Virginia's 2007 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Where To Find Trophy Bucks

Virginia's 2007 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Where To Find Trophy Bucks

Where do the big bucks come from in Virginia? Here's what last season's data shows. (November 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

After decades of expansion, the Virginia deer population has filled almost all deer habitat in the state. Over the last few years, the rate of increase in the deer herd has slowed, and the harvest numbers have stabilized.

For example, in the 2004-2005 season, the total buck harvest was 126,173. The 2005-2006 season total buck harvest was 121,284, while the 2006-2007 season yielded 106,595 antlered and 19,652 button bucks for a total of 126,247. This represents very stable -- and historically high -- harvest numbers for the past three years despite variations in weather, mast crop and hunter participation.

Not only has the harvest in the state stabilized, but deer populations have had a number of years to inhabit all counties now, and the counties with the best habitat are consistently producing top harvest numbers.

For instance, of the top 20 counties in the state in buck harvest in the 2005 season, only two were cycled out of the list and replaced by other counties in the 2006 season: James City and Warren were replaced by Craig and Giles.

Mast crop is a driving force in hunter success and, in many areas, antler development in bucks.

Last fall, all regions in Virginia reported that the mast crop was at least "good." Some regions had a very good mast crop that was spread out over a long time. That should translate into a better-than-average crop of bucks this fall.

While it's impossible to predict with complete accuracy what an upcoming season will bring, these trends and statistics can help us make some informed guesses about a number of the best places to pursue bucks in regions across the state this season.

TIDEWATER REGION

Of the five regions in the state, the Tidewater produced the second highest total antlered buck harvest, with 22,607 animals.

Wildlife biologist Galon Hall works out of the Warsaw office for Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. His district covers counties north of the York River. Hall keeps close tabs on wildlife in his district, and for precisely this reason he's hesitant to select one or two counties as being the top "trophy buck" county: The whole region tends to have quality buck hunting.

As Hall pointed out, there are pockets of land scattered across the region that offer better chances of putting a massive buck on the wall. Typically, these places have lower hunting pressure, or more of the land is posted, or contain better food sources or simply have a combination of all of the above. Hunters need to scout to find, and get permission to hunt, those prime properties.

Hall did make an observation during our discussion about the land south of the James River. That area is known as "peanut country." As one may surmise, peanuts are full of protein and deer love to dig them up and eat them. Hall also noted that Eastern Shore deer tend to be noticeably heavier than deer on the mainland.

One trend that Hall commented on was the fact that clubs participating in the DMAP program often practice some sort of quality deer management, meaning that more often than not, more does are harvested and younger, smaller bucks are allowed to slip by for another year. Hall pointed out that a buck that is permitted to survive 4 1/2 years is a buck that many hunters will consider a trophy.

In our discussion about public land opportunities, Hall suggested that hunters consider Chickahominy WMA. In his chats with fellow biologist Todd Englemeyer, Hall learned that the Chick is heavily hunted, but the property continues to produce some very nice bucks. Hunters truly wanting a wallhanger are urged to take advantage of the archery season or even the early muzzleloader season before pressure disturbs the deer.

A second public-land opportunity worth checking out is Cavalier WMA, which covers 4,485 acres in Chesapeake County. Last season, 40 hunters were selected for each set of hunt dates on this WMA. Cavalier offers hunters living in the Virginia Beach area a great public-land area with a quality hunting experience. Visit the VDGIF Web site, www.dgif.virginia.gov, for additional and up-to-date information on Cavalier WMA.

SOUTHERN PIEDMONT

Five counties from this fertile region made the top 20 list and none of them are strangers to that list. A total of 28,244 antlered bucks were harvested from the region.

We spoke to both Dan Lovelace and Cale Godfrey, biologists for VDGIF, for information on the hunting in the region.

