Virginia's 2006 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Where do the most and biggest bucks in Virginia come from? Here's what the data shows. (Nov 2006)

Last season, Virginia deer hunters killed very nearly the same number of deer that they killed the season before. In 2005-2006, hunters bagged 100,927 antlered bucks and 20,357 button bucks. The total buck harvest figure dropped a little less than 4 percent from the previous season's total harvest of 126,173 bucks.

Wildlife biologists will quickly point out that a fluctuation in harvest numbers of up to 10 percent is considered within normal variation. With a fluctuation of less than 4 percent, the harvest is considered stable; harvest totals within a few percentage points of each other normally indicate that variables other than important shifts in the deer population accounted for the change.

There are many variables besides the deer population that come into play when harvest figures are analyzed. First, did weather impact the participation of hunters? If weekends were rainy or snowy (especially in the early parts of gun seasons), then the harvest is bound to be affected negatively. Good weather on weekends can influence the harvest to be more productive; more hunters will hunt and more of them will hunt longer.

A quick study of the accompanying chart shows that with two exceptions, every top county in last season's forecast is back again. The exceptions, Giles and Grayson counties, dropped off the list this year and were replaced with Southampton and King George counties.

Biologists in each of the regions report that the mast crop was spotty again last year, although some areas had decent localized acorn production. Some predict that this year will result in a good acorn crop because we are "due." That remains to be seen. Pre-season scouting is always a good idea to determine the exact state of the food sources in your region.

It is also interesting to note that many urban areas are opening up to archery hunting. Covington, Lexington, Winchester and Emporia in particular have very high densities of antlered bucks and obviously some hunters are taking advantage of that. Take a peek at the list of cities that are on the chart and look into getting involved in an urban archery hunt. Most deer that live in an urban setting grow quite old. Who knows, maybe your next wallhanger will be taken in a back yard!

TIDEWATER REGION

Tidewater hunters bagged 21,520 antlered bucks last season and had a square mile harvest index of 2.83 antlered bucks. Once again, the Tidewater Region ranks second in terms of total antlered bucks harvested. The region is always a consistent producer of antlered bucks and last year was no exception. This season, seven of the top 20 counties in the lineup were from the Tidewater Region.

Charles City led the way with 4.38 bucks per square mile taken. Other counties making the top 20 list included New Kent (3.81), Surry and Lancaster (both at 3.79), Southampton (3.71), King George (3.63) and James City (3.44).

Phil West, recently promoted to Public Lands Manager for the VDGIF, answered questions about the buck harvest in the region. West had this to say about the prospects in the region.

"I feel that there is an equal opportunity for a hunter to take a quality buck anywhere in the region. Our deer herd is in good shape."

West added that he would certainly suggest to hunters to hunt areas that are less pressured where bucks have a bit more age on them and can mature into something worthy of the wall or a photograph. When pressed for a particular region that tends to get less attention but holds mature bucks, West mentioned that possibly Surry, Southampton or Sussex would bear a harder look if a hunter were seeking a really nice buck.

Although the region had a spotty mast crop last year, most deer here are able to supplement that loss with good agricultural lands or early successional habitats on recently timbered property.

West also pointed out that hunters should stay tuned for a possible archery opportunity in West Point (city). Cavalier WMA, which is slated to open soon, will also offer a good opportunity to bag a buck. The WMA is 3,800 acres in size.

Public lands that also bear a mention include the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge and the James River National Wildlife Refuge system. Both refuges have numerous isolated tracts that do not receive a tremendous amount of hunting pressure.

SOUTHERN PIEDMONT

The Southern Piedmont led the state with 25,260 antlered bucks loaded into huntin' rigs last season. The index of harvested antlered bucks in the region was 2.58. The top county in terms of bucks harvested per square mile was Bedford (4.56). Franklin (3.62) took the next slot and is usually a favorite haunt for buck hunters. Franklin was followed this past season by Powhatan (3.46), Cumberland (3.45) and Amelia 3.40).

The winter this past year was mild and there was plenty of moisture, so the deer should be in good shape this season. The mast crop last year was spotty, and as with any year, biologists don't advise hunters to count on a good mast crop to find bucks. Scouting is very important, especially in areas where there are no alternative agricultural food sources. Row crops are not common in the region and hunters should really do some prep work to figure out their game plan.

Jim Bowman, regional wildlife biologist, mentioned that Buckingham, while mostly private land, is also a good destination for hunters. The soils are not the best, but large bucks come from the county with regularity. The bucks in this county tend to be older and age equals a mature buck.

Other counties or regions that are well worth visiting during the pre-season to scout include the foothills of the mountains in Patrick and Amherst. The soils are very good in these areas and the private-land hunting follows suit. Get your foot in the door to hunt in these counties and the odds are good you will at least see nice bucks.

Public-land opportunities in the region include the national forest lands in Bedford and Botetourt (Glenwood District), and the Pedlar Ranger District in Amherst. These areas have less relative pressure put on them by hunters than they did 15 years ago, and some of the more remote locations are often good destinations to find older bucks with larger antlers. Hunters will find that in the mountainous localities muzzleloader rifle hunting is very popular and accounts for over a third of the harvest each year.

One last public land that is certainly worth exploring as an option is Fort Pickett. Fort Pickett was closed immediately after 9-11 but has since opened back up with some restrictions in place regarding a

ccess and hunting. It is said that the hunting is very good at the military installation, especially for those who take the time to scout ahead of time.

