Trophy deer can show up anyplace in the Mountain State, but some areas are in a class by themselves for producing big whitetails. Here, West Virginia Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at what parts of the state are best for a trophy buck.
Perhaps the most notable thing about the highest-scoring whitetail taken last year in West Virginia is that the buck came from Wood County, an area of the state not known for producing big-antlered animals. But a 23-point buck is notable regardless where it comes from -- especially when it ranks as one of the largest bow-killed non-typicals ever taken in a state.
"The standing joke here in Wood County is that we hunt for 'West Virginia 11-pointers' -- you know, spike bucks," says Howard Powell III, laughing and making a set of spike antlers from the index fingers of his right and left hands.
Imagine Powell's surprise, then, when he sank an arrow into the highest-scoring buck he'd ever seen. The buck, which sported a 155-class typical 5-by-5 frame with 40 inches of odd points, ultimately totaled 193 1/8 inches on the Pope and Young Club scoring scale. The buck earned top honors in the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Big Buck Club for 2009, and entered the Mountain State record book as the No 4 non-typical ever taken.
"That buck was a complete surprise," says Gene Thorn, the WVDNR biologist who administers the Big Buck Contest. "It's unusual to have a single Wood County buck qualify for the contest, let alone be the biggest one taken in a given year. Maybe Mr. Powell's buck was one of those big Meigs County, Ohio deer that swam the Ohio River. I don't think those Ohio deer know the boundary very well."
Thorn can afford to poke a little fun at counties where an 8-pointer is a trophy, a 10-pointer a rarity and a 12-pointer a gift of divine providence. The biologist lives in Wyoming County, one of four bowhunting-only counties that form the heart of West Virginia's big-buck region.
Those four counties -- Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming -- accounted for 46 of the 80 bucks that qualified for entry in last year's Big Buck Contest. In fact, when one considers that Mingo yielded just one of those 46, the other three counties' productivity appears even more remarkable.
Overall, though, West Virginia's big-buck productivity in 2009 differed little from the previous year. A near-complete mast failure threw deer off their usual feeding patterns and had at least some effect on the rut. Hunters got their share of trophy animals despite the conditions, but not as many as WVDNR officials had hoped.
"There were a lot of trophy bucks in the woods, but statistically the number of entries in the Big Buck Contest was equivalent to the 2008 totals," Thorn confirmed. "We got a few more bow kills and not quite as many gun and crossbow kills, but the differences weren't significant."
Howard Powell downed the largest buck recorded in West Virginia last season. Photo by John McCoy.
Thorn places part of the blame on himself. Ordinarily he scores a substantial number of Wyoming County whitetails, but last year health problems prevented him from doing so until late in the January-February "scoring season."
"I think if I'd been scoring as much as usual, a few more Wyoming County hunters would have had a chance to get their bucks measured. Some of those bucks would have qualified for entry in the contest, and Wyoming's total would have been a little higher," he said.
Without Thorn's input, McDowell County finished atop the state's big-buck standings. McDowell's archers bagged 20 whitetails that scored at least 125 typical P&Y points.
The largest among them was Tivis Underwood's buck, which measured 154 4/8 inches and finished fourth in the Big Buck Contest's bow-killed typical category. Other notable McDowell trophies were Kyle Kelly's 148 7/8, Frank Dalton Jr.'s at 146 1/8 and Jeffery Riffe's at 143 1/8.
At 7,810 acres, Panther State Forest ranks as McDowell's largest tract of public hunting land. Other notable public areas are the 2,165-acre Tug Valley Wildlife Management Area near Welch and the 1,972-acre Anawalt Lake WMA near Anawalt.
The county's reputation as a trophy-producer has had an inevitable effect -- land is posted by hunting clubs and private individuals. Even so, many large tracts owned by mining or timber companies remain essentially open to the public.
Hunters who haven't been to McDowell need to be in pretty good shape before they go there. The county's steep-sided hills aren't for the faint of heart or the weak of limb.
