West Virginia’s archery and crossbow hunters are probably going to work a little harder this fall if they hope to kill a deer.
Preliminary reports indicate that white oak and chestnut oak trees have borne good crops of acorns this year. When acorns and other so-called “mast items” are abundant, hunters tend to have a more difficult time figuring out whitetails’ movement patterns.
“Overall, it’s looking like a pretty good mast year,” said Gary Foster, deputy wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. “Even so, I think this season’s archery and crossbow harvest should be in the neighborhood of 30,000 deer.”
That would comfortably eclipse last year’s total of 26,206. Foster believes the number of deer available will offset any increased difficulty hunters might encounter.
“Last year was a pretty good mast year, too, which means deer went into the winter well-fed,” he explained. “The winter was pretty mild, so deer came through it in good physical condition. That indicates we’ll have plenty of deer on the ground as we head into this fall’s hunting seasons.”
The archery/crossbow season is the earliest-starting Mountain State deer season. It’s also the longest. This year’s hunt will encompass slightly more than three months — Sept. 28 through Dec. 31.
“Our season compares pretty favorably with other states’,” Foster said. “As far as length is concerned, it’s in the middle of the pack. Some states have lengthier seasons, some have shorter.”
The season used to open in mid-October, but bowhunting’s growing popularity among West Virginians prompted state wildlife officials to move the opener to the last Saturday in September.
“It has become a very important season,” Foster said. “It’s safe to say it has gained popularity significantly over the last decade or so.”
DNR officials expect about 100,000 West Virginians to participate in this year’s archery hunt.
Many of those hunters will be using crossbows, something they once were forbidden to do. Crossbows became legal for general use in 2015, when pressure from archery-industry lobbying groups convinced the Legislature to lift a decades-old ban on the implements. The Legislature’s action sparked a mini-boom in crossbow sales as hunters switched over.
Foster said some hunters have grown to embrace archery or crossbow hunting to such a degree that they’ve turned their backs on firearms.
“Some guys never bother to pick up a gun anymore,” he said. “They go at it from opening day until the last day of the season, or at least until they run out of tags.”
Deer are found throughout West Virginia, and many hunters begin their archery hunts by walking out their back doors and hiking to their tree stands. The state’s deer population is highest in the northern and western counties, and that’s where archers tend to concentrate if they’re strictly hoping to put meat on the table.
For many Mountain State bowhunters, however, the archery-crossbow season is a time to focus on bagging trophy bucks. To accomplish that goal, they travel to four counties in the state’s southwestern region.
In Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties, firearm hunting for deer has been illegal since 1973. Wildlife officials closed the season there because there were hardly any deer to hunt. As the whitetail population rebounded, bowhunters began seeing — and killing — bucks that dwarfed those found throughout the rest of the state.
The four bow-only counties became a destination for trophy seekers, a status it maintains to this day. Wildlife officials, recognizing the uniqueness of the resource, have taken steps to avoid killing the proverbial “goose that lays the golden eggs.” Hunters there still aren’t allowed to use crossbows unless they have physical handicaps that make it impossible for them to use traditional bows.
Foster expects most of this year’s archery/crossbow kill to take place between opening day and mid-November.
“Historically, most of the harvest happens relatively early in the season,” he explained. “A lot of deer will be taken in the first week or two of the season, and there will be another peak around the [whitetail mating season] in early November. Action usually tapers off once the buck season begins, but there are always folks who keep hunting to the very last day.”
Bowhunters are allowed to take one deer of either sex per year on their base hunting licenses, and two more (one of which must be antlerless) by purchasing Class RB or RRB “extra-deer” licenses.