Bows & Does: Start Your Virginia Season Right

Bows & Does: Start Your Virginia Season Right

It's nice to take a big buck in the rut, but don't forget that Virginia's early bow season is a great time to target does.

The author with an antlerless deer that he killed last Oct. 10 in Botetourt County.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram.

On the first Monday of Virginia's bow season last October, I drove to a nearby Botetourt County farm where I had killed a doe the season before. The doe had entered a pasture to feed, where I had been waiting for her to appear. Relying on the memories of that successful trip, I had returned to the same stand site with the hope of tagging another doe.

But as we all know, and as I definitely should know, the previous year's deer patterns often mean little for the current one, and I spent a lonely evening in my tree stand, never glimpsing a whitetail of either sex. On the drive home, I berated myself for such a foolish decision concerning a stand site.

It was dark as I was pulling into my family's garage, and I saw a doe standing at the top of a hollow that begins behind the garage and my son's basketball goal. The doe was contentedly munching on red oak acorns, as the hollow contained a number of oaks that had produced a copious supply of nuts. Indeed, in an autumn where many oak groves across the Old Dominion had failed to yield any mast at all, my home hollow was the exception to the norm.

When I came into the house and saw my wife, Elaine, I blurted out my lack of success and told her that my next bowhunting expedition would be directly behind our house and in the hollow. And I confidently spouted that I would need her help on that day with dragging a whitetail out of the hollow. Unfavorable weather prevented me from going after work on Tuesday, but on Wednesday, I quickly drove home, changed into my camo, and slunk into a tree stand just 50 yards behind the house.

Twenty minutes after I had settled into the hang-on, a 4-pointer ambled into the hollow and started munching on acorns at a distance of just 15 yards. Soon afterward, a 2-pointer joined him and in a few minutes more, an antlerless deer, bigger than either of the 1 1/2-year-old bucks, made it a trio. Whenever possible, I prefer not to kill 1 1/2-year-old bucks, so I patiently waited for the two young males to leave the side of the recent arrival. When the antlerless deer presented a broadside standing shot, I drew back my compound and sent a carbon arrow into its boiler room.

The deer bolted and no more than two or three seconds later, I heard that most wonderful sound to a bowhunter -- a deer crashing to the forest floor. While field dressing the whitetail, I cut out its heart (which I consider a real delicacy) and then walked the few yards to our house to hail Elaine. And as my spouse had promised, she toted my gear as I hauled the whitetail out of the hollow.

Stories about bowhunters arrowing trophy Virginia whitetails are wonderful for folks like me to write, and hopefully for folks like you to read, but it's important to emphasize that the Old Dominion's bowhunting brigade plays a vital role in helping the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) manage the state's deer herd. In addition, a major aspect of that management is for state archers to harvest antlerless deer, especially in many areas of the Commonwealth.

Nelson Lafon, Deer Project coordinator for the state, agrees about the crucial role of bowhunters.

"Harvest of antlerless deer is necessary both to control deer populations and develop the balance in sex ratios most hunters desire," Lafon said. "Buck harvest has little or no impact on deer herd growth, and continued emphasis on bucks contributes to the kind of deer herds hunters often complain about -- lots of does and few bucks. Adding to the doe harvest is our brake on deer population growth, and reducing doe harvest allows the population to continue growing.

"There are more areas in Virginia where we need control than growth in deer populations. Although bowhunters do not kill nearly the quantity of does as firearms hunters, they have the first opportunity to harvest their 'meat' deer before the rut, when they will likely turn their attention to bucks. For these reasons, doe harvest is good for deer hunting and deer management."

I asked Lafon what are some counties/regions/areas where hunters need to take more does/antlerless deer? These locales might be good destinations for hunters to focus on when they are making plans for the upcoming season. The biologist also suggested that interested readers go to the VDGIF Web site, specifically to the following "Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015," www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/deer/management-plan/.

This executive summary briefly reviews the history of deer populations in the Commonwealth and also speaks to future management plans and issues. Then readers can click on an 89-page PDF file that goes into great detail concerning the whitetail deer in Virginia and all manners of trends and statistics.

