West Virginia Deer -- Part 1: Our Top Harvest Counties

When it comes to producing numbers of deer -- and plenty of 'em, these are the counties to trek to this year in our wild and wonderful state. (October 2008)

It's easy to be optimistic about West Virginia's upcoming 2008 deer seasons. Harvest trends are upward, for numbers of whitetails and for antler size. Last year's kill was better than the previous year's, yet not high enough to significantly dent the population. Therefore, barring an unforeseen outbreak of disease or inclement weather, hunters should fare well this autumn.

Perhaps the best way to figure out exactly how well we'll do this season is to look back at how we did last year. The bottom line is easy to decipher: Hunters in each of the four seasons -- buck, antlerless, bow and muzzleloader -- killed more deer than they did the year before.

The buck harvest rose 6 percent. The antlerless deer harvest jumped 11 percent. The bow harvest came in 7 percent higher, and the muzzleloader harvest increased by 8 percent. Overall, the total harvest of 145,937 deer represented a 6 percent gain from the 2006 total of 137,621.

Those numbers pleased Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR).

"The important thing we accomplished with this harvest is that we were able to decrease the deer population in some of the counties where it was overpopulated, and we were able to let the population grow in some of the counties where it was too low," Taylor said. "In addition, more and more counties seemed to settle into levels where the population is right where we want it to be."

To their everlasting credit, DNR officials did a pretty fair job of forecasting what last year's outcome would be. They predicted that harvest numbers would go up a few percent, and for the most part, they were correct. Only the buck harvest failed to live up to expectations. Assistant Wildlife Chief Paul Johansen speculated before the season that the firearms buck kill might top the 70,000 mark. It came in a bit shy at 67,213. The other three seasons' totals met or exceeded expectations, especially when one factors in the adverse effects that weather and disease undoubtedly had on hunter success.

Between August and October 2007, an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), or "blue tongue," spread through whitetail herds in 29 of the Mountain State's 55 counties. Thousands of deer died, and many thousands more were weakened.

Johansen called the outbreak "significant in terms of geographic distribution, because it occurred in so many counties. But because the disease tends to affect deer in isolated pockets, we aren't really sure of its impact on (overall) deer numbers."

If the EHD outbreak weren't enough, foul weather plagued the December antlerless and muzzleloader seasons. Rain and cold might not affect deer very much, but they cause hunters to stay home in droves. DNR officials believe the antlerless and muzzleloader harvests would have come in significantly higher had the weather been more accommodating.

Hunters, naturally enough, would have loved for that to have been the case. However, Chief Taylor said he was happy enough with the results.

"One of the goals of our (deer) management plan is to avoid large swings in the harvest -- a big increase one year, followed by a big decline the next," he said. "We want the harvest to settle into equilibrium, more or less. We want to get to the point where we're harvesting roughly an equal number of does and bucks."

Taylor's point of view might differ from those of hunters who long to revisit the gaudy whitetail harvests of the 1990s. If it does, being at odds with some of his constituents doesn't bother Taylor the slightest bit.

"We're not going back there," he said with a distinct air of finality. "It's not good for the deer, it's not good for the habitat, and it's not good for the hunter. The deer we're killing today are healthier, have larger bodies and bigger antlers than the ones we were killing back then. I don't think hunters want deer that are the size of dogs, or 2 1/2-year-old bucks that have scrawny spike antlers. We're past that now, and I want us to stay past it."

Taylor believes his agency is shaping whitetail numbers in the right direction. In the state's mountainous counties, where heavy harvests and winterkill dramatically reduced herd sizes between 2002 and 2005, deer populations are slowly but steadily rising. In the west-central counties, aggressive antlerless deer regulations are slowly but steadily reducing deer densities.

Where does that leave deer hunters? It leaves them in a pretty comfortable position, actually. Some West Virginia counties still yield mind-boggling numbers of deer. Most produce well enough to keep local hunters happy. Even the counties with the lowest whitetail populations -- Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming -- redeem themselves by producing trophy bucks of prodigious proportions.

For the average sportsman, best-bet counties are those that yield plenty of deer, rank high in whitetails killed per square mile and have reasonably large tracts of public hunting land.

To identify those counties, West Virginia Game & Fish took the official DNR 2007 harvest statistics and did some number crunching of its own. Counties were ranked, first to 55th, in raw harvest and in deer killed per square mile. Those rankings were added together and averaged.

