No one really knows how a hunting season will turn out.A lot of things can go wrong. Foul weather sometimes dampens hunters' hopes. Food shortages can cause animals to change their habits. Food abundances can, too. Disease occasionally takes a toll.There are human factors, too. It sometimes takes years for hunters to adjust to new seasons or regulation changes. Hunters who don't like the changes sometimes even "vote with their feet" and refuse to participate.This is my 32nd year as an outdoors columnist. I'm neither an expert on wildlife nor an expert at divining hunters' thoughts. I'm an experienced observer, though, and have opinions as to things that might happen during West Virginia's 2012 hunting season.Here are some of my thoughts:
Bowhunters will turn out in great numbers for the Sept. 29 archery-season opener. The same hunters who bellyached about the heat during the now-defunct September archery season for antlerless deer will happily brave sweltering temperatures for even the slightest opportunity to kill a trophy buck.Funny how all those concerns about meat spoilage suddenly disappear when antlers are involved. Last year, hunters couldn't be inconvenienced to put a cooler filled with ice into their vehicles; this year they'll happily do it. Hunters will show even more indifference toward the fall turkey season. The number of turkeys killed each autumn has fallen steadily over the past two decades. Last year just 1,186 turkeys were taken, a far cry from the early 1990s average of 3,500 or so.Biologists acknowledge that the turkey population isn't quite as high now as it was then, but they say the fall off has more to do with hunters' tastes than turkey numbers. Many of the sportsmen who hunted turkeys in past years have switched to bowhunting for deer. This year's bear kill will depend almost entirely on the abundance or scarcity of acorns and other mast items. Yeah, I know this is a Captain Obvious prediction, but it was low-hanging fruit just begging to be picked.Decades' worth of DNR data show a direct relationship between mast and the way hunters kill bears. When mast is plentiful, the gun kill is higher. When mast is scarce, the bow kill is higher. Hunters probably won't turn out in big numbers for the new three-day October antlerless deer season. There are three reasons:One, it's a new season, and DNR officials say it takes hunters two or three years to adjust to major season changes; two, it comes at a time just before the whitetail rut, and hunters might be more interested in bowhunting for pre-rut bucks than they are in using a gun to kill a doe; and three, many Mountain State deer hunters simply refuse to hunt antlerless deer. Squirrel hunters probably won't be as successful this year as they were last year. Squirrel numbers usually relate directly to the previous year's mast crop. West Virginia had a record-breaking mast crop in 2010, and squirrels were correspondingly abundant during the 2011 season. Last year's mast crop was so-so, and this year's squirrel population should be so-so as well. The number of waterfowl hunters will remain minuscule. It's a little weird, actually, but West Virginians have never been enthusiastic about duck or goose hunting. On average, they buy only 1,200 to 1,300 federal waterfowl stamps each year.
You'd think that in a state where 230,000 people identify as hunters, a greater percentage would try to take advantage of abundant goose, wood duck and mallard populations. There's never been much of a waterfowl-hunting tradition here, though, and that's probably why participation remains low.Aside from these not-so-bold predictions, the upcoming hunting season is a complete mystery. So - forward into the unknown! Have fun, everyone.