Here's a region-by-region look at West Virginia's top-rated bowhunting counties. One of these great picks is bound to be near you.
Photo by Curt Helmick
During the 2004 archery season, West Virginia stick-and-stringers harvested 26,540 whitetails, which was 11 percent below the 2003 tally of 30,243. And this number is 10 percent below the five-year average of 33,370. Is the state's deer herd in trouble? Is there cause for concern or even alarm? Quite the contrary, maintains West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist Scott Warner.
Warner and the DNR believe that the state is making good progress in reducing deer numbers to more manageable levels. And in many areas of the Mountain State, this is a very good thing for the deer herd and wildlife habitat, as well as property owners and motorists. In many Southeastern and Northeastern states, deer populations have exploded out of control and the result has been herds that are suffering from small body weights and that are more prone to disease.
Another negative result has been more damage to farmers' crops and landowners' vegetable and flower gardens, as well as an increase in traffic accidents involving deer. Simply stated, ever-increasing deer harvests are not good for the resource. The deer herd is healthier if it is at or slightly below the carrying capacity of the land -- instead of being above the carrying capacity. A positive result of there being fewer deer is that bucks will have more of an opportunity to grow to larger weights and sport more impressive antlers.
Not all counties need to have their deer numbers reduced, of course, especially some of those in southern West Virginia. But, generally, the bow harvest being down was not a surprise and not a bad thing for the state's archers.
Across the state, the top 10 counties were: Preston (1,106), Nicholas (898), Randolph (894), Mason (776), Greenbrier (765), Kanawha (733), Monongalia (726), McDowell (681), Mercer (671) and Fayette (645). All figures above are tentative, as the final harvest figures were not available at press time. Here's a region-by-region look at the top counties.
The Northern Panhandle
Last Oct. 22, I made a 5 1/2-hour drive through southern West Virginia, past Charleston, and on into the Northern Panhandle and Marshall County. The reason why was so that I could turkey hunt in Marshall on Saturday and bowhunt for deer on Sunday, as it is still one of the few counties that offer Sunday hunting.
Unfortunately, on Sunday morning, I awoke to rain and heavy fog. I went home without ever venturing forth to a tree stand. I didn't want to take the risk of wounding a whitetail and losing the trail in the rain. Now the question arises why I would drive such a long way for the chance to hunt deer in Marshall County, which only accounted for 499 bow-killed whitetails last year, compared to the 1,106 deer bagged in Preston County.
The reason is that although a county may lead its district in bow harvest, as was the case with Preston -- and even the state (as was also the case with Preston) -- that does not make it necessarily the leading county in the state as a bowhunting destination. Biologist Chris Ryan told me that such is definitely the case in West Virginia, as the largest counties in acreage almost invariably lead their districts in deer harvest -- regardless of the number of deer present.
Richard Hall, supervisor game management unit for the DNR, told me that there are counties in each district that "produce a significant number of deer and still need their herds to be reduced to bring them in line with the Buck Harvest Objective (BHO) listed in our five-year Whitetail Deer Operational Plan."
In District I, Hall lists Brooke, Hancock, Ohio, Marion, Marshall, Monongalia, Taylor and Wetzel counties as falling under the category of having a lot of deer and thus being prime destinations for bowhunters this October. Interestingly, the leading county -- Preston -- was not in that category.
Nevertheless, Preston is still a very viable destination this autumn. This District I area features numerous farms, mixed wood lots, pastures and a smattering of orchards and regenerating forests. Hall also recommends Coopers Rock State Forest (12,698 acres) as a quality public land in Preston County. Coopers Rock contains heavily forested, mountainous terrain with some stream bottomland and mountainside outcroppings. The state forest is situated 10 miles east of Morgantown off Interstate 68.
The Eastern Panhandle
In District II, Grant County led the way with 478 whitetails arrowed. However, this eastern region was not close to being in the top 10 in deer harvest, nor did Hall give it as one of the places that sports large numbers of whitetails. He lists Jefferson as a county that contains large numbers of whitetails and Hardy, Hampshire and Pendleton as being at the BHO counties that also produce a lot of deer.
