For many hunters, world-class whitetail bucks serve as the definition of a big game trophy. Cable network hunting shows, magazines and Internet sites all praise the big-buck potential of Midwest states like Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin. So it may come as a surprise that West Virginia boasts one of the top spots in the nation for record-book caliber whitetail bucks.
The rugged four-county southern West Virginia region that is composed of produces an impressive sum of mature whitetail deer, many of them older-age class bucks sporting tremendous headgear. So how is it that this area is such a big buck factory? A decades old bow-hunting-only regulation, coupled with some of the toughest terrain a bowhunter will set foot in is the answer.
For many years Gene Thorn, a West Virginia Division of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, has managed the agency’s highly successful Big Buck Contest, an annual event that documents West Virginia trophy bucks taken with both rifle and bow. Thorn is currently in charge of the West Virginia Wildlife Center, also spent many years as the District 4 assistant wildlife biologist. That district contains the four special regulation counties.
“The four bow-hunting-only counties have been closed to gun hunting for nearly 30 years,” explained Thorn. “Each one of them has a history of having a gun season in the 1960s. The deer herd had declined so much that the DNR backed off and established the bow-hunting only regulation.”
The change from a decimated deer herd — in part due to poaching and subsistence hunting — to one of a solid deer herd comprised of many mature whitetails, didn’t happen by accident. And it didn’t happen overnight.
“It took years for the area to repopulate with deer,” Thorn said. “It was a thrust of the DNR wildlife section to bring in deer trapped from Blennerhassett Island and others trapped from around the state through different scenarios, and to then work with local sportsmen’s groups to protect the deer. On some of the bigger public areas like R.D. Bailey Wildlife Management Area we blocked off a lot of different road networks with gates to try to protect some of the backcountry.”
R. D. Bailey WMA comprises more than 17,000 acres. It’s located in Mingo and Wyoming counties, and surrounds 600-plus-acre R.D. Bailey Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control reservoir.
“Eventually the deer herd did start to come up, blossoming through the 1990s and into the 2000s,” Thorn continued. “We have world-class bowhunting there today for West Virginia trophy bucks. We’ve had people come from Hawaii and Alaska to hunt there.”
In an effort to head off any rise in the deer population and keep the herd in balance, the DNR several years ago created the Southern Coal Fields Deer Management Plan. It was established by area wildlife biologists and conservation officers. Thorn said part of that plan called for an antlerless muzzleloader season, if the deer herd increased so much that bow hunting couldn’t keep it under control.
“However, when the state legislature redid the muzzleloader law the last time, a stipulation was put in that there would not be a muzzleloader season in those four counties. So that’s a snag for carrying out that plan,” Thorn noted.
Currently in the bow-hunting-only area hunters are entitled to one deer, a buck or a doe, with the first hunting license. An additional stamp can be purchased, but is good only for an antlerless deer. Only one buck can be taken from this area, regardless of the purchase of the added stamp.
As it works out — at least as of now — a muzzleloader season hasn’t been needed as a tool to keep the deer herd in balance with available habitat.
“The deer herd never grew to the point of needing any additional antlerless harvest,” Thorn confirmed. “There are additional factors down there including coyotes, poaching and general attrition due to road kills and such. That mortality, added to what’s taken with a bow, has kept that herd in check. Look at the harvest numbers over the past number of years and you’ll see that the population down there grew, but then leveled off, fluctuating up and down the past several years.”
Whereas Midwest trophy whitetail habitat can often be characterized as segmented woodlots, interspersed with fertile creek or river bottoms, Conservation Reserve Program fields and active agricultural land, the West Virginia bow-hunting-only area is irregular, heavily forested country.
“It is extremely rugged, with steep terrain,” Thorn said. “The tops of the mountains are very sharp. There is no benching. When you come down a mountain in a lot of the state there’s usually a bench or two to breaks things up. But that’s not typical of the terrain down there.”
There’s very little agriculture in this four-county region. The industries are timbering and mining. Vast tracts of land are in private ownership. Habitat wise, this area leans toward mature timber. There are areas of abandoned strip mines and mountain top removal, as well as natural gas drilling activity. So there’s also a mix of younger growth with edge habitat.
“The land ownership is over 90 percent that of corporations; land companies, timber companies, and coal companies,” explained Thorn. “There are some large wildlife management areas, most notably R.D. Bailey, and also Panther WMA, which is pretty good sized. And there are some smaller WMAs.”
For anyone unfamiliar with the region, doing some pre-hunt research is necessary for a productive hunt.
“I think one of the things smart hunters that are new to the area do is to first key in on our public areas, R.D. Bailey in particular,” Gene Thorn said. “I’ve noticed that over the years there’s been a shift there from in-state hunters to out-of-state hunters.”
