Virginia's 2008 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Where To Find Big Bucks

Virginia's 2008 Deer Forecast -- Part 2: Where To Find Big Bucks

For most Virginia hunters, November is the prime time to kill a big buck. (November 2008).

Last season was a record-breaking season in many ways for Virginia deer hunters. First of all, the doe harvest was up approximately 13 per cent statewide. The overall whitetail harvest was 241,576 not including the late special seasons, which are mostly composed of does.

During the 2006-2007 season, hunters shot and tagged 106,595 antlered bucks and 19,652 button bucks for a total of 126,247 bucks. This past season, the number of antlered bucks harvested was 109,275. Hunters also harvested 22,808 button bucks for a total of 132,083 bucks tagged. This represents a 4.6 percent increase in the bucks harvested. Still, 132,083 bucks harvested represents a record number for Virginia. Biologists relayed that if we take more does and pass more young bucks, the racks and bodies on those bucks will soon be noticeably larger.

Each year, we print a graphic to show the top 20 counties of buck harvests by square mile. Good habitat does not normally come and go on a whim; therefore, our top 20 list changes just a little each season. This year, however, we have four newcomer counties that cycled into the lineup: King and Queen, Warren, Northumberland and Prince George. They bumped Cumberland, Scott, King George and Franklin counties out of the top 20 list from the year before. Of those four counties, only Scott was bumped far down the list this past season.

Educated deer hunters tend to focus on the mast crop and other food sources from season to season to determine the size of antlers the following season. Although the availability of acorns or other mast certainly plays a role in the development of antlers, some regions of Virginia are more dependent on mast than others. The steep-sided mountain regions are more dependent than an area where there are plenty of soybeans or other agriculture to supplement a deer's diet. Overall, the state had a varied mast crop success last season. Some areas saw failures and others saw decent production. See your particular region for the local information.

Last season, Tidewater hunters took 31,230 bucks. Of these, 24,075 were antlered, putting the region in second place in terms of total number of bucks harvested. The region had nine counties in the top 20 list.

The Tidewater Region has a tremendous variety of deer habitats and thus no one county can be considered "the best" place to take a quality buck. In fact, a walk around the 2007 Virginia Deer Classic contest showed a number of quality bucks from all over. When habitat is as varied as it is in the Tidewater, the key is to find where habitats merge, hunting pressure is less and there is plenty of food nearby. The one variable that hunters can directly control is the harvesting of small bucks, including button bucks and spikes.

Galon Hall, VDGIF biologist for the northern district of this region, said he is seeing a trend of hunters passing smaller yearling bucks.

"This trend needs to continue in order to allow bucks to reach maturity. This goes hand in hand with increased doe harvest. Hunters are doing much better at both of these, but there is still room for improvement, in the doe harvest especially."

Once good habitat is found and permission is obtained to hunt, hunters need to stick with the location where they find sign even if they are not seeing the big bucks. Find the edges where the habitats merge to place a stand. Do your scouting pre- and post-season when possible and avoid spooking deer during the season.

Todd Engelmeyer, the biologist responsible for the southern district, reported that big-buck concentrations are most likely found in Surry, Sussex, Southampton and portions of Isle of Wight and Suffolk.

Hunters needing a place to hunt should really try to get into the Quota Hunt System, which has an early firearms season on Dismal Swamp and Cavalier WMAs in October. According to Engelmeyer, the thick cover and tough habitat is ideal for deer to hide in and to reach an older age (and thus to produce larger racks). Be sure to see the regulations for information regarding the quota hunts.

The buck harvest for the Southern Piedmont region included 28,037 antlered bucks and 5,178 button bucks for a grand total of 33,215 whitetail bucks harvested. This figure made the Southern Piedmont the top region in terms of buck harvest.

We spoke with biologist Cale Godfrey about the whitetail bucks in the eastern portion of this region. Like Hall in the Tidewater, Godfrey noted that no one county stands out as the top-quality buck county. However, Powhatan and Amelia have been good to hunters the past several years.

