West Virginia Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

West Virginia Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Here's how hunters fared last season in our state with big bucks -- and where you can expect to find a trophy or two this season. (November 2009)

Depending upon one's point of view, West Virginia's 2008 deer-hunting season could be considered a disappointment or a success. Sportsmen who hoped to see more big bucks killed were probably disappointed. Hunters who hoped to see trophy bucks killed over a widespread geographic area were most likely pleased.

The bottom line: Mountain State sportsmen bagged 75 bucks that scored high enough to qualify for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources' (DNR) Big Buck Club, 28 percent fewer than 2007's total of 104. On the other hand, bucks from 30 of the state's 55 counties made the list -- a 25 percent increase from the previous year's record of 24.

Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief, believes the drop-off in trophy numbers had more to do with what happened in 2005 than what happened in 2008.

"When you're talking about older-aged deer showing up in the harvest, you need to look a year or two back from the year in question. It looks like in 2005, for both the buck and the archery season, there were pretty significant harvest declines from the previous year. The buck kill dropped 11 percent and the archery kill 16 percent.

"A lot of yearling bucks didn't get killed in 2005, and that created a surplus of older-aged deer that showed up in the 2007 season. I think the 2008 results weren't as much a drop-off as a return to normal conditions from the 'bubble' of big bucks we had in 2007."

While he believes the decline in trophy numbers is a statistical anomaly, Johansen believes the increase in trophy-producing counties represents a growing trend.

"When we started concurrent hunting -- allowing hunters to take antlerless deer during the buck season -- we predicted hunters would start seeing more older-aged bucks," he says. "When hunters take does instead of yearling bucks, you get more bucks surviving into their second and third years. Over time, those older-aged bucks start showing up in the harvest."

Perhaps the best way to assess the status of the state's trophy hunting is to take a good close look at results from the DNR's annual Big Buck Contest. Officials with the DNR keep meticulous records on the number of deer entered in the contest, the number of deer that make the Big Buck Club list, and where and when these deer were killed.

Harvest statistics don't necessarily reveal where big bucks will be taken, but it definitely shows where they have been taken. Poring over the Big Buck rankings at least confirms which counties produced the biggest trophies and which counties produced the most.

Last year, most of those counties hailed from West Virginia's southwest, in an area mostly south of Interstate 64 and west of Interstate 77. Three-quarters of last year's Big Buck honorees were killed in counties within those boundaries or immediately adjacent to them.

Four counties -- all closed to deer hunting with firearms -- form the epicenter of the larger big-buck producing area. Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties have been bowhunting-only areas since 1979, and in just three decades have become legendary for their ability to grow big-bodied, big-antlered white­tails.

Of the four, McDowell County is the current leader. Bowhunters there killed 16 deer that made 2008's Big Buck list, the most in the state by a good margin.

The bucks ranged in size from Kevin Blevins' third-ranked typical at 155 5/8 Pope and Young (P&Y) to Jason Carpenter's 49th-ranked typical at 127 0/8.

Curiously, the county didn't produce a single non-typical large enough to qualify. But with such high-quality typicals, who really cares? Seven of the county's bucks ranked among the state's 15 best bow-killed typicals.

Blevins' monster led the way at 155 5/8, followed by David Allen's at 149 1/8, Bandy Kennedy's at 145 7/8, George Kennedy's at 145 3/8, Robert Meadows' at 144 4/8, Rodney Gorskey's at 144 4/8, and Bernie Shorter's at 144 1/8.

Outsiders might expect such a trophy-rich region to be locked up solid with "posted" signs, but McDowell County is surprisingly free of such encumbrances. Coal and timber companies own much of the county's land, and many of these companies allow unrestricted public access.

If that weren't enough, the county is home to three sizable tracts of public land. The 7,810-acre Panther State Forest (SF) near Panther is the largest, followed by the 2,165-acre Tug Valley Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Welch and the 1,792-acre Anawalt Lake WMA near Anawalt.

Two-lane U.S. Route 52 is the main access artery through the county, and its twisting and mountainous nature makes for difficult driving. Most of McDowell's restaurants and motels are in Welch, the county seat.

Wyoming County finished the 2008 season as McDowell's only true rival for producing high-quality bucks. Bowhunters took 11 Big Buck Club trophies there during the season.

Some hulky big bucks came out of the county. Physically handicapped hunters using crossbows took the two largest. Don England of Iaeger bagged an 11-pointer that scored 159 2/8 on Nov. 10. Six days later, James Johnson took a buck that scored 155 2/8.

Robert Cooper's trophy, which tallied 149 2/8 P&Y, led among Wyoming bucks taken with conventional archery tackle. Other notables included Steven Ritchie's at 143 7/8, Christopher Hale's at 138 1/8, Timothy Day's at 136 4/8, and Scott Cook's at 136 1/8.

Land posting is a little more prevalent in Wyoming than in neighboring McDowell, but large tracts of coal and timberland remain open to the public. In addition, Wyoming is home to the state's top trophy-producing public hunting area, the 17,208-acre R.D. Bailey WMA near Justice.

"The word is starting to get out, and hunting pressure is getting pretty heavy," said Gene Thorn, the DNR's resident manager. "But we're still getting a lot of nice bucks off the property."

For years, Kanawha County had hovered just outside the state's elite big-buck producers, yielding some handsome trophies but never quite enough to vie for top honors. The 2008 season changed all that. With gun and bow, hunters bagged eight Big Buck Club honorees.

Ronald Myers of Charleston led the way with a tremendous 10-pointer that scored 165 6/8 Boone and Crockett (B&C) points, tops in the gun-killed typical category. Mark McDonald and Matthew Pauley also

took superb trophies during the gun season -- McDonald's scoring 149 2/8 and Pauley's 144 2/8.

Bowhunters also fared well within Kanawha's borders. James Fore's buck ranked fifth among bow-killed typicals at 149 7/8 P&Y. Ryan Mooney's placed 20th at 138 7/8, followed by Jason Butcher's at 136 5/8 and Justin Berger's at 134 6/8.

The 9,302-acre Kanawha SF, located just south of Charleston, is the county's largest public hunting tract. It's not renowned for yielding large bucks, but it definitely has that potential -- especially if hunters are willing to hike into the forest's remote backcountry.

Kanawha also contains part of the 9,874-acre Morris Creek WMA, located east of Clendenin along the Clay County border. Deer aren't especially abundant in that corner of the county, but big bucks turn up with satisfying regularity.

With interstates 64, 77 and 79 all converging in Charleston, Kanawha County arguably boasts the state's easiest access to prime hunting. It also boasts the state's highest concentration of restaurants and motels.

Logan County, another bowhunting-only area, tied Kanawha with eight Big Buck Club members in 2008. Don't let Logan's numeric position behind McDowell and Wyoming fool you; it more than made up in quality whatever it might have lacked in quantity.

Bucks taken within the county's borders led the Big Buck rankings in both the typical and non-typical categories. Bobby Kelly of Cumberland, Kentucky captured top honors in the typical category with a 10-point bruiser that scored 157 0/8 P&Y. Pat Donahue of Mallory led the non-typical category with a 16-point monster that scored 176 1/8.

Other notable Logan bucks included Ronald Chambers' second-ranked typical at 156 6/8, Ronald Barnette's fourth-ranked typical at 153 4/8, Jacob Miller's sixth-ranked typical at 149 5/8 and William Alexander's 10th-ranked typical at 146 3/8.

Public-land hunters received a boost last year when the DNR signed a long-term lease on the 6,004-acre Elk Creek WMA near Verner. The sprawling tract is just a hollow or two away from the aforementioned R.D. Bailey WMA, and should produce similarly nice bucks.

Typical of southern West Virginia's absentee-owned counties, Logan is relatively lightly posted. Many coal and timber companies allow free public access to their lands.

U.S. Route 119 brings high-speed traffic from the Charleston area to the county seat of Logan, but access to the rest of the county is by twisting two-lane roads choked with coal and log trucks. Restaurants and motels can be found in Logan, Man and Chapmanville.

Jackson County occupied fifth place in the 2008 trophy sweepstakes with four Big Buck honorees, not bad for a county that doesn't routinely produce big-antlered whitetails.

Austin Fisher's gun-killed buck led the way with a B&C score of 155 1/8. Other deer that made the list were archery kills -- Brittany Westfall's at 140 5/8 P&Y, Michael Prit's at 125 2/8, and Curtis Beckner's at 125 0/8.

Jackson's rolling topography, a rich patchwork of woodlands and farmlands, supports an abundance of whitetails. The biggest bucks tend to come from the portion along the Kanawha County line to the south and the Mason County line to the west.

The 2,587-acre Frozen Camp WMA, located off Route 33 near Marshall, is the county's largest public tract. The 1,696-acre Woodrum Lake WMA near Kentuck arguably grows bigger bucks, but limited access and rugged terrain make it difficult to reach and even more difficult to hunt.

Once considered a real up-and-comer in the trophy department, Raleigh County faded a bit in 2008. It still yielded three Big Buck Club members, a statistic that attests to its whitetail-producing ability.

Anthony Workman's gun-killed typical led the way with a score of 146 0/8 B&C, good enough for 10th place in that category. Dana Dean's trophy finished 16th at 143 7/8. Bart Gentry's bow-killed typical finished near the middle of its category at 140 2/8 P&Y.

The western and southwestern portions of Raleigh County are still being actively mined for coal, and access there is much the same as it is in neighboring Wyoming and Boone counties. Public lands include Raleigh County's share of the New River Gorge National River, which encompasses much of the river's steep-sided canyons and those of several tributary creeks.

The county seat of Beckley makes a good jumping-off point for would-be trophy hunters. Motels and restaurants abound in and around the tourism-oriented city, and interstates 64 and 77 converge just south of town.

Five counties finished with two Big Buck honorees apiece -- Fayette, Mercer, Wirt, Harrison and Boone.

Fayette has the most public land with the 3,201-acre Plum Orchard WMA near Mossy, the 3,061-acre Beury Mountain WMA near Lookout, and a significant chunk of the New River Gorge. U.S. Route 19 and interstate 64/77 make Fayette's rugged terrain readily accessible. Despite the county's rich history as a coal producer, land posting has become commonplace. Thanks largely to the area's popular whitewater rafting industry, restaurants and motels are reasonably priced and easy to find.

Mercer's public opportunities include the 5,300-acre Camp Creek SF north of Athens, the 500-acre Tate Lohr WMA near Oakvale, and a tiny corner of the sprawling Bluestone WMA. Princeton, the county's largest town, lies just off I-77 and offers an abundance of food and lodging options.

Wirt is one of the state's smaller counties, but it contains a large chunk of the 10,000-acre Hughes River WMA. The tract, intensively managed for timber, is a patchwork of mature trees interspersed with young stands and recently cleared plots. Parkersburg, located a few miles to the southwest, makes a good jumping-off point for visiting sportsmen.

Harrison County produces plenty of whitetails, but never produced more than one Big Buck Club trophy in a single season until last fall. The 975-acre Center Branch WMA is the county's only significant piece of public hunting land, and the nearby city of Clarksburg houses all the amenities a sportsman could hope for.

The only county among the five with no state-owned or leased land is Boone. That's no real hindrance to hunters, however, because most of the county's coal companies allow unrestricted access to their lands. Madison, the county seat, is a good place to find food and lodging.

If there are wild cards in this year's quest for trophy Mountain State whitetails, they probably take the form of six public tracts specifically managed to produce big-antlered bucks. In those areas, bucks with antler spreads less than 14 inches are off-limits.

Mason County's 3,655-acre McClintic WMA has been managed under those regulations since 1999, and has developed a devoted hunter clientele.

The other areas -- Summers County's 18,019-acre Bluestone WMA, Braxton County's 12,579-acre Burnsville WMA, Wayne County's 7,531-acre Beech Fork WMA, Preston County's 12,713-acre Coopers Rock SF and Pocahontas County's 9,482-acre Cal Price SF -- are works in progress.

All but Cal Price came under trophy regulations in 2007, so DNR officials expect this year to be when they begin to fulfill their yet-untapped big-buck potential. The Cal Price tract was only added to the list in May, so it hasn't yet had time to grow any wallhangers.

No recap of the state's 2008 trophy rankings would be complete without a mention of the buck that arguably turned more heads than any other -- the 19-point monster killed by Donald Stroud Jr. of Weirton. The buck's titanic rack was exceptional in its own right, but the fact it was killed in heavily urban Brooke County made it nothing short of phenomenal.

That buck, as much as any other mentioned in these paragraphs, is proof positive that trophy bucks can pop up almost anywhere. That's something sportsmen should keep in mind as they venture afield this fall.

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