Mason County topped the list by a comfortable margin. It placed second in raw harvest with 5,421 deer taken and fifth in deer per square mile (and first among counties with more than 400 square miles of surface area) with 13.3.

It's no small wonder. Mason's combination of rolling hills, dense forestland and river-bottom farms create a virtual whitetail playground.

Two sizeable and productive public hunting areas contribute heavily to the county's reputation as a top whitetail producer. The 3,655-acre McClintic Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Point Pleasant offers a patchwork of working farmland, overgrown farmland, state-maintained wildlife food plots, brushy undergrowth and mature hardwood forest. Furthermore, McClintic is one of five state-designated "Trophy Deer Management Areas." All bucks taken on the property must have antler spreads of at least 14 inches.

The county's other public tract, the 11,772-acre Chief Cornstalk WMA near Southside, consists mainly of mature hardwoods, overgrown farmsteads and wildlife food plots.

Getting to both WMAs -- and to the county's prime private-land hunting spots, for that matter -- is a cinch. U.S. Route 35 carries traffic to Point Pleasant from the Charleston area, and state Route (SR) 2 brings hunters from Huntington and Parkersburg.

Second on this year's best-bet list is Wood County. Hunters there enjoyed a banner year in 2007, ranking sixth in raw kill with 4,365 and fourth in deer per square mile at 14.1.

Like Mason, Wood intersperses rolling, wooded hills with bottomland farms. About the only thing that keeps Wood from joining Mason at the top of the rankings is a regrettable lack of public-hunting land.

A portion of the 965-acre Sand Hill WMA, which straddles the border with neighboring Ritchie County, keeps Wood from being shut completely out in the public-hunting department.

The county's mostly private status doesn't appear to have affected hunters to any great extent. For the past several seasons, Wood has ranked solidly among the state's top 10 whitetail producers.

An extensive highway network provides easy access to public and private lands alike. Interstate 77 bisects the county from north to south, and U.S. Route 50 is the major east-west artery.

A fixture near the top of the Mountain State's annual list of whitetail producers, Lewis County ties for third in this year's best-bet rankings. Lewis' hunters bagged 4,266 deer in 2007, good for seventh in the raw-harvest statistics. The county's average of 11.2 whitetails per square mile ranked eighth.

Like most top deer counties, Lewis is a mixture of woodlands and farmlands. Rolling hills dominate its topography.

Public land is abundant; the sprawling Stonewall Jackson WMA near Roanoke encompasses 18,289 acres, and a portion of the 2,985-acre Stonecoal WMA lies within the county. Both have been dependable whitetail producers.

Even Stonewall Jackson Lake Resort Park, ordinarily closed to hunters, will host a limited, controlled hunt this year. Participants, identified in advance by a lottery, will be allowed to hunt in portions of the park where deer have become badly overpopulated. Most of the available permits will be for antlerless deer, but a few fortunate hunters will be allowed to take bucks.

Access to Lewis County's deer hunting is easy, thanks to I-79 and U.S. Route 33. The two roads intersect at Weston.

Jackson County is the other third-place finisher in this year's ranking. The county placed a stellar fourth in 2007's raw-harvest standings with 5,037 whitetails. Its average of 11.14 deer per square mile finished 11th.

Like its neighbors, Mason and Wood, Jackson has a varied landscape. Along the Ohio River, it's mostly farmland. Inland, its topography varies from gently rolling hills in the north to leg-burning, lung-busting hills in the south.

Hunters who visit the county can choose between two public areas. The 2,587-acre Frozen Camp WMA, located just off U.S. Route 33 near the Roane County border, incorporates a little bit of bottomland with wooded hills and a few open ridgetops. Two small lakes lie among the hills.

The 1,696-acre Woodrum Lake WMA, off I-77 near Kentuck, surrounds a 240-acre flood-control lake. With oak-hickory and oak-pine timber interspersed with abandoned farms, the tract is a magnet for whitetails. The steep terrain, however, can punish hunters who aren't physically fit.

Hunters who like to hunt in terrain that is even more mountainous might want to venture afield in Monroe County. Monroe ranks fifth on this season's best-bet list by dint of its third-place finish in last year's raw-harvest rankings (5,037 whitetails) and 13th-place finish in deer per square mile (10.81).

The county's eastern margins straddle one of the state's highest ridges, the soaring escarpment known as Peters Mountain. The remainder rolls away toward the west, with features that vary from pastoral meadowlands to densely wooded hillsides.

