Virginia's Top Public Lands for Bowhunting

The national forest and WMAs in Virginia give state archers a tremendous opportunity to meet up with some early-season venison.

By Bruce Ingram


I love the concept of public land; it is so American in nature. The premise that all Virginians, no matter what their social status, race, religion or creed is, are welcome on this land because it is the people's property. And I love the concept that many times, the self-reliant, self-motivated hunter who is willing to work hard, to study maps and to spend time afield can find an isolated patch of public land to hunt on. With the Virginia bow season for deer rapidly approaching, state archers, especially, may want to explore the public land options available.

Dave Steffen, research biologist supervisor for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), believes that our public land is an important resource.


"Part of the beauty of living in the western part of Virginia especially is having the national forest as a place to go," says Steffen who resides in Roanoke County. "For example . . . a hunter can take a map, a compass, or a GPS system and take off into the backcountry of a public land. And then enjoy a quality outdoor experience. That same individual can certainly enjoy hunting on a 30-acre tract of private land, but the experience is definitely different. I guess what I am saying that it is hard to measure - in concrete terms - the pleasures of the public-land experience."

Steffen also emphasizes that state bowhunters should realize that if they decide to avail themselves of the public-land option this fall, that they will likely find some other differences between public and private land. First, he says, generally deer numbers are higher on private land than they are on public land in the Commonwealth. Second, a yearling buck, for example, killed on private land will generally weigh 10 to 15 pounds more than his public land counterpart.


Also, private land offers more diversity of habitat, and that habitat is overall more productive in terms of plant life than public-land real estate is. Steffen explains that in much of the state, both the national forest and wildlife management land have more mature forest and fewer wildlife openings than nearby private land does. This fact helps explain why public-land whitetails often weigh less.

Photo by Mike Searles

Conversely, given the remote nature of the hinterlands of much of the national forest and that of some of the larger WMAs, the bucks in these areas often are older than the bucks on private land are. They have grown older simply because of the lack of hunting pressure. Thus, these backcountry bucks often offer larger racks because they have had the chance to live longer and develop impressive antlers. The dedicated big buck bowhunter should strongly consider the more inaccessible areas of the national forest and WMAs as places to scout before the season opens the first Saturday in October.

Some Virginia hunters harbor the mistaken impression that our public lands are overrun with hunters. Steffen maintains that such is definitely not the case during the early archery season and largely is not true even during the regular gun and muzzleloader seasons.

"National forest stamp sales have decreased about 30 percent over the past decade," he says. "That equates to about 40,000 fewer permits being sold. Part of that decrease can be explained by the fact that the number of Virginia hunters has declined over the past 10 years, but the number of hunters has certainly not decreased by 30 percent. What appears to be happening is that hunters, for whatever reason, are simply relying on private land more and more instead of public land.

"Interestingly, at the same time that fewer hunters are using public land, the harvest has been increasing on these properties. Also, the deer herds on our public lands have been increasing. So what we have had happen is fewer hunters are seeing and killing more deer as the herds have increased."

Steffen recommends that archers wishing to hunt public land this fall consult the Web sites of both the VDGIF and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (for the former - www.dgif.state.va.us; for the latter - www.fs.fed.us/gwjnf.com). The VDGIF Web site offers a wealth of information on all 34 of the state's WMAs and the 195,000 acres of land that they encompass. The department also maintains over 1,000 miles of roads on these properties. The VDGIF Web site provides a link to the national forest site.

The research biologist suggests that archers planning on hunting in the national forest narrow their search to a particular ranger district or two. Then they should contact that ranger district and acquire general maps of the area. While talking with personnel at that ranger district, sportsmen should also ask which parcels have undergone recent timber harvests or have experienced habitat manipulation. Often on national forest land, deer numbers typically increase in areas where the habitat has been altered through timber cutting or the creation of wildlife openings.

After these steps have been taken, Steffen recommends that archers then obtain 7 1/2-minute maps of specific areas that look promising. These maps are much more highly detailed than the ones the forest service sells, and they can help hunters locate contour features such as funnels, flats, saddles, stream bottoms and much, much more. Local sporting goods shops often have these maps for sale. Steffen says another advantage of 7 1/2-minute maps is that they show inholdings, that is those parcels of private land that lie within the boundaries of public land. Even though these inholdings may be surrounded by public property, hunters still cannot venture forth on them without landowner permission.

The final step is to actually spend time during the pre-season visiting particular national forest parcels. August and especially September are good times to do so. That period is when archers can check out hard and soft mast sources and learn where major deer trails exist.

Regarding the state's WMAs, hunters west of the Blue Ridge have more from which to choose. Some of the properties to check out include the Havens (7,190 acres), Goshen-Little North Mountain (33,697 acres), Clinch Mountain (25,477 acres), Hidden Valley (6,400 acres) and Highland (14,283 acres) WMAs. Northern Virginia features two enticing destinations: the Rapidan (10,326 acres) and Thompson (4,000 acres) WMAs. Steffen specifically lists the Clinch Mountain WMA as a parcel that has plenty of isolated habitat and a reputation for producing quality deer. At the same time, the Clinch Mountain WMA is not a good destination for the archer merely wishing to punch a tag, as deer numbers are lower there.

For tho

se bowhunters dwelling east of the Blue Ridge, there is no question that the Piedmont offers more hunting possibilities than the Tidewater region does. Among the potential destinations are the Amelia (2,217 acres), Briery Creek (3,164 acres), Horsepen Lake (3,065 acres) and C.F. Phelps (4,539 acres) WMAs.

The Tidewater region lacks much public land and that sad fact is a major reason why only 14 percent of residents east of the Blue Ridge buy hunting licenses, as compared to 28 percent of those individuals west of the Blue Ridge who purchase licenses. The Tidewater sportsman who does not belong to a hunting club or know someone who owns rural property in this rapidly urbanizing region is out of luck.

In addition to national forest land and state WMAs, archers may also want to consider Virginia's military bases. Steffen lists A.P. Hill, Pickett, Quantico and Belvoir as possible destinations. Because of national security concerns, all or parts of these bases may be off-limits at times. Virginia has lagged far behind the other states in the Southeast at setting aside public land for the future. But the national forest and WMA land that we do have is something to be cherished. Bowhunters especially should be able to enjoy a quality experience there this October.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For more information on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, contact the Roanoke office at (540) 265-5100 or (888) 265-0019. The names of the ranger districts (with phone numbers in parentheses) are as follows: Blacksburg/Wythe (540-552-4641), Clinch (276-328-2931), Deerfield (540-885-8028), Dry River (540-828-2591), Glenwood/Pedlar (540-291-2188), James River (540-962-2214), Lee (540-984-4101), Mount Rodgers (276-783-5196), New Castle (540-864-5195), and Warm Springs (540-839-2521). Because of the state's budget cutbacks, many VDGIF personnel have lost their jobs, and the personnel remaining have more responsibilities and less time to help the public with questions. Please try to find the information you need on the VDGIF Web site before calling a regional office.



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