Virginia's Late Muzzleloader Season

It may not be the season's peak time to kill a big buck, but Virginia's muzzleloader season is a great time to hunt. (December 2008)

The lady landowner had invited me to come hunt her Botetourt property this past autumn. Though she regaled me with stories of numerous deer feeding every afternoon in her front pasture, I was nevertheless a tad skeptical. After all, from my experience, many folks often claim to see plenty of deer on their places, but the reality is often quite different.

When I went over to scout the property in September, I was dismayed to find no trees where I could hang a tree stand and only two places where whitetails might bed: an overgrown creek to the right of the pasture and a dense red cedar stand at the top of the field. Only three places existed where I could set up: a few white pines along the creek, a row of hay bales in the pasture, and a few saplings where the pasture and cedar copse adjoined.

During the regular firearms season, I set up one morning along the white pines and didn't glimpse any deer. When I informed the landowner about my lack of luck, she reiterated that it was in the evening that the deer meandered into her pasture.

Her words kept returning to my mind, so one December evening when my wife, Elaine, and I were going out to dinner, I asked her if we could make a detour to the farm. Upon our arrival, we witnessed a quartet of does feeding in the pasture.

So, when doe days began the last week of the late muzzleloader season, once more I headed for the lady's farm. On my first visit, seven does streamed into the field and on my second and third trips, four and five antlerless whitetails, respectively, did the same. Unfortunately, on each of these trips, the deer either came into the pasture too near the end of legal shooting time or were too far away for me to attempt a shot.

But on the last afternoon of the season, I again returned to the farm. Deciding to set up between two of the hay bales, I felt that I was reasonably concealed -- or at least as much as possible. With about an hour of daylight left, five antlerless deer ambled into the pasture. This time they had entered soon enough so that their wanderings would result in their venturing close enough for me to attempt a shot before the sun totally disappeared.

Finally, around 5:15, one of the does had moved to within about 35 yards of my position and was standing still broadside. Raising the gun, I flipped off the safety, placed the scope on the heart/lung area, and fired.

"Snick," was the only sound.

The doe jerked up her head, stared toward the hay bales but remained broadside. I fired again, and again . . . and again. And the only result was three consecutive snicks. At the fourth such sound, the doe's nerves were the only thing that was shot, and she bounded from the field, taking the rest of the whitetails with her. And so ended the 2007-08 late muzzleloader season for me. When I arrived back at the vehicle, I observed that the No. 11 percussion cap was bent, perhaps explaining why the gun had never fired.

I relish pursuing the state's deer during the late muzzleloader season. Hunting pressure is almost non-existent, the deer are usually not skittish like they are during the regular firearms season, and early winter afternoons are often a glorious time to be outside. Killing a deer at this time of year (at least for me) is exceptionally challenging, but that, too, is part of the appeal of toting a smokepole afield now.

Nelson Lafon, Deer Project Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), works in the Verona office. I asked him how popular the late season is with state sportsmen.

"Our special muzzleloader license is good for the entire season (early and late), so we can't tell from license data (who hunts when)," Lafon said. "I looked back at some recent hunter surveys, and we don't ask by early and late, just total muzzleloading. The harvest breakdown shows the early season is much more popular, but this needs to be taken with caution because the early season is statewide and the late season is western only."

Lafon added that, in general, the late season is not a time for hunters to fixate on trophy bucks. Although, of course, some skilled or fortunate hunters take some very nice bucks every year. However, the period can be a good time for other objectives to be accomplished, by both hunters and the VDGIF.

"Although the number of deer seen is relatively low during the late season, so are the number of people," continued Lafon. "There can be some quality late-season hunting. The late season is also important -- since either-sex days are limited in western Virginia during the early muzzleloader season and firearms seasons -- for hunters to fill their bag limits before the season goes out.

"The importance of any special season is that it adds diversity of hunting opportunities as well as additional harvest, which in aggregate, sums to the most effective population management tool we have for free-ranging deer."

I also asked the biologist if the VDGIF has considered increasing the doe days then, given the difficulty of even finding late December/early January deer, let along big bucks.

"It (more either-sex days) has been discussed internally during the last several regulation cycles -- and the comment has been made on the online Web forum -- but has not been taken forward by the staff or public," answered Lafon.

In fact, the biologist relates that no new regulations of any kind are on tap for the coming season. Regarding the 2007-08 harvest, overall the muzzleloader kill was 23 percent of the statewide harvest. Of the muzzleloader harvest, 19 percent of it was during the late season, so that season translates to 4.4 percent of the total deer kill statewide. A larger contribution to that percentage exists west of the Blue Ridge, of course, because it is the western counties that are more likely to offer a late smokepole season.

Further breaking down the above data, the early muzzleloading season accounted for 55,689 whitetails checked in (81 percent of the smokepole harvest). The late season accounted for 9,818 (19 percent). So, basically, hunters took more deer during the early season by approximately a rate of 5 to 1.

The top counties (with the late harvest and the percentage of harvest in parentheses) were Bedford (833, 10 percent), Scott (469, 13 percent), Augusta (438, 10 percent), Giles (413, 12 percent), Shenandoah (353, 8 percent), Rockingham (347, 9 percent), Franklin (342, 6 percent), Wythe (304, 11 percent), Bath (304, 10 percent) and Botetourt (281, 7 percent).

Several of these tallies and percentages are noteworthy. It is not surprising that Bedford was the top county, as this Piedmont domain often leads or is at the top in various harvest charts for deer and turkeys. Indeed, Bedford would be a prime destination for this coming season. The county does contain some George Washington and Jefferson National Forest land, but I must emphasize that this public land is not a good place to go for sportsmen looking to punch an antlerless tag now.

