Virginia's Late-Season Military Deer Hunts

Virginia's Late-Season Military Deer Hunts

As the season grows late, it becomes easier and easier to find a hunting slot on these three military bases -- and there are still plenty of deer around.

A month ago, Virginia's major military bases were crowded, so crowded that in order to get a pass for a day of hunting, it was necessary to stand in line for hours. Now, however, the crowds are gone. The jittery anticipation of a new deer season has waned, and those who stuck it out past the first few weeks have likely filled a tag or two and have called it quits. That leaves you, the woods and the deer.

Here's a look at three of the state's top military bases. All three have first-rate hunting programs.

Hunters who get in the woods through the final weeks of Fort A.P. Hill's long deer season can actually have an advantage, says public affairs director Ken Perrotte. Training areas that were bustling with military activity throughout November are no longer being used and are therefore open to hunting.

"Some of those areas were almost never open in November, so they were hardly ever hunted," he said. "If you can get into one of those areas, you have a real good chance at seeing some nice bucks."

The base offers approximately 55,000 acres of huntable land and is divided into about 30 training areas, which range in size from a couple hundred acres to a few thousand. The number of hunters allowed in each area is tightly controlled, and each area is limited to one hunter for every 60 acres. Typically, the number of areas open to hunting fluctuates daily, but Perrotte adds that only on rare occasions, mostly around holidays, are all the areas open.

Although heightened security kept the entire base closed to hunting for all but a three-week season last year, the deer harvest actually equaled the previous season's, thanks to relaxed bag limits. Base wildlife managers convinced hunters to utilize the special two-deer-per-day limit to help knock down the burgeoning deer herd. The total deer harvest was slightly over 1,200 deer.

"We don't have any mandated quality deer management practices, but we encourage people to be selective and harvest a doe if given the choice. Why shoot a little 4-pointer when you can take the big doe standing next to the small buck? By letting the little bucks grow, hunters have a better chance of seeing better quality bucks," says Perrotte.

Manassas resident Barry Henningsen has been hunting Quantico for nearly 40 years. Here are some of the bucks he's taken. Photo by David Hart

That gentle, unstructured management practice seems to be taking hold, adds Perrotte. Last year, he says several "hogs" were taken, including a 10-pointer that scored in the neighborhood of 150 to 160 Boone and Crockett points. Another buck sported 9 points and a 24-inch spread, and numerous respectable 8- and 9-pointers were taken last year. Overall, the weight of yearling bucks has increased and so has the antler beam diameter, a good indication in the improved health of the base's deer herd.

The trick to finding those healthy bucks is to become intimately familiar with three or four training areas. Granted, that can take several seasons of scouting individual areas as well as actually hunting them to understand deer movements, feeding areas and bedding areas. But the most successful hunters, no matter where they spend their deer season, know the woods. That's doubly important on a heavily hunted base such as A.P. Hill.

"The key to having a successful day at A.P. Hill is to stay in the woods all day," said Perrotte. "Most hunters head out to get lunch or go home around 11 a.m. and they don't return until 2 p.m., and the deer have really become accustomed to that pattern. Also, hunters who stay put during the middle of the day stand a good chance of having some deer pushed past them by others who get up and start wandering around."

Access to A.P. Hill is a simple routine. First, all hunters must have passed a state- or NRA-certified hunter safety course. That's necessary for everybody, despite the state law that requires only certain age groups to pass a state course. The next requirement (for first-time A.P. Hill hunters) is to take a base safety lecture, a short talk about proper base procedures, safety considerations with regard to military training, and base-specific hunting regulations. A season permit costs $30. After that, getting a daily hunting pass is a matter of standing in line and asking for a pass to a particular area. If no passes are available for that area, the next choice is to ask for another area and another and another until you finally get one. Sometimes, getting in is a breeze; other mornings will find you standing in a long line or staring at a sign denoting every area full.

Like every other base in Virginia, Quantico shut down after the events of September 11, 2001, but deer hunters enjoyed a full, relatively normal season after the base was reopened to the general public before the start of Virginia's October archery season. According to base biologist Mary Geil, last year's harvest was 1,050 deer, down a little for the long-term average, but good considering the 1996 outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD. She said as many as 20 percent of the base's total deer herd died as a result of this disease, which strikes localized deer herds randomly. The symptoms include internal bleeding, loss of hooves and listlessness, but the disease has no effect whatsoever on humans. It's transmitted by midges (small biting insects) and tends to disappear after the first cold snap of the year. EHD pops up somewhere in the eastern two-thirds of Virginia every couple of years.

"It took a few years for deer numbers to get back up, but things are good now," she added.

Quantico Marine Corps Base covers over 60,000 acres and more than 46,000 acres are open to hunting. But since this is an active base that is used extensively for training, the base's 38 training areas are subject to closures. There's no telling how many areas will be open on any given day. Areas range in size from a few hundred to several thousand acres, and the hunter densities are about one hunter per 75 acres. There is always plenty of room to spread out and find a little piece of solitude, even if all the passes have been given out for a particular area.

"Last year we seemed to have better access to all the areas. In past years, some areas were hardly ever open, but the range officer in charge of the training areas seemed to rotate the closed areas a little more last season," explained Geil.

Although some quality bucks are taken all over the base, Geil says the best chances of tagging a trophy-class deer would be on the east side of Route 1. That's where most o

f the base development is, so hunters are restricted to archery equipment. And since archers have a limited range, it's a sure thing that bucks live longer and grow bigger antlers. Those archery hunters who want to hang a portable tree stand in those areas must also take a shooting proficiency test, and they must attend an additional safety lecture regarding hunting procedures and safety considerations for hunting around this populated side of the base.

