West Virginia's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

West Virginia's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Deer can be found in every corner of the Mountain State, but some areas produce far more whitetails than others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a deer this fall.

Decades of experience have taught West Virginia's deer hunters a valuable lesson: bagging a whitetail isn't especially difficult in the Mountain State, provided, of course, you aren't terribly picky about the animal's antler or body size.

West Virginia's hills and hollows consistently yield more than 150,000 deer a year to sportsmen. Seasons begin in mid-September and conclude on the last day of December. Opportunities abound. But the question is where to hunt.

Should hunters focus on the rolling farmlands near the Ohio River, where deer populations are most heavily concentrated? Should they head for the deep woods of the Monongahela National Forest? Or should they challenge the steep-sided hills of the state's southern coalfields, where bucks grow huge, but firearms aren't allowed?

The answer, obviously, is "all the above," because legions of hunters show up in each of those areas.

"There was a time when people had to travel long distances to hunt," said Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. "In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the deer in the state were found in the mountain highlands. Now deer are everywhere; most of our resident sportsmen and sportswomen can find good hunting within a few miles of their homes."

Hunters generally fall into one of two categories: those who want to put venison in the freezer, and those who want to hang trophy antlers on the living-room wall. Here we'll concentrate on where hunters have the best chance of bagging a whitetail, period. Next month we'll deal with where to find big bucks.

Forecasting this year's season has been a little more difficult than usual. Even Johansen, who has reams of information and statistics at his disposal, said environmental aftershocks from the fall of 2009 could shake up the 2010 season -- at least in certain areas.

"We had a severe mast shortage last fall," he explained. "That had the potential to affect deer herds in two ways -- in winter-killed animals, or in animals that wouldn't produce as many fawns as usual."

Based on field reports from WVDNR biologists, some winterkill did occur.

"Most of it appears to have been in the high mountains where we had heavy snow cover for a long period of time. But even those losses couldn't be characterized as 'major,'" Johansen said.

"The jury is still out on whether the mast failure affected reproductive success. We know that deer went into the winter in poorer condition than usual, so it's reasonable to expect them to come out of the winter in even worse shape. We anticipate some effect on reproduction, but we're not expecting anything severe."

All factors considered, Johansen said it's reasonable to assume that counties that yielded a lot of deer last fall probably will produce similar numbers this year. That's good, because the counties' showings in last year's harvest statistics go a long way toward determining how they stack up in the pre-season top 10 rankings.

The list takes three factors into account -- the number of deer killed in each county during the bow, buck, antlerless and muzzleloader seasons; the average number of deer killed in each county per square mile of habitat; and the amount of public hunting land present in each county.

Why don't we just base the forecast on the number of deer killed? Because a county's size can make it look far better than it is. Randolph, Pocahontas, Greenbrier and other large counties tend to yield a lot of deer, but aren't necessarily the best places to hunt. Last year, for example, Greenbrier and Randolph counties ranked No. 11 and 12 in total harvest with 4,193 and 4,012 deer respectively. But those deer were spread out over Greenbrier's 986 square miles of habitat and Randolph's 1,015. As a result, Greenbrier's average of just 4.25 deer per square mile fell far behind the statewide average of 6.78. Randolph's average of 3.95 was even worse.

So we should base the rankings solely on average kill per square mile, right? Not necessarily. Small counties tend to skew those statistics just as badly as big counties skew the total-harvest stats. Hancock County, for example, led the state with a whopping 23.34 whitetails per square mile in 2009. But that average was based on just 1,424 deer -- 1/3 as many as in Greenbrier or Randolph. It was also less than 1/4 as many as leaders Preston and Jackson.

To be considered for the top 10, then, counties must have at least 225 square miles of habitat. All counties of at least that size receive rankings, highest to lowest, in both total harvest and kill per square mile. Those rankings are then averaged.

A county that ranked eighth in total harvest and fourth in kill per square mile would receive a ranking score of six points. In this system, like in golf, a low score is better.

Counties with lots of public hunting land also receive bonus deductions to elevate their rankings. Counties with little or no land open to the general public get penalized by having points added to their averages. Counties with 5000 or more acres of public land get a -2; it's a -1 for 1,000 to 5,000 acres; 0 for 500 to 1,000 acres; +1 for 50 to 500 acres; and +2 for no public land at all.

Based on WVDNR harvest data, published in the agency's annual Big Game Bulletin, here are this year's Top 10 best-bet counties.

No. 1
It's hard to imagine a more fitting No. 1 than Lewis County. Hunters there killed 5,875 whitetails in 2009, the state's third-highest total. Lewis has a herd density of 15.42 deer per square mile ranked fourth among the 55 counties.

Located just north of the state's geographic center, the county is easily reached via Interstate 79 and U.S. Highway 33. Two large and popular public hunting areas -- the 18,289-acre Stonewall Jackson Lake Wildlife Management Area and the 2,985-acre Stonecoal Lake WMA -- are located just minutes away from those highways.

Lewis consistently maintains a higher whitetail population than WVDNR officials would prefer, so the county's antlerless-deer bag limits are as generous as current regulations allow. Not surprisingly, hunters kill more does within the county's borders than bucks. Last year,

Lewis yielded 6.78 deer per square mile during the antlerless season, 5.85 during the buck season, 1.60 during the archery season and 1.19 during the muzzleloader season.

No. 2
Jackson County is located along the Ohio River in the western part of the state and occupies the runner-up spot on this year's best-bet list. Jackson's hunters bagged an amazing 6,187 deer last year, the state's second-highest total. The county averages 13.69 whitetails per square mile ranked sixth.

What's more, the county's buck hunting and antlerless-deer hunting were almost perfectly balanced. Sportsmen averaged 5.54 bucks per square mile and 5.55 antlerless deer. Bowhunters also fared well. They bagged 1.76 whitetails per square mile, the state's seventh-highest archery average.

The 2,587-acre Frozen Camp WMA, located off U.S. 33 near Marshall, is Jackson's largest public hunting tract. Sportsmen willing to test their stamina on hillier terrain could opt for the 1,696-acre Woodrum Lake WMA, a few miles off I-77 near the county's southern tip. Two other WMAs, Rollins Lake and Turkey Run Lake, are too small to hunt.

No. 3
Always a perennial contender for the top spot, Mason County didn't disappoint in 2009, either. Hunters there killed 5,389 whitetails, the state's fourth-highest total. Mason's average of 13.24 deer per square mile ranked eighth.

Though not an overly large county, Mason contains two of the more productive public-hunting tracts in the West Virginia system. Those are the 11,772-acre Chief Cornstalk WMA near Southside, and the 3,655-acre McClintic WMA near Point Pleasant.

McClintic has been particularly popular in recent years because WVDNR officials manage it with trophy-buck production in mind. Hunters aren't allowed to shoot at bucks until they have at least 14-inch antler spreads. Hunting pressure is high, but the payoff can be too.

Bowhunters appear to hold Mason in particularly high regard. The county's average or 1.91 bow-killed bucks per square mile ranked fourth among counties of reasonable size.

No. 4
Wood County makes the list of likely hotspots despite a conspicuous lack of public hunting opportunities. Truth be told, Wood's consistent ability to produce deer makes it impossible to ignore.

The county's hunters ranked No. 5 in overall harvest last season with a total of 4,999 whitetails. Wood's productivity average of 16.18 per square mile ranked third, behind only the tiny counties of Hancock and Brooke. Among counties of size, Wood's average topped the list.

A portion of the 1,987-acre Sand Hill WMA, located off U.S. 50 near Volcano, is the only public land in the county. That said, access to private land couldn't be all that hard to obtain. Year in and year out, hunters kill a lot of deer in Wood County, and they do almost all of their hunting on private property.

A lot of those hunters apparently like to bowhunt. Wood's average of 2.45 bow-killed deer per square mile led the state in 2009.

No. 5
Hunters who prefer big mountains and rugged country might want to consider a trip to Preston County. Of all the truly large counties in the state, Preston is arguably the best deer producer.