But once again, the leading county still does offer some quality deer hunting. Grant County, after all, contains the South Branch of the Potomac and a number of tributary streams. Quite a few farms lie along those streams and the South Branch, as do a goodly number of fields. Deer can be quite numerous in both areas. Hall did not list any Grant County public land as qualifying for having too many deer.
An option for those who are locked out of private land is the Potomac Wildlife Management Area (WMA) at 139,786 acres in Grant, Randolph, Pendleton and Tucker counties. This unit of the Monongahela National Forest is not known for its large deer herd, as it offers very steep elevations (up to 4,862 feet) and large expanses of unbroken forests -- conditions often not suitable for growing impressive numbers of deer. Still, the Potomac WMA is a marvelous destination for those archers who like to escape the crowds and pursue big bucks in the hinterlands.
Central West Virginia
As it always does, Randolph led District III in the number of deer harvested with a bow as 894 were taken to check stations. That tally was also good for third in the state. Randolph is reputed to be one of the largest counties in size east of the Mississippi, so it is not surprising that it annually ranks high in the harvest charts. Richard Hall said that Lewis County is the top central West Virginia domain in terms of producing a significant number of deer and that still needs to have its herd reduced. Other counties that produce a lot of deer are Upshur, Randolph, Pocahontas and Braxton.
I have hunted a number of times in Randolph, and just about anywhere you venture afield, you will be hunting on top of, on the side of, or in the shadow of mountains. Relatively few farms exist in the county, as muc
h of the land is in either the Monongahela National Forest or WMA units. Even the farms that do exist are often in rather large parcels of forested acreage.
Precious little bottomland exists in Randolph, and much of that is in the form of trout streams shrouded in rhododendron -- not exactly prime deer habitat. The best chance to arrow a whitetail is to wrangle an invitation to one of the county's few farms -- not always an easy task, although I have been able to on several occasions. And if you are able to do so, try to set up on the edge between forest and any kind of opening, whether it is an orchard, corn field or pasture. Edge-type habitat is so scarce in this county that when you do find some, you are very likely to see some deer.
Hall lists the Potomac WMA, which was covered in the District II discussion, as the best public-land option in Randolph County. This WMA offers a number of public camping places that the U.S. Forest Service maintains. The Potomac WMA can be reached via U.S. routes 33 and 220 and state routes 28, 29 and 41.
Southern West Virginia
With a bow harvest of 765, Greenbrier easily led the way in District IV, as has traditionally been the case. Richard Hall reports that all counties in this district recorded harvests below the BHO. However, for archers interested in going to a county or counties that harbor good numbers of whitetails, Hall recommends Greenbrier and adjoining Monroe.
Greenbrier is one of my favorite counties in all of West Virginia to hunt and fish in, as this rather large region sports a variety of habitat. In some parts of Greenbrier, unbroken expanses of forested mountain land sprawl across the horizon -- especially in the eastern reaches. In the western portion, farms are fairly common, as is rich bottomland created by the Greenbrier River and many of its tributaries.
Many of the county's farms have relatively small acreage and typically feature cattle operations with 40 or so acres of pasture. Taking a stand on these pasture edges is a marvelous way for archers to kill a doe in the evenings. Look for heavily used trails that lead down from mountain laurel thickets or similar copses.
Hall did not list any public lands for Greenbrier County, in terms of any of them producing a lot of whitetails. Large chunks of the Monongahela National Forest exist in the eastern portion of the county, but none of the WMAs there are known for their high deer numbers.
If big bucks are your primary quarry, the backcountry of the Cranberry WMA (158,147 acres) is a real possibility. Greenbrier shares this public land with Nicholas, Webster and Pocahontas counties. This is another upper elevation public land, as it tops out at 4,600-plus feet. Contiguous, mature forests are the norm here. The Cranberry WMA can be reached via state routes 150, 39, 7, 48 and 46.
