The Last Best Chance For A Blue Ridge Deer

Want one more crack at punching a deer tag this season? Try the late muzzleloader season. (December 2005)

Photo by BillKinney.com

"Rebecca killed a big buck on Christmas Eve," were the first words John Potter greeted me with when he arrived in first period at my Lord Botetourt High School English 10 class after the holidays had concluded. I had taught his sister, Rebecca, three years earlier and had known her then as an enthusiastic and dedicated young sportswoman.

"And I mean a big buck," John continued. "You should see it."

The buck turned out, indeed, to be worth a look. The base of the 10-pointer's horns are 4 1/2 inches around and the tines are all about 9 inches long. The buck also has a drop tine that had been severed. Interestingly, the broadbeam only weighed 130 pounds field dressed. David Hicks of Hicks Taxidermy in Vinton estimated the deer was at least 5 1/2 years old. He also rough scored the buck at 182 under the Virginia scoring system.

"It's a stud, a right impressive buck," Hicks told me.

On Christmas Eve evening, Rebecca, a resident of Troutville and a student at Radford University, was positioned on a Botetourt County ridge. Fortunately, she decided to brave the cold until sunset, and at 5:30 p.m., the buck came marching down the mountain toward a field. Her 40-yard shot rang true, and at a time of year when tagging a deer of either sex is an accomplishment, Rebecca had killed a mossyhorn that any hunter in any season would be proud to claim.

"He only ran about 30 yards until he got his horns tangled up in a sapling," Rebecca recalled.

Interestingly, earlier on Christmas Eve morning, Rebecca had glimpsed what she thought might have been the same buck. Overall, the trophy was her third deer in the past four years.

Matt Knox, deer program supervisor for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), notes that the late muzzleloader season is a time of very light hunting pressure. Indeed, of the 220,538 whitetails killed during the 2004-05 season, only 8,386 were tagged during the late muzzleloader period. That tally is only 3.8 percent of the overall deer harvest. I asked Knox why the pressure is so low.

"I do not have a feeling for why this is so," he said. "I did not do it (the harvest figures) by day, but most of the deer kill during this season takes place during the last six days which are, in most places, either-sex hunting days -- sort of a last chance to put a deer in the freezer."

This year, the late muzzleloader season will run from Saturday, Dec. 17 to Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006. Knox stated that no changes are on tap concerning the season length or structure for this year. However, the DGIF is proposing to change the season structure "so that the late muzzleloading season will always be three weeks and a Saturday in length." As the regulation is currently written, the season is sometimes only two weeks, depending on the calendar.

WHERE TO GO

Last year, the top 10 late-season muzzleloader counties (harvest total in parentheses) were Bedford (431), Shenandoah (232), Rockingham (217), Scott (210), Wythe (192), Franklin (174), Augusta (174), Botetourt (163), Rockbridge (130) and Montgomery (127).

I have always believed that the harvest totals in the individual counties for the late muzzleloader season were equal parts a reflection of a county's deer numbers, a reflection of a dedicated percentage of deer hunters that remained "hard at it" long after their peers had given up the pastime for the year, and a reflection of the number of doe days.

For example, Bedford County annually is at or near the top of the harvest chart for all our seasons: bow, early muzzleloader, regular gun and late muzzleloader. The reason is simple. This southern Piedmont county hosts a great many whitetails. Bedford's combination of agricultural areas, small farms, scattered wood lots, overgrown fields, and many small tributaries of the James River is perfect for creating ideal whitetail habitat. Thus, it is no surprise that the county led the way during the late muzzleloader season -- and will likely be at or near the top this season.

The fourth and fifth place counties, however, are more a reflection of a hardcore group of sportsmen who remain afield until early January. Scott and Wythe counties, both of which are located in far western Virginia, feature deer herds that only in the past 20 years or so have begun to recover from the low numbers that were the norm the vast majority of the 20th century.

