is being used frequently. If you start hearing bugling, odds are a stag is in the area. Careful calling can bring in aggressive stags looking to fight a rival.
Also keep food sources in mind. Except for acorns, it's not the usual corn, soybeans, and other crops you might expect. Sikas like feeding on green gasses, mast, and even poison ivy. If you can find an area with trails leading from a bedding area to these types of food sources with phragmites present, odds are the sikas will be nearby.
Wherever you hunt, make sure to practice your shooting before you go. Remember these animals make for an extremely small target. Odds are you will have to thread the needle on a shot through some extremely thick cover. It helps to practice those hard shots on smaller targets before you go, especially with archery equipment.
Hiring an outfitter.
Because of the difficulty in hunting these animals, many people prefer to hire a guide to help them locate these sneaky animals in the vast swaths of marshy wilderness. Outfitters can also get you access to private lands that you wouldn't be able to hunt otherwise. Many outfitters will also guide you on a duck hunt or goose hunting too. The areas favored by sika are close to the legendary waterfowl hunting in the Chesapeake Bay region. Some hunters like to make sika and waterfowl a combination trip.
The nice thing about hiring an outfitter is that the hunts are still affordable. Most guides charge between $250-$350 a day, which is not that bad when you compare a hunt for these tiny elk-look-alikes to a guided hunt for a Rocky Mountain bull elk somewhere in the west.
Maryland's sika deer herd offers a unique chance to take a non-native deer in an easily accessible setting. It may be one of the more challenging hunts you will ever go on, but it is also one of the most rewarding.
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