West Virginia Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

West Virginia Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

No matter how good or bad the overall deer season is for sportsmen, some hunters will bring home a trophy buck for the books. Here's the latest!

Photo by Billkenney.com

Biologists have counted the tags and measured the antlers. The statistics are in, and they verify what West Virginia deer hunters have suspected for months: Last year was a poor year for producing trophy whitetails.

"The number of bucks we scored was down pretty significantly," said Gene Thorn, who coordinates the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources' (DNR) annual Big Buck Contest.

Only 220 hunters had their trophies scored in 2004, down nearly 20 percent from 2003's total of 271 and down a whopping 36 percent from 2002's high-water mark of 343.

The decline in trophies didn't really surprise Thorn, because bucks as a whole seemed to be in short supply during the 2004 season. Hunters bagged just 63,873, a staggering 29 percent fewer than the five-year average of 89,568.

"When the buck harvest is down that much, you expect hunters to take fewer trophies," Thorn said. "And when you add in the mast situation, it's a foregone conclusion that racks are going to be smaller."

Two straight mast-crop failures robbed bucks of the nutrients they needed to add mass and size to their racks. "We could have predicted before the season began that antler sizes were going to drop," Thorn said. "That's exactly what happened, and it was pretty much a statewide thing."

As evidence, Thorn cited a startling statistic: Not one of the 2004 bucks scored for Big Buck Club eligibility totaled more than 180 points on either the Boone and Crockett (B&C) or Pope and Young (P&Y) clubs' scoring systems.

"That's pretty rare. Usually we get at least one or two bucks in the 180-plus class."

Last year's top trophy was a 13-point Raleigh County non-typical killed by bowhunter Michael Mills of Ghent. Its rack totaled 177 1/8 P&Y points. Only two other bucks topped the 170 mark -- Winfield resident Joe Day's gun-killed Mason County non-typical at 175 0/8, and Roger Hurley's bow-killed Mingo County non-typical at 172 4/8.

Firearm-wielding hunters suffered the biggest decline in trophy production. Only eight gun-killed bucks met the Big Buck Club minimum of 150 B&C points for typicals and 165 for non-typicals.

"That was down very significantly from previous years," Thorn said. In 2003, for example, 27 gun kills qualified for the club. The average since 1999 has been 24.

Bowhunters fared somewhat better, mainly because four southern West Virginia counties are closed to firearms hunting. Even so, archers killed just 50 bucks that met the bowhunting minimums of 125 P&Y points for typicals and 155 for non-typicals. That figure represented a 33 percent decline from the 2003 total of 76 and a 38 percent decline from the five-year average of 81.

The four southern counties -- Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming -- accounted for 42 of the 50 bow-killed trophies.

Despite the dismal statistics, Thorn believes a couple of years of good acorn production will give hunters the sort of banner trophy season they missed last year.

"There's still a significant number of bucks that have the potential to be trophy class," he said. "All they need is a little age and a little nutrition."

Thorn cited mostly anecdotal evidence to support his prediction, but considering that he makes his home in the heart of the state's best trophy-buck region, his observations carry more weight than most.

"Even though hunters weren't killing many top-scoring bucks, I heard story after story about hunters seeing bucks with very nice racks," he said. "We had a lot of bucks taken that scored just under the Big Buck Club minimums. I think that if we get a good mast crop this year, those borderline bucks will start growing trophy antlers again."

Although trophies can pop up just about anywhere in the Mountain State, Thorn believes the heaviest concentration of bragging-sized bucks lies in the counties southwest of the New and Kanawha rivers.

"If you want to up your chances of taking a big buck, I'd recommend hunting during the rifle season in Raleigh, Fayette, Summers, Kanawha, Boone or Nicholas counties," he said. "Unless you're a really skilled bowhunter, those counties would probably be your best bets for shooting a deer with above-average antlers. A sizable number of the typical bucks killed by gun hunters in those counties would have made the Pope and Young book for bow kills."

Last year's Big Buck Club statistics seem to confirm Thorn's assertions. The counties he mentions accounted for 10 of 58 eventual Big Buck Club members. Boone and Kanawha counties led the way with three apiece, followed by Raleigh's two and Fayette's one.

"But really, during the gun season, finding a trophy buck is a matter of being in the right place at the right time," he said. "I personally got a really nice buck last year in Upshur County, a place that isn't renowned for producing trophies. The buck I shot was a 6 1/2-year-old 7-pointer, with big, wide beams. He'd have scored well except he was missing a tine. But he was huge, more than 200 pounds. He was the biggest buck I've seen in Upshur County in ages."

The bottom line, Thorn said, is that "there's hope for any hunter in West Virginia to be able to kill a trophy."

No area is better for that, however, than the rugged, mining-scarred landscape that lies inside the borders of the four bow-only counties. And of the four, McDowell County is the current kingpin.