"All of my counties have good potential for growing quality bucks. The biggest limiting factor is age. The trend over the past 10 years or so has been that hunters and hunt clubs have started to pass up some younger bucks, but there is still a way to go."

There is one public-land opportunity that really stands out in the region. Fort Pickett is very tightly managed, but offers hunters the opportunity for a quality buck.

"Fort Pickett is definitely the place to find quality bucks on public land in my area. Unless something changes drastically as it did when we experienced the attacks on 9/11, it will continue to produce nice bucks in the future."

One thing that Godfrey shared with us about antler growth in his district, which is basically the eastern portion of the region, was that his area is not as dependent on hard-mast crops as the mountain areas. With diverse habitat and plenty of food on a year-round basis, antler growth in the district is fairly stable barring any serious weather conditions that affect all plant growth.

Another comment that Godfrey made that stuck out was that although an adequate doe harvest is very important to controlling the deer population, taking more does is not likely to produce more quality bucks unless a hunter is passing a small buck to take a doe.

Farther west in the region, biologist Dan Lovelace manages the deer herd. Bedford stuck out as a good county, although Franklin and Botetourt are also good bets. Lovelace also noted that the WMAs in the region see less pressure during archery season. Another piece of deer-hunting trivia from the district is that 60 percent of the deer taken during muzzleloader season are antlered bucks. Obviously, hunters know that the rut, which occurs during muzzleloader season, is a prime time to be afield.

Last, be sure to take a doe first in Bedford, Franklin, Roanoke and Patrick this fall where Earn-a-Buck regulations will be in effect.

Although the hunting may be more challenging in rugged Appalachia, hunters still managed to bag 19,745 antlered bucks and 3,335 button bucks for a total of 23,080 bucks.

There are several wildlife biologists who cover the Southern Mountain Region. We spoke with Johnny Wills first. Wills pointed out that Dickenson County sticks out in his mind as a consistent producer of quality bucks. However, it is a fact that the extreme southwestern portion of the region is not normally a producer of high-quality bucks. Wills said that some localities have deer densities that are too high to allow deer to grow to quality body weights and antlers.

Another point that Wills aptly made was that few people in his district own enough land to manage the local deer herds well enough to grow quality bucks. There are still a number of hunters that take whatever they can get as it passes by. Wills noted that if landowners made cooperative agreements in counties like Scott and Lee where the potential is greater to grow larger bucks, then small-parcel landowners could create a good QDM program.

When asked about public-land opportunities in the district, Wills qualified that PALS land, 19,000 acres of coal-mining land in Dickenson County, offers hunter access. Most private land is posted or mined for coal. The Clinch Mountain WMA and Hidden Valley WMA, as well as the 92,000 acres of national forest, are wide open for hunting, but the hunting can be tough. Get far off the road, and where applicable, hunt public land that adjoins private land to find the better bucks.

Because the region depends more heavily on mast crops, hunters need to know that last year both soft- and hard-mast crops were poor overall. This could translate into less antler growth for bucks. Looking ahead, though, Wills said that the deer came through the winter fine and with the increased rainfall, and lack of a late spring freeze, the mast should be better this year.

Biologist Bill Bassinger also manages deer in the region. He suggests that hunters try Grayson or Wythe counties. For public-land opportunities, hunters who are willing to hike and get off the beaten path might try Big Survey WMA or the remote areas of the national forest. Bassinger noted that the national forest had a spotty acorn production, translating to average racks this season, while private lands with agriculture should see bucks with good antler development.

Farther east in the region, biologist Betsy Stinson manages the herd. She suggests hunters give Carroll, Floyd and Pulaski counties a crack. The yearling buck weights in these counties average 110 to 115 pounds! The yearling deer taken here possess well-developed racks, but hunters looking for a trophy should try to hold out for a larger buck. Habitat in the district is a good mix of open, crop and forest lands, but most of it is private in Floyd and Carroll counties.

