Virginia's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Where To Find Your Deer

What places in Virginia have the most deer? Here's what the harvest numbers say. (October 2007)

Photo by Kenny Bahr.

During the 2005-2006 season, Virginia hunters tagged 215,082 whitetail deer. Last season, the harvest jumped to 223,198, an increase of almost 4 percent.

While gradually rising harvests tend to be good news for hunters, 2006's increase is essentially within the normal variability of harvests from one season to the next. Harvest levels can change based on a number of factors besides the number of deer. For example, good weather on three Saturdays during the rut will cause a spike in harvest rates -- because hunters are hunting longer, more comfortably, and more efficiently, but not because there are more deer.

Thus, a jump of even 10 percent would not raise the eyebrows of deer program managers Matt Knox or Nelson Lafon at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).

Antlered bucks accounted for 106,595 of the whitetails bagged. There were 19,652 button bucks harvested for a total of 126,24 bucks taken home. The doe harvest tallied 96,951 or 43.4 percent of the total -- a percentage quite close to the previous season. The total deer harvest was 7 percent above the 10-year average of 208,300 animals tagged. These figures do not include the late special archery season numbers and late firearms season totals.

Preliminary figures do show that crossbow hunters last season took 7,051 deer (nearly 1,600 more than the season before). Though it's up 28 percent, the crossbow harvest is still only 3 percent of the total harvest. Archers harvested 17,100 deer and took 8 percent of the total harvest. Muzzleloader hunters bagged 52,216 whitetail deer -- up 6 percent -- to a total of 23 percent of the harvest.

As we look at the data compiled by VDGIF biologists, it is important that hunters look hard at the density data versus the total harvest data. Biologists use this data to determine the density of the deer herd and, as you may surmise, counties with high deer densities are the better places to bag a deer.

For the 2006 hunting season, out of the top 20 counties by deer harvest per square mile of habitat, 17 had made the top 20 list the year before. The three new counties were Amelia (9.07), York (8.71) and Cumberland (8.10). Dropped from the list were Goochland, Grayson and Culpeper. The rest of the counties shuffled up and down the list.

Last year, Virginia instituted a late special firearms season in several counties, including Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William. This special late season was held from Jan. 8 to Feb. 3. According to assistant Deer Project manager Nelson Lafon, the season was a success and biologists hope that it will continue to be popular and effective in harvesting more does to bring the herd numbers down a little.

This season is in addition to the special urban archery season held from Sept. 16 to Oct. 6 and Jan. 8 to March 31 last year. The VDGIF Hunting and Trapping Regulations and Web site list the participating urban areas. These special seasons are open for antlerless deer only.

Now that we have presented the statewide harvest from last year, let's take a close look at last year's results by region and see what biologists say about the upcoming season.

TIDEWATER

The Tidewater Region saw a 6 percent increase in the harvest, from 51,657 in 2005 to 54,571 whitetails last season. There were 22,607 antlered bucks tagged, 6,151 button bucks and 25,813 does taken. This figure equates to 47.3 percent of the harvest being does.

Half of the top 20 counties in the state came from this region. With a variety of food sources, great cover ranging from swamp bottoms to hardwood thickets, and a healthy population of deer, it's no wonder hunters do so well here. Charles City was the county with the densest deer harvest per square mile at 11.96.

Galon Hall, VDGIF wildlife biologist who works in the region, spoke with us about the deer herd and prospects for this season. Hall noted that the deer population and the harvest are very stable in this region. As the accompanying graphic shows, the top 10 counties in the region are not clumped together at all.

Over the years, the trend has been that the harvest is slowly rising, particularly the doe harvest.

"Hunters are finding that the DMAP program is effective and it is becoming more popular with landowners, hunters and clubs," Hall said.

There is not a large amount of public land for hunters in the Tidewater, but that, too, has been slowly changing over the last 10 years.

Rappahannock National Wildlife Refuge has been adding tracts of land and many are now open for hunters to use. Its seasons are liberal and officials would like to see hunters take a doe when legal if at all possible. Hunts are held at the refuge for deer management purposes. Little pressure is put on the deer at Rappahannock NWR, so the hunting should be very good relative to many public lands. The refuge should be contacted for further details as to when their seasons will run, the costs of a permit and additional regulations. Information on the refuge can be gleaned from the VDGIF hunting digest or online at www.dgif.virginia.gov or www.fws.gov.

Cavalier WMA opened last year to the public for hunting. This season, hunters will be selected by a drawing to hunt at the 3,800-acre WMA. The reason for the drawing is to provide for a quality day afield. Because of the dense population of people nearby, VDGIF officials use the drawing as a way to manage the influx of hunters.

Last season, the mast crop was excellent in the region, and overall, the winter was mild, leaving deer in great shape going into this season. Barring a bad outbreak of hemorrhagic disease, the herd will be in fine shape. Hunters venturing into the field for the first time in the region should pay close attention to the edges of habitat. Don't be afraid to muscle your way into the nastiest cover to put up a stand if you want to bag a deer.

SOUTHERN PIEDMONT

The Southern Piedmont has a legacy of healthy deer harvests and this year was no exception. With a whopping 55,344 whitetails bagged, the region boosted its harvest by 11 percent. The number of antlered bucks that rode home in trucks was 28,244; the button bucks numbered 4,587. Hunters took 22,513 does, which constituted 40 percent of the harvest. Bedford was the best county once again with a figure of 11.09 deer taken per square mile.

