As hunters stand poised to begin West Virginia’s firearm season for buck deer, one thing is certain: The season’s outcome is anything but certain.
State wildlife officials say there are plenty of nice bucks to hunt. They also say those animals should be harder than usual to locate, and that there might even be areas where disease outbreaks have caused deer die-offs.
“There are a lot of factors that determine the outcome of a deer season,” said Paul Johansen, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. “But overall, I think this is shaping up to be a good year.”
Johansen bases his optimism on the size and age structure of the state’s whitetail herd.
“We have plenty of deer, and overall they are in excellent health,” he said. “And we have a very strong age-class of 2 1/2-year-old bucks.”
Deer in that age-class are fully mature, and bucks of that age usually sport decent-sized antlers — not huge, but definitely “shooters” in most hunters’ eyes. Johansen attributed this year’s unusually high number of older-age bucks to a natural phenomenon that occurred two years ago.
“In the fall of 2014, the state enjoyed a bumper crop of [acorns and other wildlife foods],” he explained. “When food is abundant, deer reproduction is especially good. There were a lot of fawns born in the spring of 2015, and those fawns are 2 ½ years old now.”
Despite the presence of those older bucks, Johansen doesn’t expect an especially high harvest — partly because the state is enjoying another bumper crop of acorns, and partly because he isn’t sure how many deer died in a late-summer disease outbreak.
“The mast crop will definitely be a factor,” he said. “It’s a bumper year for acorns and other mast species, and that can have a significant impact on the behavior of deer.”
Hunters accustomed to finding deer in fields or along field edges aren’t likely to find them there this year. “Instead, the deer will be back in the woods, feeding on acorns — especially white-oak acorns, which is one of their most-favored foods,” Johansen predicted.
He said hunters who invested time in some preseason scouting should have a decided advantage over hunters who didn’t prepare: “Definitely, hunters who know where the deer are feeding are the ones most likely to succeed.”
Weather almost always plays a role in the buck season’s outcome. In 2015, for example, the state enjoyed cold, calm, almost perfect weather conditions during the season’s first three days. Hunters killed 60,814 bucks — their best season in years.
Last year, high winds in the state’s mountain and Eastern Panhandle counties put a damper on hunters’ success. The harvest fell to 46,071.
Johansen expects a similar kill this season. Hunters’ success, or lack of it, will likely hinge on weather conditions during the season’s first two to three days, when 60 percent of the kill usually takes place.
The other unknown factor in this year’s buck season is disease. In late summer and early fall, an outbreak of EHD — epizootic hemorrhagic disease — raced through whitetail herds in 19 of West Virginia’s 55 counties. The disease, while not always fatal to the animals it infects, put a dent in some areas’ deer populations.
“EHD could be a factor in the size of the harvest,” Johansen said. “It was pretty widespread across the Mid-Atlantic states and the Midwest this year. The scope of it here in West Virginia doesn’t appear to be as severe as in some other states, and our losses appear to be localized in certain areas. Still, hunters in those areas will see fewer deer.”
Johansen expects more than 300,000 hunters to head afield for the Nov. 20-Dec. 2 season, and he expects those hunters to add more than $150 million to the state’s economy.
“Deer season is the Big Kahuna for our sportsmen and sportswomen,” he said. “This is a time of the year when so many of our hunters revert to being kids again, getting really excited for opening day. It’s a time when we can appreciate the opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy all of what West Virginia has to offer.”