Virginia's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1
October 28, 2010
Where are the best places in the state to bag some venison? Here's what the data says.
Virginia hunters hit yet another total harvest record again last year. In the previous season, hunters killed 253,678 deer; last year there were 256,512 deer bagged. This represents a slight increase of about 1 percent. Delving further into the data we found that the doe harvest was 124,477, which represented 48.5 percent of the total harvest -- a greater percentage of the total harvest than the antlered buck harvest was. Nearly 5,000 more does were taken last season in Virginia than were killed the previous season.
Antlered bucks made up 42.3 percent of the total harvest, with 108,443 animals tagged. Hunters also shot 23,592 button bucks. (These harvest figures do not include the late special seasons that run through the end of March. Those figures were not yet available at press time.)
As noted in last year's outlook, VDGIF continued its liberalized doe days in hopes of thinning the deer herd to meet cultural carrying capacity in many areas. The increase in doe days certainly had an impact on the total harvest figures and biologists feel the harvest will now begin to level off in some areas.
Last year the first-ever youth day was a success, with 1,838 deer taken by youth hunters in September across the state. This is an investment in our future and appears to have worked quite well despite heavy rain and terrible field conditions.
Weather during the rest of the season made for interesting hunting conditions. Heavy snow just before Christmas stayed on the ground and blocked many back roads for the last two weeks of the season in parts of the state, limiting hunter participation. There were also many Saturdays during the early part of the season that were subject to heavy rain.
As we do each year we consulted Deer Project Coordinators, Matt Knox and Nelson LaFon, as well as district and regional biologists in each region to get the latest information from the field on deer hunting.
Looking at the graphics accompanying this article, readers will notice that 11 of the counties in the top 20 are Tidewater counties. The region has a good mix of farms, pine cutovers, hardwoods, swamps and river bottoms. Even in areas where the land has been developed there are plenty of pockets of food and cover for deer and hunting is still a strong tradition in this region.
Todd Engelmeyer is a VDGIF biologist who works the region; he pointed out that the entire region has seen very good deer harvests and the herd is faring quite well despite the snow and colder winter that we experienced last year. Hunters would not be remiss to hunt anywhere in the region.
He did share that hunters might want to key in on lands that have agriculture on them mixed with other habitats such as pine thickets or clearcut areas rather than lands that are primarily hardwoods. Last season the mast crop was the biggest failure on record and the deer had to go to cutovers to browse or find agricultural lands to feed on. Finding that mix of habitat and food sources will ensure a hunter has a steady influx of deer no matter the mast crop. Counties such as those on the Eastern Shore are primarily agriculture and swamp, which makes for good cover and food sources.
When asked about the liberalized doe days hunters were able to use last season and this season, Engelmeyer responded that the extra doe days were being used as a tool to manage the herd for the cultural carry capacity (responding to the complaints of landowners and constituents for deer damage). In light of that he felt hunters may begin to see a reduced harvest in the Northern Neck as the herd is thinned somewhat. Some areas now have the full season as either sex days.
Engelmeyer had a few other suggestions for hunters wanting to fill tags.
"If you can find a place to archery hunt in a developed area during the Early Antlerless-Only Season, then please do so. Places such as Suffolk, Williamsburg and York could also really use some attention from hunters," he said.
There is a list of the towns and cities that allow hunting in the special Early Antlerless Only Season in the VDGIF Hunting and Trapping booklet and online at the website www.huntfishva.com.
Finally, there are some public lands that need some attention from hunters as well. Cavalier WMA in Chesapeake has lower hunting pressure than one might expect and the deer herd density is quite high. The 4,485-acre WMA is characterized by lots of cutover and thick brush. The deer herd is robust and the chances of punching a tag are good.
Chances of pubnching a tag are very good in the northern tier of the state, as the author demonstrates here. Photo coutresy of Mark Fike.
Drew Larson, a wildlife biologist working the region, was able to spend a little time with us and give us some insight from his perspective on the upcoming season as well as last year's harvest. Larson pointed out that all of his counties are good prospects, with none having any huge advantages over the others. From a personal perspective Larson did say that he would likely head to the southern range of his district to hunt. In particular he chose Charlotte, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, and Brunswick because they are large counties that are not heavily populated nor heavily developed. The habitat is good in those areas and hunters that put in the time and hunt the intersecting edges of terrain such as swamps, clearcuts and hardwoods will see plenty of deer.
Last year the mast crop was very poor, according to the mast surveys that Larson completed. However, he did note that there were some isolated areas where the mast was very heavy in Mecklenburg. That goes to show that any given tree or local area may have different conditions than the rest of the state. If hunters scout ahead of time and find a single tree or groups of trees that are putting off acorns while the surrounding area is void, they will have it made.
Given his observations, the data he collected and reports from hunters, Larson feels that hunters are looking at an upcoming season much like the seasons they have experienced in recent years.
The winter was a bit harsh, but as Larson pointed out several other things may balance everything out.
"In southside Virginia, deer populations are stable and harvest levels generally remain even. With early wet periods and some heat waves this spring, the plants seemed to get an early start. This may offset some of the stress from the winter and deer should have no trouble finding food. There should be an abundance of quality fawning areas too."
