West Virginia's Best-Bet Public-Land Bowhunts

West Virginia's Best-Bet Public-Land Bowhunts

From R.D. Bailey Lake WMA to Bluestone Lake WMA, plus three other choices, here's where you'll discover fine bowhunting for white-tailed deer on public land.

For many West Virginia deer hunters, including this writer, the bow season is our favorite time to pursue whitetails. And it's not a bad time to tag a deer, either. In 2007, the archery brigade downed 26,965 deer, which was about 7 percent above the 2006 harvest of 25,219. In fact, the 2007 harvest also eclipsed the 2005 take of 21,949 and the 2004 take of 26,227. We have to look back to the halcyon years of 2002 and 2003 when there were harvests of 37,144 and 29,790, respectively, before we encounter better harvests.

In any given year, as was true in 2007, the majority of those whitetails were arrowed on private land. Indeed, many state archers, again including this writer, spend a considerable amount of time during the pre-season, especially in August and September, either scouting farms where we currently have permission or seeking to gain access to new private land properties.

But West Virginia sportsmen are also blessed that they can go hunting in a state that contains numerous quality public lands. Let's look at some of the public possibilities for this year, and how they have performed over the past six years.

Bluestone Lake WMA's 18,019 acres are in southern West Virginia's Summers, Mercer and Monroe counties. This WMA is one of my favorite public lands in the Mountain State. On one of my forays to this WMA, I observed one of the biggest bucks I have seen anywhere -- a 10-pointer that walked within 10 feet of me. Unfortunately, I was fall turkey hunting at the time, but the event was still a memorable one.

Brett McMillion, superintendent of Bluestone State Park, which adjoins the WMA, believes the WMA will be a quality destination this October.

"The Bluestone Lake WMA has been a popular place for bowhunters, but I believe it will become incredibly more popular," he said. "We now have a 14-inch minimum outside antler spread requirement, and I look for that regulation to attract even more bowhunters. A few years down the road, after some of these bucks have had a chance to grow, I believe we will start to see bigger bucks. Typically, now, we are seeing some nice bucks checked in."

McMillion is referring to the regulation that requires that all antlered deer taken on the Bluestone, Beech Fork Lake, Burnsville Lake and McClintic WMAs, and Coopers Rock State Forest, must have a minimum outside antler spread of 14 inches (ear tip to ear tip). Annually, for all seasons combined, only one antlered deer can be taken on these five public lands. Additionally, it is illegal to bait or feed wildlife on these areas.

"I think another plus about the Bluestone Lake WMA is that the DNR has done a lot of good habitat work here," continued McMillion. "Food plots have been created and well maintained, a number of openings have been created, and various plantings have taken place. The deer have both a number and variety of food sources. It just seems that the deer population has been good and is becoming better." (Continued)

McMillion added that the topography is as varied as are the food sources. In many places, Bluestone Lake WMA is extremely mountainous with oak-hickory forests characterizing the landscape. Yet, there are also places where rolling hill country exists with many of the aforementioned openings and food plots interspersed.

Some bowhunters gravitate to the hardwood bottomlands, as the New River flows by this District IV WMA, as well. On my visits, I have always observed more deer in the rolling hill section of the WMA, but that may be because most of my hunting efforts have been concentrated there. McMillion said that some 600 to 800 feet above the waterline, the hardwood forests begin, and they are good locales to place portable stands.

I have also noted quite a few deer along the New River. Interestingly, I actually have witnessed whitetails feeding in the New River. There they seem to be consuming curly leaf pondweed that grows near the shoreline in about 3 feet of water. Watching a whitetail duck its head under the water is a fascinating experience to behold. And witnessing a fawn imitate a doe doing so is simply amazing.

The park superintendent said that October is a great time to visit the state park and stay in one of the establishment's 26 cabins or at the campground that offers 32 sites.

"Not many people visit the park then, and the ones who do are often bowhunters," he said. "The cabins are fully equipped and even have satellite TV, making them a nice place to relax at the end of a hunt. There are also places in Hinton to eat out at or buy groceries."