U.S. Highway 52, a twisting two-lane road, serves as the main access artery through the county. Lodging and restaurants can be found in Welch, the county seat.
Another bowhunting-only county, Logan, occupied the runner-up spot in the rankings with 14 Big Buck Club whitetails.
Among those was the state's biggest archery-killed typical of 2009, a 14-point monster taken by Jason Kerns of Shepherdsville, Ky. Kerns' trophy scored 162 3/8. Other high-scoring Logan trophies included Lamanda Norman's at 160 7/8, the state's second-best archery typical; Randall Light's at 157 4/8, ranked fourth; and Brian Adkins' at 151 7/8, ranked eighth.
Like McDowell, Logan has plenty of corporate land that has remained open to the public. The county's only publicly-owned tract, the 6,004-acre Elk Creek WMA near Vernal, has proven quite popular in the two years it's been open. Located near the Wyoming County line, not far from the sprawling R.D. Bailey WMA, it offers just what the county's hunters have come to expect -- rugged terrain and bragging-sized bucks.
Amenities for visiting sportsmen are more abundant in Logan than in some other parts of West Virginia's southern coalfields.
Wyoming County ranked third in last year's listings with 11 Big Buck Contest honorees -- 10 typicals and one non-typical.
Best among the typicals was the No. 7 buck taken by Jerry Hutchinson and scoring 152 2/8 . Mark Cook's was next at ninth and scoring 151 2/8 P&Y, followed by Brad Miller's at 146 6/8, Jarred Sizemore's at 140 3/8 and Mark Lafferty's at 140 2/8. Travis Smith's non-typical finished second in that category at 172 3/8.
The aforementioned R.D. Bailey WMA
is the county's only public hunting area, but at 17,208 acres it offers lots of elbow room. It needs to. Its perpetual ranking as the state's top trophy-producing WMA attracts hordes of hunters.
Land posting is more prevalent in Wyoming County than in neighboring McDowell or Logan, but some corporate landowners still allow free access to their properties.
State Route 10 provides access to the Bailey WMA from the Logan area, and SR 16 provides access from Beckley to the county's eastern area. Mullens, Pineville and Oceana are the county's biggest towns.
Hunters visiting Kanawha County should have no trouble finding places to stay or eat. With 191,000 people, Kanawha is by far the state's most populous county. It also happens to be home two three distinct trophy-producing whitetail hotspots. The northern part of the county near the Jackson County boundary, the eastern part of the county near the Clay and Fayette County borders, and the southeastern part of the county along the Boone County line are those three regions.
Kanawha's hunters bagged six Big Buck Club trophies in 2009, four with firearms and two with archery gear.
One of the firearm kills was the biggest typical taken in the state last year -- a 12-point monster killed by Kenneth Carpenter of Streetsboro, Ohio. The rack scored 163 7/8 B&C. David Thompson's buck came in as No. 3 at 155 B&C. In the eighth and ninth spots, respectively, were Johny Jackson's at 149 4/8 and Jered Meekea's at 148 6/8.
The bow-category racks were a 130 5/8 P&Y typical taken by James Embrey and a 127 4/8 typical killed by Nathanael Messenger.
Kanawha County has two major public hunting tracts. The 9,874-acre Morris Creek WMA near Clendenin is the larger of the two, but some of its land bleeds into neighboring Clay County. The 9,302-acre Kanawha SF, located just south of Charleston, lies entirely within the county. Of the two, Morris Creek is better known for producing big-antlered bucks.
Fifth on the list of Big Buck Contest honorees was Kanawha's neighbor to the north, Jackson County. As recently as the late 1990s trophy whitetails from Jackson were rare. In the last few years, however, the county has produced wall-hangers in ever increasing numbers.
Last year, hunters in Jackson bagged five Big Buck qualifiers. Anthony Boggs downed the No. 12 trophy among gun-killed typicals at 141 6/8. Bow-killed typicals included Dennis Fisher's at 135 3/8, Gary Riggs' at 129 7/8 and Danny Sowards' at 126 3/8.