Godfrey echoed the thoughts of Hall from the Tidewater Region when he stated that the entire district is quite capable of producing nice bucks. The habitat is great in the region and there is plenty of food for the bucks, too. Food sources are varied, with row crops and dairy farms mixing in with cutovers and timber lots. These types of diverse habitats are great for deer.

Godfrey pointed out that in recent years one of the best public lands in the region for nice bucks is Fort Pickett. Godfrey noted that access is a bit tighter in the post 9-11 world, which cuts down on the number of hunters on the installation. The training areas on the post are open subject to the training that may be occurring on any given day. This combination of factors has allowed some bucks to age a bit and they sport larger headgear.

Hunters are encouraged to have several areas scouted on the post, because some areas may be closed or full of hunters and a backup area will need to be selected in those cases. Hunters may call the post at (434) 292-2618 for information.

Another public-land opportunity that holds good buck-hunting prospects is the Featherfin WMA in Prince Edward, Buckingham and Appomattox. Here, hunters have 2,800 acres of prime land to search for a nice buck. An important note about this WMA is that it is on the quota hunt system and hunters must apply for a slot during muzzleloader and general firearms season. However, before those seasons, early archery season hunters may hunt until the muzzleloader season begins.

Bucks must sport at least 4 points on one side and must be at least 1 inch long. This rule is already producing results and making for a great public-land hunting experience.

Farther west in the region, the terrain begins to roll as the land forms the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Dan Lovelace, formerly of the Northern Piedmont, has t

aken the helm of this district. Lovelace pointed out that Franklin and Bedford certainly deserve some attention because of the number of deer that are harvested within their boundaries. However, all the counties in the region are very good buck counties -- none produce poor hunting. As with the district to the east, Lovelace's district has good food sources, such as corn and hay, good soils and a varied habitat composed of farms and woodlands.

Hunting methods also vary within the district. Hunting from stands and still-hunting are most common. In eastern Nelson and Amherst counties, hunting with dogs is popular.

Last season's harvest in this region was up in every county except Henry. Hunters are encouraged to take more does when possible. Doing so will permit those smaller bucks to grow to standards worthy of the wall.

The Jefferson National Forest is not hunted as heavily as it once was, possibly because the habitat has degraded some without active timbering creating early successional habitat. However, while habitat may not be ideal, the fact that fewer hunters are hunting the property means that in some areas, the percentage of older bucks is high and these older animals can become quality bucks.

Lovelace suggests hunters look at Nelson, Amherst and Botetourt counties for national forest hunting opportunities in the region. Overall, the buck hunting in the region looks to be fine for the upcoming season.

SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN

The Southern Mountain Region saw a total antlered buck harvest of 19,613. There were three counties from the region that made the top 20 list: Scott, Giles and Craig.

Bill Bassinger, a district wildlife biologist for VDGIF works a portion of the region and had a few great tips for hunters looking to put a big buck on the wall.

Bassinger pointed out that the Big Survey WMA is an excellent public land that may afford a dedicated hunter a quality buck. The remote 7,300-acre property in Wythe County offers bucks a place to grow and survive to an age where their headgear would be well worth a hike up into the mountains.

Bassinger has personal experience hunting the WMA and was one of the VDGIF staff members that worked on the property as it was surveyed and purchased.

"Some people may not want to walk or hike into the interior of the WMA, but this is where the dedicated hunter can find his or her buck," he said. "There are few access roads, so one does have to be willing to do some legwork. It has been my experience that the deer tend to bed high and feed low. Therefore, during hunting season, they generally travel up the mountain in the morning from their feeding areas and then return down the mountain at night. Hunters should keep this in mind as they set up a stand over travel corridors."

According to Bassinger, the terrain is thicker up high and it can be tough to hike in. However, the payoff should be worth the effort if one sticks with it. Bassinger noted that the boundary of Big Survey is approximately 27 miles long, and there are 277 privately held properties on the boundary of the WMA.