Archers also have the option to stay at any of the campgrounds along the New River, such as those found at Bertha, Shanklins Ferry, Cedar Branch, Bull Falls and Keatley. Lastly, the bow harvest peaked in 2002 when hunters checked in 158 whitetails. From 2003 through 2007, the harvests have been 58, 55, 87, 64 and 67 respectively.

For more information on accommodations and facilities, contact Bluestone State Park at (304) 466-2805 or www.bluestonesp.com; or the Bluestone Lake WMA at (304) 466-3398 or www.bluestonewma.com.

Nathan Hanshaw, assistant superintendent at Twin Falls Resort State Park, maintains that the 17,280-acre R.D. Bailey Lake WMA in Mingo and Wyoming counties is a major destination in southern West Virginia.

"If a bowhunter drives up and down the roads in Mingo and Wyoming counties, he is going to find a lot of posted signs," said Hanshaw, an avid bowhunter himself. "Much of the land that is posted is leased, which often means that only a very few people are allowed to hunt there. Given the lack of private land available, bowhunters are really fortunate to have the R.D. Bailey WMA to go to."

Mingo and Wyoming are two of the four counties in the state that are bowhunting only, with Logan and McDowell counties being the other members of the quartet. Obviously, this makes R.D. Bailey WMA a bowhunting-only public land for whitetails, another reason why it is popular with stick-and-stringers. However, there is another more important reason for its fame.

"R.D. Bailey WMA and McDowell and Wyoming counties are all known for their big bucks," Hanshaw continued. "Personally, one of the nicest bucks I have ever seen was a big 8-pointer that I saw crossing a road next to the WMA one morning at 2 a.m. That buck was an absolute monster, which is really no surprise, for the WMA absolutely has a repu

tation as a place where big bucks live.

"Before going to R.D. Bailey, bowhunters should know that the WMA has very steep, mountainous land. It's just like most of the land in Mingo and Wyoming, which means that the climbing can be very difficult."

As one would expect, oak-hickory forests blanket much of R.D. Bailey, and not much open land exists. The coves are quite narrow and their sides extremely precipitous. Bow harvests from 2002 through 2007 have fluctuated quite a bit with the tallies being 49, 94, 42, 54, 91 and 133, respectively.

Hanshaw related that bowhunters do not have many choices regarding lodging, as the region remains very rural. Twin Falls State Park is not far away as the proverbial crow flies, but the region's roads are so narrow and the going so slow, that the park is some 45 minutes from the public land. Twin Falls is open year 'round and has 14 cottages, 20 lodge rooms, and 50 campsites, all of which are likewise open year 'round. For more information, contact the park at (304) 294-4000 or at www.twinfallsresort.com.

The 18,225-acre Elk River WMA in Braxton County is one of the more centrally located public lands in the state. This District III public land features mature oak-hickory forests, and, as is typical of highland public lands, has numerous hollows, finger ridges, benches and shelves.

Located just 30 minutes from Holly River State Park, the Elk River WMA has long been an important public land resource for central West Virginia bowhunters. Park superintendent Ken McClintic relates that bowhunters will likely enjoy an outing at the WMA.

"The Elk River WMA has a reputation of having a good number of deer as well as some nice bucks," he said. "Although the WMA has a lot of steep sections, it also has a mixture of habitat. The backwaters of Sutton Lake are in the WMA, so there is some bottomland. That bottomland has some openings, too, that draw deer.

"There are also a variety of elevations from the bottomlands to high, steep mountainsides. The Right and Left Forks of the Holly River meet before Sutton Lake, so there is bottomland habitat in that area, too. Some major fields are also along those bottoms. A lot of deer travel down from those ridgetops, through the bottomlands, on their way to reach the river."

After a very solid year in 2002 when bowhunters checked in 58 deer, the Elk River WMA has seen its harvest numbers level off the past few years. From 2003 through 2007, the tallies were 28, 18, 20, 30 and 31, respectively. McClintic stated that the park does not seem to be drawing as many bowhunters as it used to, which may or not mean that hunting traffic is down on the public land.

For more information on Holly River State Park, contact the park at (304) 493-6353 or www.hollyriver.com. The park offers 10 cabins and 88 campsites with electric hookups. The cabins and campsites are open through the last weekend of November. The Elk River WMA proffers 236 tent/trailer sites and 12 primitive ones.

At 11,772 acres, Chief Cornstalk WMA is not as big as the other members of our quintet. However, this WMA, located in Mason County (District V), harbors a good number of whitetails. Potential visiting bowhunters should note that very little open land exists on this public ground, as some 85 percent of it consists of hardwood forests. Cornstalk also contains basically only two types of habitat: moderately steep slopes and rolling hill terrain.

From 2002 through 2007, the bow harvests were 45, 15, 29, 35, 51 and 59, respectively, making the 2007 kill the highest this past decade. Keep in mind that Mason County annually features an excellent bow harvest in the kill per square mile of habitat department. The outer rim of Chief Cornstalk WMA, where it borders private land, is often an excellent place to position a portable.

A few small towns nearby offer some lodging, but the best bet for archers might be to stay on-site. Fifteen primitive campsites are available on the WMA. For more information on Chief Cornstalk, or on any of the public lands in the state, consult the following Web site: www.wvdnr.gov.

One of the best public-land places to bowhunt in District III, or in the state as a whole for that matter, is the 18,289-acre Stonewall Jackson Lake WMA in Lewis County. Like Bluestone Lake WMA, the peak year recently for bowhunters was 2002 when 96 whitetails were checked in. Between 2003 and 2007, the harvests were 57, 63, 64, 41 and 40, respectively, in this central West Virginia public land.

Sam England, superintendent for Stonewall Jackson Lake Resort State Park, said that the WMA should be a prime destination this autumn.

"The WMA obviously has a very good deer population and the 40 deer that bowhunters killed on the WMA last year does not speak to how good the hunting can be," England said. "In fact, we are having a deer reduction hunt this November on the state park land, which adjoins the WMA, before the firearms season. Both archery and gun hunting will be available.

"We simply have too many deer on the state park property, and many of those deer travel back and forth between the park and WMA. The deer have done damage to native flora and simply have to be reduced in number. We could certainly stand to have more bowhunters hunting on the WMA."

The superintendent informed that some of the areas that hunters will be assigned to will be labeled as "stationary sites," meaning that DNR personnel will direct hunters to those spots and that they cannot leave them. At other locations, those sites are labeled "open range," and hunters will be allowed to still-hunt.

England said he anticipates that a number of archers and gun hunters will want to participate in the special hunt. Interested individuals must apply, and a lottery will determine the participants. Although the hunt was planned with the goal of the DNR being to reduce the number of antlerless deer present, England stated that a drawing for buck tags will be held each morning before hunters go afield.

Ten percent of the individuals who show up and whose names are drawn that morning will be allowed to kill a deer of either sex. The superintendent states that to ensure a quality hunt, the DNR will only 40 to 50 hunters on the park per day.

Of course, the bowhunting should be of high quality on the WMA, as well, in October. And there is an interesting way for archers to separate themselves from their peers.

"Some of the highest quality bowhunting on the WMA takes place deep in the backcountry," England continued. "One of the best ways to access those hidden spots is by boat. Bowhunters can rent a boat from the park or use their own johnboats, canoes or other craft to escape the crowds. Very few people are currently taking advantage of boating into the backcountry."


d described the topography of Stonewall Jackson as rolling hills country for the most part. The WMA is no "Pocahontas County, terrain wise," he said; still, some steep real estate exists particularly in a few sections that border the lake. Gas well openings and roads add variety, as do bottomlands along the river; and a number of old farms and openings dot the public land, too.

I have hunted on Stonewall Jackson Lake WMA in October and have been impressed with the habitat variety. Oak-hickory stands also exist and when the red oaks bear, they are a major food source for the whitetails. A prudent tactic is for bowhunters to place a portable stand along the edge where, for example, a red oak grove abuts an opening of some sort.

The park offers 198 lodge rooms, 10 cabins, and 45 campsites. My wife and I have stayed in the rooms and came away favorably impressed with their spaciousness and comfortable nature. A restaurant is also on-site. For more information on accommodations and facilities, contact Stonewall Jackson Lake Resort State Park at (888) 278-8150 or online at www.stonewallresort.com.

Many times, private land will be the primary destination choice of Mountain State bowhunters and that's understandable. But don't forget the fact that the state also boasts a number of quality WMAs. The five WMAs highlighted here are some of our state's best!

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