Last, Radford Arsenal is likely the best place to attempt to harvest a public-lands quality buck. It takes hunters some time to be drawn to hunt the arsenal, but it is worth it because there is a 15.5-inch outside spread rule. Last season, the largest buck taken had a 19€‚3/8 outside spread and gross scored 138€‚1/8.

Hunters in this rugged region took 17,076 antlered bucks and 2,578 button bucks, which tallied up to 19,654 tagged bucks. The northern tier of this region appears to have the highest densities of bucks or deer, according to our graphics and data. Frederick, Warren and Clark counties made the top 20 list and are obvious choices for a hunter to bag a buck. With the deer densities as they are though, hunters should pass the smaller bucks and take as many does as they can to assist biologists in managing the herd so more resources will be available to all deer to include bucks.

Farther south in the region, biologist Al Bourgeois keeps a tally on the whitetail herd. Bourgeois noted that Highland County tends to be better than Bath or Alleghany because there is better habitat in the form of farmlands mixed in with woodlands. He also pointed out that the obvious places to hunt for larger racked deer are well off the beaten path where hunting pressure is far less.

Public lands are not as good for hunting quality bucks in the mountain regions, but finding a decent buck can be done by following the advice above. Bourgeois suggests that hunters try hiking far into Highland or Gathright WMAs.

This region also experienced a poor mast crop last year, but the mild winter may allow bucks to get a jump-start on producing racks. We won't know until just before this issue hits your mailbox.

Bourgeois also made a keen observation that hunters should pay attention to. He said that many hunters try to hunt bucks in the same places they see numerous does. He makes the case that the more mature bucks will use different habitat than the rest of the deer. During the rut, of course, they will follow does, but then shift to more remote, dense and thicker woods.

David Kocka, another biologist from the region, observed that there are some older age-class bucks that come and go from the Shenandoah National Park, which is closed to hunting. Hunters with access to lands near the park might do well.

This season, hunters west of the Blue Ridge will be afforded an extended early muzzleloader season, which should coincide with the rut or pre-rut and offer an extra week of hunting.

In the Northern Piedmont, there were 20,342 antlered bucks and 4,562 button bucks shot for a total figure of 24,904 bucks tagged. Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock counties made the top 20 list in this region. However, this does not mean that these three counties are the only good ones to hunt for a good buck.

Brian Moyer, VDGIF wildlife biologist in the southern portion of the region, told us that he has a few counties that bear a look too.

"I would say that Hanover and Caroline counties seem to be the counties with the most number of nice bucks. Both counties have a lot of agriculture and timber management. Goochland, Powhatan and Henrico should not be discounted either."

One variable that all hunters are facing is the rapid development that cuts the number of places that are open to hunting. Moyer also observed that more agriculture is shifting to horses and hay from crops.

DMAP properties and the surrounding lands are where Moyer sees most quality bucks taken.

One positive aspect of the development is that there are more sanctuaries for bucks to grow older and sport larger racks. If a hunter can find access to a smaller parcel next to a DMAP, QDM or posted property, he or she may find a great buck.

The best public-land opportunity for hunting bucks is likely Fort A.P. Hill. Fort A.P. Hill is managed well and access is controlled. Hunt areas have a limited number of daily slots for hunters provided those areas are not bein

g used for training. Monitoring which areas have been only infrequently open in the past can pay off for a quality buck.

Moyer thinks that the red oaks may have saved the day for the mast crop despite the white oak failure. He expects a little better than average antler growth this season.

Moyer wants to see more hunters pass on younger bucks.

Moyer also wanted hunters to know that nearly every one of his counties will see more doe days this fall to help reduce the pressure on available resources and positively affect the remaining deer.

"The main reason is to stabilize the deer herd and minimize kill permits and road collisions, but an increase in antler size may result as well."

Hunters may have seen a mixed bag of mast crops last season, but overall, the prospects for a nice buck look promising. Be patient and pass those smaller racks if you are after a real wallhanger. Good hunting.€‚€‚

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