Last season brought changes in whitetail harvest trends. For starters the harvest dropped 15 percent from a harvest record of 253,678 the previous season to 219,797 deer last season. According to Matt Knox, Virginia's Deer Project Coordinator, the figure is also approximately 3 percent lower than the 10-year average.
Breaking the numbers down further we found that of the 219,797 deer there were 95,543 antlered bucks, 19,191 button bucks and 105,063 does harvested. The doe take tallies up to 47.8 percent of the harvest, which was once again a higher percentage of the harvest than the antlered buck harvest (43.4 percent). The button buck harvest did drop slightly from 9.2 percent the previous season to 8.7 percent this season. These figures do not include the late special seasons that end in March.
Several variables influenced the harvest. First of all, VDGIF biologists actually predicted that the harvest would decline somewhat. There were two reasons for their prediction.
First, the winter of 2009/2010 was reported to have resulted in some mortality and at least tough conditions for deer coming off a very poor mast year in the fall of 2009. Fawns, which have little fat reserves compared to adult deer, are the first to succumb. Then, with snow that stays on the ground as long as it did during that winter, deer have a tough time moving away from predators such as coyotes or dogs.
The second reason deer harvests numbers were expected to decline was the deer management plan that VDGIF has been implementing. For the past decade many districts in the state have made efforts to decrease the doe population. Matt Knox noted that the increase in deer harvests have been driven by an increase in doe harvests. At some point the harvest had to level off or decline.
In summary, dry summer weather and a poor mast crop in 200/2010 and then a decade-long effort to increase the doe harvest led to the decline in harvest numbers. That said, the 2011 Virginia Deer Hunting forecast is by no means poor. In fact, in many areas of the state the deer management plan is still calling for a reduction or stabilization of the herd by increased deer harvest.
The Tidewater Region has always shined in terms of deer densities and harvest. The habitat is incredible for deer. There are numerous farms, hardwood lots, swamps and, even where there are developments, these developments often offer deer sanctuaries of sorts from hunting and plenty of gardens to feed on.
Knox commented on the fact that out of the top 20 counties in our chart, 14 are from the Tidewater area. His observation was, "Many of the western counties are way down in harvest numbers, which makes the eastern counties look even better."
Aaron Proctor, VDGIF wildlife biologist, pointed out that an extraordinary mast crop last year coupled with a relatively mild winter should make for a bumper crop of fawns. In a few years hunters will reap the benefit of mature deer to harvest.
Additionally, many counties went to full-season doe days in the past few seasons. Despite a liberalization of doe days, many counties are still seeing deer numbers creeping up. Prince George County went to a full either-sex season two years ago and yet over the past two years there has been a 7 percent increase in harvest, according to Proctor. At some point soon the numbers should level off.
Finally, if you are reading this and need a place to hunt consider the Rappahananock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge complex. The numerous tracts of land offer great places to hunt with bow, shotgun and muzzleloader and are spread along the river from King George downstream. Hunting pressure is surprisingly light. See the VDGIF hunting regulations for contact info or go to http://www.fws.gov/northeast/rappahannock/
Jim Bowman is one of the wildlife biologists working the Southside region, an area steeped in dog hunting traditions and DMAP clubs. His first comment about where the deer densities tend to be the highest centered on Bedford, Franklin, and Pittsylvania. His observation was that the soils are so good in this portion of the piedmont that deer always do well here. The land is often used for agriculture so deer have high-quality food source to use in addition to the adequate mast bearing trees.
Like Proctor from the Tidewater area, Bowman feels that the deer came through the winter in fine shape given the mild weather and great acorn crop. Hunters should notice some tweaks in the regulations to liberalize doe days in Cumberland, Nottoway, Amelia and Halifax counties. Be sure to consult the new regulations.
I asked Bowman about the public land opportunities in the area and he mentioned that the WMAs can really offer a quality hunting opportunity. While hunters may not see quite as many deer as on a well-managed piece of private property, the pressure can be less than expected on WMAs.
"Often our WMAs are too quickly overlooked as a quality hunting opportunity," he pointed out.
When looking at the accompanying graphic that lists the top 20 counties, no counties from this region are represented. However, we were able to consult with Matt Knox and ask him about the prospects of taking deer and the deer densities in that area.
He said, "Our data definitely indicates that the highest deer densities in southwest are in Craig, Giles, Grayson, and Scott."
