A county doesn't always have to be No. 1 to offer fine deer hunting. Is one of these counties near you? (August 2006)
PHOTO BY LES VOORHIS, ROYAL TINE IMAGES INC.
The word irony, which means an outcome different from what is expected, doesn't always have to apply to literary works. Witness last October when I was bowhunting in Monroe County. The conventional wisdom was that early in the season, the deer, because of a bountiful acorn crop, would be feeding in white and red oak groves -- not in food plots or agricultural areas.
So on the third Saturday of the season, I ascended into a hardwood that was midway through a funnel that links a mountain laurel thicket and a stand of red oaks. And although I arrived early -- 1:30 p.m. -- and stayed late -- until dark -- I never saw or even heard a whitetail.
After sunset, I climbed down from the ladder stand and, out of curiosity, decided to go to my vehicle via a food plot. Arriving at the edge of the plot, I watched five whitetails dance away into the gloaming. That, my friends, I would describe as an ironical hunting happening.
Sometimes, some of the most enticing deer hunting in West Virginia takes place in the counties that are not the top-ranked ones in terms of number of deer killed overall. That is, some of the best counties to go afield in are the ones farther down the chart in each of the state's six districts. Before exploring this theory further, let's take a brief look at the 2005 bow harvest as a whole.
Last year, archers arrowed 22,255 whitetails, a figure that was 15 percent below the 2004 total. The year 2005 marked the fourth straight one where the bow harvest has declined from the previous year's take (with the total in parentheses): 2002 (37,144), 2003 (29,790) and 2004 (26,227). Not only was the bowhunting harvest down, but also so was the overall kill that shrank 25 percent to 134,577. The truth is that the harvest decline is good for deer hunters and the deer themselves. Some folks may find that statement ironic, but, nevertheless, it is accurate.
Frank Jezioro, director of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), relates that the decrease shows the overall success of deer herd reduction efforts implemented in counties exceeding their population objectives. In 2004, the herd exceeded desired management objectives in 12 counties, which represent 12 percent of the Mountain State's habitat. Early analysis of the 2005 season, Jezioro said, indicates that deer numbers exceed management objectives in seven counties or 6 percent of West Virginia's deer habitat. The director stated that the DNR has made important progress in balancing the state's deer herd in relation to available habitat.
The truth is that having more and more whitetails and killing more and more deer every year is not good for the deer themselves or the habitat they live in. Currently, the DNR continues to stress -- and understandably so -- the importance of harvesting does during the various seasons as the most important and effective tool that exists to control deer numbers and to bring the state's herd in line with the land's carrying capacity.
The positive side of this style of herd management is that antler size of bucks and body weight and overall physical condition of bucks, does and fawns will improve. If the herd needs to be reduced in certain areas, more liberal antlerless harvests will be put into place. If the herd is below management goals, the DNR will implement more conservative antlerless seasons.
In District I, which encompasses the Northern Panhandle and the northern reaches of the state, Preston County retains its status as the long- time archery harvest leader with 1,010 whitetails checked in during the 2005 season. I asked the DNR biologist for District I, Gary Foster, to list a county farther down the harvest parade that contains a large number of deer.
"I would recommend Marshall County as the county for District I," Foster said. "Marshall County has quality deer and turkey habitat, and a good diversity of mixed hardwood forests interspersed with agricultural lands. All of the Northern Panhandle counties, including Marshall, continue to support deer populations that are currently higher than the DNR's desired population level objectives. With regard to public lands, the county has a moderate number."
As a testament to how good the hunting in Marshall County can be, several times I have made the 5 1/2-hour drive from my home to go afield in this Northern Panhandle location. As Foster notes, the county only hosts a fair number of public lands, but I have always been able to find a place to hunt. Of course, that has been largely because I have always gone hunting with friends who live in the county. The late-summer period is an excellent time to try to gain access to the county's farms.
The bow harvest in Marshall has been fairly consistent over the last half decade. The tallies are as follows: 2001 (545), 2002 (580), 2003 (451), 2004 (506) and 2005 (458). Don't overlook other Northern Panhandle counties, Foster encourages, as potential destinations. Hancock, Brooke and Ohio counties, for instance, feature considerable deer herds, too.
