So much for the preliminaries. All over West Virginia, hunters are waiting for the Big Kahuna.
That’s the term state wildlife chief Paul Johansen uses to describe the firearm season for buck deer, and it fits. When the season opens on Monday morning, more than 250,000 hunters will take to the woods in pursuit of their favorite game animal. By the time the season ends, those hunters will have pumped roughly $230 million into the Mountain State economy.
“It’s huge,” said Johansen, chief of the Division of Natural Resources’ wildlife section. “Year in and year out, it’s our most significant hunting season. It’s what draws people to the woods, and it cannot be overstated or exaggerated.”
For 13 days, the state experiences what can only be described as “buck fever.” Schools close. Employees take leave or go on vacation. Some businesses go as far as to close their doors for a few days.
But not all. Out in the countryside, where people go to hunt, business booms.
“The best thing about the season’s economic impact is that the money flows out of the cities and into the rural areas,” Johansen said. “Hunters are in the mom-and-pop stores, buying ice, gasoline, Beanie Weenies — you name it.”
If the season goes as expected, those hunters will bag 40,000 to 45,000 antlered bucks, and as many as 30,000 antlerless deer. An average deer yields about 40 pounds of venison. So, by the time the season closes on Dec. 7, hunters will have added 2.8 million to 3 million pounds of low-fat red meat to their families’ food reserves.
Wildlife officials time the season to begin near the peak of the whitetail mating season.
“Mating behavior has a significant impact on deer behavior,” Johansen said. “Bucks have their minds on something other than eating, and that makes them more vulnerable to the gun.”
The length of the mating season, or rut, can vary a bit from year to year. Due to variations in the calendar, the season’s opening day can hit the peak of the rut or miss it slightly.
Johansen said this year’s opening day should be ideal.
“We’re talking prime time,” he added. “The rut should be in absolute full swing. Hunters should expect to see a lot of movement related to mating activity during the first week of the season.”
That should be good news to hunters, who focus their efforts heavily on the season’s first three days. Traditionally, those days account for more than 50 percent of the harvest.
That’s both a blessing and a curse. With so much activity focused on those first three days, weather becomes an important factor in hunters’ success. In 2015, for example, hunters enjoyed near-perfect weather — cold and clear, with a light coating of snow on the ground. The buck kill, which had averaged a little more than 50,000 in the previous three years, jumped to nearly 61,000. In 2017 and 2018, with less-than-ideal conditions on at least one of the three days, the harvest stayed near 44,000.
The buck firearm season used to focus exclusively on antlered bucks, but since 1999 properly licensed hunters have also been allowed to take antlerless deer.
“The antlerless component of the buck season is the primary tool we use to regulate deer populations,” Johansen said. “The buck season serves as a primary attractant for hunters who might not otherwise hunt for antlerless deer.”
The antlerless-deer option has accomplished what DNR officials wanted it to. Hunters still kill more bucks than does, but the ratio is not as extreme as it once was. In the 1990s, when whitetail populations were much higher, hunters routinely killed 15,000 to 25,000 more bucks than does. In recent seasons, the gap has narrowed to less than 15,000.
When biologists recommended antlerless-deer hunting in the buck season, they said giving hunters the option of taking a doe would make them less inclined to kill young bucks. They predicted that, over time, hunters would kill fewer yearling bucks and more in the 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-year-old range.
That has happened.
Johansen said that, 30 years ago, as many as 70 percent of the bucks brought into game-checking stations were yearlings with spike or 4-point antlers. In recent years, 38 percent of the bucks have been yearlings. An “average” buck is now slightly more than 2½ years old, with a 6- to 8-point rack.
Many of the largest-antlered bucks taken over the past two to three decades have come from counties located south and west of Interstates 64 and 77. Johansen said there are still big bucks there, but he added that hunters shouldn’t hesitate to look elsewhere.
“One never knows,” he said. “We’re seeing some dandy bucks coming out of the Ohio River counties, as well. There are also some big deer in the high eastern mountains, especially for hunters who are willing to hike into remote areas. Getting off the beaten track creates an opportunity to luck into an older-age deer, simply because those areas receive less hunting pressure.”
Deer hunting with firearms is allowed in 51 of the state’s 55 counties. The closed counties — Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming — have been archery-only since the 1970s.
During firearm seasons, all deer hunters must wear at least 400 square inches’ worth of fluorescent orange clothing.