John McCoy: Are record-breaking bucks a thing of the past in WV?

Photo courtesy WVDNR

Trophy bucks are fairly abundant nowadays in West Virginia, but record-breaking bucks have become downright scarce.

In the 1990s, record bucks came along almost every year. Sparked by deer-herd expansion in the state’s four bow-only counties, archery records tumbled like marbles down a staircase. The mark for bow-killed bucks with typical antlers, for example, changed hands four times in a six-year span — twice in 1994 alone!

Archery records weren’t the only ones to fall. Also in 1994, Junior Bailes of Nettie broke the state’s 17-year-old record for gun-killed typicals with a picture-perfect 10-pointer that measured 185 4/8 inches on the Boone and Crockett Club scoring scale. In 1997, Ivan McLaughlin of Kermit shattered a 21-year-old record for gun-killed non-typicals with a 31-pointer that totaled an astonishing 231 5/8 inches.

Only one of those 1990s-era records has since been broken. In 2014, bowhunter Chad Scyphers killed a McDowell County typical that scored 188 7/8 on the Pope and Young Club scale, easily eclipsing Mark Lester’s 1998 record of 175 6/8.

What happened? Why aren’t records falling like they used to?

I’m not a biologist, but I have opinions:

First, West Virginia has fewer deer today than it had in the ‘90s. In 1999, natural resources officials realized the state had more whitetails than the land could support. To lessen the overpopulation problem, they set up the state’s firearm seasons in a way that encouraged hunters to kill more female deer.

As expected, populations gradually declined. With fewer deer on the landscape, fewer bucks are available to grow record-class antlers. It’s simple arithmetic.

The other part of the equation is more complicated; the same regulations that reduced the state’s deer herd also increased bucks’ potential to grow bigger antlers. Here’s how:

When hunters kill female deer instead of bucks, more bucks reach an age necessary to grow larger racks. Data gathered from the Division of Natural Resources’ biological deer-check stations indicate that today’s average buck is 2½ years old instead of 1½, weighs more and has a greater antler-beam diameter.

Almost all of those gains are being realized in counties open to firearms. A look at the state’s Big Buck Certification Program lists will tell you that. Back in the 1990s, a huge percentage of the high-scoring bucks came from the four bow-only counties. Nowadays the percentages are more balanced, with trophy bucks being killed in counties that rarely produced them before.

The bow-only counties still produce plenty of big bucks, but not as many as before. Why?

Again, my opinion: The deer herd in those counties was still growing in the 1990s. The population has stabilized since then. The benefits of rapid growth have disappeared. Also, hunting pressure in those counties has gotten ridiculous.

The final factor, I believe, is technology. Back in the day, most of the hunters who killed record-breaking bucks said they had no prior knowledge of the animals they killed. Today, through the use of game cameras, hunters are able to identify, pattern and target specific bucks.

So, will anyone ever kill another record buck in West Virginia? Probably. But will we ever return to the record-breaking rampage of the 1990s? Probably not.

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