Hunters wishing to truly cash in on a large buck should also consider joining any one of the hunt clubs that practice quality deer management. The program works quite well in allowing bucks to grow very respectable racks and mature into large deer. DMAP is often used to balance the doe-to-buck ratio.

SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN

The Southern Mountain Region is not well known for its large numbers of bucks taken, but hunters still managed to bag 18,096 antlered bucks last season. This equates to a figure of 2.31 antlered bucks per square mile of habitat. The top county was Scott with 4.02 bucks taken per square mile.

Life in the Southern Mountain Region is tough for both hunter and hunted with the rugged terrain and poor habitat in some places. But there are some excellent prospects for hunters looking for a real bruiser if they are willing to work for it.

I was fortunate enough to get both Allen Boynton and John Baker on the phone at the same time to pick their brain about prospects down in the far reaches of the state. Both biologists were in agreement that the upper New River Valley, including Grayson, Carroll and Wythe counties, is seeing a trend in large-bodied bucks with good antler development. This is also true of two coalfield counties, Buchanan and Dickenson. The key to this trend is private land. Private land has better habitat on it than public land. Access can be a problem for someone out of the area and wanting to hunt private land. Taking the time to meet landowners in the spring or summer is an investment for the fall season and is encouraged.

It should be noted that National Forest lands are home to some heavy-racked bucks despite the poorer habitat. But hunters really need to get out of the truck, off the beaten path and be willing to hike well into the forest to get the better bucks. The more remote the area, the better chance an older buck will be using it. The Roanoke office of the National Forest can provide maps of various districts. VDGIF has a Find Game tool on its Web site that has maps as well.

Last season, the acorns dropped early because of the dry weather. Hunters really need to spend time scouting before hunting to determine what the condition of the mast crop is and what alternative food sources are available this season.

NORTHERN MOUNTAIN

Hunters can count on seeing four of the top 20 counties coming from the Northern Mountain Region each year, and they are always the same counties. Last season, the region produced 16,427 antlered bucks that were harvested. An index of 2.86 antlered bucks per square mile was taken. The top county was Shenandoah (4.34) followed by Frederick (4.13), Clarke (4.13) and Warren (4.13).

These four counties have productive soils that provide good habitat and food sources for the large deer herd that exists. Much like the Southern Mountain Region, the great habitat is found primarily on private land. Public lands (national forests) have much poorer habitats and therefore the deer herds are not as robust as on private land. Hunters that can lock in permission to hunt private land will have very good opportunities to hunt for quality bucks. If the property owners or hunters leasing the property practice quality deer management, then the buck-to-doe ratio is going to be more balanced, providing even better opportunities. Last season saw an overall good mast crop and a mild winter meaning that recruitment should be good this year.

Again, here the National Forest lands have poorer soils and do not provide the cover or food that would support a larger deer herd. But hunters can still bag a good buck if they are willing to plan their hunt and hike farther into the rugged mountains. Another strategy to take a buck is to hunt the public land surrounding the Shenandoah National Park. The park does not allow hunting, so the deer that live within the park often live to a ripe old age. Those deer that stray off the park become fair game.

This year, hunters should be aware that VDGIF has implemented a new antler regulation rule in the county of Shenandoah. Hunters may take two bucks in the county per season, but one of the bucks must have at least four points on one antler. This management practice should help produce larger and more mature bucks. Hunters are encouraged to glass bucks before taking them. And it certainly would not hurt to take a doe in place of a buck where legal. When the doe ratio is closer to that of the bucks, the result is larger bucks.

NORTHERN PIEDMONT

If there were such a thing as clones when it came to comparing regional deer herds, then the Northern Piedmont would be the twin to the Northern Mountain Region. With an antlered buck harvest of 19,624 and the top square mile index of 3.14 (best of all five regions in the state), the Northern Piedmont obviously has something going for hunters that pursue Mr. Whitetail in the region.

Mirroring the region to its west, the top counties in the Northern Piedmont are also located in the northern section of the state. Loudoun led the state with 5.71 antlered bucks per square mile shot and arrowed last year. Fauquier followed with 4.38 and Rappahannock brought up the rear with 4.07 antlered bucks taken per square mile.

Although these three counties are great localities to search for a buck to fill your tag, there are other places where the hunting can be just as good, particularly for a large buck.

Ron Hughes, VDGIF wildlife biologist for the region, commented that the entire eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains has good soil and therefore good habitat. However, the density of deer is a bit less in some areas, which can encourage better growth and development of antlers. Madison, Green and Rappahannock counties all come to Hughes' mind as less pressured but good places to hunt.

The oak mast is a very influential part of seeing big-bodied and quality racked bucks. Hunters need to get out in the woods in late summer and early autumn to determine what the mast looks like and then begin keying on these areas.

Muzzleloader and archery seasons are the best times to tag a big buck. Hughes has noticed more and more hunters taking advantage of these seasons and use scents and calls to entice big bucks within range.

It is interesting to note that the George Washington National Forest has much less hunting pressure than it once had and some hunters are finding good success when they hike a few miles off the main road. The same theory holds true for the Rapidan WMA.

November is the prime time to get a big buck in your sights in Virginia. Be sure to do your homework, have your scouting completed and practice with your firearm or bow so that when the opportunity presents itself, you don't blow it. Regardless of your methods, enjoy the time you get afield this season and remember those in harm's way protecting our freedoms. Good hunting!

Find more about Virginia fishing and hunting at: VirginiaGameandFish.com

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