West Virginia's Special September Deer Hunts

As we enter the second year of the special hunts this month, let's take a look back at last year. Also, what are the prospects for this time around?

The author took this doe during the initial September special bow season last year. Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram.

The news last summer sent a bolt of excitement through West Virginia's hardcore whitetail fanatics. Frank Jezioro, director of the Division of Natural Resources, announced that new special antlerless deer archery and muzzleloader seasons had been approved on private land in certain selected counties where the taking of antlerless deer was necessary for management purposes.

All or parts of 36 of the Mountain State's 55 counties would be open to these two seasons, each of which would run for one week during the last two full weeks of September. Jezioro noted that the fortnight of hunting would give sportsmen additional time afield and help the state's biologists better manage the deer herd.

As soon as the seasons were announced last July, I began making plans for them. I drove to the home of a landowner I knew in Monroe County and asked him if I could come hunt after work on the opening day of the bow season. The gentleman said I could, only if I promised not to shoot any bucks, which he wanted saved for his son. When I told the landowner that it was an antlerless only season with a one-deer limit, he enthusiastically granted me permission.

On opening day Monday, I quickly drove to the farm after work, mounted my tree stand positioned on the right side of a woodlot bordering a cow pasture, and saw not even a squirrel the entire evening. It seems even fat and lazy summertime deer can be hard to pattern. Frustrated, I visited the landowner and asked him where he had been observing deer entering his cow pasture.

"They always enter on the left side of the pasture," he replied. "Don't you see their forms in the dark?"

Looking out toward the pasture into the gloaming of oncoming night, I glimpsed a half dozen or so whitetail-size shapes. Wednesday evening after work I returned to the farm and moved my stand to an oak 25 yards from the fencerow that the deer seemed to be following on their way to the pasture.

As the farmer had predicted, the deer began moving through the woodlot about an hour before sunset. When a young doe started her approach toward my stand and was still some 50 yards away, I began to move into shooting position. That's about the time when the entire assemblage of six whitetails began snorting and ran back up the mountainside. It seems even fat and lazy summertime deer have a keen sense of smell.

On Friday evening, I returned to Monroe County. Figuring the deer from the farmer's woodlot might still be on edge from my scent snafu on Wednesday, I drove to my own Monroe County property, an 85-acre tract in Gap Mills. Arriving around 5:30, no sooner had I settled into a hang-on, sprayed myself down with scent for the second time after departing the vehicle and activated the ThermaCell Mosquito Repellent, than I spotted two does about 60 yards away.

For the next 20 minutes, the duo slowly meandered my way, and when the lead doe walked from behind a small patch of greenbrier 18 yards away, I released an arrow. A few seconds later, I heard that most wonderful of sound -- a deer crashing to the forest duff. I quickly descended from the stand and found the mature doe just 50 yards away -- my first ever September whitetail.

Later when I arrived at a Gap Mills check station, the attendant told me that he had experienced a busy week, checking in between 15 and 20 deer.

With the one deer limit, I couldn't hunt anymore during the early special bow season, but I still had the muzzleloading option the next week. I returned to the cattle farmer's spread on Monday afternoon.

At 6:00, what appeared to be the same six-doe herd from the previous week began foraging down the mountain. I mounted my smokepole and when one of the whitetails presented a clear shot about 50 yards away, I fired. The gun only snapped as the cap failed to go off. The entire assemblage of deer then stared daggers at me.

It seems that muzzleloaders can fail to ignite in the summertime just like they can in the fall and winter. After I twice replaced caps and the rifle failed to fire the herd finally went bounding away. Apparently leaving my muzzleloader in a hot, unventilated vehicle on a muggy day was not a sound decision.

On Wednesday while driving to the Monroe cattle farm, I had my wife Elaine meet me along the way. She handed me the muzzleloader and I was off again.

The author doubled up by taking this muzzleloader doe the following week. Photo courtesy of Bruce Ingram.

That Wednesday was the hottest day yet of the two seasons, and the deer were late coming down the mountain. At around 6:30, I saw an outstanding 8-point buck walking toward me, but I hunkered down so he would not spot me and alarm any does in the area. A few minutes later, the buck entered the pasture.

At 6:50, I witnessed a huge mature doe feeding my way and when five minutes later she was feeding broadside at 70 yards, I touched off the muzzleloader. This time the powder ignited. The doe bolted about 50 yards and collapsed.

My farmer contact heard the shot and came to help me load the doe into his truck, which he drove to the check station. Later, the gentleman thanked me for helping thin out his overabundant doe contingent.

Although, I obviously experienced some snafus along the way, I couldn't have been happier with the end results -- taking my limit in both of the two early special seasons.

