West Virginia Deer Update -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Here's the newest group of trophy bucks from our state -- and where they were taken. Are any of these areas near where you live? (Nov 2006)

West Virginia's 2005 deer-hunting seasons might have been a disappointment where numbers were concerned, but not in regard to trophy bucks. After all, Mountain State sportsmen harvested 208 trophies worthy of being scored by Division of Natural Resources (DNR) biologists. Of those, 51 deer qualified for membership in the agency's annual Big Buck Club.

Truth be told, 71 bucks scored high enough to make the club, but 20 trophies were disqualified because hunters couldn't verify their game-checking tags or had neglected to include a fair-chase statement.

"All in all, it wasn't a bad year for trophy bucks," said Gene Thorn, the biologist who oversees the Big Buck Contest. "We actually had more deer brought in this year to be scored than we had the year before."

Considering that West Virginia's overall deer harvest plummeted 24 percent -- from 179,066 in 2004 to just 135,361 last season -- it would have been natural to expect trophy production to drop off by a similar rate. That didn't happen. Big Buck Club membership dropped just 15 percent, from 60 in 2004 to 51 last season. Had it not been for the high number of disqualifications, the club almost certainly would have had more trophies during a poor year of hunting than it had during the relatively productive preceding year.

DNR officials believe there are two very powerful reasons why trophy deer have remained abundant while the overall statewide population has been reduced:

"First, we have more older-age bucks in the population statewide," said Paul Johansen, assistant chief of the agency's Wildlife Resources Section. "Second, we have four counties that are closed to hunting with firearms, and they've become true strongholds of trophy production."

Johansen credits recent changes in antlerless deer regulations for increasing the number of older-aged bucks.

"Back before we allowed many does to be killed, more than 90 percent of the harvest every year was 1 1/2-year-old bucks," he explained.

No area in the state has a better or longer-standing reputation than Wyoming County for producing big bucks. The county's rugged landscape, punctuated by steep-sided mountains and swift-flowing streams, yielded almost one-fifth of all the DNR's Big Buck Club qualifiers last season -- a mind-bending 10 bucks that scored 125 or more on the Pope and Young Club's (P&Y) whitetail scoring scale.

Steven Rowan's trophy led the way. The buck scored 147 7/8 to finish seventh among bow-killed typicals. Dean Bower's wallhanger tied for ninth at 145 5/8. The rest of the county's bruisers included Nathaniel Nay's 140 0/8, Greg Green's 139 1/8, Mark Lafferty's 138 5/8, Curtis Weaver II's 137 3/8, Shaye Justice Jr.'s 132 2/8, Philip Young's 131 4/8, Duane Surface's 127 2/8 and Robert Morgan's 125 1/8.

Finding a place to hunt within the county isn't terribly difficult. Most of the land is owned by large coal corporations or timber-holding companies. Some of it is posted against hunting, but much of it is treated as public property.

The most difficult task many outsiders will face is adjusting to the difficult terrain. The hills aren't terribly high, but they're extremely steep. The loose, rocky soil makes footing tough.

Two areas of Wyoming County probably attract more hunters than all the others combined. Twin Falls State Park is closed to hunting, but its reputation as a breeding ground for trophy bucks makes its outlying boundaries particularly attractive. Ever since 1986, when Jerry Hill bagged the state-record non-typical just outside the park near Saulsville, tree stands have ringed Twin Falls every autumn.

The 17,280-acre R.D. Bailey Wildlife Management Area straddles the county border near Baileysville. Its slopes, heavily forested with oak and hickory trees, harbor a fine whitetail population as well.

The easiest access to Wyoming County comes from Interstate 64/77 near Beckley. State Route (SR) 16 brings traffic from Beckley to Mullens, and SR 10 distributes it west and east toward Pineville and Herndon.

Wyoming's next-door neighbor to the south, McDowell County, was the other linchpin in the state's trophy-producing machine last year. McDowell's rugged hills yielded a total of eight Big Buck Club trophies.

The best one was a real whopper. Stephen Beckner of Welch put his arrow into a titanic 12-pointer that scored 161 6/8. The massive whitetail earned Beckner the trophy for West Virginia's largest bow-killed typical of 2005.

Darin Haynes' buck was no slouch, either. It scored 148 0/8, good enough for sixth in the category. Other P&Y trophies include Kevin Otey's at 142 2/8, James Hicks' at 139 6/8, Mark Delida's at 135 5/8, Thomas Little's at 128 3/8, Roy Dyson's at 126 3/8, and Kevin Graham's at 125 1/8.