Larsen also holds the opinion that there won't be a large increase in the doe harvest in his region. The expansion of the days across the region was fairly light and there are still many hunters who on most days wait for a buck rather than taking a doe.
Last, there are a number of WMA's in the region that get a lot of pressure, but Horsepen WMA is one that does not get a whole lot of pressure and it has a good mix of habitat. A hunter who scouted and did some hiking could really have a great hunt at Horsepen.
This year we were able to visit with Allen Boynton, Regional Wildlife Manager, about the deer harvest and trends associated with it. Boynton pointed out that hunters will find a good mix of agriculture and woodlands that make for great deer habitat in Craig, Montgomery, Floyd, and Grayson counties. These counties therefore have solid whitetail populations, particularly on private land.
The deer herd in this region is in good shape and the winter apparently was not too rough on the deer, as no massive deer kills were reported despite the heavy snow. Although the snow and rainy Saturdays may have deterred some hunters, the increase in harvest that biologists thought they might see with liberalized doe days did not materialize this past season.
Typically, National Forest land is not the best deer habitat due to lack of logging and habitat manipulation, but in Craig and Bland counties the National Forest land is interspersed with private land. The deer hunting can be quite good if hunters are willing to hike and scout well off the road. Don't discount the Jefferson National Forest in these two counties. Overall, hunters can expect similar hunting or slightly better opportunities to fill a tag this season compared to last season.
The Northern Mountain Region saw a decrease in its harvest from 37,245 deer to 34,643 deer last season. Much of this can probably be attributed to the snow that fell during the last few weeks of the season. Many hunters were unable to get out and hunt and were spending time digging out to get to work. Record snowfalls are not a good thing for hunters or the deer. It should be noted that the region has a high percentage of National Forest land that currently is poor habitat for deer and other game because there is limited habitat diversity. Until more timber harvesting is permitted, the habitat will likely remain poor for deer and other game animals.
Jay Jeffreys is the Regional Wildlife Manager. Jeffreys' observations and study of the data lead him to believe that hunters who hunt private land in Frederick and Clarke counties are likely to have the best shot at filling a tag quickly. The habitat is good on most private land in these counties. The season is also open for does the entire time as well. Central and eastern Warren, Rockingham, Rockbridge and Augusta County are also good bets.
The key is to hunt areas where there is a diversity of habitat available (mix of brushy cover, mature woods, and grassy areas). Some lands have agriculture on them, which will be a more consistent area to hunt during years of mast failures (such as last season), and areas that have been timbered offer deer early successional browse and good cover too.
The winter was tough on the deer herd, particularly in areas of high deer densities and areas where the habitat and food sources were poor. There were reports of winter die offs; however, no documented mortalities have been confirmed by DGIF Staff and only time will tell how that may impact the herd and hunting for this season.
Winter kills can be a good thing for the deer herd, as the weak and sick are culled out naturally, leaving more resources for the remaining deer. However, fawn recruitment may be lower this season. On the flip side, since hunters were not able to get out and hunt as much during the last few weeks of the season, there were less deer harvested and therefore there may be better opportunities for harvest this season.
Regardless, hunters can help biologists by continuing to take does in areas where needed and by participating in the urban archery seasons when possible. Keep in mind that the CWD Response Plan will be in place this season in Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah and Warren counties. Look at the In the Field Section for details.
Reader who want to hunt public land may find the going tough for tagging a deer. However, this region does have one thing that the rest of the state does not have. Hunters can hike into areas of the National Forest and escape from sounds of traffic and man. One can honestly get a "true west" experience if they have the time to do so. Don't discount a National Forest hunt. Just be reasonable with your expectations of tagging a deer.
Mike Dye, wildlife biologist working from Fredericksburg was able to help us dissect the data and determine which Northern Piedmont areas were prime for harvesting a deer. Dye quickly pointed out that although Fauquier did not make the top 20 list this year it remains a very good county to hunt. The high deer population, liberal doe days (full season) and the special late antlerless firearm season make it very attractive to hunters who want to punch a deer tag. As one can see from our accompanying graphic, the counties west and south of Fauquier are also good bets.
Although the mast was very poor in the region, there were some trees producing acorns, which were quickly devoured. The winter was tough on the deer and some kills were attributed to the weather in Fauquier and Culpeper counties, although the numbers were not significant. Dye pointed out that where the herd was properly in balance with good buck to doe ratios and the population was in check, the winter kill was non existent.
Dye feels that the herd is still in good shape and the only tick in the outlook would be a slightly declined fawning rate due to winter stress.
Due to the snowfall last season, Dye feels the harvest may increase some this season.
Dye would love to see hunters keep the pressure on the doe segment in the Northern Piedmont Region. The population still needs to come down to enhance the herd health and condition.
Public land opportunities abound in the region and the top three choices of biologists include Fort A.P. Hill, Powhatan WMA, and the Pocahontas State Park Draw Hunt. All three areas are deer rich and offer great opportunities for both doe and bucks.
Overall, hunters simply looking to put meat in the freezer have a good season to look forward to. The numbers look good and the herd appears to be strong and healthy.