Both counties' deer herds suffered from the indignities of illegal hunting and habitat abuses from the logging and coal industries during the first few decades of the 20th century. Once the deer herds were so severely reduced, they did not begin to recover until comparatively recent times. And deer densities there still don't approach what they are in other counties in the Piedmont and Tidewater regions, and even that of other counties in the Mountain Region.

However, what Scott and Wythe counties do feature is some of the most talented and enthusiastic deer hunters in the Old Dominion. Talk to some of the mountain deer hunters from western Virginia and you will come away impressed with their knowledge and drive.

And mountain is the operative word in Scott and Wythe counties. The terrain in both domains features long, deep coves, steep, rugged slopes, high-peaked mountains and rushing highland rills. Great and Catawba rhododendron envelop the upland creeks, mountain laurel rims the high ridges, and oak/pine stands characterize the hollows. With any luck, a hunter won't have to drag a whitetail up one of these hollows to his vehicle.

The sixth-place county, Franklin, is a prime example of a domain that offers a long either-sex season. Does are legal game throughout the late muzzleloader season in Franklin County, and many sportsmen, myself included, take advantage of that fact. Often on the first Saturday of the late muzzleloader season, I head for a Franklin County farm with my sole goal being to tag an antlerless deer.

One other point needs to be expressed concerning the harvest totals. The 10th-place county, Montgomery, only had 127 whitetails checked in. This tally is not a reflection of a low deer herd, but instead, it is indicative of very light hunting pressure. I primarily hunt the late muzzleloader season in Botetourt (where I live), Craig (where I own land) and Franklin (where my cousins own land). I began hunting in the late-season muzzleloader in 1993, and during all those years, I don't recall seeing more than one or two hunters a season in any of these counties.

Indeed, when I ask friends to go afield with me, most of them pass because it's too cold or late in the season. Again, just because a county's harvest figures are low doesn't mean that its deer herd is lacking.

PUBLIC LAND OPTIONS

Do late-season smokepole toters have some quality public land options?

"I think a hunter could have luck just about anywhere, but private land would probably be better than public land during the late muzzleloading season because as a general rule it has more food," Matt Knox said.

I agree with Knox's assessment. Although I sometimes hunt the 1.7-million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest during the late muzzleloader season, I much prefer private land at this time. The reason, as the biologist points out, is that private land fields, pastures, agricultural areas and orchards are all more likely to entice whitetails than the mountainous expanses of the natural forest.

Although the oak stands in the national forests are often hotspots in October and November, they have largely ceased to draw deer by mid to late December and early January. At times, I have seen as many as six or seven deer traveling through the national forest at this stage of the year. However, many more times, I have endured long, lonely vigils in the forest without seeing a single animal.

The same holds true for our state wildlife management areas. Although the game department does an excellent job managing these public grounds, nearby private lands typically offer sportsmen a better chance at punching a tag now. By all means, consider the national forest and the Commonwealth's western WMAs. However, I would also advise that you first check out private-land farms and wood lots.

HOW-TO TACTICS

Matt Knox also weighed in on how to take a whitetail now.

"I like the rule of thumb that (says) you cannot kill a deer sitting at home on the sofa watching TV," he told me. "If you want to find the deer during the late muzzleloading season, find the food. In our area, hunting the edges of fields or pastures can be productive if the mast crop is gone."

Rebecca Potter freely admits that she is still learning how to become an accomplished whitetail hunter. But she has developed an interesting game plan.

"The night before I hunt, I try to visualize while I am lying in bed where a deer might come the next morning or evening," she said. "And once I visualize that spot, that's where I will sit the next day. I like to take a stand at spots just off trails.

"Second, I really like to learn the land and know where every nook and cranny is. In the evening for the late muzzleloader season, I like to be on stand by 3:30 p.m. and sit still until dark."

I began going afield during the late muzzleloader season in 1993 -- the year I obtained my first smokepole -- a modern inline. The early to mid-1990s was when the muzzleloader boom began in Virginia, as those hunters going afield with inlines quickly outnumbered those individuals who toted traditional guns, such as flintlocks.

If there is one thing that I have learned during those 13 late seasons, it is that a hunter's ability to find food sources, as biologist Matt Knox emphasized, is by far the most important predictor of whether he will be successful or not. Like many Old Dominion deer hunters, I have read numerous articles proclaiming the "miracles" of the second rut -- when bucks supposedly become all revved up again to chase does. I'm not saying that there is no rutting activity in our state during the late muzzleloader season. I once watched a dandy 10-pointer chasing a doe then. However, I do believe that there is little sexual activity and that waiting over a fresh rub or scrape is an exercise in futility.

That's because I have come across hot rubs and scrapes in the mid to late December period. And never once during that time has the maker of that sign ever returned while I've been on stand. Nor have any of the rubs or scrapes ever shown any indication of being refreshed. Usually, if a newly made rub or scrape appears suddenly and unexpectedly along some trail that I hunt along, I make note of it, but no buck or doe ever seems to return. Indeed, I have stopped hunting near this type of sign in December and early January.

The sign that is worth noting is fresh droppings. Whitetails are very much opportunistic feeders now. They will discover a new food source, visit it repeatedly over the course of a few days, consume most or all of it, and then move on not to return. When that food source is hot, a dozen or more deer may come by it in the course of a day. When the source is depleted, deer traffic becomes nonexistent.

What are the most reliable food sources now? That depends on the time of day. One of the best times to hunt now is the midday period from 10:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. This period has become such a major moving time for deer that I have ceased arising to hunt at dawn.

For example, on the final day of the season last January, I worked inside until midmorning, then quietly made my way to a stand around 11:45. At 12:10, a herd of seven whitetails came by my position, as they wended their way through a thicket. The deer were on their way to a honeysuckle thicket that I know of, where no doubt they browsed on the leaves and stems for a goodly amount of time. Unfortunately, the deer were moving too fast for me to squeeze off a killing shot. But that burst of activity proved once again how active whitetails are at midday now.

The food that deer are after, it often seems at midday, is honeysuckle. This plant often thrives along forest edges. Deer will often arise from their bedding areas at midday, move a short distance to a honeysuckle thicket, eat their fill, and then bed right there until evening.

Another excellent midday food source is a grassy opening in a forest or a field. For example, three years ago in late December, I killed a Craig County doe at 12:55 p.m. The animal had been moving along a linear field between two hardwood stands.

The other time that is an excellent period to hunt now is the last 90 minutes or so of daylight. Deer, of course, will visit honeysuckle thickets and grassy openings then, but they seem to gravitate toward more open areas late in the day. These include orchards, agricultural areas, pastures and overgrown fields.

For instance, several years ago in Botetourt County, I had set up around 3:45 p.m. along a heavily used deer trail. Just five minutes later, a deer approached my position. The 15-yard shot couldn't have been easier. That deer was walking a trail that led to a pasture where horses graze.

This past season, I hunted every one of the six doe days that exist in many western Virginia counties. One evening spent on a Botetourt County corn field resulted in my glimpsing just one whitetail -- a doe that emerged right at dusk from a thicket some 300 yards away. Another evening spent on a Botetourt cattle farm resulted in no sightings. But at another cattle farm in the county, I spott

ed six deer right before dusk.

It was at that last farm where I made my stand on the last day of the season. As the time wore on and the temperature steadily decreased, I began to despair of even espying a deer. But just as the sun had finally disappeared, I heard the sounds of something walking toward me.

I quickly shouldered my smokepole and stared through the scope into the gloaming. I picked up a patch of brown, but was it the heart-lung area or the hindquarters? Or, worse, perhaps it was not a deer at all? After holding the gun in position for what seemed like a long time, I decided that the only ethical thing to do was not shoot at all. I arose, the deer snorted and bolted, and my muzzleloader season came to an end. Unless you are a Rebecca Potter, the late season is not a time to kill a trophy. But it is a dandy time to enjoy Virginia's outdoors.

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