Where are the best places to hunt deer in Virginia? Here's what the harvest data says. (October 2009)
Last season, Virginia hunters hit another milestone in hunting history by bagging a record 253,678 whitetail deer. The previous season the record harvest was 242,792 deer. The 10-year average harvest is 212,780 deer killed.
As was the case last year, hunters did a great job taking does. The total doe harvest outpaced the antlered buck harvest, which is an important factor, biologists believe, in managing the deer herd. There were 119,524 does taken (47.3 percent of the total harvest), 111,863 antlered bucks and 22,291 button bucks taken. The increased doe harvest was to the tune of nearly 10,000 animals over the previous season. The antlered buck harvest was up slightly at just over 2,500 more bucks this year. The button buck kill was actually down slightly this year from the previous season. Not surprisingly, every region saw deer harvest numbers go up.
When examining the harvest data provided by the VDGIF (not including the late special antlerless-only seasons numbers, which were not yet available at press time), we see that bowhunters took 7 percent of the deer last season with a kill total of 17,881. Crossbow hunters claimed 4 percent or 9,597 deer and muzzleloader hunters shot 57,038 deer or 22 percent of the total harvest. Rifle hunters shot 92,210 deer or 36 percent, while shotgun hunters took 76,156 whitetails or 30 percent. Of all the weapons used for deer hunting, muzzleloader hunters harvested the lowest percentage of does at 42.9 percent. This is very likely because most hunters are looking for a monster buck in rut to make a mistake and end up on the wall. Many a doe gets passed up during this active period of the season.
One of the goals of the VDGIF is to make use of hunters in managing the whitetail deer herd, particularly with respect to encouraging the harvest of does. In light of that, there has been a number of regulation changes made in order to increase the doe harvest over the past five years. Some have been as simple as liberalizing the take of does by use of DMAP, bonus tags or extra "doe days" in a season. In fact, as of press time, there is a proposal to increase the number of bonus tags from two to six, which will be good for a full year from the date of purchase. Most recently the VDGIF also made several counties "Earn-a-Buck" counties where hunters must take a doe in order to be permitted a second or third antlered deer. These management techniques have been effective in getting the antlerless or doe harvest up to levels that are affecting the total herd numbers.
We went to Matt Knox, Deer Project Manager, to get additional information about the deer harvest, hunter success rates and trends. Knox stated that data shows that hunters statewide are averaging a 60 percent success rate while in the field.
However, data also shows that deer numbers on national forest lands appear to have declined 40 percent within the last decade. Another trend that has come to light that we all should be concerned about is the decline in the hunting pressure because of lower hunter numbers.
When looking over the data from this past season's harvest and comparing it with the previous season, we noticed that 15 of the counties on the top 20 list the previous season are on the list again this season. The new counties that made the cut this year have often been on the top 20 list and are not a surprise. They include New Kent with a figure of 10.9 deer harvested per square mile, Westmoreland (10.7), Grayson (10), Warren (9.9) and King George (9.8). Counties that moved off our top 20 include Giles, Orange, Powhatan, Madison and Northumberland.
Hunters east of the Blue Ridge took 174,671 deer. Of those, 47.7 percent were does (83,392), with 16,807 of the total bucks being button bucks. There were 74,472 antlered bucks taken. West of the Blue Ridge hunters tagged 79,007 deer. Breaking that figure down further we find that 37,391 antlered bucks were taken, 5,484 button bucks and 36,132 does (45.7 percent) hung on the skinning rack. Again, this figure does not include the late special seasons.
As we do each season, we not only consulted Deer Project Manager Matt Knox but also a biologist in each region to get a local feel for what hunters may expect as they enter the woods this fall.
Tidewater deer hunters increased their harvest from 59,037 to 65,174 deer. This marks a 9 percent increase. There were 26,062 antlered bucks and 7,548 button bucks shot, so the total take of male deer added up to 33,610, while the doe harvest tallied up to 31,564 (48.4 percent of the region's harvest). Eleven of the top 20 counties in the state were from this region, which is rich in soils, agriculture and incredible deer habitat. Much of the Tidewater Region is drained by rivers and swamps, which provides great deer cover and plenty of food. Any of the Tidewater counties are very good destinations for deer hunting.
We went to Todd Engelmeyer, wildlife biologist, to get the local scoop on things. Despite the deer harvest data not turning up Accomack and Northampton as top 20 counties, Engelmeyer noted that they might actually have the highest deer densities in the region.
He pointed out a few things that may have put the Eastern Shore deer herd up a notch in numbers.
"The pressure seems lighter than in some places, but other more significant differences are the tremendous amount of agricultural crops (almost 25 percent of the land cover) which have high levels of nutrients to produce more deer. These counties have thick cover and marsh edge to hide in, too, and compose almost 27 percent of the land cover."
Engelmeyer also noted that with the herd either stable or slightly increasing, many areas could provide great hunting opportunities region wide this year. Some areas may see even more doe days in order for managers to stay ahead of the possibility of landowner conflict with all the development occurring in the region. Development of housing subdivisions creates pockets of habitat that can be good for deer but also make it tough for hunters to gain hunting access.
Hunters looking to hunt public land will need to do their homework to decide which location best suits them. All are good prospects. There are a few WMAs in the region that hold ample deer, but some of the more underutilized public lands include military bases that need some help reducing the deer herds. Since there are more than a dozen smaller military bases scattered across the eastern part of the region, hunters would do well to call the one closest to them and ask what the process is to hunt the base. Most at minimum require hunter education cards and blaze orange.
Other options that are good for hunters include the national wildlife refuge tracts. Again, there are many, and hunters will find a l
ist of them in the VDGIF hunting and trapping booklet. Quota hunts are also listed with the information that you need to apply. Generally, the refuge hunts offer season-long access with walk-ins for slots not filled.
