More On Mountain State Public-Land Bowhunts

More On Mountain State Public-Land Bowhunts

You'll find topnotch bowhunting this fall on public lands ranging from state forests to wildlife management areas. (September 2009)

In any given year, West Virginia archers will arrow some 90 percent or more of their whitetails on private land. That's true not only in the Mountain State, but also in many other states in the surrounding region. As a hardcore bowhunter, I've worked diligently over the past 10 years to purchase two properties in Monroe County, and I plan to spend a number of pleasant October afternoons on them this autumn.

Locating hard-mast foods, such as acorns, is often an important requirement for bowhunters who are looking to score on public land. Photo by Bruce Ingram.

Over the years, I've also cultivated a number of private land contacts. I'm grateful to farmers, cattle growers, and wood lot owners in Monroe and Greenbrier counties who have graciously allowed me permission to go afield over the years.

Yet, I also plan to bowhunt on public land this fall, not because I have to, but because I want to. That's because I strongly believe that the best bowhunting game plan is one that takes advantage of every available option -- and that includes all manners of possibilities, from land that we sportsmen buy ourselves or that is the proverbial family farm, to plots where we've gained permission, to national forest and state WMAs and forests. Let's look, then, at some public-land options for this autumn.

I'll always fondly remember the first whitetail I arrowed on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF). Because of having a haircut appointment after school, I was late arriving to my stand and even had considered not trekking into the national forest that mid-October afternoon.

Slinking to my stand around 5:15 p.m., I was pleasantly surprised not to have bumped any feeding deer, as red oak acorns lay all along the old logging road that I used to access the area. About 40 minutes later, I glimpsed a 4-pointer emerging from his mountain laurel bedding ground and moving down the mountainside.

As the buck approached, he apparently caught wind of me and nervously began scenting the air and looking around, meanwhile moving in an alarmed manner down the slope. Luckily, the buck paused for a moment, 10 yards away and broadside, in the logging road. That's when I sent an arrow into his vitals. Seconds later, I heard him crash to the forest duff -- and a few minutes later I was hauling him to a check station. Although obviously not a trophy, the 4-pointer proved to me that I could rely on the GWJNF from then on as a quality option for bowhunting.

Carol Hardy Croy, forest wildlife biologist for the GWJNF, lists a number of places where hunters can look to hang stands this autumn.

  • Clearcuts. They provide excellent escape, bedding, and feeding area. Look to access clearcuts by means of old logging that lead to them.

  • Controlled burns. Croy said that although fires have been suppressed in the nation's national forests for some 80 years, wildlife managers now recognize fire's benefits to deer and other wildlife.

  • Access roads. Deer will often forage along these roads, which are sometimes seeded with wildlife mixes. The farther back in the mountains these roads are, obviously the less hunting pressure there will be.

  • Oak-hickory forests. Although deer do not consume hickory nuts, they readily come to producing oaks. Croy related that oak-hickory forests are usually found in the drier regions of the Appalachian Mountains and is the dominant forest type in eastern West Virginia where the Wardensville WMA (55,327 acres) in Hampshire and Hardy counties and the Shenandoah WMA (49,106 acres) in Pendleton County lie. For more information on hunting in the GWJNF, consult the following Web site: r8/gwj/; or call (540) 265-5100.

At 9,482 acres, the Calvin Price State Forest is a considerable chunk of public land in Pocahontas County, an area known for its vast amount of national forest. But that's not the main reason bowhunters should consider visiting the state forest this year, says Keith Davis, assistant superintendent at Watoga State Park.

"Oh my, yes, there are plenty of deer on Calvin Price," Davis said. "During the gun season, there is quite a bit of hunting pressure. But last year during both the bow and muzzleloading seasons, I saw very few hunters on Calvin Price."

Davis, who is an avoid bowhunter, often goes afield with the stick and string on Calvin Price. He suggests that visiting bowhunters have three options. The first is that they can hunt around the perimeters of the state forest, and this is where most individuals do. The second involves bowhunting along the major access road that splits Watoga State Park and Calvin Price, which adjoin each other.

Davis informed that a lot of bowhunters set up not far beyond that road and wait for deer to either leave or enter the park. Of course, no hunting is allowed in Watoga, so a lot of deer travel occurs back and forth between the two types of land. The third option is the one that the assistant superintendent prefers.

"I'm a trophy hunter, so I'm looking for bucks 3 1/2 years and older," he said. "Calvin Price, like just about anywhere in West Virginia, has mostly spikes, 2- and 4-pointers, and the occasional 1 1/2- or 2 1/2-year-old 8-pointer. But the state forest has a few of those older bucks, and I have had some close encounters with them, although I've never been fortunate enough to kill one. One particularly memorable trophy buck was only 35 to 40 yards away, but I just didn't have a shot."

Davis said that his preferred manner to locate big-buck hotspots on the state forest is to use the old logging roads that crisscross the public land to access its hinterlands. He emphasized that the backcountry of Calvin Price, which he described as fairly rugged, but not as forbidding as some parts of Pocahontas County. Still, it requires a goodly amount of walking time to reach.

"I will walk along a logging road for a mile or two, then veer off into a hollow," he said. "Last year, those hollows had a lot of acorns and soft mast, mostly grapes. Another good strategy is to find the food plots that Cully McCurdy (wildlife management area supervisor for the DNR) has created. The wild apples in those plots hit big time last year."

Of course, there's no way of knowing what the hard- and soft-mast production will be on Calvin Price, but the food plots should be a good bet regardless. Davis added that McCurdy has also created a number of savannahs, that is, grasslands that often draw whitetails.

Visiting bowhunters may want to stay at Watoga State Park. The establishment features 34 cabin

s and 100 campsites. A particularly enticing option is Beaver Creek Campground, which actually lies within the state forest. Davis said that the campground proffers electric and non-electric hookups and a bathhouse. Bowhunters can easily be aloft in a tree stand five minutes after they leave their campsites.

For more information about any state park or forest, dial 800-CALL-WVA. To reach Watoga, which lies in District IV, go online to; or call (304) 799-4087.

In District V, the Beech Fork Lake WMA encompasses 7,531 acres in Cabell and Wayne counties and adjoins Beech Fork State Park. Matt Yeager, park superintendent and a hunter himself, said that the WMA may be a potential destination for those individuals who like to quest after better quality bucks. That's because, the Beech Fork Lake WMA (along with such WMAs as Bluestone, Burnsville and McClintic and the Coopers Rock State Forest) requires that "all antlered deer taken must have a minimum 14-inch "outside antler spread."

That said, the Beech Fork WMA also contains good numbers of whitetails.

"To give an example," said Yeager, "last year we had a group of hunters from McDowell County come to the WMA because they were looking to kill some does. I found it really interesting that those hunters left one of the best big-buck counties in West Virginia to travel here.

"Although we do have quite a few deer in the WMA, they do seem to know where the boundary line between the park and WMA is. The deer just don't seem to go back and forth much between the two as much as you would think, and I just about always see more deer in the park than the WMA."

The public land, which lies near Huntington and Barboursville, features primarily an oak-hickory forest informs Yeager. White oaks and Northern red oaks are representative of the oak species. The park superintendent describes the terrain "as somewhat steep" and "halfway between the steep mountains of the Southern coalfield counties and the rolling hills of the Ohio Valley."

One of the most interesting things that Yeager told me is how hunters access the WMA. Some, of course, do so by staying at the state park, driving to the entrance, turning right, and three minutes later arriving at the public land. None of the most common access

But a few enterprising souls have figured out that boats constitute a dandy travel mode.

"There are a few hunters who have learned that they can access some of the more remote parts of the WMA by using motorized boats," Yeager said. "They just drive across the lake and park their boats at a likely spot, enter the woods, and go hunting. The only problem with this approach is that every year starting around Nov. 1, the lake is drawn down."

Still, archers can easily use the boating gambit for a fortnight or more, and as Yeager confirmed, this by water then by land scenario saves these folks a great deal of walking.