Hunters harvested 12 Big Buck Club nominees within its borders last season. The biggest was a whitetail taken by Al Gravely that scored 156 6/8 P&Y and ranks fourth among bow-killed typicals. McDowell bucks taken by Randall Matherly, Michael East Jr., Eric Brown and Michael Vanhoosier rank among the top 25 typicals.

Fortunately for bowhunters, public hunting land is fairly abundant in the county. The 10,640-acre Panther State Forest (SF) near Panther is the largest tract. The 2,308-acre Tug Fork Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Premier and the 1,792-acre Anawalt WMA near Anawalt provide less acreage but equally productive habitat.

McDowell's next-door neighbor, Wyoming County, took second place in the trophy-antler derby with 11 Big Buck nominees. It wasn't the quantity of Wyoming's buc

ks that stood out, however. It was the quality.

Seven of the county's 11 bucks ranked among the state's top 25 typicals. J. Matthew Brown led the way with a whitetail that measures 148 4/8 P&Y and had the seventh-highest score. Close on its heels were Oran Toney's eighth-place buck at 148 3/8, Kevin Green's ninth-place buck at 145 3/8, Bueford Shell's 14th-place buck at 140 0/8, Franklin Cook's 15th-place buck at 139 7/8, and Lyndell Perry's 16th-place buck at 139 5/8.

The 17,280-acre R.D. Bailey Lake WMA near Baileysville is the county's largest tract of public hunting land. Its steep ridges and deep hollows surround a 630-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-control impoundment.

For a county that has no public hunting land to speak of, Logan County put on quite an impressive show last season. Archers bagged nine Big Buck Club nominees within the county's borders, and some of those were dandies.

William Bradford's big typical ranked second statewide at 158 1/8 P&Y points. Jerry Morgan Jr. took fifth place with a typical that scores 154 1/8.

Logan's secret, of course, is that it has been closed to firearms hunting since 1979. Its whitetail herd, while still not as plentiful as most other counties, has established a near-ideal doe-to-buck ratio. Bowhunting's relatively light impact on the deer population allows many of the county's bucks to grow to bragging size.

Mingo County might have ranked last among the four bow-only counties last season, but it made up for in consistency whatever it might have lacked in numbers.

Four of its nine Big Buck Club members rank among last year's top 10 typical archery kills. Calvin Wiley's buck, which scored 157 5/8 P&Y, took third-place honors. Woodrow Spradlin's buck ranked sixth at 148 7/8 inches, and Matthew Runyon's trophy ranked 10th at 145 1/8. In the non-typical category, Roger Hurley took second place with a whitetail that taped out at 172 4/8.

The 12,854-acre Laurel Lake WMA near Lenore is Mingo County's largest piece of public property. Its tall hardwoods attract plenty of deer, but its thick undergrowth makes bowhunting a challenge.

Boone County always seems to produce a fair number of trophies, and last year was no exception. Three of the state's top six typical gun kills came from inside the county's borders. Johnny Hatfield's 10-point typical captured top honors at 156 0/8 B&C points. Jeremy Hatfield's buck ranked fifth at 147 2/8 points, and Steve Houchins came in sixth with a whitetail that measured 145 4/8.

Typical Bucks, Bow Season
James HorrocksKanawha161 1/8
William BradfordLogan158 1/8
Calvin WileyMingo157 5/8
Al GravelyMcDowell156 6/8
Jerry Morgan Jr.Logan154 1/8
J. Matthew BrownWyoming148 4/8
Cran ToneyWyoming148 3/8
Kevin GreenWyoming145 3/8
Matthew RumponMingo145 1/8
Randall MatherlyMcDowell144 3/8
Jeff MinnichPutnam143 7/8
Greg CoffmanFayette143 4/8
Bueford Shell Jr.Wyoming140 0/8
Franklin CookWyoming139 7/8
Lyndell PerryWyoming139 5/8
Forest Elmore IIILogan139 3/8
Danny HamrickWebster138 7/8
Willie GreenLogan138 5/8
Michael East Jr.McDowell137 5/8
Eric BrownMcDowell136 7/8
Robert HaleWyoming136 7/8
Michael VanhoosierMcDowell136 5/8
Dwayne ChristianMingo135 6/8
Alan MilhoanWood135 2/8
Joshua JusticeMingo135 2/8
Emia MaynardMingo134 6/8
Mark LesterLogan134 3/8
Kenny CookWyoming133 5/8
Jerry CrabtreeMcDowell131 2/8
Michael RoopLogan131 0/8
Michael MillsRaleigh177 1/8
Roger HurleyMingo172 4/8
Bow kills scored using Pope and Young system. This is not a complete listing of all entries.

The 7,000-acre Fork Creek WMA near Nellis is the county's only public-hunting opportunity.