The primary deer-hunting virtue of the national forest is that it offers the hinterlands' sanctuaries where bucks can live to older ages and thus produce broad racks. Finding bucks like that during the late season, when food is scarce and when deer are often gathered in small areas (and absent from large swaths) because of that shortage, is a daunting task.

For the late season, the best national forest option is to gain permission to a farm or rural property that borders this public land. Then set up so as to intercept deer leaving the public land to feed on the private land. If you can't gain permission to such a farm, then learn where deer are leaving the national forest to access the agricultural area. Position a stand, say, 50 yards within the public land. I hunt in or near the national forest during the late muzzleloader season but only where it borders private land. And I only target does during the antlerless season.

Other statistics that beg amplification involve Scott and Wythe counties, which finished second and eighth, respectively, in the harvest parade. The positioning was, of course, impressive but what really caught my attention was the fact that the late season accounted for 13 percent of Scott's harvest and 11 percent of Wythe's.

This would seem to indicate that not only are good numbers of deer present in those counties, but also that a dedicated corps of late-season hunters ply the woods. To contrast, Botetourt is my home county, and I do the vast majority of my deer hunting there. I rarely encounter other individuals at this time of year, and among my hunting companions, only one of them goes afield now. Some years, in fact, I never see any other hunters. Therefore, it is not surprising that the late muzzleloader season accounted for only 7 percent of the smokepole harvest in Botetourt.

Sometimes, though, statistics don't tell the entire story. For example, Franklin ranked seventh in the top 10 list, and the late season accounted for only 6 percent of the smokepole harvest. Yet, I would rank Franklin only behind Bedford County as a place for hunters to tag an antlerless deer this coming late muzzleloader season.

The reason why is that Franklin, like Bedford, offers antlerless days throughout the late season. Franklin features an extended regular firearms season, and by the time the late muzzleloader season rolls around, I believe that most resident Franklin hunters are tired of deer hunting or have filled their tags -- thus accounting for the small harvest percentage. Gain access to a Franklin County farm this season, and chances are you'll see some deer.

Last December, for example, I visited a Franklin dairy farm with the hope of gaining access. Although I was treated politely, the landowner did not grant me permission to hunt. But on another farm some 15 miles down the road, I did gain access and glimpsed three does during a late December outing. I will return there this season.

Finally, consider some of the high mountain counties, such as Craig, Highland, Alleghany and Bath. The latter was the only one of these counties to crack the top 10 list. Adding to the difficulty of going afield in these counties is that given their high elevations, the temperatures can be frigid, especially during the morning, and the wind is too often howling throughout the day.

Still, one year I smoked a late December Craig County whitetail that was feeding in a field that lies at an elevation of 3,100 feet. The doe was foraging in one of the few places that were not snow covered. When the doe bounded away after the shot, I found it very easy to follow her blood trail in the snow and easily recovered the animal. Locate a green field in these high mountain counties, and you may have found an excellent place to take a stand.

Nelson Lafon offers these how-to tips for the late muzzleloader season.

"Hunt the lee side of south-facing, sunny slopes with or near remaining food sources," the biologist suggested. "Look for remaining acorns in a really good mast year, or (in a poor mast year) late greenery or young browse, which normally will be the preferred browse. Also, look for heavy bedding cover nearby. On cold, windy days, that's not a bad time to stalk hunt, staying to the lee of bedding areas."

Dan Lovelace, a VDGIF district wildlife biologist who works out of the Forest office, covers such high harvest counties as Bedford, Roanoke and Botetourt. He, too, proffers some strategies.

"During the late season, I think one of the most important things hunters can do is simply get out in the woods as often as they can," he said. "Doing so will certainly increase their chances for success. I think it's also important to keep in mind that Virginia deer tend to group together now. Hunters often either see no deer at all, or 10 or more in the same spot.

"The places where hunters will see those deer grouped together often are characterized by their heavy cover. Try to scout and find those places before the season comes in."

I agree with Lovelace's comments on deer sightings often being an all-or-nothing type situation now. During late December and early January, I many times will endure days on end where I view no whitetails; but on days that I do, I sometimes see six, seven or more in the same group. Only infrequently do I observe a lone doe feeding in a field, for example.

Lovelace further emphasizes that Old Dominion smokepolers must locate the hot food source now.

"Many years the mast crop has really contracted by the late season," he explained. "Acorns are hard to count on. So, a patch of honeysuckle, for example, might really draw deer."

I have hunted the late season since I obtained my first muzzleloader in 1993, and I would speculate that I have witnessed more whitetails foraging on honeysuckle than any other menu item, except for grass or rye. Other important late-season sources of nourishment are persimmons, viburnums, grapes and just about any soft fruit that still clings to a vine or twig or lies among the forest duff.

The biologist also urges hunters to be alert to changing weather conditions.

"A drizzly, relatively warm day can really make the deer move in late December and early January," Lovelace said. "Another time that can be really good is when a snowstorm is on its way. Basically, any oncoming front is a time for hunters to head for the woods."

One of my most strongly held opinions now is that evening hunting is far better than morning outings. Lovelace agrees.

"I think a late-afternoon hunt has a better chance to be productive than a morning one," he asserted. "Lots of times deer don't seem to move much on those cold mornings. There can be middle of the day movement, too, especially if a front is coming through. And again, regardless, hunters should be positioned so that they can intercept deer leaving heavy cover."

I could blame a faulty percussion cap for my failure to kill a deer this past January. However, the person who placed that cap on the frontstuffer was obviously me, so obviously yours truly is the source for his own misfortune. This coming first week of January, chances are that I will be afield every day during the antlerless season -- hoping to smoke one final doe for the freezer. Why don't you consider being one of those few, but determined, Virginia individuals who pursue whitetails to the tag end of the season?

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