West Virginia Deer Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

How did hunters fare last season when it came to bagging trophy deer in our state -- and how are things shaping up for this year? (November 2008)

If West Virginia's deer hunters kill as many trophy bucks this year as they did last year, they'll have a very good year, indeed. After all, sportsmen bagged 104 whitetails last season that qualified for the state's Big Buck Club. "It was a good year," said Gene Thorn, of West Virginia's Division of Natural Resources (DNR). Thorn is the state biologist who oversees the club. "Keep in mind that the total of 104 only represents those bucks that were entered in our annual contest. I know for a fact that a lot of bucks never got entered."

Thorn could probably say the same about any given season. Not all Mountain State deer hunters know about the Big Buck Club, and those who do are often hit or miss about registering their trophies. Still, 2007's total was notable because it represented a 68 percent jump from 2006's tally of just 62 trophies.

"We had some things going in our favor," Thorn explained. "First, we were coming off a good mast year. The number of trophy bucks always goes up after a good mast year. Good nutrition contributes to good antler growth. Second, the number of older-aged deer continues to increase in the state. That's because our antlerless deer seasons are encouraging hunters to take does instead of bucks, and the percentage of yearling bucks being killed continues to diminish. Those surviving yearlings are living to 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years before they're killed, and they're able to develop some really nice antlers."

Some hunters dislike the doe-buck option, but the results speak for themselves. Last year, the Big Buck Club contained entries from 24 of the state's 55 counties -- the highest number ever.

"We're definitely starting to see trophies coming from counties where we don't ordinarily see them," Thorn said. Case in point: the titanic 16-point non-typical taken in Webster County by 68-year-old Dan Miller. The rack scores 190 2/8 on the Boone and Crockett Club's (B&C) scoring scale, and was the biggest gun-killed non-typical taken in the state last year.

Still, the epicenter of West Virginia's big-buck territory remains in four counties closed to firearms hunting since 1979 -- Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming. Despite their bowhunting-only regulations, or perhaps because of them, these four counties have dominated big-buck statistics since the late 1980s. Last year, they accounted for 60 of the 104 Big Buck Club entries.

Thorn, who lives and works in Wyoming County, believes hunting in the region is actually getting better. "A couple of years ago, I was kind of worried that our best buck hunting was behind us," he said. "But now I think we're back on the right track again."

The reasons? Thorn said one major factor is the area's overall deer population, which continues to grow.

"That makes more big bucks available out there as a percentage of the deer you have in the county," he explains. "When we only had 100 deer in a county and were killing 10 of them, maybe five were P&Y size. The deer herd kept coming up and up. As we got more deer, we got more big bucks."

Also, a couple of years ago, DNR officials began allowing hunters in the bow-only counties to purchase extra deer tags -- with the stipulation that at least one of the deer they killed be antlerless.

"Before that went into effect, 85 percent of the deer being killed were antlered bucks," Thorn explained. "As soon as it went into effect, about 50 percent of the kill became antlerless. With more of the overall harvest tied up in antlerless deer, our buck-to-doe ratio is getting better. More bucks are able to grow to trophy size."

As productive as the bow-only counties are, one of them stands head and shoulders above the others -- McDowell County. An astounding 30 P&Y-class whitetails were killed within the county's borders last season.

"I had a friend from Tennessee ask me if there was any other county in the nation that would have 30 Pope and Young bucks," Thorn said. "I just scratched my head. If there is one, I sure don't know about it. That's a lot of big bucks."

Of the four bow-only counties, McDowell has the fastest-growing whitetail population. Thorn believes that's a major reason that the county is pulling away from its neighbors in the big-buck statistics.

"Hunters killed nearly 1,000 deer in McDowell last year. That's an unheard-of total for a bow-only county. In the years when McDowell was getting 10 to 15 Big Buck Club entries, the countywide kill was only half the size it is now. With the increase in harvest has come a major leap in trophy production," Thorn said.

And here's the kicker: There's no doubt in Thorn's mind that the 30 trophy-class deer that earned Big Buck honors were only a fraction of those actually killed.

"I don't think 30 scratches the number of big deer that were killed in that county," he said. "I went to a taxidermy shop last year to measure four racks that guys asked me to score. I saw a pile of antlers as big as a sofa, and most of the racks in the pile were every bit as big as the ones I was there to score.

"Also, the cutoff for Big Buck Club scoring is Jan. 31. If the antlers don't get measured by then, they don't go on the list. I've measured a dozen racks since that date that would have qualified."

Perhaps the most remarkable statistics associated with McDowell's phenomenal 2007 trophy production is that only one of the county's 30 Big Buck Club entries placed in the top 10 individually.

Tony Fitzko's buck, which scores 157 1/8 P&Y, ranks second among non-typical bow kills. David Nash's 152 6/8 trophy places 12th in the typical category, followed closely by Jimmie Dillion's 151 7/8 typical and Daniel Cline's 149 5/8 typical in 13th and 14th places, respectively.

One of the reasons McDowell harbors so many trophy bucks is that it has a lot of steep-sided, heavily forested land for them to hide in. According to DNR statistics, the county encompasses 486 square miles of whitetail habitat.

"The terrain is rugged, but there's a lot of access by way of gas-well roads and old strip mines," Thorn said. "With that kind of access, there's a lot of hunting pressure. During the couple of weeks of the rut, a lot of people come here to hunt. We get heavy pressure from out of state, especially North Carolina and Virginia."

Fortunately, for sportsmen, McDowell boasts several sizable tracts of public-hunting land. The 7,810-acre Panther State Forest (SF) near Pa

nther is the largest, followed by the 2,165-acre Tug Fork Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Welch and the 1,792-acre Anawalt Lake WMA near Anawalt.

McDowell's hunting grounds lie just 25 air miles from Bluefield and 40 miles from Beckley, but those distances are deceptive. Narrow roads and heavy coal-truck traffic can exasperate even patient motorists. U.S. Route 52 provides the easiest access, relatively speaking.

The roads in neighboring Wyoming County are every bit as difficult to negotiate, and that's probably why Wyoming perennially finishes high in the state's trophy-buck standings. Last year was no exception; hunters killed 15 Big Buck Club qualifiers within the county's borders.

Some of them were really, really big, too. Cyclone resident Michael Workman took top honors in the bow-killed typical class with an 11-pointer that scored 169 2/8 P&Y, just 6 inches off Mark Lester's 1998 state record. Delbert Lester's 153 6/8 typical ranks ninth in that category, and Steven Ritchie's 148 5/8 typical ranks 17th.

James Johnston, a handicapped hunter from Brenton, became the first to enter a crossbow kill in the Big Buck Club. His 9-point typical scored 153 2/8 P&Y.

Like McDowell, Wyoming has a rugged, heavily forested landscape crisscrossed with dirt roads and four-wheeler trails. It, too, attracts hordes of bowhunters. Thorn believes it has fallen behind McDowell in trophy productivity because its deer population is experiencing a slower growth rate.

Public land is limited, yet abundant. The sprawling R.D. Bailey WMA near Gilbert offers 17,280 acres of narrow valleys and steep ridges blanketed by thick oak-hickory forest. The area seems to produce at least one 160-class buck every year.

The best highway access to the area is via U.S. Route 52, which passes through Gilbert. State Route 16 provides access to the equally productive lands near Mullens and Twin Falls Resort State Park.

Another bow-only bastion, Logan County ranked third in last year's trophy tally. The county's hunters killed 13 whitetails that qualified for Big Buck Club honors.

All of the honorees had typical racks. Carson Birchfield's 163 4/8 trophy ranks third in that category, followed by Steve Flores' 157 7/8 buck in sixth; Shaun Meade's 153 4/8 trophy comes in 10th; and Marshall Hanshaw's 152 7/8 buck comes in 11th.

Until this year, Logan County sportsmen had no choice but to hunt on private land. That changed in March when DNR officials announced the opening of the Elk Creek WMA, a 6,004-acre public-hunting tract along the Logan-Mingo border near Verner. Roughly, two-thirds of the area is in Logan County, and that area has been known to produce bucks in the 160-inch class.

The property features steep hillsides and deep hollows, densely forested in oak and hickory. Dirt roads used for mining and timbering provide foot and some vehicle access.

U.S. Route 119 is the county's main north-south thoroughfare, bringing four-lane traffic to Logan from Charleston and Williamson. Two-lane state Route 10 is the main east-west corridor.

Outsiders might have a hard time believing that a county that's home to 192,000 people could be a top trophy-buck producer. They obviously don't know much about Kanawha County. Sure, Kanawha is home to West Virginia's capital and to more than one-tenth of the state's total human population. It's a big county, though, and a lot wilder than it appears.

Most of the county's people live along the banks of the Kanawha River. Away from the river valley, the county's hilly terrain reverts to prime whitetail habitat.

Eight Big Buck Club entries came out of Kanawha in 2007, including the largest gun-killed typical and the largest bow-killed non-typical.

Danny Buckley of Charleston took top honors in the gun-killed typical category with a 9-point monster that scored 153 0/8 B&C. Another Charleston resident, Tim Kimble, placed first in the bow-killed non-typical category with a gigantic 17-pointer that scored 185 7/8 P&Y. In addition, Edwin Shaffer's 151 6/8 typical placed third among gun kills, and Dwight Buckner's 155 3/8 typical placed eighth among bow kills.

Two large tracts of public land give the county's hunters a chance to bag a buck without having an "in" on private property. The 9,302-acre Kanawha SF, located just south of Charleston, is heavily forested but crisscrossed by well-marked trails. The 9,874-acre Morris Creek WMA near Clendenin is less accessible but contains better habitat.

Access is easy almost everywhere in the county. Interstates 64, 77 and 79 converge in Charleston, along with U.S. routes 60 and 119.

For the past several years, Mercer County has simmered in the background among trophy producers, cranking out a buck or two a year but not otherwise attracting much attention. In 2007, Mercer took its place among the "big boys" when hunters bagged six Big Buck Club honorees within its borders.

The biggest was Mark Long's wall-hanger, which scored 152 4/8 B&C and ranked second among gun-killed typicals. Jason Hylton, a blackpowder enthusiast from Princeton, killed a 9-pointer during the muzzleloader season that scored a whopping 140 5/8. Top bow kills were Roger Cox's 134 7/8 typical, Billy Lambert's 132 0/8 typical, Charles Riffe's 128 2/8 typical and Daniel Bishop's 127 5/8 typical.

Like many of West Virginia's southern counties, Mercer is coal country. Much of the coal has been dug up, and the land is reverting to its densely forested natural state.

The 5,300-acre Camp Creek SF, located just off I-77 north of Princeton, is the largest tract of public land. The only other state-run areas are the 500-acre Tate Lohr WMA near Oakvale and a tiny corner of the Bluestone WMA in the Bluestone River valley.

Before the 2007 season, Putnam County had also been known as a county that occasionally produced trophies. Last year it came into its own with five Big Buck Club whitetails.

Jason Brown's big bow-killed whitetail topped the county's list at 165 2/8 P&Y. It was last year's second-largest archery typical. Nicholas Bumgardner's gun-killed typical scored 143 0/8 B&C and ranked 10th in its category. The county's other entries included John Copenhaver's 128 0/8 P&Y typical, Denny Painter's 126 6/8 typical and Holden Eads' 125 1/8 typical.

Though heavily populated with people who work in Charleston and Huntington, Putnam also contains some prime whitetail habitat, mainly in the form of old overgrown farmsteads. The best hunting tends to take place north of the Kanawha River along the county's border with Jackson and Mason counties.

The 7,061-acre Amherst/Plymouth WMA near Bancroft is the county's only sizable tract of public land. State Route 62 runs right by it. Principal access to the rest of the county is via I-64 and U.S. routes 6

0 and 35.

With three Big Buck Club honorees in 2007, Raleigh County rounds out this year's list of trophy-antler best bets.

Though Raleigh is open to firearms hunting, all of last year's Big Buck Club kills were with bows. Dana Dean's 155 6/8 typical ranked seventh in that category. Other entries included James Gouge's typical at 140 6/8 and Jerry Meadows' typical at 132 6/8.

The county has no state-owned or state-managed WMAs, but fortunately for sportsmen, the sprawling New River Gorge National River cuts a wide north-south path through the county's midsection. The National Park Service owns sizable tracts of land within the park's proclamation boundaries, and by special provision, most of those tracts are open to hunting. Interstates 77 and 64 merge just south of Beckley, the county seat, bringing traffic from Charleston, Bluefield and Lewisburg to this area.

There you have it, a look at many of our state's prime places to intercept a buck of a lifetime this season. Will it be your turn this year? Only time will tell.

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