For those who would rather stick to the west side of the base, Geil points to training areas 17A and 17B as two that tend to produce the largest deer on the base. Those areas are close to agricultural areas on adjoining private property. Still, Quantico has an active management program, and it's not out of the question to find a good buck and high numbers of deer in just about any training area.

Barry Henningsen, a dedicated Quantico hunter, has taken some very impressive bucks over the last decade and regularly sees a few quality bucks every year. He used to hunt with both shotgun and archery equipment, but he's now a dedicated bowhunter and typically hunts the archery-only areas. However, he won't hesitate to take a pass in an area that allows shotguns, if that's all that is available.

"I know 12 or 15 areas real well because I've been hunting this base for about 39 years now, so I'll try to get a pass to one of those areas if I can," said the 45-year-old Manassas resident. "I'd suggest getting to know three or four areas on different sides of the base."

Perhaps the most difficult part about hunting at Quantico isn't necessarily finding the deer, it's getting a daily pass that allows you access to one of the training areas. This base is located less than an hour south of the sprawling suburbs of Washington, D.C., and is bisected by Interstate 95. Hunting pressure is quite high at times, but this time of year, that pressure drops dramatically. Still, active and retired military personnel have priority over civilians, and 85 percent of each day's passes are set aside for them. But Geil says late in the season, many passes are left over for civilians.

"That set-aside system is only for early checkout prior to the day you want to hunt. Passes that aren't given out under the early check-out system are given on a first-come, first-served basis each morning," she explained. "Civilian hunters actually make up 50 percent of all the hunters on the base, so anybody has a pretty good chance of getting a pass for a day, especially later in the season."

Henningsen agrees and says that while he often gets in line as early as 2 a.m. for a day of hunting, pressure drops dramatically and more areas are open to hunting later in the season. That means getting a pass is relatively easy.

"Another great way to get in is to show up in the afternoon. Guys that could only hunt the morning are gone, and their passes are available, so you can often walk right up and get a pass easy," he said. "It takes a while to learn the system, but once you do, you can usually get in."

Although Henningsen has his favorite areas, he says nearly every training area on the base holds good numbers of deer and a few quality bucks. However, an area that was hot one season won't always stay that way.

"I like to hunt thick woods and areas around clear-cuts that have grown back up to about five feet high. That provides good food and good cover. I'll also go deep into an area because few people are willing to do that," he noted.

Henningsen has taken bucks off this base that would make any trophy hunter flush with jealousy. Despite the sometimes-intense hunting pressure, Quantico surrenders a few impressive bucks every season.

For more information, call (703) 784-5810.

Like so many other military bases, Fort Pickett denied access to virtually all civilians last fall, and that resulted in only a two-week deer season, says base natural resources administrator Bob Wheeler. And due to that short season, the deer harvest was down dramatically.

"Our average deer harvest is somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 deer. Last year hunters only killed 42. Of course, the number of hunter-days was also way down. Normally, we have 6,500 to 7,000 man-days spent on the base during deer season, but there were only 594 man-days spent on the base during deer season last year," he said.

That, of course, should translate to one thing for this season's deer hunters: more deer. According to Wheeler, the base's estimated deer population is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,450, a number that has remained fairly stable over the last few years. But since fewer deer were taken off the base last season, it's likely the deer population is up considerably.

There are about 28,000 acres open to hunting on this base and the regulations generally parallel state hunting regulations. Archery equipment and muzzleloaders are permitted, so are shotguns loaded with either slugs or buckshot. However, all hunters, regardless of age or skill level, must have taken and passed a state-certified hunter safety course.

Access to the base will be relaxed this year compared to last year, but hunters who frequent Fort Pickett should expect some changes. Most notably, about 4,500 acres around the developed area will no longer be open to shotgun or muzzleloader hunting. Only archery equipment will be allowed, which will likely result in an increase in the size and number of deer in that area.

"We are also shifting our management policies toward quality deer instead of quantity," added Wheeler. "Another potential change that hasn't been decided yet (as of mid-July) is a ban on deer hounds. We used to allow deer hounds on the base, but those in charge of base security were concerned about it, mostly about hunters retrieving lost dogs in places they aren't supposed to go."

Although there are only 19 training areas open to hunting, gaining access this time of year shouldn't be much of a problem. Wheeler figures that since many of the people that participate in training on the base are actually overseas right now, there's a good chance many, if not all of the areas will be open in late December.

Franklin Ashe, a long-time Fort Pickett deer hunter, says he'd rather hunt this base than anywhere else in the state. Not only does it have plenty of deer, Ashe says the entire operation creates a great hunting experience.

"The thing I like about Camp Pickett is that it's run with safety as the first priority. You know how many people are in your area and many of them are regulars, so you actually know the people, too. I also see lots of deer. Two seasons ago, I saw eight real nice bucks running together, and I ended up killing a buck with a 21-inch inside spread," he said.

The trick to seeing plenty of deer, including some nice bucks, is to make the trek to the center of large areas, says Ashe. That's where few people are willing to go, and that's where high concentrations of deer end up. He also spends an entire d

ay in the woods, often in one spot.

"Practically everybody gets up and heads out for lunch in the late morning. That's the best time to be sitting still because all those people moving around stir up a mess of deer. I see so many deer in the middle of the day," he said. "I think it's real important to get to know a couple of areas real well, also. I've never had a problem getting a pass for a day, but I don't always get the area I want, so it really helps to know several areas."

Ashe, a Colonial Heights resident, simply avoids those days when crowds are likely to be a problem. Holidays, doe days and the first week of the season tend to be the most crowded, but this time of year, pressure is relatively light.

Permits are $20 and are available from the base checking station. Call (434) 292-8501.

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