Deer hunting means many things to many people, and factors don’t always have to do directly with the actual hunting. The renewal of friendships, continuation of traditions and time spent with family members rate high with some.
For others it’s a chance to put venison in the freezer — restoring a bounty that’s important — and instill a sense of self-sustainment.
But nearly all deer hunters — regardless of motivation factors — get revved up by a big buck, especially when it’s seen live on the hoof while afield. Whether or not the observer bags that buck, chances are great the image won’t be erased by time.
Of course, bagging a trophy, or even a better-than-average buck, requires time, determination and a whole lot of luck. It also requires for a decent buck to be in the area. Several components are involved for bucks to attain impressive headgear, including age, nutrition and genetics.
Like many states in the region, the majority of bucks harvested by hunters are 1 1/2 years old. Since bucks don’t reach physical maturity until ages four to five, most simply don’t live long enough to reach their potential in terms of both body size and antler growth.
Nutrition is another important factor. In a state such as West Virginia, which has a variety of habitats, the quality of the food sources also varies, which ties in directly as to where it’s more likely to grow a nice-size buck.
Also, some areas have a history of producing bigger bucks, which could have to do with the genetics of deer in that particular spot. On a broad scale — such as a statewide basis — it’s difficult to manage deer in a way to promote higher bucks through genetics.
For one, not every hunter is interested in the taking of a big-racked buck, particularly if it means restricting him or her from harvesting a smaller buck; the goals of individual deer hunters vary.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has been active in providing a component that manages for older age class deer. For instance, during the archery season bucks taken on select public areas must have a minimum outside antler spread of 14 inches.
In the field this can be determined by an antler spread at least as wide as the ear tip to ear tip measurement.
These public areas include Beech Fork Lake, Bluestone Lake, Burnsville Lake and McClintic wildlife management units, as well as Coopers Rock and Calvin Prince state parks. The annual bag limit for bucks is limited to one (all seasons combined) on these areas, and baiting is not permitted.
According to Gary Foster, WVDNR supervisor of game management, there are a couple different regions in West Virginia that have a history of producing bigger bucks.
“For one, there are the counties of southern West Virginia where the terrain is very rugged, which makes the land a little more inaccessible,” Foster said.
“If you look at our records a lot of our larger racked bucks come out of the southern third or so of the state. I think a lot of it just has to do with the bucks reaching an older age due to the nature of the terrain of those properties.”
Also within this region of the state are the four bowhunting-only counties — Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming. Foster noted that the sporting arm restriction found in these four counties also is a factor in allowing bucks to reach maturity (or at least approach that age level).
“The other region would be in the northern and western part of the state, areas where the habitat quality is good,” Foster said.
“This includes the river valleys, such as the Ohio and Kanawha. The habitat within these areas is better than average. Deer are getting better nutrition in these areas, which impacts antler development.”
Foster conceded that some nice bucks are taken from urban areas, where hunting options are limited due to the nature of the place.
As suburbia spreads into what was once field and forest, the adaptable whitetail continues to prosper, oftentimes to its own downfall in terms of habitat destruction and deer/vehicular incidents.
While the deer management focus within these areas is on antlerless deer — for population control — the situation is one where bucks can live longer than average and grow nice racks.
It’s a scenario where bowhunters in particular can score by doing their homework in terms of landowner relations and scouting.
Of course, West Virginia has a splendid “Big Buck Program,” one where hunters can have their racks measured by skilled scorers. Scoring takes place at a variety of locations and events throughout the state, after all of the deer seasons have concluded.
The program not only serves to honor exceptional bucks and the hunters that bagged them, but also provides outstanding documentation as to where and when the biggest bucks in the state were taken.
According to Foster, the 2014 results tell a similar story as previous year, in regard to where bucks were taken.
The rugged terrain found in the southern part of the state, and the fertile river valleys to the north, produced most of the exceptional bucks last season.
Compared to the areas to the north, which contain the vast acreage of Monongahela National Forest and many sizeable state wildlife management areas; there is far less public land, not non-existent by any means, but by and large most of this region is privately owned.
Coal and timber companies have extensive holdings in some areas, and though leases and posted land are becoming more common, a lot of areas remain open for hunters.