Like Wyoming County, McDowell is coal and timber country. Many of its underground mines have long since been worked out, but many surface mines remain active. In general, companies frown upon having hunters in active mining areas.

Fortunately for bowhunters, the county is home to three sizable public hunting areas -- the 18,000-acre Berwind Lake WMA near Berwind, the 2,308-acre Tug Fork WMA near Premier and the 10,000-acre Panther State Forest near Panther.

Simply put, there is no easy way to drive to McDowell County. From Interstate 77 and U.S. Route 460 near Princeton, the best bet is to take curvy U.S. Route 52 to the county seat of Welch and try to branch off from there. All of the county's primary and secondary roads tend to be narrow, winding and have more than their share of coal-truck traffic. Patience is as much a virtue for motorists in McDowell County as it is for bowhunters.

Ordinarily the poor cousin among the state's bow-only counties, Mingo County stepped up and assumed a leader's role last season.

Of course, it's hard to take a back seat when you produce the biggest buck in the entire state. Bowhunter Terry Ballard of Logan claimed the prize for 2005's largest bow-killed non-typical with a fine 18-pointer that scored 164 4/8.

Mingo's other Big Buck Club honorees include Daryll Messer's typical that scored 148 7/8, Scott Bartram's typical at 141 0/8, Jeremy Hale's typical at 134 0/8, and Terry Grace's typical that scored 133 0/8.

Finding a place to hunt in Mingo County is a bit more difficult than it is in Wyom

ing or McDowell. The county's coalmines remain in full-blast production mode, and mountaintop-removal surface mining is the dominant technique. Careful pre-season scouting and a bit of legwork can determine what tracts can be hunted and what ones are off-limits.

The sprawling 12,854-acre Laurel Lake WMA is the county's only public-hunting area. It's rugged country. Its steep slopes and narrow ridges are covered with hardwoods, hemlocks and -- just to add insult to exercise -- heavy undergrowth.

U.S. routes 119 and 52 are the major access roads. The former is a four-lane, limited-access freeway that delivers hunters from Charleston to the Mingo County seat of Williamson in less than two hours. The latter is a tortuous, twisting two-lane road that can try any motorist's patience, especially when coal trucks and semi-trailers dominate the traffic.

Access is certainly not a problem in Kanawha County, the surprise entry in last year's list of top trophy producers. Kanawha's hunters bagged four bucks that qualified for the Big Buck Club -- not bad for a county that seems too heavily populated and too heavily industrialized to be a major factor in the state's whitetail formula.

In this case, appearances are deceiving. Outside the Kanawha River Valley, the county is as rugged and wild as any in the region. And with 903 square miles of surface area from which to choose, hunters can find surprising expanses of elbowroom.

Another attraction is that the county is open to firearms hunters. Marvin Wolfe took full advantage of that last year when he bagged the state's seventh-largest gun-killed buck. Wolfe's trophy scored 144 5/8 on the Boone and Crockett Club's (B&C) scoring system.

The rest of the county's Big Buck Club honorees were bow kills. Randy Kelly led the way with a bruiser that scored 136 2/8 P&Y. Ricky Amos' buck scored 131 6/8, and Brian Casto's taped out at 126 7/8.

A sizable chunk of the 9,874-acre Morris Creek WMA falls inside Kanawha County's borders east of Clendenin. The county's other major hunting tract is the 9,250-acre Kanawha State Forest, located just southeast of Charleston near Loudendale.

Since Charleston is West Virginia's capital city, it's quite literally the hub of the state's major highway network. U.S. routes 60 and 119 and interstates 64, 77 and 79 spread out from the heart of the city and provide relatively quick and easy access to all of the county's most popular hunting spots.

Whatever Raleigh County might have lacked in trophy-producing quantity last year, it more than made up for in quality. The county yielded four Big Buck Club honorees, and all of them were whoppers. Walter Underwood Jr. of Mount Hope led the way with a 12-pointer that scored 163 3/8 B&C. Not only was Underwood's buck the biggest to come out of Raleigh County, it was the highest scoring typical taken in the entire state.

Close on the heels of Underwood's entry came Robert Workman's fourth-ranked typical at 152 3/8 and Nathan Williams' ninth-ranked typical at 141 1/8. The county's other Big Buck Club entry was a whitetail taken by Mike Keith. It finished eighth among bow-killed typicals with a P&Y score of 147 0/8.

On the surface, Raleigh County doesn't appear to have much land open to public hunting -- no state-owned WMAs, no state or national forests. It does, however, have the sprawling New River Gorge National River running smack through the middle of it. Unlike most lands administered by the National Park Service (NPS), the New River tract is open to hunting.

