Best Big Buck States for 2014: West Virginia
October 31, 2014
In last month's West Virginia Game & Fish, we examined the overall deer picture in the state, as well as some quality options for getting a whitetail or two. The objective was to help hunters put venison in the freezer, while also serving as valuable components in the deer management process.
For some hunters, the activity goes beyond the harvest of deer; to them deer hunting means exercising a combination of sound planning and self-discipline to up their chances of taking a trophy buck.
Now we can't help you with the self-discipline component. When an immature buck strolls by you'll just have to have the restraint to let it walk. But we can help with the planning. That's what this issue is all about: Providing you with the needed information to up your odds of taking a big Mountain State Buck this year.
First of all, keep in mind that the term "big buck" is both relative and subjective. Antler growth is affected by the genetics, age and nutrition of the buck carrying them. A big buck from a high-elevation, heavily forested county with more limited food sources will likely be less impressive than one from the fertile bottomlands of the Ohio River valley bottomlands.
Genetics play a key role, just as the male offspring of two slightly built human parents isn't likely to become an NFL lineman. And even with a variety of good food sources and proper genetics, a buck has to attain some age before it grows impressive headgear. In a state like West Virginia, where many bucks killed are 1 1/2 years old, the available remaining pool of male deer is more limited. While 2 1/2 year olds can have some nice antlers, a buck doesn't really reach maturity until later in its life cycle.
According to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, "Antler size is correlated to the age, health and genetics of the buck. Proper nutrition and herd management will ensure the health of the buck. Older age classes and superior genetics can be favored by allowing younger bucks to get older, and selectively leaving better quality bucks for breeding purposes.
It is recommended that antler size be compared by using the average number of points and the average outside spread of the antlers. The average number of points and antler spread of yearling bucks is usually four points and 8 inches in West Virginia. These yearling buck averages are similar in the bowhunting only counties in southern West Virginia. However, in these counties the average age of bucks is much higher and trophy bucks are more common. A 5-year-old buck in southern West Virginia averages 11 points with a spread of 19 inches."
The subjective part of the deal is that the harvest of a nice buck is a personal thing. For one hunter it might be a quest for a record-book caliber buck, one worthy of a cover shot on a magazine. Yet another might be happy with what's simply his or her personal best buck.
For many years, the WVDNR has administered the annual Big Buck Contest, which honors the biggest typical and non-typical whitetails entered in the program each year. Historically the contest categorized typical and non-typical bucks taken with gun and bow. Three years ago two more categories where added, muzzleloader and crossbow (legal arms for physically handicapped hunters that posses a Class Y license) harvests. The contest serves as a good barometer as to the overall quality of bucks, and where they are being taken.
According to a statement by the WVDNR, during the 2013 scoring session (results from the 2014 scoring session are not yet available) 165 hunters had their deer antlers scored at one of the six WVDNR District Offices, Field Offices or the West Virginia Hunting and Fishing Show in Charleston (sponsored by the West Virginia Trophy Hunter's Association).
There are also 18 WVDNR wildlife biologists and wildlife managers distributed throughout the state that are certified by the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young Clubs as official scorers. In the 2012 Big Buck Contest, hunters took 67 big bucks with gun, muzzleloader, bow or crossbow that met the score minimums, the requirements concerning Game Check Tags and Fair Chase Statements and were not excluded for cause by the Big Buck Contest Review Committee. An additional 21 bucks from former years were scored that met the requirements for a Big Buck Certificate.
Of these, 11 bucks killed by gun hunters scored above 140-points typical or 165-points non-typical. In the Typical-Gun category, the winner was Joshua Cooper from Racine, W.Va., with a big Boone County buck that scored 157 6/8. Unfortunately, there was no non-typical buck killed that met the minimum requirements in 2013.
One muzzleloader hunter killed a buck that scored above 140-points typical or 165-points non-typical. Robert Neely killed a Marshall County buck that scored 143 1/8, but again there were no non-typical bucks taken that met requirements.
Bowhunters killed 53 deer that scored above 125-points typical or 155-points non-typical. The winner of the Typical-Bow category was Ethan McCallister, with a buck from Logan County that scored 172 1/8 inches, and also placed fourth on the All Time Score Rankings. The non-typical Bow category winner was Myran Copley, with a buck from Mingo County that scored 181 1/8 inches.
Crossbow hunters with physical challenges killed two bucks that scored above 140 points typical. The winner of the category was James Goodwin of Kanawha County, with a buck that scored 147 6/8, but there was no winner of the non-typical crossbow category.
West Virginia has the somewhat unusual situation in that there are four bowhunting-only counties located in the southern portion of the state. Because of this limitation, many bucks have the chance to live to maturity in these areas. In the remainder of the state, where bucks can be taken with firearms, the big buck harvest is pretty well spread out. However, not all of the top bow kills come from the four bowhunting-only counties. Three of the top five bucks taken in 2013 with a bow were killed in areas that also allow firearms hunting. Justin Layfield took a Lewis County buck that scored 167 2/8 inches, Terry Smith found a 158 3/8-inch point monster in Boone County and Mitchell Oxley arrowed a buck that scored 154 1/8 inches in Kanawha County.
