Times have changed for West Virginia’s deer hunters.
A couple of decades ago, most of the deer killed during the state’s two-week buck firearm season were yearlings with tiny antlers. Now, on the eve of the 2018 firearm season, the average buck is a full year older and has larger, heavier antlers.
Paul Johansen, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the buck population’s age structure began to change shortly after the agency broke with tradition and gave properly licensed hunters the option of killing both antlered and antlerless deer during the gun season.
“Having the flexibility to hunt a buck or a doe during the concurrent season has had the spinoff benefit of reducing pressure on the buck population,” Johansen said.
In the past, hunters spent the opening day of the season looking for bucks with sizable antlers. If a couple of days went by and no nice bucks showed up, those hunters lowered their expectations and took any buck with antlers at least 3 inches in length.
Johansen recalls those days.
“I remember working game-checking stations 30-some years ago,” he said. “It wasn’t uncommon for 70 percent of the bucks coming in to be ‘yearlings,’ just 1½ years old. Now that proportion is down to 37 or 38 percent. That’s a very positive change in deer-population dynamics. We’re seeing more older-age deer in the harvest, and that’s a good thing.”
The state has since switched to an electronic game-checking system that allows hunters to register their kills without having to visit a check station, but they’ve kept tabs on deer-herd dynamics by operating “biological check stations” from time to time in selected counties.
During last year’s firearm season, hunters — virtually and physically — checked in 44,127 antlered bucks. Johansen believes they’ll kill more during this year’s hunt, which begins on Monday and ends on Dec. 1.
“We’re expecting an outstanding buck season, and I don’t use that term lightly,” he said. “Reports from the field indicate a very healthy deer population, and anecdotally I’m hearing there are some very fine bucks out there. I don’t look for a drastic increase in the kill, but [agency biologists] do anticipate it will go up.”
Weather, Johansen added, will play a major role in harvest size.
“Hunters take most of their deer during the first three days of the season,” he said. “After that, they start filtering home to enjoy Thanksgiving with their families. If we have good weather, especially on those first three days, we’ll have a good harvest.”
Two other factors could help determine just how many deer get killed. One is the “rut,” the whitetail mating season, which might still be causing deer to move about. The other is “mast,” nuts and other wildlife foods, which might affect where hunters will find their quarry.
Johansen said that if the rut is still on, its effects will outstrip even the animals’ desire to eat. If rutting activity has waned by the season’s opening days, hunters should try to focus on areas where white oak trees are abundant.
“White oak acorns are a preferred deer food,” he explained. “Other oak species didn’t produce a lot of acorns this year, but white oaks did. If acorns are still on the ground, hunters would be well served to scout and hunt any oak flats in their areas.”
For hunters interested mainly in putting venison on the table, Johansen said counties located along or close to the Ohio River offer the best opportunities.
“Those are the counties with the densest deer populations,” he said. “They always produce good numbers of bucks per square mile, so they’re always a good bet.”
For hunters who focus on big-antlered bucks, the choices are less clear-cut.
“Big deer show up all across the state,” he said. “Even in some municipalities, where they have archery hunts for urban deer, some nice bucks get taken. As long as bucks have an opportunity to grow old enough, they’ll grow good antlers.
“Some of the nicest [firearm-season] bucks we see taken every year are from remote areas of southern West Virginia that lie outside the archery-only counties [Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming],” he said. “And then, almost like a hidden treasure, you can find big bucks in the remote, high-elevation areas of the Monongahela National Forest — places you don’t find many deer hunters traipsing through. Some of the bucks there will surprise you [with their size].”
West Virginia’s deer opener is a big event; on opening morning, roughly 330,000 resident and non-resident hunters will take to the woods. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state’s deer hunters will make $165 million worth of direct purchases before the whitetail season closes.
Johansen said many of those dollars will be spent where they’re needed most, in rural areas where small businesses play an even more important role in the economy.
“Deer hunting does wonders for mom-and-pop operations in rural areas,” he added. “I think hunters’ dollars play an important role in keeping many of those businesses open from year to year.”