Concerning public lands, the biologist lists the Underwood WMA (2,115 acres, a small portion is actually located in Wetzel County) as the one with the most acreage. Underwood WMA personifies the type of rolling hill terrain that characterizes Marshall County, as this public land offers elevations from 800 to 1,510 feet. The WMA has more clearings than most Mountain State WMAs do and it also contains a tributary of Fish Creek.
With 419 whitetails checked in, Berkeley led the bow harvest last year in District II, which consists of the Eastern Panhandle and a number of eastern West Virginia counties. Berkeley's appearance was a little bit of a surprise, as it was the third place finisher in 2004 behind Grant and Hardy. Last year, however, Berkeley was the leader and the other two counties fell to second and third, respectively.
The Eastern Panhandle is one of the hardest places in West Virginia to gain access to private lands, so I would suggest looking outside of the Panhandle. My choice would be Pendleton County, which came in fifth place last year -- with 329 -- out of the eight counties in District II. The harvests from the four previous years were as follows: 2001 (599), 2002 (594), 2003 (440) and 2004 (371).
Pendleton is very much a highland county with state Route (SR) 220 as the main highway. That highway, though, runs past a number of valley farms, and it is those holdings where I would recommend that bowhunters try to gain permission. If that option fails, then the Potomac WMA (139,786 acres) in Pendleton, Randolph, Grant and Tucker counties would be an a
he Potomac WMA, which is part of the Monongahela National Forest, features elevations from 900 to 4,862 feet. Many tributaries of the South Branch course through the lower elevations of this public land, and it is along those waterways where I would start looking for deer sign. Attempt to locate finger ridges that come down to these streams.
In District III, which covers the heart of West Virginia and the central mountain counties, the traditional leader in the bow kill has long been Randolph County, in part, at least, because of its large size. Many of the counties in this region are not known for sporting deer populations as large as the ones in other regions of the state. I asked district biologist Ray Knotts for his choice of an off-the-radar domain.
"I have long thought of Nicholas County as the sleeper in District III," Knotts said. "I have, over the years, scored more good bucks from Nicholas than any other county in the district. Although the county does not have a high population of deer, bowhunters typically take one to 1.5 deer per square mile of habitat. The icing on the cake is that Nicholas is also a very good place to bowhunt for a bear," he said.
"This combination makes Nicholas County a very worthwhile choice for a properly licensed hunter. Also, Nicholas has some national forestland and Summersville Lake WMA for public lands. Likewise, there is considerable acreage of company-owned timberlands, which can be accessed for a small permit fee or in some cases for free."
Last year, Nicholas County hunters accounted for 662 deer checked in during the bow season. The harvests from the previous four years are as follows: 2001 (910), 2002 (1,297), 2003 (1,094) and 2004 (833).
Nicholas is very much a mountainous county and is certainly one of the more challenging West Virginia places where I have bowhunted. Steep mountainsides and hillsides characterize much of the topography, and there seems to be a never-ending challenge to find a place where the wind can be in one's favor for more than an hour or two.
As Knotts noted, the Summersville WMA (5,974 acres) is a viable option for those who do not have access to private land. However, much of this public land contains some very steep mountainsides and it also has some of the more scenic vertical rock cliffs anywhere. More than a few archers have used these topographical features as pinch points to help determine where to place their stands.
A real plus for the Summersville WMA is that camping is available on the public land and private campgrounds that exist nearby. Summersville Lake is part of the surroundings and motels have sprung up around the impoundment over the years. So visiting bowhunters have plenty of options on where to stay.
Also, as the district biologist informed, a unit of the Monongahela National Forest lies partially within the county. Nicholas shares the Cranberry WMA (158,147 acres) with Webster, Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties. The elevation ranges from 1,900 to 4,600 feet, but from my experience, there seems to be a lot more of the latter elevations than the former. Deer can be difficult to pattern in this public land.
