On my morning walks this week, I could feel a crispness in the air. Not only could I feel a chill on my cheeks, I could also smell autumn in the air.
For those who hunt, you will understand that silly statement perfectly.
There is a smell and feel to the start of fall in West Virginia, and for those of us who choose to live the outdoor lifestyle, it signals that harvest time is coming soon to our hills.
For many of us, the availability of natural foods for wildlife is a very significant piece of the wildlife conservation equation.
To help us better understand that correlation, we are blessed to have a resource that contains extremely valuable information.
That resource is the annual Mast Survey and Hunting Outlook that the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources publishes every year. Here are some highlights that are on-topic for this column.
The DNR, in conjunction with the Division of Forestry, annually surveys the state to determine the relative abundance of soft and hard mast produced by trees and shrubs of importance to wildlife populations.
Compared to the 2020 survey year, the statewide combined index for all monitored species was up approximately 61% for the survey year 2021.
Beech showed the largest improvements (up 207%) in hard mast production from year to year. In addition, hickory (up 131%), walnut (up 119%), and chestnut oak (up 111%) all showed dramatic improvements in 2021. White oak was up slightly but still did not produce consistently across the Mountain State.
Black/red, scarlet and scrub oaks were down 48%, 60% and 6%, respectively. Overall, it’s going to be a very spotty year for oak production. Hunters who find good acorn production should concentrate their efforts in those areas.
All soft mast producers improved, in some cases dramatically, in 2021. Apple production increased 566% over 2020 and had an incredible index of 76. Crabapple, hawthorn, grape and black cherry were up 188, 171, 124 and 123%, respectively.
These soft mast producers will have a pronounced impact on wildlife movements this fall and into early winter.
Bowhunters should look for good apple production and concentrate efforts there while grouse and turkey hunters may have better luck around some of the other species. The remaining soft mast species saw improvement over 2020.
Hunting outlook predictions
Despite the liberal seasons for 2021, we are predicting a lower bear harvest. The archery harvest should be lower in 2021. The firearms bear harvest will likely be lower than the harvest of 2020.
The total white-tailed deer harvest in 2021 should be similar to that of 2020.
The buck firearms harvest, archery harvest, antlerless harvest, muzzleloader harvest and Mountaineer Heritage Season harvest should all be similar to the harvest in 2020.
Squirrels: Hunters should expect lower harvests in the 2021-2022 season.
Fall turkeys: The wild turkey harvest should be higher than last year because of increased reproduction.
Wild boar: Mast conditions from 2020 coupled with a high harvest should produce a harvest lower than that of 2020.
Raccoon: Hunters should expect lower raccoon harvests during 2021-2022.
Rabbits: Hunters should expect higher rabbit populations this year.
Ruffed Grouse: All things considered, hunters should experience a higher number of bird contacts this year.
Good luck this fall.