Looking for a place to hunt big bucks? Here are some clues from deer biologists in Virginia. (November 2009)
Last season was yet another record breaker in terms of total deer harvest: There were over a quarter million deer harvested by hunters in Virginia. Forty-seven percent of the harvest was composed of does. The VDGIF biologists have manipulated seasons each year to include liberalizing doe days. In doing so, they have given hunters plenty of opportunity to harvest does in most areas. For many hunters, opportunities to put a doe in the freezer means that they are more likely to pass on smaller bucks than they were in the past.
Instead, hunters wait for a real wallhanger.
Last season, hunters harvested 111,863 antlered bucks and 22,291 button bucks for a total of 134,154. This is up from the 2007 season, when 109,275 antlered and 22,088 button bucks were taken, totaling 132,083 bucks.
As the chart accompanying this article shows, Charles City County led the state with respect to the number of bucks taken per square mile. Charles City was also the top county last year by this measure. They were replaced by Grayson, Cumberland, Richmond and Westmoreland in the top 20 list.
Last season, Tidewater hunters took 26,062 antlered bucks, which is an increase of approximately 2,000 from the previous season. Nine counties made the top 10 list of bucks harvested per square mile from the region including the top two spots.
Todd Engelmeyer is the wildlife biologist we tapped to get the lowdown on buck hunting the region. Engelmeyer readily noted that there were two areas in the region that stood out for big bucks.
"Hunters south of the James River consistently find quality bucks, particularly on private lands that practice Quality Deer Management (QDM). Many of these lands or clubs are also in the DMAP program."
Engelmeyer went on to point out that Surry, Sussex and Southampton hunters are doing a great job in managing for quality bucks, and it is paying off. There is a high density of bucks in the region.
The second area that Engelmeyer said really produced some monster bucks was the Eastern Shore.
"There are several factors that impact the buck size and numbers on the Eastern Shore. First, the soil is good and a whopping 26 percent of (the Eastern Shore) is in agriculture. Much of that farmland is irrigated too. Soybeans and corn are common. The Eastern Shore has nearly 30 percent of land that is marsh, which provides excellent cover, allowing the bucks to grow much older."
Many hunters shy away from hunting past the fringes of the marsh. Some dogs won't even venture out into the marsh -- and the older bucks have figured that out.
Many private lands on our Eastern Shore also are practicing QDM.
Last, there are public lands in the form of the numerous small military bases that are looking for hunters to help manage their herds. Call the MWR department on local bases to see what hunting opportunities may exist.
Southern Piedmont Region
The buck harvest was down slightly in the Southern Piedmont region this past season, with 27,905 antlered bucks taken and 4,888 button bucks for a total of 32,793, compared with a harvest of 33,215 bucks during the 2007-2008 season. However, statistically speaking, the small drop is insignificant -- even when deer populations are the same from year to year, harvests can vary by more than last season's drop. Last year's kill numbers represent a stable harvest figure and are of no cause for alarm.
Dan Lovelace of the VDGIF was willing to answer some questions we posed about quality buck opportunities in his region.
Lovelace commented that clubs and private landowners who are in DMAP and those that practice quality management are seeing good numbers of nice bucks. When these practices are coupled with good habitat, the payoff is very good.
"We have seen some nice older-age-class bucks come from Halifax, Nelson and Patrick counties. Bedford is another good bet due to numbers of deer and (that the county has) a lot of agricultural land. There are also lots of 3- to 4-year-old bucks that are coming off DMAP lands all over the region that weigh 150 to 200 pounds," our source noted.
Lovelace also pointed out that former tobacco farms are converting over to hay in some areas and the deer are taking advantage of the increase in forage that the new fields provide. In Patrick County, there are some orchards and hay farms that hold good numbers of bucks.
The key to finding a big buck in this region seems to be getting access to private land -- especially in the above-named counties. Hunters should read up on the new regulations and be sure to note those in Pittsylvania County. Be sure you are aware of the "Earn-a-Buck" regulations in some areas. Lovelace feels that these regulations are allowing some bucks to grow older and provide quality buck opportunities for some hunters.
Southern Mountain Region
The Southern Mountain Region saw a total of 23,271 bucks harvested. Of those, 20,263 were antlered, and 3,008 were button bucks. This is an increase from the previous season, but much of that increase was antlered bucks; hunters here actually killed 300 fewer button bucks.
We spoke to both Bill Bassinger and Betsy Stinson about the buck hunting harvest and opportunities in their districts. Bassinger pointed out that Grayson tends to be the "go-to" county if you had to pick one for a big-buck opportunity. The combination of good soils, agriculture and private land tends to grow larger bucks. It certainly does not hurt that there are some DMAP clubs that practice management techniques that allow bucks to grow larger while maintaining an adequate doe harvest.
Bassinger did point out that he would like to see the buck-to-doe ratio improve.
"The buck-to-doe ratio in certain areas of my district is still in need of adjustment. We tend to have too many does in these areas."
Bassinger went on to comment that it would be nice to see more landowners and clubs enroll in the DMAP program to assist in harvesting does to balance out the equation some.
Last season, the mast was spotty, but fawn recruitment was good. The better mast tended to be on the tops of ridges where a temperature inversion allowed for warmer air to protect the blooms on oaks. In Bassinger's area of responsibility, which includes the middle portion of the region, he noted that there is a new public land that was acquired known as the Channels State Forest. This land is owned and managed by the Virginia Department of Forestry in Washington County. At press time, there is very little easy access to the property because of the terrain and limited roads. However, the property was enrolled in the VDGIF DMAP when it was privately owned and was well managed. Considering these two factors the property has great potential for hunters who are willing to hike and work for a nice buck.