Though most of its lands are private, Monroe contains two sizable state-run hunting areas and one enormous chunk of federally managed national forest. At 775 and 650 acres, respectively, the Moncove Lake and Andrew Rowan Farm WMAs can handle a fair amount of hunting pressure -- but not nearly as much as the Potts Creek WMA, an 18,526-acre section of the Jefferson National Forest (NF). Moncove and Rowan are, for the most part, oak-hickory forest. Potts Creek is mainly high-altitude oak-pine habitat.

U.S. Route 219 traverses the county from southwest to northeast. Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs, located just a few miles up the road in Greenbrier County, make good jumping-off spots for visiting sportsmen.

Counties with large surface areas have to produce awfully large numbers of deer to place high in the rankings, and Preston County did just that. Preston's hunters bagged a state-best 5,979 whitetails in 2007. The county's average of 9.77 deer per square mile ranked 18th.

Preston's rugged landscape can -- and does -- support enormous numbers of deer. Its soaring ridges and deep, steep-sided watersheds provide wary whitetails the isolation they crave and plague unprepared hunters with the exertion they loathe.

The county's southeastern corner contains a sizable chunk of the 58,978-acre Blackwater WMA. Its mountainous terrain varies among oak-hickory, northern hardwood, spruce-fir and white pine habitats, with 2,743 acres of wildlife openings scattered throughout.

Other public opportunities include about 40 percent of the 12,713-acre Coopers Rock State Forest, a small corner of the 3,092-acre Snake Hill WMA, and all of the 1,162-acre Briery Mountain WMA. Interstate 68 provides easy east-west access from Morgantown or from Oakland, Maryland.

Upshur County occupies the seventh spot on this year's list of best bets. Traditionally a strong whitetail producer, Upshur declined between 2003 and 2005. Now it's coming back.

Hunters killed 3,792 deer within its borders last year, the state's 12th-best total. The county's average of 11.15 whitetails per square mile ranked 10th.

With topography that ranges from rolling to mountainous, Upshur is home to mature forestland, open farmland, overgrown farmland and reclaimed mining land. Deer thrive there.

The county's sole deficiency is a decided lack of public hunting land. Roughly 500 acres of the 2,985-acre Stonecoal WMA lie within its borders. The rest of the county's hunting takes place on private land.

Public access isn't a problem in Monongalia County. Thanks to some recent DNR land acquisitions, Monongalia now boasts no fewer than four sizable public tracts.

Those lands helped the county's hunters to bag 3,515 whitetails in 2007, the state's 16th-best total. Monongalia's avera

ge of 11.27 deer per square mile ranked seventh.

Roughly three-fifths of the 12,713-acre Coopers Rock SF lies on the Monongalia side of the Monongalia-Preston line. So does most of the 3,092-acre Snake Hill WMA. The 1,036-acre Little Indian Creek WMA and the 766-acre Pedlar WMA lie entirely within the county's borders.

The county seat of Morgantown is a highway hub. Interstates 79 and 68 meet there, along with U.S. routes 19, 119 and 250.

Going strictly by the numbers, Wetzel County should rank 11th behind Barbour and Harrison counties. It leapfrogs the others into the ninth spot, however, because it contains much more public land.

Wetzel's hunters killed 3,611 deer in 2007, good for 14th place in the standings. The county's average of 10.23 deer per square mile ranked 15th.

The 13,590-acre Lewis Wetzel WMA is the county's largest public tract, as well as one of West Virginia's most productive from year to year. Located near Jacksonburg, Lewis Wetzel is heavily forested with oak-hickory and cove hardwood habitat.

The nearby Lantz Farm and Nature Preserve offers similar habitat interspersed with open fields. So does the 2,215-acre Cecil H. Underwood WMA, which straddles the Wetzel-Marshall county line. State Route 20 and U.S. Route 250 are Wetzel County's principal access routes.

If Barbour County or Harrison County offered nearly as much in the way of public land, they both would have outranked Wetzel as best-bet counties.

Barbour ranked 15th in raw harvest with 3,517 whitetails and 12th in deer per square mile with 10.85. Harrison came in at 11th (3,825) and 17th (9.81), respectively.

Public access in the two counties isn't exactly nonexistent, but it isn't abundant either. Barbour contains the tiny 137-acre Teter Creek WMA and a few hundred acres of the 3,030-acre Pleasants Creek WMA; Harrison's only public land is the 975-acre Center Branch WMA near Stonewood.

Next month, West Virginia Game & Fish will take a look at where Mountain State hunters can find the biggest trophy bucks. Until then, be well and hunt safely.

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