West Virginia’s muzzleloader season for deer opens Monday. It’s a different season now than it was in years past.
When the state implemented a black-powder hunt back in 1978, hunters had a bright, shiny new toy to play with. Even though those early seasons were flintlock-only, bucks-only, and held solely on state-managed lands, plenty of sportsmen journeyed afield for the conservative, three-day hunt.
Who could blame them? Deer hunting in those days wasn’t nearly what it is today. Bowhunting hadn’t yet become popular, and antlerless-deer hunting was allowed only by special permit in nine counties. Hunters relished the opportunity to bag a whitetail outside the traditional buck season.
The still-bucks-only muzzleloader season was made statewide in 1982, but widespread participation didn’t really take off until the following year, when the Legislature approved the use of percussion-cap rifles and the state Natural Resources Commission gave hunters an option to take antlerless deer as well as antlered bucks.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, the state’s whitetail population grew dramatically. In 1989, the NRC expanded the muzzleloader season to six days — four days of bucks-only hunting and two of hunter’s choice.
In 1992, hunters were given an either-sex option during the entire six-day season, in counties open to antlerless-deer hunting.
This, to me, began the Golden Age of muzzleloader hunting in West Virginia. The state’s whitetail population built to a peak in the mid-to-late 1990s, and muzzleloader enthusiasts took full advantage of the opportunities available to them.
Modern, in-line muzzleloaders were made legal in the 1990s, and in 2002 the Legislature passed a law that allowed telescopic sights. These measures made muzzleloader hunting easier than ever.
By then, however, state officials had dramatically expanded opportunities for antlerless-deer hunting. In 1997, the NRC began allowing a limited amount of antlerless-deer hunting during the buck season.
Between 1997 and 2003, the antlerless-deer portion of the buck season expanded from one day to the entire 12-day season. With so many days of antlerless-deer hunting available before the mid-December black-powder season began, hunters’ participation in the muzzleloader hunt seemed to wane.
It’s easy to understand why they would opt for earlier hunts. Since its inception, the muzzleloader season had always fallen in mid-December, when weather conditions are always iffy and often downright nasty.
DNR officials thought they were giving hunters a break in 2012, when they asked the NRC to hold the muzzleloader hunt a week earlier in the hunting calendar. Hunters didn’t like it. Even in 2015, a year when the buck kill jumped 62% and the archery kill 46%, the muzzleloader harvest fell by 6.5%.
Hunters griped. The DNR and NRC moved the season back to its traditional calendar spot in 2018.
How will hunters fare during this year’s black-powder season? Two factors — weather and hunter participation — will determine that. Even so, the harvest probably won’t even come close to those of the past.
Last year’s kill rose a bit from the previous year’s, but still ranked only 30th in the season’s 37-year history. Some might consider that a bit sad, but really it’s just a sign that deer hunters’ tastes have changed.