West Virginia’s wildlife officials think last fall’s dark cloud might become this fall’s silver lining.
The firearm buck kill plummeted 19% in 2019. That was the dark cloud. Now, as hunters head afield for the 2020 archery season, the “surplus” 8,500 bucks that survived last fall’s season are this fall’s silver lining.
“We had a relatively mild winter, so those bucks shouldn’t have any problems coming through the winter,” said Gary Foster, deputy wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. “They came into this year on a higher nutritional plane, and that could result in good antler growth.”
The bottom line for bowhunters, especially those who focus on trophy bucks, is that bragging-sized bucks are there for the taking. “With what happened last year, we should see some larger-antlered bucks this fall,” Foster said.
Bucks may be out there, but there’s no guarantee hunters will take them. Weather, food and hunter participation all affect hunting success, and any or all of those factors could come into play this fall.
Weather is the least likely to make an impact. The Mountain State archery/crossbow season is a long one. It opened on Saturday morning, and it won’t end until Dec. 31. The weather couldn’t possibly stay bad for 14 weeks.
The worst possible weather scenario would see rain and/or snow and wind on every weekend, plus during the entire whitetail mating season. Such selectivity, though theoretically possible, seems every bit as unlikely as 14 solid weeks of adverse conditions.
Food availability, on the other hand, could play a significant role.
When acorns, beechnuts, apples and other mast items are abundant, deer disperse throughout the woods and become more difficult to locate, or, as Foster puts it, “pattern.” In other words, hunters can’t accurately predict where and when deer might show up.
In poor mast years, deer congregate wherever food is most abundant. If, for instance, white oak acorns are scarce and red oak acorns are abundant, hunters would hang their tree stands near stands of red oak.
Foster said DNR biologists are putting the finishing touches on the agency’s 2020 Mast Report and Hunting Outlook. “I don’t have the results yet, but from what I’m hearing, soft mast is not very abundant,” he said.
That could come into play early in the season, when deer would ordinarily be scarfing up apples and crabapples, but it would become less important when acorns begin to fall.
If acorns are especially scarce or especially abundant, hunters will see significantly more or fewer deer.
A scarce acorn crop would make hunters’ bait sites more attractive to whitetails, and would tend to drive up the harvest.
An abundance of acorns would make bait sites less attractive. Corn, the most common bait, is high in carbohydrate but low in protein. Given a choice, deer will choose protein-rich acorns almost every time.
Even with ideal mast and weather conditions, a third factor — hunter participation — could affect this year’s archery harvest.
“It’s difficult to predict what [this year’s] harvest will look like because of COVID-19,” Foster said. “Hunter participation rates might be different.”
DNR officials had the same concern during the 2020 spring turkey season.
“Resident hunters’ participation was the same or maybe a little more than we get in a typical year, but non-resident participation was down a bit,” Foster said.
“The big unknown for the archery season is whether people will travel from out of state to come here and hunt. Another big unknown is whether West Virginians who are tele-working will be able to get out and hunt a little more. We shall see.”
The archery/crossbow season isn’t just for deer. The season is also underway for black bear and wild boar.
Bowhunters kill so few wild boars that the season is hardly worth mentioning. Not so for bears.
“Regardless of conditions, the typical archery bear harvest is in the 600-to-1,000 range,” said Colin Carpenter, the DNR’s bear project leader. “This year, we’re hoping for a harvest in the 800-to-1,000 range.”
Carpenter said bowhunters’ chances of taking a bear “have never been better.”
“Bear numbers are good everywhere in the mountain counties and in the southern coalfields,” he added. “Not only that, the bear population is steadily expanding into the state’s western counties.”
DNR regulations restrict firearm hunting for bears to certain counties. The archery/crossbow season, however, is open statewide.