It should be noted that while the national forest is not well known for producing numbers of bucks because of habitat limitations, there are nevertheless some decent deer taken each year on these public lands. The density of the deer population is much lower here than on most private land, but with some scouting and work, hunters can find a deer to meet their criteria. Particularly in areas away from roads, the deer in the national forest have a chance to live a long time, and hence grow bigger antlers.
That opinion was seconded by Betsy Stinson, VDGIF biologist. She noted that the national forest in Giles has seen some timbering lately and that should help provide understory and browse for deer. Also, gypsy moths are becoming a problem to oaks in both Giles and Craig counties on national forest lands. Once the infected trees start dying off, more sunlight will reach the ground and produce greenery low enough for deer to browse as well.
A second public land opportunity in Stinson's district that may be worth a hard look involves the two WMAs. Both Stewart's Creek and Crooked Creek have deer, and hunters who are not afraid to hike off the beaten path and hunt during the midweek are more apt to get a shot at a nice buck.
Private land opportunities in the eastern part of the region are best for bucks in Floyd and Carroll counties. Stinson attributed these opportunities to the herd density and the better habitat on private land here.
Northern Mountain Region
There may have been a slight decline in the buck harvest from 19,654 to the current harvest of 19,604 in this region, but overall, the herd is stable, and buck opportunities are decent. Only 2,476 button bucks were taken last season. Many hunters in the region are taking advantage of the liberalized doe harvest on private lands.
Finding a quality buck in the region is not as easy as hitting one or two specific counties. The best chances of taking a nice buck are often found by researching two or three variables.
David Kocka, who works in the region as a VDGIF biologist, pointed out that the national forest lands are tough to hunt because of poor habitat and high hunter pressure. He says that private lands are definitely the better choice if you can find access.
One variable to finding a nice buck is to find land with good habitat. Here in the mountains, mast can be a determining factor. A poor mast year, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that bucks will be concentrated on the few trees that are producing. Hunters need to do some serious scouting to find those productive trees. Many trees can start dropping acorns as early as September, which is before the season. In poor mast years, hunters who can find an agricultural area to hunt have a good chance for a buck. Kocka says that hunting in the valley is less impacted by poor mast because of agricultural production and better soils.
A second variable involves finding a property to hunt. Much of the private land is being divided into smaller parcels and subdivisions. This is creating safe havens for deer. When a buck is relatively safe for a few years, the potential for growing a good set of antlers increases. That said, a hunter who has access to property near a subdivision or other land where hunting pressure is light to nonexistent would greatly increase his or her odds of getting a nice buck.
A tactic that hunters are switching to in many parts of the state involves taking advantage of the early urban archery season. Of course, this season is antlerless only, but bucks that live near urban areas usually grow older. Hunters take their does during the special seasons, scout out and lock on to nice bucks frequenting the area, and then they come back during regular archery season to try for the big bucks.
A last tidbit that hunters may want to consider when searching for a big buck in the region is to gain access to private land bordering the Shenandoah National Park. Bucks live long on the park because of a no hunting policy. Kocka pointed this out and it makes perfect sense. Bucks have no concept of boundaries, so if one of those bucks wanders off the park, he becomes fair game. The rut would be the better time to expect a far-roaming buck to enter your sights.
Northern Piedmont Region
Northern Piedmont buck hunters downed slightly fewer bucks this year than the previous year. Of the 24,876 bucks taken, 20,505 were antlered bucks, and 4,371 were button bucks. However, again the trend seems to be that fewer button bucks were taken.
As is the case most years, Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock led the way with the highest densities of bucks harvested. Last year, we pointed out that although the top 20 counties certainly indicate great densities of deer and therefore bucks, there are other counties that bear a hard look for quality bucks.
Mike Dye, VDGIF biologist working out of the Fredericksburg office, covers the middle portion of the region. Dye, an avid bowhunter, said he would definitely consider the southern portion of Culpeper and Madison counties east of Route 29.
"The good soils and agriculture such as corn farms consistently produce some very nice bucks."
When asked when he would take advantage of the big bucks in the area, Dye stated that he would hit the woods in late October just before the rut with a bow in hand. The deer are beginning to move; yet the woods are not as busy as they will be later.
"Look for rubs and scrapes, and then try some rattling or grunting to pull in the bucks," our expert suggested. He also noted that although the mast was spotty last year, big bucks will still be available. Hunters need only be adaptable and do some scouting to find them.
Regulation changes are in the mix for hunters in the region, but most regulations will be in the form of more doe days. The "Earn-a-Buck" policy is still being studied to determine its effect on the deer herd right now.
Brian Moyer, who covers the southern portion of the region, weighed in with a good choice for a public land opportunity.
"Fort A.P. Hill has a very good deer management program in place that has been producing very nice bucks the last few years. The reduction in annual buck bag limit to two bucks with the second one requiring at least 4 points on one side has truly helped in terms of quality deer management," he stated.
A good acorn crop in the area will boost antler production for bucks this season too. Fort A.P. Hill does allow public access with c
ertain criteria that must be met. Call (804) 633-8244 for details.
Last, don't forget to scout for big bucks in northern Virginia during the special urban archery season. Once the regular bow season arrives, those big bucks become fair game!