Focusing first on public lands enables hunters to get a feel for the area and how to hunt it. With a bit of experience under the belt, one can then begin to branch off into private lands, many of which contain the more remote spots where bucks tend to live the longest.
“There’s a lot of land to hunt down there,” Thorn noted. “Many of the land companies have an open-use policy where you can just go hunting. They don’t need you to contact them for a permit. Actually, most of them don’t want to hear from anybody.
“Some corporations, on the other hand, have a tight hold on their land, and in some cases have gotten on the hunting-lease bandwagon,” he added.
Thorn explained that any land that’s not open will be well posted. State law, he said, states that you can hunt as long as the land isn’t posted, fenced off, or the property owner hasn’t specifically told you to stay off.
It’s possible to take a deer, including a Pope and Young Club all-time record book class whitetail, in any of the four counties. But Thorn said some areas are more hunter-friendly.
“Pocahontas Land Corporation is a good example,” he said. “They have land in McDowell and Wyoming counties. They have thousands of acres of land that’s part of an open land policy. I always tell people that when they first come down here, hunt public land or a place like Pocahontas. But keep a couple of days reserved for exploring other areas, places that are harder to reach, and see little if any hunting pressure.”
A review of the states Big Buck Contest results tells the story of how dominating the bow-hunting-only area is in regard to trophy bucks. During the 2009 season, 66 bucks were taken that met the requirements for the typical bow-kill category. Forty-five of them came from the bow-hunting area. These bucks measured from 125 4/8 inches up to 162 3/8. Wyoming and McDowell counties produced a lot of the bucks.
Only three bucks were entered in the non-typical bow-kill category. The No. 2 rack was a 177 3/8-inch non-typical from Wyoming County.
“We’ve had the Big Buck Contest since 1963, but the actual big bucks we’ve scored have gone back well before then,” Thorn said. “We’ve scored bucks back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. But most of the bucks that meet our state minimum come from that area down there. This includes the state record typical and non-typical bow kills.”
Mark Lester took the top typical from Logan County in 1998. It scored 175 6/8 P&Y. The top non-typical — which scored 212 1/8 — was taken from Wyoming County in 1986 by Jerry Hill.
Big bucks are older bucks. While the number of mature bucks taken across the state has increased in recent years —likely due to concurrent buck and doe seasons spreading out hunting pressure and allowing more bucks to live longer — the bow hunting restriction in these four counties has ensured a higher percentage of bucks reaching maturity.
“That’s where those antlers come from — age,” Thorn explained. “Down there you can age bucks all the way up the gamut, up to 9 1/2-year-old bucks. After that they fall off the chart because their teeth are worn away.”
PLANNING A HUNT
The first step in planning a hunt is to determine the general areas to be hunted. As Thorn suggested, a wise process is to check some small bits of public land, or from large private holdings like that of Pocahontas Land Corporation After that, it’s a matter of acquiring maps.
“It’s possible to download topographic maps off the Internet,” said Thorn. “Another good source of U.S. Geologic Survey topo maps is Gates Supply in Beckley. A lot of people that are coming down to bow hunt the area pass through Beckley on the way.”
Beckley is located in Raleigh County, but can serve as a base of operations for a hunt located in Wyoming County. Pineville, Welch, Logan, Gilbert and Williamson are sizeable towns located within the four bow-hunt counties, and can provide amenities such as motels and restaurants.
“Once you get inside the four-county area, any sporting goods store is going to be a good source of information,” Thorn said. “A lot of them will have photos of bucks they’ve checked in, as most of them are deer check stations. Every little town down there has some kind of hunting connection, if not a sporting goods store, then a gas station that serves as a check station. And most of them are willing to at least get a person started. The people tend to be very friendly.”
With places, maps and logistical considerations taken care of, the next component is timing. It’s not surprising that many of the biggest bucks fall during the peak of the rut, which typically happens in early to mid November. Within that peak, there’s often a day or two that stand out.
“During the peak of the rut, when I would pick up game check tags, there was one day, maybe two, that if you weren’t in a tree stand that day, you missed out,” Thorn recalled. “For instance, during one week in Wyoming County I might pick up a hundred tags. Fifty of them might have come from one day, with the rest of them scattered.”
That still leaves the problem of figuring out which days will be hot. Truthfully, that is just guesswork. So the best thing to do during the rut is get in a tree, and don’t get out A lot of times the middle of the day can be real good.
But, even later in the season you can score big. You have to remember that since gun hunting isn’t part of the mix, these deer aren’t on high alert. Even December can be a great time to go to Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties.