Smoke 'Em if You Got 'Em. If you still have the hankering to deer hunt, now is the time to take your smokepole and take one last crack at Virginia's whitetails.
By Bruce Ingram
It was the last 15 minutes of the last day of not only Virginia's late muzzleloader season, but also of the deer season as a whole. And I was not happy last Jan. 3.
I was afield in Botetourt County, overlooking a food plot. I was hoping that a whitetail would meander into the plot to feed. This was logical, as the hard mast crop had failed in western Virginia, and the few acorns that had fallen to the ground had long since been consumed.
The major reason for my misery was that I had been hunting every day that week and had not seen a deer. I had managed to strike out in Franklin County on both a hilly wood lot and a food plot, at four different Botetourt County farms and wood lots, at a Craig County mountain, and in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. I had even gone muzzleloader hunting in West Virginia in mid-December, and the results were all the same - no deer seen.
So when a deer did enter the Botetourt County food plot at 5:15, I felt a rush of adrenaline. The whitetail had emerged from a thicket to the left of the plot about 100 yards from me, took a few quick steps, and then disappeared into a copse to the right of the plot. All in all, the deer was visible for about three seconds.
And that brief sighting was the most memorable moment of my 2003-2004 late muzzleloader season. To further highlight my wretched season, when I returned to my vehicle in the dark, a small herd of deer was milling about.
Despite my abject failure this past year, I truly do relish the Old Dominion's late muzzleloader season. None of the other deer seasons challenge me as much as this one, and perhaps at no other time is the hunting pressure so low, and the winter woods so beautiful and inviting.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
A LOOK BACKLast year, the late muzzleloading season accounted for just 4 percent of the total deer harvest in Virginia - and just 17 percent of the total muzzleloading harvest. Overall, the early and late seasons accounted for 23 percent of the total deer harvest, ranging from 0-51 percent by county. Matt Knox, chief deer biologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), emphasizes that these numbers are preliminary - most years the figures have been finalized by press time, but such is not true this year. The VDGIF had some problems with the data entry vendor, Knox said, and is in the process of having all data re-punched. He thinks the preliminary kill totals are too high.
Those preliminary kill totals show that Bedford County led the way during the late smokepole season with a tally of 695, which was 19 percent of the muzzleloader harvest and 8 percent of the total kill. Other counties in the top 10 (with total late muzzleloader kill, percentage of muzzleloader harvest, and percentage of overall deer kill, respectively) are as follows: Shenandoah (537, 30 percent, 9 percent), Rockingham (495, 29 percent, 8 percent), Rockbridge (455, 44 percent, 13 percent), Scott (427, 51 percent, 11 percent), Giles (406, 35 percent, 11 percent), Wythe (371, 39 percent, 13 percent), Amherst (369, 29 percent, 11 percent) Highland (369, 39 percent, 10 percent) and Augusta (335, 28 percent, 7 percent).
Several aspects of these figures stand out.
First, Bedford remains one of the premier places to hunt deer in the Commonwealth, regardless of the season.
Second, Rockbridge and Wythe counties not only offer quality hunting, but they also have some hardcore deer enthusiasts, as the 13 percent figure indicates. If 13 percent of a county's deer harvest occurs during the late smokepole season, that means some very serious sportsmen must be afield then.
Third, smokepole hunting is apparently quite popular in Scott County if 51 percent of the deer there are taken by that method.
A LOOK AHEAD
Given the difficulty of killing a deer of either sex during the late muzzleloader season, I asked Matt Knox about the possibility of having the entire late season being either-sex.
"We increased the number of either-sex days in the firearms season in most counties last fall from three to seven or seven to full-season," he replied. "We have one staff member who has repeatedly asked that we make all of the late muzzleloading season either sex. I have opposed this on two grounds. Traditionally, we manipulate our deer herd by increasing or decreasing the number of either-sex days in the firearms seasons.
"If two things at once are changed, it makes it very difficult to separate cause and effect between the two changes. Lastly, we are always blasted by firearms deer hunters for giving away the farm to muzzleloaders. I would have a hard time explaining to a firearms deer hunter how he only has six either-sex days in a 13-day season and how a muzzleloading hunter has up to 20 either-sex days and 25 days of hunting."
Sportsmen should also note that some counties, such as Franklin, Henry, Patrick and Bedford (except on national forest lands), for example, already have either-sex days throughout the late muzzleloading season. Many counties, especially those west of the Blue Ridge, have six either-sex days - the last six of the season. Note: Some west-of-the-Blue-Ridge counties only have one either-sex day - the final day of the season. Counties such as Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell and Washington have typically fallen under this category.
For the late muzzleloading season, no changes are scheduled. The season is tentatively slated to begin on Dec. 11. For most counties west of the Blue Ridge, doe days are tentatively slated to run from Dec. 27 to Jan, 1. Again, some east-of-the-Blue-Ridge counties offer either-sex days throughout the season. Consult the VDGIF's Web site for complete information: www. dgif.state.va.us.
Usually, since my emphasis is totally on taking a doe at this time, what I do is hunt in counties east of the Blue Ridge the opening weeks of the late season and then hunt west of the Blue Ridge during the six antlerless days. The goal is to always be afield in a county where does are legal game. This is a time when any hunter who takes a mature doe has reason to be quite proud. Holding out for a buck, especially a mature one, is a great way to not fill a tag.
Since killing a doe will be the objective of many, if not the overwhelming majority of, sportsmen afield now, the best hunting will likely be on private land. As much as I enjoy being afield in the George W
ashington and Jefferson National Forest, deer numbers on this public land cannot match those on nearby private land. The national forest, specifically its backcountry, remains an outstanding destination for trophy bucks. But trophy bucks are at a premium during the late season, wherever one ventures forth.
Of course, that is not to say that public land is not worth hunting during the late season. For example, last year, after a succession of poor morning hunts, a friend and I decided to spend our morning trout fishing and then hunt on private land in Botetourt County that evening.
We journeyed to the upper Maury River to trout fish and stopped to do so where the Maury forms one of the boundaries of the Goshen-Little North Mountain WMA. There, a hunter had just dragged out a whitetail from this WMA. And several years ago while afield on the Big Survey WMA near Wytheville, one of the members of my party, Jesse Hall of Troutville, was able to tag a deer. And I met a father-and-son team from Wytheville dragging out a whitetail.
Western WMAs such as Clinch Mountain, Gathright, Havens and Highland, just to name a few, all have the potential to produce a buck or a doe. As is true anywhere in the Commonwealth during any season, the individual who has conducted pre-season scouting and has determined current travel routes, bedding areas, and food preferences is the person most likely to be successful - regardless of whether he is afield on public or private land.
Knox emphasizes that for the deer seasons as a whole, there will be two new antlerless tags on all hunters' licenses, thus raising the season bag limit. In effect, continues the biologist, the VDGIF is giving every hunter in the state his or her first set of bonus tags free. For the convenience of hunters, there will also be a telephone checking system this autumn for deer. The number is (866) GOTGAME.
The statistics compiled by the VDGIF obviously indicate that deer harvests are low during the late muzzleloader season. But though the kill tally may be low, the pleasure quotient can be quite high during this period. If you have not participated in the late muzzleloader season in the past, consider going afield this year and taking up the challenge of smoking a wintertime whitetail.
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