For the purposes of this article, I found pages 36-40 most interesting. In that section, hunters can learn the deer population status in their home counties and read whether the population is increasing, stable or decreasing. Of course, in some counties, such as Buchanan in the far western part of the Commonwealth, it is a positive aspect that the herd is increasing. And the department's objective is to increase herd numbers not only in Buchanan but also in other far western counties.

To cite another example, Accomack County located on the opposite end of the state from Buchanan and on the Eastern Shore has a far different deer population. Indeed, most of the folks in Buchanan County could probably drive to New York City quicker than they could travel to Accomack, so separated are these two Old Dominion domains. The VDGIF lists the herd in Accomack as increasing and that the objective of decreasing the herd there has not been met.

I would guess that many if not most state archers go afield in more than just one county, typically hunting in their home county and in one or more counties adjacent. For example, I live in Botetourt, own land in Craig, and have permission to hunt farms in Franklin and Roanoke counties. And those are the four counties that I hunted in last season. The PDF lists the herds in Botetourt and Craig as stable, that the objective is to maintain the herd in both at its present size, and that that objective is being met.

However, the file lists the herds in Franklin and Roanoke as increasing and that the goal of reducing the herd is not being met. Not surprisingly, when I want to target does, I often head for Franklin and Roanoke counties.

Now

is a good time for this magazine's readers to learn the population status in their home counties and in adjacent counties that they might want to travel to. Then visit rural landowners and farmers in those counties and attempt to gain permission to hunt.

I have permission to hunt approximately 15 farms in my "four-county range," and the reason I have been fortunate enough to put together that lineup is that I have been willing to knock on doors, sometimes suffer rejection, but also many times be granted permission to hunt. I have also found that landowners are more likely to grant permission to me when I state that I only want to bowhunt and to specifically to target does. Later, as they learn more about me, and perhaps after I have tagged a few does, these folks may even invite me -- or you -- to come hunt their spreads during other seasons.

"Any county showing deer population reduction as an objective can use additional doe harvest," the biologist continued. "The most pressing needs are found in the counties of Bedford, Fairfax, Fauquier, Franklin, Loudoun, Patrick, Prince William and Roanoke. Also, our urban areas have serious human-deer conflicts, like deer/vehicle collisions, that can be addressed by bowhunters killing as many does as possible.

"Although many cities and towns allow some bowhunting during the regular seasons (in each case, you will need to check local ordinances), a number of them allow extended opportunities in the urban archery season."

For the latter, Lafon suggests that archers check out this Web site: www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/urban-archery.asp.

There are two different urban archery seasons in the Old Dominion. The first one runs for two weeks before the traditional early bow season that begins this year on Oct. 4. The second begins after the late bow season concludes on Jan. 3, 2009, and runs to late March.

Among the cities that participated in 2007-08 were Colonial Heights, Danville, Emporia, Franklin, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Radford, Richmond and Winchester, and the towns of Altavista, Amherst, Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Farm-ville, Independence, Purcellville, Richlands, Rocky Mount, Tazewell, West Point and in Fairfax County. For convenience sake, the VDGIF has placed links on all those communities so that archers can learn the regulations that exist for each individual domain. Each city, town or county has its own particular requirements and regulations.

I have never hunted during the early urban archery season but have long wanted to do so. The community closest to my Botetourt home that offers one is Christiansburg in Montgomery County, and this year one of my goals is to explore the possibility of going afield there. Similarly, interested readers can look into doing the same within towns or cities closest to them.

Also, interested bowhunters might even want to lobby municipal officials to open up their urban communities to bowhunting. For instance, Roanoke City does not have an urban archery season at present and certainly could benefit from having one, as deer and vehicle collisions happen all too often in Roanoke -- and other Virginia cities without special seasons.