Beech Fork State Park offers six cabins and 275 campsites. Some of the campsites are closed during the winter, but the superintendent informs that nearly 100 are always open, and all have water and electricity. Camping is not permitted on the WMA. For more information on Beech Fork, contact the state park at; or call (304) 528-5794.

In District IV, the public land area formerly known as Panther State Forest is now Panther WMA, but that has not changed the fact that this public land is still a quality destination in McDowell County. Nathan Hanshaw, a veteran bowhunter and assistant superintendent at Twin Falls State Park, said that this 7,810-acre parcel attracts a certain kind of hunter.

"Panther has plenty of good deer habitat, but not many deer," he said. "So, the type of bowhunter who goes there is usually looking for a trophy buck. That also means that this WMA does not attract much hunting pressure, which results in the bucks having plenty of time to mature.

"Panther has drawn hunters from as far away as Florida. That speaks well of its trophy buck reputation," Hanshaw said.

The assistant superintendent said that Panther WMA is overwhelmingly forested and contains extremely steep mountainsides that are a real workout to ascend. The deer typically bed in dense mountain laurel thickets near the public land's peaks and are often a challenge to pattern. One of the main reasons for the heavily forested highlands is the lack of timber cutting.

"There hasn't been any significant clear-cutting on Panther in a long time," confirmed Hanshaw. "There is a power line right-of-way that was cut to the highest point of Panther and a lookout tower is up there. A hunter hiking up that right-of-way can really get a good view of the WMA and see a long distance. In fact, you can see three states from there: West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky."

Hanshaw emphasized that another important form of access are the gas well roads that meander across the property. Perspective archers can utilize those travel ways to find areas that are producing mast.

Another challenging aspect is that the Panther WMA is not a public land that is easily learned. Hanshaw maintains that given the unbroken nature of the forest, bowhunters may have to go afield there for several years until they pattern the area's whitetails. Those who work hard, however, certainly can do well. Hanshaw lists Sam Cowell (who is superintendent at Carnifax Ferry Battlefield State Park) and Chris Ryan (who is the DNR's black bear project leader) as individuals who have taken fine bucks from Panther. Ryan arrowed a fine broadbeam that grossed 157 5/8 and netted 151 3/8. Once Hanshaw told me about that mossyhorn, I had to contact Ryan.

"I hunted on Panther for five years. I took two shots during that time, as I missed a typical 10-pointer the year before I killed the big one. I saw a lot of bucks that would go over 125 inches."

Hanshaw added that one thing that hunters will not have to worry about on the WMA is figuring out what food sources the deer are concentrating on.

"The deer mostly feed on acorns because there's so little else for them to eat," he said. "There is a lot of underbrush, but there's no browse line because there are so few deer.

"One thing that bowhunters should be aware of is that Panther does have some dog problems, both from wild dogs and coon dogs. In fact, the bucks have a reputation for running into the creeks to escape dogs and hunters. I once stalk-hunted a big buck that went into a creek to avoid me. Do those big bucks run into the creeks to throw the dogs off their scent? That's really hard to say, but why else would the deer move into the creeks?"

Twin Falls State Park is about an hour's drive from the Panther WMA. A recent lodge expansion has resulted in more rooms being available. Fourteen cottages and 50 campsites exist with 25 featuring electricity.

Hanshaw related that the name change has barely affected how the public land is operated and that the change merely gives the DNR more flexibility in how it manages the property. Gun hunting for deer is not allowed. Six campsites exist on the WMA, which lies appropriately enough near the community of Panther. The Web site also has not changed, either. For more information on the WMA, visit the Web site at; or call (304) 938-2252. For more information on Twin Falls visit its Web site at; or call (304) 294-4000.

The public land option can be a great bet for the enterprising bowhunter. Sportsmen who believe that public lands are hopelessly overrun with other hunters may be pleasantly surprised. When I bowhunt in the national forest, I almost always do so after work on weekdays and have never seen anyone while afield.

When I have bowhunted on Saturdays, I have often set up near public land and private land boundaries, specifically private land that is known to have little hunting pressure. Additionally, public lands, such as Beech Fork, that have antler restrictions can further decrease hunting pressure. Really, there is no reason not to try West Virginia's public-land white­tails this October.

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