Obviously these are the counties where more deer are likely to be seen. However, that does not mean that deer are not to be found in the rest of the region. In fact, Knox noted that although deer densities are low in counties such as Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell and Wise relativwe to toher parts of the state, VDGIF has been very successful with their management to improve the herd numbers. He pointed out that with the exception of Russell, these counties are the only ones in Virginia that have an objective to increase their deer population.
The bottom line is that any hunter that is willing to knock on doors to gain access to private land in the region will have adequate if not good deer hunting, particularly if the land is in or near Craig, Giles, Grayson or Scott. More important than which county the land is in is the habitat and food sources available on the particular piece of land you're hunting. Hunters should carefully consider these two factors and then do some scouting to maximize the potential for success while in the woods and on stand.
A public land that is well worth a few days of hunting is Clinch Mountain WMA. The 25,477 acre WMA is the second largest that VDGIF owns and manages. The habitat varies tremendously as does the elevation. Hunters will find very good opportunities, water sources and plenty of space if they are willing to hike to a secluded spot on the WMA.
Two years ago this region suffered through snow that lasted weeks and even months before it disappeared. There was reportedly some deer mortality as a result and this was compounded by the mast failure experienced across the state. However, last winter was not bad and, according to David Kocka, VDGIF wildlife biologist, the mast crop was the best in 40 years. This leads biologists to believe that the fawn recruitment this season will be very good.
Some conditions on the ground don't change much from year to year and in this case it includes soils and habitat. Historically the better portion of the region to find deer in dense numbers is the Northern Shenandoah Valley. These counties include Frederick, Clark and Shenandoah. In addition to the good soils resulting in good habitat on private lands in these counties, hunters also will find very liberal seasons. Some counties in the region have season-wide doe days.
Due to the two cases of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) found in Frederick County, hunters may now take two deer a day of either sex in Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren and Clark counties on private land.
Hunting on private land in this region is definitely going to be more productive in terms of the number of deer seen versus public land hunting. However, hunters that want a great experience and are less worried about seeing large numbers of deer will enjoy using the National Forest properties. The key to finding deer and a great hunting experience on National Forest land is to hunt far away from the parking areas. This requires walking and hiking and a willingness to put in a full day to do it. National Forest lands receive less pressure these days than the WMAs do but the habitat is not as good as private lands, resulting in low deer densities. Keep this in mind when hunting on public lands.
Overall, the hunter who can find access on private land, particularly in the northern counties of the region, will see high numbers of deer and have good opportunities to bag one. Be sure to consult the regulations regarding not only the seasons and bag limits but the CWD restrictions regarding carcasses. Great information can be gleaned at http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/diseases/cwd/cwd-management-actions.pdf
The Northern Piedmont shares some of the same characteristics as the Northern Mountain in terms of deer densities. Loudoun and Rappahannock counties have very high deer densities due to great soils. However, Brian Moyer, who works the southern portion of this region, also pointed out that the far southern reaches, including Powhatan and Henrico counties, also have high deer densities. A good mix of deer habitat including some agriculture, some riverbottom, hardwoods and thickets characterizes these areas.
Moyer had a very good theory that suggests that hunters are likely to see plenty of deer this fall not only because the great mast crop, good condition of the deer coming through the mild winter and anticipated great fawn recruitment, but also because of the lower harvest last year. Moyer feels that because of the great mast crop last season deer were less vulnerable to hunters because the deer traveled less distance to find food. That translated into more deer left in the woods to procreate and make it to this season. The "holdovers" from last year will only add to the deer we see this year. Unless we get another bumper crop of acorns, the deer should be more visible this year.
Moyer also had a few suggestions about public land hunting opportunities for readers. Powhatan WMA is a good destination. The WMA is more restrictive on the doe harvest but the sweet side of that deal is that hunters will likely see more deer. VDGIF has the fields leased out to a farmer for crops and the report is that deer are taking a healthy bite of those crops. Even on years when the mast fails the deer will have a reliable food source.
Another good bet Moyer told us about was the Pocahontas State Park. It is a quota/draw hunt so not everyone is able to hunt it whenever they want. Generally the hunts are in December and the harvest rates are quite good according to Moyer.
Last, a brand new WMA has been opened just north of Bowling Green on the Mattaponi River. Mattaponi WMA is approximately 2,500 acres in size and will offer hunters another public land to hunt with good deer cover along the river.
The key to bagging a deer this year will be scouting. We all learned from last year when the deer had plenty of food that they will change their habits in order to eat. Find the food sources and you will find deer this year. There are still plenty of deer in the woods and biologists expect the harvest to be as good if not better than last year. Good hunting.