Deer can be found nearly everywhere in West Virginia, and that’s both good and bad for hunters.
It’s good because most hunters don’t have to travel far to find game. It’s bad because it’s hard to determine where the best hunting areas are.
Identifying the counties where the most deer are killed is tricky. The numbers are easy enough to find, but determining what they mean takes some analysis.
Large counties tend to have large harvests — not necessarily because they have better hunting, but because they have more land. Hunters can get a more accurate picture of a county’s deer potential by looking at the number of whitetails killed per square mile.
Even that approach has its problems, though. Tiny counties usually have disproportionately high kills per square mile, but can’t accommodate many hunters.
The true best-bet counties have the highest deer kills per square mile, enough area to accommodate plenty of hunters, and enough public land to allow people from outside the area to get in on the fun.
All of that information can be found on the Division of Natural Resources’ website, www.wvdnr.gov, in the annual Big Game Bulletin and in the agency’s list of state-managed wildlife management areas.
Or just read on. The Gazette-Mail outdoors staff has taken the liberty of putting together a list of counties that combine all the necessary qualities — above-average deer kills per square mile, at least 300 square miles of deer habitat, and at least two substantial wildlife management areas. With no further ado, here they are:
1. Lewis County
For long-time observers of the Mountain State deer-hunting scene, Lewis County’s spot atop the rankings should come as no surprise. It’s been a consistent whitetail producer since the early 1990s, at times a spectacular one.
Last year, hunters bagged 3,158 deer within the county’s borders, an average of 8.47 per square mile.
One of Lewis County’s best features is the amount of public land open to hunting. The 18,289-acre Stonewall Jackson Wildlife Management Area is the largest, followed by a sizable portion of the 2,985-acre Stonecoal WMA and the 252-acre Smoke Camp WMA.
2. Preston County
Counties with large surface areas don’t usually rank high on the deer-per-square-mile list. Preston County is the exception.
Hunters there killed 5,322 whitetails last fall, the state’s highest total by a long shot. Preston’s average of 8.42 deer per square mile ranked sixth, an unusually high placement for a county more than 600 square miles in size.
About half of the 12,747-acre Coopers Rock State Forest lies within Preston’s borders, as does most of the rugged 3,092-acre Snake Hill WMA.
3. Ritchie County
Though its reputation as a hunting hotspot isn’t quite as lofty as some other counties’, Ritchie County has been one of West Virginia’s most prolific whitetail producers for more than two decades.
Last year, hunters killed 3,283 deer within the county’s borders, an average of 7.41 per square mile.
Hunters kill most of Ritchie’s deer on private property, but there are public-land opportunities as well: the 2,300-acre Ritchie Mines WMA, part of the 967-acre Sand Hill WMA, and part of the 10,000-acre Hughes River WMA.
4. Monongalia County
As a county that sits adjacent to whitetail-rich Preston County, Monongalia shares its neighbor’s penchant for producing plenty of deer.
Hunters bagged 2,274 deer in Monongalia last year, an average of 7.34 per square mile.
Some of those deer came from Monongalia’s share of the aforementioned Coopers Rock State Forest and Snake Hill WMA. Others came from the 1,036-acre Little Indian Creek WMA and the 766-acre Pedlar WMA.
5. Jackson County
Located about halfway between Charleston and Parkersburg, Jackson County gets plenty of attention from hunters, and for good reason. The county’s blend of forested hills and rich Ohio River bottomland creates close-to-ideal deer habitat.
Jackson’s hunters killed 2,871 whitetails last fall, an average of 6.42 per square mile.
Public-land opportunities in Jackson include the 2,587-acre Frozen Camp WMA, the 217-acre O’Brien Lake WMA and the 1,696-acre Woodrum Lake WMA.
6. Monroe County
Most West Virginians think of Monroe County as farm country, and they’re right. But it also straddles two high, heavily forested ridges along the Virginia border. Deer thrive in both habitats.
Hunters in Monroe killed 2,942 whitetails last year, an average of 6.35 per square mile.
The county offers three sizable public tracts: the Jefferson National Forest’s 18,526-acre Potts Creek WMA, the George Washington NF’s 428-acre Cove Creek WMA, and the DNR’s 775-acre Moncove Lake WMA.
7. Mason County
It’s not the lights-out deer producer it used to be, but Mason County still ranks as one of the state’s best bets for whitetail action.
The county’s hunters bagged 2,562 deer last fall, an average of 6.20 per square mile.
Both of Mason’s major public areas are popular whitetail-hunting spots — the 11,772-acre Chief Cornstalk WMA near Southside and the 3,655-acre McClintic WMA north of Point Pleasant. Antler-restriction regulations are in effect at McClintic; bucks taken must have antlers at least as wide as their outspread ears.
8. Braxton County
Located smack in the middle of the state, Braxton has more than 30,000 acres of public land — a feature that makes it a frequent destination spot for deer hunters.
Last year, those hunters killed 2,982 whitetails, an average of 5.95 per square mile.
Braxton’s two public tracts offer an abundance of elbow room — 18,225 acres at the Elk River WMA and 12,579 acres at the Burnsville Lake WMA.
Upshur, Taylor and Tyler counties are all terrific whitetail-hunting locations. All of them finished among the top nine in deer per square mile. They didn’t make the best-bets list only because they lacked public hunting opportunities or had fewer than 300 square miles of whitetail habitat.