Dan Lovelace is in charge of the management on the western edge of the region. Lovelace noted that he would like to see more hunters take does on doe days. The doe harvest was stable the last few years but is not really trimming the herd to the extent biologists had hoped.

Public-land opportunities exist in the region, but much of it is national forest, which just does not have the highest quality habitat for whitetail deer. But it's also the case that the national forest receives very little pressure from hunters. This may be good for hunters who are willing to hike to remote areas or walk a bit to get off the road.

Marc Puckett is in charge of the Southside portion of the region and commented on his district.

"There is a lot of public land scattered throughout my work area, actually over 95,000 acres within a 1.5-hour drive of Farmville, but most of my district is private land and generally deer densities are highest in the northern and western portions of my work area, which includes Brunswick, Charlotte, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg and Pittsylvania. Pittsylvania has the highest harvest indicators, and the southern parts of Halifax and Mecklenburg probably the lowest densities.

"I think deer densities in my work area range from a high of 40 to 45 per square mile to places where they work hard to exceed 20 to 25 per square mile. I feel all of the areas are good, particularly during the archery and muzzleloader seasons. While Briery Creek Lake WMA is known for bass and panfishing, there are over 2,000 acres of uplands around the lake that have good deer hunting opportunities. The main difference is fewer doe days during the early muzzleloader season, with only one doe day (the second Saturday), compared with full season either sex on private lands."

A hard freeze in April may have killed oak blooms and negated a portion of the acorn crop this year. Hunters are encouraged to scout before the season to find out what effect the freeze had on oaks in their area. If the mast crop turns out to be spotty, the upside is that the deer will be traveling more to find food making them more susceptible to hunters.

SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN

The Southern Mountain Region had a 6 percent increase in harvest, climbing from 34,826 deer during the 2005-2006 season to 36,939 whitetails checked this past season. Antlered bucks consisted of 19,613 of the total harvest; button bucks accounted for 2,616 of the total. The number of does dragged to the skinning shed was 14,710 and made up 39.8 percent of the harvest.

The best county in the region was Giles. It just missed being in the top 20 list, with 8.07 whitetails tagged per square mile.

Regional wildlife biologist Allen Boynton noted that the best hunting is on private land. Hunters seemed to have noticed this, too, as the trend is that fewer hunters are visiting the national forests in search of their venison these days, a trend that started five to 10 years ago. Boynton's theory is that hunters that have access to private land are taking advantage of it and finding better hunting there. The national forest in Grayson, Giles or Bland is probably the best place to begin hunting national forests.

"The best counties in the region for whitetail deer numbers are Giles, Grayson, Scott and Craig. One area in particular that hunters should take a hard look at for deer hunting is the New River Valley, which includes Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski and Wythe," Boynton noted.

The valley has a good mix of wood lots and fields. There is thick cover with nearby food that holds a number of deer. Hunters who are serious about getting their freezer filled need to focus on agricultural areas. Some of the farmers are fed up with deer eating their alfalfa.

The other option for meat hunters is the urban archery program. The program and the participating towns offer a very liberal take of does.

The one variable that hunters should keep in mind for the upcoming season in this region is the late freeze that may have hurt the mast crop. Be sure to get out in the woods and do some scouting before your hunt to determine where the acorns are.

NORTHERN MOUNTAIN

This region is home to steady deer harvests each year. This is particularly true of the northern tier of the region where Clarke (10.94), followed by Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren made the cut for the top 20. The region had a very stable harvest (33,160) with just 142 fewer deer checked in this past season. Of the 2006 harvest, 16,964 were antlered bucks, 2,249 were button bucks and 13,947 (42 percent) were does.

Clarke and Frederick have always been top counties for hunters and the trend continues. Compared with much of the state, the northern valley areas of these counties have better soils and habitat in the form of mixed hardwoods, pastures and grasslands, which equates to healthier deer. There are a number of horse-boarding facilities in the region that need not see deer eating up their pasture. Stop by and knock on a few doors before the season.

Considerably more deer exist on private lands in this area than on the adjacent national forest lands. If private land opportunities are not available, however, take a look at Goshen, Little North Mountain and Gathright WMAs.

NORTHERN PIEDMONT

The Northern Piedmont harvest was down 5 percent, but the harvest was still considered stable at 43,184 deer, of which 19,167 were antlered bucks, 4,049 were button bucks, and 23,216 were does (46.2 percent).

Each year, we note how great the hunting is in the northern peninsula of the state. The great soils, open agriculture practices, and privately protected areas (posted land) allow the deer herd to thrive. The top county was Loudoun this year with 13.45 deer harvested per square mile. Other good bets include Fauquier and Rappahannock counties.

When we spoke with Ron Hughes, VDGIF biologist, he made a point to say that Fairfax and even Prince William should not be ruled out as good hunting counties.

The late special firearms season and the urban archery season deserve a plug for the great opportunity they provide for meat hunters not concerned about putting a rack on the wall.

Hughes also added, "Don't forget about the late archery season on Phelps WMA after the two-week firearm season. Does are legal during the archery season, which is underutilized."

The northern portion of the region is densely populated with people and deer. Hunters who are willing to take a doe should have little problem finding a place to hunt if only they will knock on a few doors or get involved with the special seasons VDGIF has created. There are also several military installations in the region that offer hunting opportunities to help manage their herds, and typically, the hunting on these bases is good.

The outlook is great for the entire state this year. Many counties have liberal doe days and more may be coming in the next regulation cycle. Hunters really need t

o do their part to harvest does. Enjoy a great hunting season and stay safe!

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