Whereas this region doesn’t attain the high elevation of the mountain counties to the north/northeast, the terrain is exceptionally steep. Much of it is forested; most of the counties in this region are over 90 percent forested.
Hunters accustomed to broken habitats that include a mix of woodlands and agricultural activity might consider it all unfamiliar territory. As such anyone with little or no prior experience in this region should spend some time scouting prior to any hunting trip.
Drive around, get a feel for the area and the access points, and then do some boots-on-the-ground scouting to identify food sources (oftentimes mast-producing hardwoods) and deer travel routes.
Also, one should understand that active surface mining takes place in this region. Many roads that access the interior of the backwoods are owned by the coal companies, so roads that were available last year might not be so this year due to a change in mining activity; be on the lookout and heed any warning signs.
And while there isn’t a lot of public land, comparably speaking, what is available is pretty good. Morris Creek WMA covers nearly 10,000 acres in both Kanawha and Clay counties, areas of the state that boast higher quality deer habitat.
This steep and heavily forested state-owned public hunting grounds in proximate to the Elk River. It can be reached via County Route 67 from the Clendenin area, as well as County Route 65 in the Leatherwood Creek portion
Kanawha State Forest adds another 10,000 acres to the public hunting ground mix in this county. This state forest contains a mix of terrains, from stream bottomlands to both moderate and steep slopes. It’s covered in a mixture of hardwoods.
Take exit 58-A off of I-64, and then State Route 214 to the second traffic light. Turn left at the light and follow the Kanawha State Forest signs.
Fayette and Raleigh counties both exhibit the rugged southern West Virginia terrain that discourages many hunters and allows bucks to live longer. Within the area is Beury Mountain WMA, which has more than 3,000 acres of public hunting land.
While much of it is steep, there are also some areas with more moderate slopes. Oak-hickory forests dominate Beury Mountain. It is located along the southern border of Babcock State Park, and while camping is not available on the WMA, it is found on the state park land.
The WMA is located three miles from Landisburg by way of County Route 19/33.
Plum Orchard WMA adds another 3,000 acres to Fayette County, where hunters can expect to find gentle to steep slopes with oak-hickory forests and old re-vegetated strip benches with high walls. From I-77 at the Pax or Mossy interchange, follow state routes 23 and 23/1. To access from U.S. Route 19, take state route 15 from Oak Hill to Mossy, then take state routes 23 and 23/1.
Mason County, which boasts a significant section of the Ohio River, has plenty of river bottoms that can grow nice bucks. This is true of areas along the feeder streams and adjacent wooded ridges as well. Hunters looking for public land in Mason County can choose between Chief Cornstalk and McClintic WMAs.
Chief Cornstalk covers nearly 12,000 acres and is mostly wooded, with 85 percent existing as hardwood forest. The terrain varies from gentle to moderate slopes.
Camping is permitted via the 15 primitive sites found within the public hunting area. Chief Cornstalk is located near the towns of Gallipolis Ferry and Southside.
The 3,665 acres of McClintic offer much more diversity than most of the state’s public hunting areas, which tend to be dominated by hardwood forest. Hunters can expect to find a mixture of farmland, brushland, wetlands and forests. The area is found between Point Pleasant and Mason.
In addition to Cornstalk and McClintic, Mason County shares Green Bottom WMA with neighboring Cabell County. Green Bottom covers nearly 1,100 acres, but deer hunters are limited to muzzleloaders and archery gear.
The WMA also features forested bottomlands, wetlands and cultivated lands. It’s found about 16 miles north of Huntington along State Route 2.
Of course, the four bowhunting-only counties of Mingo, Wyoming, Logan and McDowell produce many of the state’s record book bowkills. Two good public areas within the region are R.D.
Bailey and Beech Fork WMAs. And while bowhunting-only areas are attractive to bowhunters, due to the sporting arm restriction, hunters should understand that all of the counties in this part of the state hold big bucks. Records over the past few years show more and more exceptional bucks coming from areas outside (but close to) this four-county area.
Whether good or bad, when it comes to Mountain State trophy bucks, the odds favor those that concentrate efforts in the rugged, southern third of the state, and the fertile river valleys to the north, where older deer and better nutrition exist.