There have also been several public hunting areas that have been quite productive — big buck wise — in recent years. Here is a look at some of the best WMAs and public areas for taking a big Mountain State Trophy.
Kanawha County, which contains the state capitol of Charleston and associated suburban areas, features two sizeable public hunting areas. During recent years, Kanawha has produced its share of trophy bucks, such as the 147 2/8-inch typical bow kill taken in 2012 by Harvey Allen, and the 140 7/8-inch buck by Matt Stephens in 2013.
Morris Creek WMA covers nearly 10,000 acres in both Kanawha and Clay counties. This steep and heavily forested, state-owned public hunting ground is near the Elk River. It can be reached via County Route 67 from the Clendenin area, as well as County Route 65 in the Leatherwood Creek portion. Camping is not allowed on the WMA, but it is available on nearby Kanawha State Forest.
Kanawha State Forest adds another 10,000 acres to the public hunting ground mix in this county. This state forest contains a mix of terrains, from stream bottomlands to both moderate and steep slopes. It's covered in a mixture of hardwoods. Take exit 58-A off of Interstate 64, and then State Route 214 to the second traffic light. Turn left at the light and follow the Kanawha State Forest signs.
Developed counties like Kanawha tend to grow big bucks, to a large degree, because of limited hunter access due to their urban nature. Enterprising hunters score on big bucks by doing their legwork and getting access to these areas.
It's not surprising that Fayette County has been producing record book bucks in recent years. While Fayette isn't under a bowhunting-only restriction, it does have one element that allows some deer to reach an older age: It has rugged terrain that discourages hunting in many areas.
The same can be said of nearby Raleigh County. 2012, Fayette produced two typical bucks for the rankings. Gary Davis killed one with a firearm that scored 141 5/8, while Thomas Rinehart took a 144 4/8-inch buck with a bow.
Beury Mountain WMA has over 3,000 acres of public hunting land. While much of it is steep, there are also some areas of more moderate slopes. Oak-hickory forests dominate Beury Mountain, which is located along the southern border of Babcock State Park. Camping is not available on the WMA, but is found on the state park land. Take U.S. Route 60 east to the Lookout, then State Route 41 south to Landisburg. The WMA is located three miles from Landisburg by way of County Route 19/33.
Plum Orchard WMA adds another 3,000 acres to Fayette County. Hunters can expect to find gentle to steep slopes with oak-hickory forests and old re-vegetated strip benches with high walls. From I-77 at the Pax or Mossy interchange, follow State Routes 23 and 23/1. To access from U.S. Route 19, take state Route 15 from Oak Hill to Mossy, then take state Routes 23 and 23/1.
Camp Creek State Forest represents Mercer County's largest public hunting area at 5,300 acres. It's quite mountainous with narrow ridgetops and some rock outcroppings covered by oak-hickory forest. To reach Camp Creek SF from exit 20 off of I-77, turn onto state Route 19/5 and follow the signs for two miles. There's no camping on the WMA property, but it is available at nearby Camp Creek State Park (hunting is not permitted on park property).
Though small by West Virginia standards, Tate Lohr WMA offers another 500 acres of public hunting in Mercer County. It features moderate slopes ranging in elevation from 2,100 to 3,550 feet. Tate Lohr is found four miles south of Oakvale and is accessible by U.S. Route 460 and county Routes 219/6, 219/8 and 219/9.
Hunters looking for public land in Mason County can choose between Chief Cornstalk and McClintic WMAs. These areas provide something rare in West Virginia — fertile river bottomlands, with a chance to take a nice swamp buck that uses such areas.
Chief Cornstalk WMA covers nearly 12,000 acres. It is mostly wooded, with 85 percent existing as hardwood forest. The terrain varies from gentle to moderate slopes. Camping is permitted via the 15 primitive sites found within the public hunting area. Chief Cornstalk is located near the towns of Gallipolis Ferry and Southside.
McClintic WMA's 3,665 acres offer much more diversity than most of the state's public hunting areas, which tend to be dominated by hardwood forest. Hunters can expect to find a mixture of farmland, brushland, wetlands and forests here. The area is found between Point Pleasant and Mason.
In addition to Cornstalk and McClintic, Mason County shares Green Bottom WMA with neighboring Cabell County. Green Bottom covers nearly 1,100 acres, but deer hunters are limited to muzzleloaders and archery gear. Green Bottom features forested bottomlands, wetlands and some cultivated lands. It's found about 16 miles north of Huntington along State Route 2.
As explained earlier, the four bowhunting-only counties of Mingo, Wyoming, Logan and McDowell produce the majority of the state's record book bow kills. Half of the typical bow kills from last year's Big Buck Contest came from this four-county area. Other counties that figured prominently in the bow kill category during recent years have been Kanawha, Boone, Mason and Mercer.
Much of southern West Virginia — the four bowhunting counties and neighboring ones — are in the southern coal belt. There are some public areas, like R.D. Bailey and Beech Fork WMAs, but most of the land is in private ownership. Large tracts are owned by mining and timbering interests, many of which are open to hunting. Hunting leases are becoming more popular, though, and typicaly will be well-marked with posters. Pocahontas Land Development is an example of one corporation with extensive southern West Virginia land holdings that are open to hunting.
Visit the WVDNR's website — www.wvdnr.gov — for information regarding licensing requirements and seasons.