Readers should also not be intimidated by the "red tape" that often exists. For example, one of Christiansburg's rules is: "No person shall hunt deer within the town by use of dog or dogs." Obviously, this is a regulation that bowhunters can easily agree to follow. Other regulations that Christiansburg has, again just to cite one community, also are commonsense. "Hunters must register with the Christiansburg Police Department to hunt on town property. Hunters must carry written permission from individual property owners to hunt. Agreement must be made between the participant and landowner in reference to field dress."

For the privilege and pleasure (and perhaps even some venison) of going afield early, Commonwealth archers can easily agree to follow these and other rules.

The general public, and for that matter, perhaps many sportsmen, do not know that bowhunters play a vital role in deer management so that we all can have a healthier deer herd. Once again, Lafon agrees.

"All hunters need to understand the relationship between deer density and deer health, or condition," he explained. "In most habitats in Virginia, the denser the deer herd, the lower the condition or quality. If populations can be lowered, deer health, size and quality will increase, though it may take some time to be noticeable."

Every year right before the archery season begins, the VDGIF sends out its annual bowhunter survey. I have participated in this survey for years and enjoy completing the various columns and questions after a day afield. Lafon relates that the survey is a valuable part of deer management.

"The data from the bowhunter survey provides another measure, along with harvest data, on some important deer herd indicators," the biologist explained. "For instance, fawn:doe ratios, buck:doe ratios and number of deer seen per hour give us some ideas of herd productivity, sex ratios and deer population trends and regional differences, respectively. The bowhunter survey data is particularly important because hunter observations are not as affected by changes in hunter effort as harvest data."

The VDGIF biologist emphasized that more than valuable whitetail data comes from the survey.

"While this survey is important for deer, it is also very important for many of the other species for which we have even less data, so I encourage hunters to complete the survey as completely and as accurately as possible," Lafon said. "By filling it in as soon after a hunt as possible and getting it returned early, we will get better data."

Interestingly, Mike Fies, who coordinates the bowhunter survey, said that the department needs increased participation everywhere, but particularly in the eastern part of the Old Dominion. Thus, Tidewater sportsmen should especially heed the call to participate. For more information on the survey, contact the Verona office of the VDGIF at (540) 248-9360 or consult the department's Web site.

The VDGIF's Dave Steffen, Forest Wildlife Program Manager, has long told me that deer hunters are the best deer managers in that they play a crucial role in herd health.

"Deer hunting is currently the only economical, practical, effective means for controlling free-ranging deer populations on a landscape scale," Lafon maintained. "Deer control is necessary to meet demands of society but also the integrity of our ecosystems. Hunters have taken the place of predators in our modern landscape, and deer are adapted to high levels of predation.

"Sharp shooting, while necessary in some circumstances, is expensive and affords no recreational benefits. Contraception is still experimental and will likely remain expensive and limited in application into the foreseeable future. The reintroduction of predators would not be accepted or practical in most areas of the United States. Also, non-h

unting methods cost society money, while deer hunting brings money into the economy and largely funds wildlife management."

Last year, with bonus tags, I was fortunate enough to kill six Virginia deer, four of which were antlerless. I haven't eaten pork or beef for several decades, preferring the taste of venison to any other red meat. My wife, son and I dine on venison in some form almost every day of the year, and I also supply meat to my daughter and her husband. But what if you and yours can't consume all the deer that you might kill?

Then please consider donating your deer to Virginia's Hunters for the Hungry, which is located in Big Island in Bedford County. After the late bow and muzzleloader seasons concluded last January, the organization announced that it was able to process and distribute 363,484 pounds of venison. That figure exceeded the group's 2007-08 goal by 3,484 pounds and set a new record for venison distribution. For more information on how to participate in this very worthy program, consult the following Web site: www.h4hungry.org or call (800) 352-HUNT. I have donated venison before and am glad I did.

This year when our bow season begins on Oct. 4, I will be aloft somewhere in southwest Virginia, probably in Botetourt or Craig. Of course, I would shoot a nice buck if one came by, but the real objective that day will be for me to take a nice doe. Help the VDGIF manage our deer herd and consider targeting antlerless deer.

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