Check out Preston's 2009 statistics. It was first in total harvest with 6,206 and No. 18 in productivity at 10.14 deer per square mile. Don't be fooled by that average, either. Counties with lots of surface area are seldom productive, and Preston has a whopping 612 square miles of whitetail habitat. If those numbers weren't enough, consider that the county's bowhunters averaged 1.98 deer per square mile -- the state's third-best archery productivity ratio.

Public-land hunters can find plenty of room to operate in Preston County. Sizable chunks of the 12,713-acre Coopers Rock State Forest and the 3,092-acre Snake Hill WMA lie within the county's borders, as does all of the 1,162-acre Briery Mountain WMA.

No. 6
Preston's neighbor to the west, Monongalia County, occupies No. 6 on this year's best-bet roster. Monongalia's sportsmen bagged 3,999 whitetails in 2009, West Virginia's placing it at No. 13 statewide. The county's average of 12.82 deer per square mile ranked ninth.

Though Monongalia has only half as much deer habitat as Preston, it actually contains more public land. Most of the aforementioned Coopers Rock SF and the Snake Hill WMA properties lie on Monongalia turf. So do the 1,036-acre Little Indian Creek WMA and the 766-acre Pedlar WMA.Bowhunting is particularly popular in Monongalia County, perhaps because students at West Virginia University find it far easier to store hunting bows in their dorm rooms instead of firearms. Monongalia's average of 2.20 bow-killed whitetails per square mile ranked second last season.

No. 7
Ritchie County has been a steady presence -- seldom cracking the top five, but seldom slipping below the No. 10 spot.

Ritchie's hunters killed 4,853 deer in 2009, the state's sixth-best total. The county's average of 11.05 whitetails per square mile ranked No. 16. Like many of the state's western counties, Ritchie tends to yield more antlerless deer than antlered bucks. Last year hunters averaged 4.71 antlerless deer and 4.58 bucks per square mile. Bowhunters added 1.11 deer per square mile, and muzzleloader enthusiasts accounted for the remaining 0.66.

Ritchie's portion of the 10,000-acre Hughes River WMA is the county's largest public-hunting tract, followed by the 2,300-acre Ritchie Mines WMA. A chunk of the Sand Hill WMA, shared with Wood County, also extends within Ritchie's borders.

No. 8
Next in the rankings comes Harrison County, another with plenty of deer and precious little public hunting. The 975-acre Center Branch WMA near Stonewood is the only game in town for hunters who lack access to Harrison's whitetail-rich private tracts.

Sportsmen bagged 4,509 whitetails on Harrison's private and public lands in 2009, the state's to place 9th statewide. The county's productivity average of 11.56 deer per square mile ranked 14th.

No. 9
The ninth best bet on this year's list is Wirt County. Its presence is no huge surprise, since deer-rich Jackson, Wood and Ritchie counties form a semicircle around its borders.

Wirt's hunters ranked just No. 23 in overall harvest with 3,120 deer in 2009, but finished seventh in the size of its herd by averaging 13.45 whitetails per square mile.

There's only one public hunting are

a in Wirt County, but it's a dandy. Roughly 6,000 acres of the 10,000-acre Hughes River WMA lie within its borders.

No. 10
Braxton County might be the last of the top 10 nominees, but it's by no means the least because it contains more than 30,000 acres of public hunting land.

Not surprisingly, Braxton attracts a lot of deer hunters. Also not surprisingly, they kill a lot of deer. Braxton sportsmen bagged 4,541 whitetails, the state's eighth best in 2009. The county's herd average of 9.10 deer per square mile ranked No. 25.

The sprawling 18,225 Elk River WMA near Sutton is Braxton's largest public tract. The 12,759-acre Burnsville WMA also provides plenty of room to hunt, and it's also one of six WMAs managed for trophy whitetails. The 14-inch minimum-spread limit is in effect at Burnsville.

Keep in mind that these counties are just the highlights. Good whitetail hunting can be found in every corner of the state. Last fall's mast failure threw a wild card into the game, but WVDNR officials said the opportunities remain rich enough that any sportsman should be able to score some venison.

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