The Southwest and Northwest
Mason is one of those uncommon counties that produce a lot of deer, but also feature a large deer herd. As such, Mason again led District V with 776 deer harvested by bowhunters. That total was good enough for the county to finish fourth in the state.
Richard Hall said that Mason and Putnam are the District V counties that produce big-time numbers of deer, considering their square miles of habitat. He also reveals that the western part of Kanawha County accounts for a lot of deer, as well.
I would wager that few, if any, counties in West Virginia sport as much high-quality deer habitat as Mason does. This District V area is part of the Ohio River drainage and as such contains many miles of rich bottomland. Farms are fairly common in this largely rural county, and where farms don't exist, cattle growing operations dot the landscape. In short, Mason County is one large checkerboard-like paradise of diversified deer habitat.
August is perhaps the best month to cruise the back roads of Mason and visit the farming and cattle-rearing concerns. Offer to help out around the property and promise to be a good sportsman and you might just gain access for the bow season. A corn-fed doe can produce some mighty fine venison.
Just as appealing as the private land option is in Mason County is the fact that this county contains some very impressive public land where deer numbers are high. Indeed, Hall lists two Mason County public lands as being high quality: McClintic WMA (3,655 acres) and Chief Cornstalk WMA (11,772 acres).
The McClintic WMA is well known around the state as boasting the greatest variety of habitat for any of the state's public lands. Archers have the pleasure of positioning a stand near farmlands, brushy fields, wetlands and mixed hardwoods. Sometimes these habitat forms border each other, and when they do, the bowhunting can be phenomenal.
Rustic campsites are available for a small fee, and the community of Point Pleasant is only eight miles away. Access is via state Route 62.
Chief Cornstalk does not offer the habitat diversity that McClintic does; nevertheless, the former WMA features gently rolling to fairly steep hillsides and about 15 percent of the acreage is open. Hardwood forests dominate the rest of the WMA. For a fee, rustic tent or small camping sites are available.
The North-Central Counties
Last year, Jackson County led the way in District VI, as this north-central domain accounted for 626 whitetails. Jackson County is a bow- hunter's paradise for sure, but it is not an exceptional place to hunt in District VI as Richard Hall emphasizes.
"All of the counties in District VI are above the Buck Harvest Objective and produce a lot of deer," he said.
Obviously, bowhunters cannot go wrong if they visit this region of the state, as Hall notes, the whole district sports impressive deer numbers. Jackson is typical of the counties in the region, as pastures, farmlands, small timber cuts and agricultural concerns dominate the countryside. Several times in recent years I have been afield in Jackson and never viewed fewer than a half dozen to a dozen deer on any outing. And one of my accompanying buddies observed even more whitetails than I did.
Hall offers the Hughes River WMA as a quality public land for District VI, but this area lies in Ritchie and Wirt counties. For Jackson County, perhaps the best bet is Frozen Camp WMA (2,735 acres). The terrain at Frozen Camp is typical of the habitat in the region. Expect to encounter hilly, wooded slopes, open bottomland along small streams, and the occasional mountaintop. However, the mountains in the WMA are much less imposing -- and less challenging to ascend -- than the mountains across most of the rest of the state. Camping is not permitted on site. State routes 28 and 33 offer access.
The bow season dates were not set at press time, but Hall anticipates that the opener will come, as tradition dictates, on the Saturday closest to Oct. 15. As fate would have it, Oct. 15 this year is a Saturday. The season is expected to close on Dec. 31, another Saturday. He also guesses that some of the counties may ha
ve reduced bag limits. Be sure to check the hunting regulations booklet for complete information.
Last year, my wife and I drove home from Marshall County in the rain and fog, and I forlornly watched deer feeding out in the fields in the morning mist. I kept mumbling to myself how the weather forecasters had played a cruel joke on me, which resulted in an 11-hour round-trip drive for a bowhunt that never took place. Still, if I get the opportunity I wouldn't mind making that entire trip to experience the fabulous bowhunting that exists in the Northern Panhandle. For that matter, some great bowhunting will exist everywhere around the state in October, and chances are that sportsmen won't have to travel far to experience it.