Few people would expect Kanawha County to rank among the state's best trophy counties, but it does. The industrialized Kanawha Valley, which houses nearly one-sixth of the state's population, gobbles up most of the county's 903-square-mile landmass. The habitat that remains, however, holds more than its share of big-antlered bucks. Three of them made the Big Buck Club last year.

James Horrocks' giant 12-pointer captured top honors in the bow-killed typical category with a score of 161 1/8 points P&Y. Harry Mullins' buck took second among gun-killed typicals at 150 5/8, and James McElwee's trophy scored 143 0/8 to take seventh in that same category.

As one might expect from such a heavily populated area, Kanawha County's public hunting opportunities are fairly limited. The 9,250-acre Kanawha SF, just south of Charleston, is a relatively untapped resource, mainly because hunters must compete with hordes of hikers, mountain bikers, birders and nature enthusiasts from the nearby city. Rewards can be handsome, however, for hunters who make the effort to hike far back into the forest's remote areas.

Trophy whitetails might become a little easier to find in the not-too-distant future, as soon as a new DNR initiative begins bearing fruit. Agency director Frank Jezioro has given biologists an assignment: Identify tracts of land that could be managed to grow trophy-class deer, draw up regulations for managing those tracts, and get the job done by early next year.

"In my opinion, a lot of people would prefer to hunt for older-aged bucks," Jezioro said. "The trend is away from 'hunting for meat.' More people appear to be 'hunting for the experience,' letting does and smaller bucks walk in the hope of later killing a buck with big antlers."

Jezioro equates the proposed trophy-buck areas to the special-regulation areas the DNR currently maintains for fishermen.

"Enough people support catch-and-release fishing to justify our management of special-regulation fishing areas," he said. "The same would go for hunting. We certainly have enough hunters who are interested in trophy bucks to justify this initiative."

According to biologists, deer require three things in order to grow bragging-sized antlers -- good genes, an abundance of food and the ability to live to a ripe old age. Most West Virginia whitetails have good genes and get plenty to eat. They don't, however, get to live very long.

DNR statistics show that just 30 percent of all Mountain State bucks survive to 1 1/2 years. Only 14 percent live 3 1/2 years, the age at which most bucks begin to produce trophy-class racks.

Jezioro would like to establish sizable chunks of public land where bucks could reach maturity without being hunted. "Ideally, I'd like to see us set up at least one area in each of our management districts," he said.

Three such areas already exist -- the four bow-only counties, the McClintic WMA in Mason County, where a deer's antlers must be wider than its ears before it is legal to shoot; and the Wilson Cove Deer Study Area in Hardy County, where hunters are restricted to muzzleloading firearms.

In all those places, hunters enjoy better-than-average opportunities to kill trophy bucks. "Our efforts to grow older-aged deer have been highly successful in those areas," said Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief. "We've seen significant changes in age structure and antler development."

Biologists haven't yet decided which special regulations to use on the trophy-buck areas Jezioro has asked them to create. Johansen said, however, that the key would be to reduce hunting pressure on bucks until they're big enough to satisfy hunters' ideas of what a trophy buck should be.

"We have to avoid the 'high-grading' of bucks," he said. "Whether we do that with a firearms restriction, an antler-spread regulation or by limiting the number of hunters on the area is still open to question."

Before they decide on regulations, Johansen and the biologists on his game-management staff must first identify which public tracts could best house the trophy-buck areas.

"We don't want to put an entire WMA under special regulations, because that would prevent people from hunting who are only interested in going out and harvesting a deer," Johansen explained. "So we'll probably need to look at large areas, probably 10,000 acres or more, that could be divided up into trophy and non-trophy zones."

By those standards, DNR officials' choices are limited. Only 11 state-owned WMAs, four state forests and 13 national forest tracts offer that sort of acreage. Johansen said his staff is "well on the way to making the preliminary cuts" in the list of potential candidates.

"The next thing we'll need to do is gather biological data on those areas -- antler beam diameters, average spreads, etc. -- so we'll have a baseline that tells us whether we're making progress," he said.

After DNR administrators decide which regulations to impose, they plan to take the proposals to the public for input and approval. "We'll most likely roll out our ideas at the (DNR) sectional meetings in March," Johansen said. "If all goes well, we might even give folks a glimpse of the proposals at the West Virginia Hunting and Fishing Show in January."

Director Jezioro said that any ultimate decisions would be up to sportsmen themselves. "We want public feedback on this," he said. "It has to have strong public sentiment in its favor. We won't do it if the public doesn't want it."

If hunters approve the initiative, Jezioro said the sporting public would need to "exercise some patience in allowing the resource to develop."

"Folks need to understand that we'll probably have to kill a bunch of does and do considerable habitat-improvement work to create an environment where trophy bucks can develop," he said. "That might include cutting some trees to create clearings where deer can feed. Whatever we propose, though, we want it to be based on the best science available and be subject to the public's wishes."

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