Interstate 77 provides easy north-south access to Jackson's fertile hunting grounds, while U.S. 33 handles east-west traffic. Amenities can be found in Ripley, the county seat, and the old river town of Ravenswood.
The 2,587-acre Frozen Camp WMA near Marshall ranks as the county's largest public tract, and arguably its best bet for public-land whitetail hunting. Hunters geared for more rugged terrain might want to consider the 1,696-acre Woodrum Lake WMA near Kentuck, a corner of Jackson County known to produce nice bucks.
Two counties -- Boone and Mercer -- tied for sixth place in big-buck production with four apiece.
Among the Boone bucks, Ronnie Belcher's bow-killed non-typical placed third in that category at 170 2/8 P&Y. Dana Crose's bow-killed typical also placed third in its category at 160 5/8. Carl Hamrich III's gun-killed typical came in at 152 1/8 B&C, and Robert Holstein Jr.'s typical scored 147 6/8.
Boone has no "official" public land, but like many of its coalfield counterparts an abundance of its coal-company and timber-company land remains open to public use.
Mercer's Big Buck honorees included bow-killed typicals by Travis Weatherly at 134 5/8, Frankie Belcher at 125 7/8 and Chris Bailey at 125 6/8 P&Y. Also a crossbow-killed typical by Bobby Grose at 131 3/8 made the list.
The 5,300-acre Camp Creek SF is Mercer's largest public hunting tract. The only other option is a tiny corner of the Bluestone WMA that straddles the county's eastern border.
Putnam County holds down the final spot on our list of big-buck best bets. Hunters bagged three contest honorees within its borders last year, including George Barrett's No, 4 gun-killed typical at 153 7/8 B&C and bow-killed typicals by George Legg III and David Davis at 129 5/8 and 126 4/8 P&Y, respectively.
The 7,061-acre Amherst-Plymouth WMA, located off SR 62 near Poca, is the county's only public hunting tract.
Other notable whitetails taken in 2009 include Brandon Bailey's Raleigh County typical taken during the gun season and scoring an even 161 B&C. That buck ranked second in its category. David Cunningham's Mason County typical was also a gun kill that scored 153 1/8 B&C. Finally, Wayne Vandevender's Raleigh County gun kill came in at 152 B&C.
West Virginia also has several large WMAs managed specifically to produce older-aged bucks. Only bucks with antler spreads of at least 14 inches -- roughly the width of a deer's outstretched ears -- are legal game.
The oldest of the antler-restricted tracts, Mason County's 3,655-acre McClintic WMA, has been managed that way since 1999.
"During the first days of the bow season, during the rut and during the first days of the gun season, it's hard to find a spot in the parking lot," said area manager Dave McClung.
Four other tracts had antler restrictions imposed in 2007. They started producing trophy-class whitetails last fall, and could be even better this year -- if the deer in them got enough to eat. All of the special-regulation areas are fairly large tracts. At 18,019-acre, Bluestone WMA is in Summers County. The 12,579-acre Burnsville WMA is in Braxton County. Also, the 7,531-acre Beech Fork WMA in Wayne County and the 12,713-acre Coopers Rock SF in Preston and Monongalia counties have the special regulations.
The 9,482-acre Cal Price SF in Pocahontas County was added to the antler-restriction list in 2009, so it remains a work in progress. Biologists expect it to start producing trophy-class bucks in 2011 or 2012.
Knowing where big-antlered whitetails might show up certainly helps, but the single best way to find a wall-hanger is to spend time in the woods scouting. It's not too late to do that.
On the other hand, sometimes bagging a trophy is as simple as being in the right place at the right time. Remember Howard Morris, the guy who bagged that 23-pointer? He had no idea that buck was there.
Curtis Taylor, the WVDNR's wildlife chief, has a saying that sums it up perfectly.
"Trophy bucks," he said, "are wherever you find them."