Southern Mountain hunters were able to bag 61,016 deer last season, not counting the late special seasons. This figure was nearly 3,000 more deer than the 2007-08 season's figure of 58,303 whitetails put in the freezer. Of the deer taken this past season, 32,793 were bucks of which 27,905 were antlered (the rest were button bucks). There were 28,223 does taken, or 46.3 percent of the harvest.
We were able to speak to Jim Bowman, one of two wildlife biologists covering the region. Bowman noted that the deer populations and harvests appear to be in good shape region wide -- but four counties stick out as having the possibility of giving hunters a slight edge in seeing or bagging a deer. Bedford -- which is the region's top deer county by square mile of harvest -- Franklin, Patrick and Roanoke all offer deer very good habitat on private land. Roanoke is urbanizing, which means hunting land is becoming less available. Patrick County is not necessarily seen as a high-density deer county, but residents in general would like to see the deer herd thinned.
Public-land hunting is tougher, though, according to Bowman.
"All of our counties offer good hunting opportunities. However, public lands such as the national forest are not the best deer habitat. The soils are not as good, and there is not as much timber management."
Timber management is important to provide cutovers and diversity for animals for food purposes and cover while habitats renew. Bowman pointed out that Amherst, Botetourt and Bedford are the best bets for national forest hunts. Avoid opening week, Thanksgiving and Saturdays if you don't like a crowd.
Last season, hunters saw a very stable harvest in regard to the previous season. There were 41,762 deer taken of which 20,263 were antlered bucks and 44.3 percent, or 18,491, were does. We spoke to Bill Bassinger, who covers the central portion of the region. He noted that Grayson is his best county with regard to harvest numbers.
"Generally, Grayson has nearly double the harvest as my other counties, which include Bland, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wythe."
Part of the reason Grayson, which was also the region's top county, is such a great deer-hunting destination is because much of the land is privately owned with highly productive soils and a decent amount of agriculture practice. But that is not to say that only hunters in Grayson take deer. In fact, Bassinger shared with us that the private lands in Smyth and Washington are also good bets because of the agriculture and limited hunting pressure. Of course, that means hunters have to work harder to get a place to hunt. Once a property is secured, the hunting is good as the deer populations continue to climb. The same is true around towns and cities. If hunters can secure a place to hunt in these areas, then they will do well.
Hunting public land here is also tough because of poor soils and habitats that are causing deer numbers to decline. However, Channels State Forest run by Virginia Department of Forestry in Washington County may be a good spot to try. The property is just now opening to the public but was previously in the DMAP program and was well managed.
Hunters in the Southern Mountain Region should focus on good food sources on private land for their best bets or public land that borders agriculture or pasture lands.
The harvest data shows that mountain hunters took 17,128 antlered bucks, 2,476 button bucks, and 17,641 does (47.4 percent of the harvest) this past season for a total of 37,245 deer. This is an increase of approximately 1,000 deer tagged.
However, the abundance of national forest land that composes much of the region, and the fact that the habitat on that land is not as good as on private land, creates a situation where deer numbers may actually be declining in some areas.
However, private-land hunters are finding great hunting each season in Frederick, Warren and Clarke counties. David Kocka, wildlife biologist for the region, informed us that the soils and habitat are able to sustain nearly 60 deer per square mile in this part of the region. That makes the area a deer-hunting hotspot. The tough thing is finding a place to hunt.
It has been the author's experience that some landowners are becoming frustrated with deer on some of the horse or stock farms in the area. Apple orchards are another form of agriculture that attracts more deer than landowners might wish for. Obviously, hunters need to knock on doors early and often. If a hunter is willing to trade off some work for hunting, his or her chances of finding a place are much better.
Public lands are very tough to hunt, but chances are improved for hunters who get off the beaten path, hunt midday during the week or hunt public land that is not only far from the road but borders private land that is used for agriculture. There are several such areas in the southern portion of the region. A good tax map combined with the use of a topo map or aerial photo will significantly assist hunters in finding such areas. Don't overlook an area of national forest that may have seen some timbering in the past 15 years. This change in habitat is good for the deer.
This region experienced a nearly 2,000 deer increase in harvest figures. Of the 48,481 deer tagged, 20,505 were antlered bucks, and 23,605 were does. The doe harvest increased to 48.7 percent.
Despite all the development that is going on in the region, hunters are still helping biologists manage the herd. We went to John Rohm, the biologist working the northern portion of the region, to find out what opportunities await hunters in this deer-rich part of the state.
As one can see from the accompanying graphic, most of northern Virginia has a high deer harvest per square mile. What is not shown is that the counties here that are not shaded in are also very deer rich -- the harvest is lower not because of a lack of deer, but because the deer are tougher to hunt. Rohm pointed out that although Fairfax is archery-only, the hunting is great. If archery is not your thing, then Rohm suggests hunters find a private land to hunt in Loudoun, northern Prince William or Fauquier counties. These counties have season-long, either-sex hunting on private lands. In the entire northern portion of this region, the hunting is good because of the great habitat, soils and stable or increasing deer herd.
Hunters who need a place to hunt on public land are heartily encouraged to check out the quota and managed hunts listed in the regulation book this season or go online to www.dgif.virginia.gov. In addition, the military bases, such as Ft. Belvoir and Quantico Marine Base, offer great hunting with ample deer herds.
As one goes farther south and west in th
e region, the deer numbers stabilize but still offer hunters great opportunities. The key to hunting such areas is to find funnels leading to and from bedding and feeding areas.
This season, be sure to check out the new game regulations. As of press time, there were a considerable number of proposals, including increasing doe days and increasing the number of bonus tags. In addition, there are many managed hunt opportunities that always offer good chances at taking home some meat.