Greenbrier County is the traditional bow season leader in District IV, which encompasses southern West Virginia. In fact, Greenbrier has led the region for the past five years with the harvests as follows: 2001 (997), 2002 (1,280), 2003 (1,009), 2004 (722) and 2005 (651). District biologist Larry Berry offered an interesting choice as a pick for a county that hasn't received much press lately.
"I would pick Fayette County," Berry said. "This county did not have an antlerless deer season in 2005. The buck kill has dropped, but that decrease may be due to abundant acorn production and a drop in hunting pressure. Fayette has remote habitat along the New River and available hunting in the New River Gorge, and it should have more 2 1/2- and 3 1/2- year-old bucks available in 2006. Fayette County does not have a high deer population."
Fayette certainly is not among the leaders in the bow harvest, as its 460 animals checked in last year only resulted in a fifth place ranking out of the eight counties in the region. For the previous four years, the totals are: 2001 (884), 2002 (1,119), 2003 (911) and 2004 (616).
An intriguing public-land possibility is the Beury Mountain WMA (3,061 acres). The public land borders an obvious deer sanctuary in the form of Babcock State Park. Beury features a number of steep mountainsides as well as mountain rills, which are part of the New River drainage. The proximity of the state park also gives sportsmen a really nice place to spend the night.
The far western part of the Mountain State falls within the parameters of District V. The traditional bowhunting harvest leader has been Mason County, which has paced the region for each of the past five years with the following totals: 2001 (1,063), 2002 (842), 2003 (723), 2004 (767) and 2005 (800).
For an underrated area in this region, veteran District V biologist Tom Dotson lists Wayne County. Wayne actually finished only sixth out of nine counties last year with a harvest of 270, proving once again that total harvest figures don't necessarily mean everything concerning a particular county's potential. For the previous four years, the tallies are: 2001 (467), 2002 (422), 2003 (406) and 2004 (348).
Two of the reasons Dotson recommends this county are the presence of Beech Fork (7,531 acres) and East Lynn (22,928 acres) WMAs. Beech Fork, which Wayne shares with Cabell County, lies outside of Huntington. The majority of the topography is quite steep and heavily populated by oaks, hickories and pines. A real plus is the presence of a major campground on the site of the namesake lake.
The East Lynn WMA is similar to Beech Fork in its challenging topography; oaks and hickories likewise heavily blanket it. The major difference, of course, is the large size of East Lynn, thus giving bowhunters the real option of finding unpressured whitetails, if they have the gumption to walk back into the hinterlands.
District VI, which consists mostly of the north-central counties, has long boasted one of the largest deer herds in the state. Jackson County led the region last year with a tally of 768, and traditionally a number of counties have contended for that honor. For the upcoming season, assistant district wildlife biologist Jeff McCrady, who is based in Parkersburg, offers up this choice as an underrated destination.
"Take a look at Wirt County for the District VI representative," he said. "It has a higher percentage of its land in public hunting than any other county in the district. Also, it's a rather small county, so total harvest figures can be misleading."
Indeed, they can be. Wirt only tallied 264 bow-killed whitetails last year, a total that ranked it a humble sixth among the 10 counties in the region. For the previous four years, the harvests are as follows: 2001 (569), 2002
(489), 2003 (367) and 2004 (341). Although the harvests are unimpressive, Wirt does have something much more important -- plenty of farms that lie along small tributaries of the Ohio River system.
These farms have a reputation for producing both good-sized and good numbers of whitetails. The reason why is that these concerns typically feature rich soil and such crops as corn. Wrangle an invitation to one of these farms and you have a real chance at arrowing a fat doe.
West Virginia's bowhunters are often an adventuresome lot. We like to sample new places in counties that we have never or rarely hunted before. Every October, I like to go afield on some of my favorite farms, wood lots and public lands, but I also enjoy traveling to new areas and scouting out the possibilities. Ironically -- and there's that word again -- this wanderlust can lead us to harvesting deer that we never would have otherwise if we hadn't experienced a case of wanderlust. Perhaps a visit to one of the counties covered here is in your future.