Trophy Deer On West Virginia's Public Lands
September 29, 2010
Four wildlife management areas and one state forest have been set aside as trophy areas for deer. Will they produce the desired results?
Photo RON SINFELT
Over the past decade, bowhunters here in the Mountain State who concentrate their efforts on trophy bucks have focused on the four southern counties of Boone, Mingo, McDowell and Wyoming. After all, these four counties have been closed to gun hunting for a number of years now. And numerous trophy bucks have come from this area over the past 20 seasons.
In addition, there have been a respectable number of wallhangers that have been taken from many of the other surrounding counties that border these four areas. Simply put, this region of the Mountain State is pretty tough to beat if you are an avid bowhunter.
If you are a trophy gun hunter, chances are you'll head for one of the more remote areas in the state, such as places in Randolph, Webster or Pendleton counties. You might even head south to one of those counties in the southern coalfields region where gun hunting is permitted.
PUBLIC LAND OPTIONS
Now there is another option that is open to you. There are four wildlife management areas (WMA) and one state forest where they have implemented a 14-inch or wider antler spread restriction (ear tip to ear tip), and also instituted an annual bag limit of one antlered deer for all seasons combined. These areas were first opened in 2006, so this quality deer management approach is still in its developmental stages. (Continued)
The four WMAs include: Beech Fork (7,531 acres), Bluestone Lake (18,019 acres), Burnsville Lake (12,579 acres) and McClintic (3,655 acres). The state forest is Coopers Rock (12,713 acres). Combined, these five areas take in almost 55,000 acres of public land where the focus is to produce better than average bucks. Let's face it, if you are an avid whitetail hunter, a rack with a spread of 15 to 18 inches is a pretty decent buck and would qualify as a "trophy" in most parts of the Appalachian Region.
COOPERS ROCK STATE FOREST
Coopers Rock State Forest is an interesting area, as a decent chunk of it borders the Cheat River Canyon. It is billy-goat steep with huge rock outcroppings breaking off the precipice of the ridge in toward the river. While Coopers Rock is close to Morgantown, access is somewhat limited.
Given these parameters, this forest has been occasionally producing some nice bucks for the past 30 years. The problem here has been getting a big buck out once you have killed and tagged the deer. A few enterprising hunters I know will have a person drop them off on top of a ridge, then if they do kill a buck, they drag the deer down off the river face where someone comes upriver to an established rendezvous point to pick them up.
A few other folks I know will hide wheeled buck totes. So, if they do have a successful hunt, they have an aid to rely upon in assisting them with their efforts in getting the animal back to their vehicle. This can be fairly rough country in areas. If you plan on getting back from the road more than a mile or so, make certain you take the necessary precaution in informing someone of the general area you plan to focus your efforts on.
Having hunted this area a number of times over the past 35 years, the genetics of the deer in this area and just across the river is good. I have seen several bucks killed in the 130- to 145-inch size class. By going to this minimum spread requirement, a few more of these bucks should now make it to the prime rack growing age spectrum of 3 to 6 years old.
Gary Foster, a District 1 biologist, said that even though last year was just the second season since implementing the 14-inch minimum requirement, they are already seeing some benefits. Foster recently mentioned that a number of 8- and 10-point bucks with excellent racks were checked in this past season.
He said hunting participation in the area was up among bowhunters and down a little with the gun hunters. Foster said the Division of Natural Resources (DNR) is trying to get populations down a little from the present 35 to 40 deer per square mile. If the DNR succeeds, the overall quality of bucks should continue to improve. In addition, the state is trying to implement some timber management in the form of a few small timber sales on this segment of the forest, which has had little cutting on it for the past 30 to 40 years. This should help provide some early successional stage cover, which is critical for a healthy deer herd.
On the other end of the topography spectrum from Coopers Rock State Forest is McClintic WMA. This WMA encompasses 3,655 acres, with 600 acres in farmland, 400 acres in brushy areas and 1,775 acres in mixed hardwood forests with a terrain that is just slightly rolling. McClintic is located five miles north of Point Pleasant or eight miles south of Mason, just off state Route 62 via Fairgrounds Road.
This WMA also can produce some fairly decent bucks. Not too surprisingly, bowhunters have found this area to be much to their liking. Access to this WMA is good as well.
Jeff Harnsbarger, an assistant wildlife biologist for District 5, said that the program has been fairly well received by the folks in his region, but that in order to provide some top quality wildlife habitat for deer and other edge species, there would have to be some active timber management in the form of some timber cutting on this WMA.
He added that the DNR was trying to get some timber cuts implemented on this WMA to provide some higher quality protective cover and edge-type areas that deer prefer. Harnsbarger mentioned that National Forest coordinator and staff forester Terry Jones was trying to get a few timber harvests started here for that very reason; however, the general public had been lukewarm to these suggestions. Not too surprisingly, most of the biologists I interviewed all wanted to see some active timber management occur on their areas, as much of the acreage on these areas is older hardwood stands with a minimal amount of acreage in early successional stage stands that quality deer habitat has to have.
BLUESTONE LAKE WMA
Another area that is quite large and diverse is Bluestone Lake WMA, which takes in 18,019 acres and is located a little over a mile south of Hinton, just off state Route (SR) 20. This is a region that has numerous steep little finger ridges intermingled with narrow strips of flat bottomland. Much of this area is ridge and valley in nature.
The best way to access this WMA is off county Route 14 coming south out of the village of Bellepoint off SR 3, approximately two miles south of Hinton. The lake runs all the way south to the Summers and Monroe county lines just south of Shanklins Ferry. The are
a is made up of mostly mature oak/hickory forests with occasional small patches of Virginia pine.
District 4 wildlife biologist Larry Berry said they were being pretty active with their habitat improvement program and had some unique work in progress at Bluestone. They have been doing some small prescribed burns in their bottomland sections, and have been actively thinning some areas trying to improve oak mast production. There is even one ongoing 67-acre timber sale, complete with some opening of border areas with a bulldozer (over 100 acres), in addition to planting 60 to 70 acres of bottomland in corn, winter wheat, cowpeas and buckwheat.
Biologist Berry also stressed that they had been trying to increase the number of permanent clover patches the past few years, in addition to planting a number of warm-season fields. He went on to say that Bluestone has a history of high deer densities (45 to 50 deer per square mile of area), but that the DNR was being fairly aggressive in trying to get the populations down to a more manageable density. This goes hand in hand with quality deer management.
He is hopeful that the first stages of this management approach will pay dividends over the next two or three seasons. Berry also mentioned that the DNR has received excellent cooperation from the Corps of Engineers, which actually owns the property. The DNR's Wildlife Resources section is responsible for the wildlife management on this WMA. It is interesting to note that the area is seeing a decent influx of hunters from Raleigh, McDowell, Fayette, Wyoming and Mercer counties.
BURNSVILLE LAKE WMA
If per chance you are looking for a potential trophy in the middle of the state, then the Burnsville WMA should provide a decent opportunity for hunters who live in this area. Burnsville Lake WMA encompasses 12,579 acres with a mixture of old fields and rolling, steep, hardwood ridges. The WMA can be accessed off Interstate 79. There are 264 tent/ trailer sites at nearby Bulltown, along with six primitive sites to choose from.
District 3 biologist Ray Knotts recently mentioned that they were making progress with the antler restrictions, but that it would take another season or two before they could make a critical assessment of how well the trophy management approach was working.
In 2006, the first year they had the trophy restriction in effect, there were two bucks checked in. Knotts mentioned that last season they had 17 bucks checked in with most of them being 8- and 9-point racks in the 14- to 16-inch width range. As with the other areas, bowhunters seem have to have responded really well to the change.
Knotts also said that muzzleloader hunters, for whatever reason, seem to flock to this WMA. He went on to add that he wouldn't expect the numbers of trophy bucks to increase too much numbers wise, but he is hoping that the overall quality of the WMA's bucks will continue to improve.
While elevation changes are not great at Burnsville Lake WMA, there are many small finger ridges running off primary spine ridges. The WMA also has a fair amount of steep terrain, although the overall elevation changes might only be 500 to 800 feet. If things haven't changed too dramatically here, the genetics of the deer in this area can be fairly good.
Most of this WMA is ridge and valley terrain, which can be very steep. Mixed oak/hickory hardwood forests dominate much of this region. There is plenty of land here and I would expect that given a few seasons, this WMA will start producing some nicer bucks.
There are 330 primitive campsites scattered out among five different camping areas on the lake. So, if you like to tent camp or have a small camper, this area lends itself extremely well to those folks of this persuasion. The lake is 1,920 acres and if the hunting is off a little or you tag a nice buck, the lake can provide some pretty awesome fishing for largemouth, smallmouth and hybrid striped bass.
BEECH FORK LAKE WMA
Last, but certainly not least, is Beech Fork Lake WMA. This WMA is approximately five miles south of Huntington. You can access this WMA off SR 152, which runs south off I-64 (Exit 8) to Lavalette or Dickson.
Beech Fork contains 7,531 acres and is made up of mostly oak/hickory hardwoods, with some pine on the poorer, drier sites. This area has historically produced some better than average bucks. Beech Fork Lake WMA is, for the most part, gently rolling with an occasional steep grade. Access is fairly good with county Route 17 passing through the village of Booton on the southern end of the area. County Route 54 circles the northeast corner out of Bowen.
Dave Arbogast, who is the game biologist responsible for Beech Fork WMA, recently said the DNR is making some progress at Beech Fork with the trophy restrictions. Much like his cohorts, he mentioned that the next season or two would provide the true tale of the tape.
These five older-aged deer management areas, as they are called by the DNR, each offer a little something different to the general deer-hunting public. However, all five of these areas hope to provide deer hunters with the opportunity to hunt for a quality buck. And the definition of a trophy buck is any with an outside antler spread of 14 inches or greater (ear tip to ear tip). For most hunters, a buck that attains these criteria would be considered a trophy buck.
Add another season or two under our belts, and the overall outlook for these public-land areas looks pretty good. With these public lands being scattered around our vast state, don't take my word for it, load up your gear and give one or two of these areas your virtual field test this season.