From all indications, this could be a banner year for trophy bucks in West Virginia.
The final verdict won't be rendered until the official scorers do their work, but the consensus seems to be that hunters killed oodles of trophy-class whitetails.
Everywhere I've checked - in taxidermist's shops, on Internet message boards, and in interviews with hunters, biologists and law enforcement officers - I've heard the same thing: A bumper crop of trophy bucks were roaming the woods this year, and hunters got a fair share of them.
True, the evidence is anecdotal, but there's an awful lot of it.
"It was fairly predictable, with the mast crop we had last fall and all those bucks carrying over into this year," said Gene Thorn, who coordinates the Division of Natural Resources' Big Buck Club. "I'm starting to get calls from folks who want to have their bucks scored [for possible Big Buck Club membership]. It sounds like it's going to be a big year."
Earlier this week, I got to compare notes with several Natural Resources Police officers from the state's southern and southeastern counties. They said they had seen an increase in poaching, and they attributed the increase to the abundance of big-antlered deer.
"There's a lot of temptation out there," one of them said.
Many of this season's poaching busts were for deer that sported impressive headgear. A few poachers, prosecuted under the state's new law that sets high replacement fees for trophy bucks, paid fines that totaled in the thousands.
Of course, most bucks were killed legally. Dustin Deaton, an official antler scorer in McDowell County, said he's already getting requests for scoring sessions.
"Most of the requests are coming from McDowell and Wyoming counties," he said. "One taxidermist told me that in his shop alone, he has 30 to 40 deer that will qualify for the Big Buck Contest."
To qualify for the contest, a bow-killed buck's antlers must score at least 125 typical or 155 non-typical. The criteria for gun kills are 140 typical and 165 non-typical. Last year, only 66 deer statewide made it into the club.
Paul Cook, who owns Hillbilly Taxidermy in Chapmanville, said this has been his best year ever for buck-mount requests.
"I've probably taken 100 bow kills already," he said. "In a normal year I usually get about 20 gun kills. This year I've gotten between 50 and 55."
Not all the bucks are from the bow-only counties. Cook said he's also seen trophy-class racks from Jackson and Braxton counties, areas not exactly renowned for big-buck production.
"I'm even getting some monster eight-pointers," he added. "One I've got from Boone County will probably score 145 or thereabouts."
One thing that appears to set this year's deer apart from previous years' is their antler mass.
"Even the smaller racks seem to have great mass," Cook said. "With all the acorns we had last year, the deer had plenty to eat and were able to grow some heavy racks."
Deaton echoed Cook's observations about mass.
"On some racks, I bet you'll get 30 inches [in additional measurement] just because the antlers are so heavy," Deaton said.
When he was visiting game-checking stations to collect check tags, Deaton said he saw sure-fire evidence that this year was a banner year for trophies.
"A lot of stations display pictures of hunters who take big bucks," he explained. "This year, when you see the quality of the deer, you ask, 'Are you sure we aren't in Ohio?'"