West Virginia’s buck season is a phenomenon.
Just 1.8 million people call the state home, and yet when the buck season opens on Monday about 300,000 of those people will go hunting.
That’s one in every six, or 16.7%.
According to the most recent data, the national participation rate for hunting is just 4%. West Virginia’s is four times that.
There are three crystal-clear reasons for the Mountain State’s high buck-season participation rate — an abundance of deer, an abundance of public and quasi-public hunting land, and a populace that has resisted the national trend away from hunting.
I think there’s more to it than that, though.
As a people, West Virginians have stayed familiar with the world around them.
Oh, we have our smartphones and laptops and PlayStations, and we pay plenty of attention to them. But many of us also live in houses near the woods, where deer quite literally wander into our backyards.
We see deer browsing in farmers’ fields and along highways. We see them in state, county and city parks. They’re never far from our consciousness.
What’s more, we haven’t lost our taste for venison. Many, many hunters share deer meat with friends and family members. Hundreds of hunters donate the deer they kill to Hunters Helping the Hungry, and that meat gets distributed to food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the state.
And then there’s tradition.
The ancestors of today’s West Virginians hunted deer long before there was even a West Virginia. The first deer hunters only wanted to put meat on the table. Later, they hunted for money, selling the meat and skins of the animals they killed.
After market hunting was outlawed, West Virginians reverted to hunting deer — primarily to supplement their families’ larders, but also for recreation.
Deer hunting became a family affair. Fathers and grandfathers took their children and grandchildren afield to learn the pastime their fathers and grandfathers taught them to enjoy. The children and grandchildren passed the tradition along to their children and grandchildren.
The season’s timing, always opening on the Monday before Thanksgiving, helped further the tradition. Kids who had grown up and moved away now return home to celebrate the holiday, and many of them go deer hunting with their relatives.
Every year, the state’s school systems and businesses adapt their schedules to accommodate whitetail hunters.
Rather than suffer shortages of teachers, bus drivers and custodial staff, schools in many counties close for the entire week, instead of just Thanksgiving. Workers reserve vacation and personal leave days so they can celebrate opening day with 300,000 like-minded friends.
And then there are the hunting camps, places where deer hunters gather year after year to enjoy each other’s company, eat themselves silly, swap tales and drink a beer or two.
Yes, West Virginia’s buck season is a phenomenon. Year after year, it brings people together to pursue a common quarry. Tens of thousands of them succeed; they bring home coolers filled with nutritious free-range venison and, if they’re particularly lucky, some trophy antlers to hang over the mantelpiece.