Access to the area comes primarily by I-64/77, also known as the West Virginia Turnpike. A four-lane portion of U.S. Route 19, also known as Appalachian Highway Corridor L, extends north from the county seat of Beckley into the heart of the New River Gorge recreation complex.

Some 15 years ago, Mason County consistently ranked among the state's best trophy-producing counties. Last year, it celebrated a return to the good old days by yielding three Big Buck Club members.

Raymond Zuspan led the way with a mossyhorn that scored 150 7/8 B&C and finished fifth among gun-killed typicals. T.J. Hesson followed in eighth place with a buck that scored 144 0/8. Randy Searls rounded out the county's list with a bow-killed typical that scored 132 2/8 P&Y.

For a relatively small county, Mason contains an abundance of high-quality public hunting property. The 11,772-acre Chief Cornstalk WMA, located near Southside, heads the list. Its unique combination of wood lots and overgrown farmsteads provides some of the area's best whitetail habitat.

Just north of the county seat of Point Pleasant, 3,655-acre McClintic WMA provides a unique trophy-hunting opportunity. Under special regulations put in place by the DNR, all bucks must have antler spreads at least as wide as their ears before they're legal to shoot. The special regulations, now in their third year, have made McClintic a popular destination among bowhunters and firearms enthusiasts alike.

U.S. Route 35 provides fast and easy access from the Charleston area, and SR 2 brings traffic from Huntington and Parkersburg. Both the roads are two-lane affairs, but are relatively straight, level and easy to drive.

The penultimate stop on last year's list of trophy producers is Logan County, which yielded three Big Buck Club members. As one of the four bow-only counties, Logan has a better doe-to-buck ratio than neighboring Boone and Lincoln counties. It doesn't, however, have much to brag about in the way of public hunting land.

That didn't stop Jerry Morgan Jr. from bagging the second largest bow-killed typical of the 2005 season. Morgan's buck scored 154 7/8 P&Y -- a respectable trophy in anyone's book. Josh Workman's big typical ranked 10th in the state at 144 4/8, and Edward Humprheys' typical tied for 35th at 125 1/8.

Finding a place to hunt can be a tall order. Mountaintop-removal mining dominates Logan County's landscape as thoroughly as it dominates Mingo's. Again, scouting and research are the tickets to finding accessible areas.

Fayette County caught hunters' attention in 2002 when it yielded the second largest gun-killed non-typical in state history. Jess Kelly's magnificent monarch taped out at 220 0/8 B&C and focused attention on the New River Gorge's trophy potential.

No bucks approaching those huge proportions showed up last season, but two bow-killed typicals were more than sizable enough to make the Big Buck Club. Jack Chapman's scored 137 0/8 P&Y, and Paul Payne's scored 127 4/8.

The aforementioned New River Gorge National River's proclamation boundaries encompass more than 50,000 acres in Fayette and Raleigh counties. NPS officials haven't yet purchased all the land they're authorized to, but even so, the amount of accessible land that lies within the gorge dwarfs all the county's other public tracts.

Those include the 3,201-acre Plum

Orchard Lake WMA near Mossy and the 3,061-acre Beury Mountain WMA near Lookout. Both are rugged, heavily wooded areas that yield their deer-hunting secrets only to those who earn them.

Bragging-sized bucks don't only live in these counties, however. In fact, several 2005 Big Buck Club honorees hailed from counties not usually thought of as trophy producers.

Randolph County, for example, yielded a magnificent whitetail that scored 159 3/8 B&C and put Marion Henry's name in second place on the list of gun-killed typicals. Close behind Henry's buck came Brian Mabe's, a Mercer County product that scored 156 7/8. Christina Godbey's Roane County trophy scored 145 1/8 to finish sixth, and Charles Williams' Nicholas County buck rounded out the category at 140 6/8.

Among bow-killed typicals, H. Jason Hall's Clay County trophy ranked third at 153 1/8 P&Y. Terry Rowh's Putnam County kill came in fourth at 150 2/8, and Thomas Grant's Boone County bruiser tied for ninth at 145 5/8.

Ironically, last year's relatively poor buck kill could bring even greater fortune to this year's trophy hunters. Biologists say last year's poor hunting left a sizable "unharvested component" of bucks in the population. Those bucks will be a year older, a year's worth of growth larger. For hunters who long after bragging-sized bucks, 2006 could be a fun and productive year.

Find more about West Virginia fishing and hunting at: WVgameandfish.com

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