A LOOK BACK
Chris Ryan, Supervisor of Game Management Services for the DNR, said the agency was pleased with how the harvest and seasons were conducted.

On the other hand, the DNR received very little feedback from the public. Given the fact that often when any governing agency makes changes most of the response is negative, the lack of response can be interpreted as a positive.

For the early bow season, the harvest was 1,017 and the tally for the smokepole session was 2,215. For the former category, Preston County led the way with 95 deer harvested. That's not surprising since District I is often tops in deer harvest for

any type hunting.

The rest of the top 10 counties for archery consisted of Monroe, Greenbrier, Jackson, Wood, Lewis, Kanawha, Barbour, Harrison, and Mason.

For the muzzleloader season, Preston easily led the pack and three other counties also surpassed the 100 deer mark. Those were Lewis, Monroe and Jackson. Positions five through 10 were held by Greenbrier, Wood, Wirt, Grant, Harrison and Ritchie.

A LOOK AHEAD
This September, Ryan noted that counties with a two or four antlerless deer bag limit also will be open. Still, the total number of counties with hunts this year will be down.

The early special bow season runs from Monday, Sept. 13 to Saturday, Sept. 18. The early special muzzleloader one takes place from Sept. 20 to Sept. 25. The one antlerless deer per season regulation remains in effect.

Be sure to check the current DNR Hunting and Trapping regulation summary pamphlet for any last minute changes.

Also be aware that as was true in 2009, the two seasons only are open on private land and a one antlerless deer limit per season remains in effect.

PREPARING FOR THE SEASON
Opening days for the two special seasons are upon us, and Chris Ryan offers this advice.

"My main tip would be to field dress and get the animal checked in and butchered, or in a cool location, as quickly as possible," he said. "Hunters may want to have a bag of ice to put in the chest cavity or between the legs to cool the animal."

During the Mountain State's traditional bow and gun seasons in October through December, I never bother to bring ice with me, feeling that I could either bring the whitetail to a butcher or my house for the meat cutting process. Last September, though, I found the process that worked best for me was to bring along blue ice blocks and store them in a large cooler. That way I wouldn't have to go through the process or expense of buying ice, and if I were unsuccessful, I could just return the blocks to the freezer when I arrived home.

Given, as Ryan noted, the crucial timing of quickly cooling the meat, I also decided to begin the butchering process of my deer after field dressing them. After checking in the two does, each time I returned to my Gap Mills property, removed the top and bottom loins, and placed them in plastic bags in one cooler. Also, I always save the hearts and earlier had placed them in another plastic bag.

Next the does were quartered, with those sections placed in a second, larger cooler. Both coolers were then iced down with the blocks. The next day after work, Elaine and I completed the butchering process.

On the day I wrote this story, we dined on grilled top loin from the first deer and the venison was delicious.

Since there is no public land hunting for the special seasons, you need to contact landowners in order to gain permission to go afield. As I learned last July, many landowners are unfamiliar with these new seasons. You need to get busy talking to property owners right away. Just point out the benefits of herd management, emphasizing these hunts as antlerless only.

"My" Monroe landowner couldn't have been more enthusiastic about my hunting does on his land or happier about my results.

HOW-TO TIPS
White and red oak acorns are staple foods for West Virginia whitetails during the traditional October bow season, but we can't count on these hard mast foods being available during the early special seasons. On my Gap Mills property, the hard mast crop totally failed last fall, leaving the deer very few major food sources.

Some evenings, the deer headed for a neighbor's field where orchard grass was the primary attraction. On other occasions, the whitetails meandered toward a 15-year-old clearcut on my property. On morning outings, the majority of the whitetails seemed to either feed along an overgrown creek bottom or at the mountainous top of the property below a mountain laurel thicket.

Besides the aforementioned menu items, other foods that can draw September deer are apples, pears, grapes and fields containing alfalfa, corn, and soybeans. Food plots with clover are obvious choices as areas to hang a stand.

The point is that given the early nature of these September seasons, we will have to undergo a learning curve on what whitetails eat now.

Since you never want to wound a whitetail, preseason target practice is always advisable. But, with the heat factor thrown in, it becomes more important. I started practicing with my compound bow around Independence Day and shot every other day leading up to the opener

In August, I took my muzzleloader to a friend who is a gunsmith, and we made sure the gun was accurate out to 75 yards, the yardage limit I restrict myself to.

With the result of last year in mind, I'm extremely enthusiastic about this year's special seasons and am eagerly looking forward to the opening days. These seasons are proving a win-win for sportsmen and the whitetail managers of the DNR.

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