Venison cook-off winners:
• 1st: Preston Blankenship
• 2nd: Hannah Burkett
• 3rd: Haley Blankenship
• 1st: Cornelia Gillis (roast)
• 2nd: Alvin Lougue (jambalaya)
• 3rd: Heather Phinney (jerky)
• 1st: Julie Herrman
• 2nd: Robyn Cooney
• 3rd: Nathan Jones
Active-duty and retired soldiers, along with family members of all ages, filled every table at Club Stewart’s main ballroom Saturday evening for the fourth annual Wildlife Gala and Venison Cook-off to learn about hunting and fishing opportunities on the largest military installation east of the Mississippi River.
Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield has 22 ponds and lakes and more than 260 miles of “blackwater” creeks and rivers, as well as excellent populations of whitetail deer, eastern wild turkeys, feral hogs and a variety of game birds and small animals, according to the Directorate of Public Works’ Fish and Wildlife Branch.
Information tables covered in displays that featured living and stuffed animals plus hunting, fishing, boating and camping equipment represented DPW’s Fish and Wildlife, Conservation Law Enforcement, Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, DPW’s Forestry Branch, Stewart’s Pass and Permit Office. Vendors of outdoor equipment and services lined the walls of the Family & Morale, Welfare and Recreation-sponsored event.
The night also included a tribute to Rosemary Robinson, a 29-year civilian employee who died in November. Robinson was working at the Pass and Permit Office at the time of her death.
Probably the favorite section of tables included the cook-off competitors, who provided samples of their venison recipes in three categories: chili, miscellaneous and kid-friendly.
“I’ve hunted here for many years,” said retired soldier Paul Smith. “I’ve caught some huge bass here, too, including one weighing 15.9 pounds from Mintz Pond and one weighing 15.15 pounds from Pineview Pond.”
“I always take my grandkids to the kids’ fishing derby here on post,” said Sammy Wilson, another retired soldier who shared hunting and fishing stories with Smith as they decided on their favorite venison chili. “I primarily hunt mature bucks. I’ve turned down some ‘iffy’ shots lots of times. I killed one here that weighed 205 pounds.”
A healthy deer population is the life’s work of the event’s guest speaker, Joe Hamilton, a wildlife biologist, who founded the Quality Deer Management Association in 1988 and now serves as director of development for the organization, which has 47,000 members in 50 states and six foreign countries.
Hamilton, who has a bachelor’s degree in forestry and a master’s in wildlife biology from the University of Georgia, spoke during the mid-point of the night’s activities. He followed the tasting/judging of the venison recipes and talks with taxidermy experts like Todd Johnson of Critters and More Taxidermy or Randy Markin of Beard Creek Taxidermy, outdoor artist Benjamin Turner, Muddpuppi Custom Calls and other vendors, including Bass Pro Shop of Savannah.
“The biggest problem with traditional deer management is that it’s designed for maximum deer harvest, which means 75 to 90 percent bucks,” Hamilton explained. “We need to allow the bucks to get older and bigger, which means shifting the pressure to the does and helps balance the sex ratio.
“If there’s one word that can best define quality deer management, it would be education. More people hunt whitetail than any other game animal. We need to pull hunters together to establish healthy populations of mature bucks.”
FMWR outdoor recreation director Susan Chipple announced the winners of the installation’s “Big Buck” and “Hogs Gone Wild” contests. Staff Sgt. John Farvour took first place in both contests, having taken a buck with a score of 117 3/8 points and four feral hogs during the 2011 hunting season. Second place for the Big Buck contest was Stephen Eichelberger with a score of 91 4/8 points. Allen Murray took third place with a score of 45 2/8 points. Kenneth Sikes took second in the wild hog contest with one hog harvested in 2011.
Drawings also were held for a .308 Mossberg rifle donated by Hinesville Gold and Silver Pawn, and a jon boat donated by Bass Pro Shop of Savannah.