Hunters who have access to hunt the private lands bordering the WMA will find that the hunting is good there as well. The lesson here is: Don't be lazy. If you really want to harvest a quality buck, do knock on some doors before the season to ask about permission to hunt the private lands around the WMA.

The mast crop last season in this region did vary, but overall, it was not bad. Areas where the mast was good should see nice bucks this season. However, biologists are concerned about the upcoming mast crop, as some late spring freezes may have reduced the trees' ability to produce mast this fall. Whether or not a given piece of hunting ground has trees that produce this will be, in many cases, dependent on the altitude of that piece of land. Hunters should keep this in mind and scout their hunting spots before setting up a stand this fall. The bucks will definitely key in on the does, which will be looking for acorns to feed on.

NORTHERN MOUNTAIN

Although there were only two counties -- Clarke and Frederick -- from the region that made the top 20 list of counties with the highest number of bucks harvested per square mile, hunters in this region still killed 16,964 antlered bucks last year.

The region can be tough to hunt because of the ruggedness of the terrain, and much of the public land is not the best habitat to support large numbers of whitetail deer. However, as with any public land, hunters can find quality deer hunting if they are willing to hike well into the interior of the national forest. It is critical for bucks to have time to grow in order to have a good rack on them, and in the remote parts of the national forest, bucks get that time.

There are also sizeable private lands practicing some form of quality deer management. Hunters who gain access to these private lands are going to have the best chance to harvest a quality buck. Shenandoah has a quality buck rule in place. Hunters may take two bucks from the county, but one of the bucks must have at least 4 points on one side.

Nelson LaFon, Deer Project Coordinator, also noted that hunters might target small suburban wood lots with a bow or crossbow. Such areas don't see too much hunting pressure and bucks are able to grow to ripe old ages in some areas. This is an excellent idea that is often overlooked by hunters in all parts of the state.

Last year, the mast crop was very good in most parts of the Northern Mountain Region. Hunters should scout ahead of time this year, as some late spring freezes have threatened the upcoming mast crop. N

NORTHERN PIEDMONT

The Northern Piedmont contributed 19,167 antlered bucks to the harvest figures. Most of those came from Loudoun, Rappahannock (4.17) and Fauquier counties.

The Northern Piedmont Region is a unique region in that it is composed of many urban areas. We spoke with John Rohm, who handles the urban wildlife management in the northern district of the region. Rohm told us that in his region, consisting of Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun, he is focused on thinning the herd more than managing for large bucks. He has seen or heard of nice bucks being taken in Fairfax where the urban nature of the habitat allows the bucks to survive longer. Archers are able to focus on back yards and small wood lots to arrow some very respectable bucks. The key here is gaining permission to hunt on these properties.

Rohm also noted that the bucks tend to fare better in western Loudoun, where the terrain is more rural. Hunters may have better luck securing a place to hunt here as well. Loudoun always makes the top five in terms of deer herd density -- and buck population density, too.

Farther south in the region the habitat is more rural. Brian Moyer is the biologist in charge of this district. Moyer noted that there are a number of landowners practicing quality deer management and participating in the DMAP program. Much of this is self imposed

but effective. Moyer commented that most of his district has quality buck prospects, but the land along the James and South Anna rivers in Hanover, Goochland and Powhatan is notable for producing nice bucks. The habitat there is a mix of farmland and oak/hickory wood lots.

Moyer also commented that Fort A.P. Hill is a good public land destination for hunters looking for a shot at a good buck. Although the post receives plenty of hunting pressure, it is known to produce some very nice, wide-racked bucks each season. There are areas of the post that are completely off-limits to hunters and provide a sanctuary for deer to grow many seasons without being shot at or seen. See the Web site or the regulation book for information on hunting Fort A.P. Hill.

With a good mast crop over much of the state and a mild winter, the deer herd came through in good shape. The trend shows more hunters are passing up the younger bucks and allowing them to grow at least one more season. Scout your areas before the season to find where the acorns are falling and then enjoy what looks to be a bountiful season.

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

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