This old-time method of hunting is an important modern-day management tool for keeping deer numbers in check. For most hunters, it's just another way to add fresh venison to the family freezer. (December 2005)
Photo by Mark Werner
As I drove through the valley, the sky began to darken. Gradually ascending into the mountains, the flurries increased as windblown snow scudded across the highway. By the time I headed up the Monroe County mountain, snow covered the gravel road. Flakes the size of grapes made their way down from the heavens. I turned the windshield wipers on high and locked my SUV into 4-wheel-drive.
Upon arriving at my property in Monroe County (which borders the Jefferson National Forest), I noted that about a foot of snow had already fallen on my mountain sanctuary. After leaving the vehicle, an inline muzzleloader in tow, I decided on two plans of action. The timing was the last day of West Virginia's muzzleloader season, and whitetails were unlikely to be moving. Plan A was to still-hunt slowly across my land, hoping to come across a bedded deer before it saw me. Plan B involved my striking a fresh trail and following it to a bedded or feeding whitetail, with the former situation being the more likely by far.
I had still-hunted about 150 yards when I came to a long linear field, bordered by a pine thicket on the right and a hardwood stand in the national forest on the left. This was the area where I felt most likely to encounter a whitetail, as the field continued for several hundred yards. It is a known late-season feeding ground. In fact, I had killed a doe there with my smokepole several Decembers ago.
As I waded through the snow, a brown blur some 75 yards ahead streaked across the field and entered the national forest. By the time I reached the place where the animal had crossed the field, visibility had worsened and the snow was falling in huge, heavy clumps.
At that junction, I had hoped to find only tracks made from a single deer, but instead I came across prints from at least three whitetails, as well as those of a canine of some sort, and some indeterminate creature. And I found it impossible, as the snow was falling so heavily and quickly, to determine which of the sets of deer tracks was the freshest one. Finally, I selected a trail to follow, and a few minutes later, I entered the Jefferson National Forest.
On and on the tracks continued through an oak grove, down the side of a mountain, and toward a rhododendron copse along a creek. All the while, the snow seemed to be falling more heavily and the sky had darkened even more. Finally, I gave up on the deer and turned to make the long, slow trudge back up the mountain and toward my vehicle and eventually home.
Sometimes when I go afield during West Virginia's muzzleloader season in December and encounter conditions like those mentioned above, I fantasize that I am hunting like the mountaineers of generations ago, frontstuffer in hand. Surely any whitetail our forebears killed under those conditions was regarded as a hard-earned trophy -- regardless of the size of the buck's rack or the weight of the doe's body. Of course, those forebears would probably not have hesitated or guessed wrong at determining which of the trails of those three deer was the freshest one -- as I had done.
OVERVIEW OF THE 2004 SEASON
Last December, West Virginia smokepole toters tallied 14,819 whitetails, a total that was 9 percent below the 2003 harvest of 15,853. The latter harvest was itself 10 percent below the 2002 total. Overall, the 2004 harvest still ranks as the fifth highest on record. The top 10 counties last season (with harvest in parentheses) were Nicholas (572), Braxton (565), Randolph (537), Greenbrier (527), Wetzel (519), Preston (517), Wood (486), Ritchie (482), Lewis (471) and Mason (436).
Chris Ryan, a wildlife biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), comments on these figures.
"The DNR was pleased with the 2004 muzzleloader harvest," Ryan said. "The muzzleloader season has become very popular with Mountain State hunters. The deer have settled back down from the buck gun seasons, and most have returned to normal movement patterns. In addition, the season provides an extra opportunity and unique method that normally intrigues many hunters."
This year, the season is tentatively slated to run from Dec. 12-17. As has traditionally been the case, Wyoming, McDowell, Logan and Mingo counties are closed to all firearms hunting. Some counties feature either-sex hunting, while others offer bucks-only seasons. Some counties that were open to either-sex hunting last year may not be this year. Be sure to check the 2005 West Virginia Hunting & Trapping Regulations Summary or go online to www.wvdnr.gov for more information. But, generally, the muzzleloader season has become a useful tool for deer management through the harvest of antlerless deer.
"Over two-thirds of the 2004 muzzleloader harvest were does," Ryan said. "The additional female harvest will help bring counties in line with their respective management objective."
Of course, the number of deer that Mountain State sportsmen check in during the muzzleloader season is relatively small, especially when compared with the high harvests that take place during the buck and antlerless seasons and even the lengthy bow season. The thing that I have always enjoyed most about the December season has nothing to do with killing a deer. I just enjoy going afield with a gun for deer one last time before winter sets in for the duration.
Like many, if not most West Virginia hunters, I have harvested fewer deer during the late muzzleloader season than during any of the other seasons. But, again, there is something to be said about the joys of trudging through the snows and enduring the cold, meanwhile toting a primitive weapon. Chris Ryan agrees.
"The muzzleloader season primarily provides additional recreation for hunters in the late season, and that recreation provides unique opportunities," he said. "However, in areas above their management objective, the season always helps to control the deer herd by allowing hunters the opportunity to harvest additional adult females."
Public-land hunting for whitetails has a long tradition in the Mountain State. So it's not surprising that some sportsmen may want to take advantage of this resource. Hunters might be surprised to learn that during the December smokepole season, the national forests and state WMAs receive fairly light hunting pressure. So what are some national forest and state lands worth checking out for this December? Chris Ryan maintains that three stand out.
"Stonewall Jackson led the state. Burnsville was up there, also. M
cClintic WMA in Mason County is good," he said.
Let's take a closer look at those public lands and the counties they lie within. As Ryan notes, Stonewall Jackson WMA (18,289 acres in Lewis County) led all public lands with 107 whitetails checked in. I found it fascinating that 94 of those animals were does -- indicative that many sportsmen afield there last December were probably just looking to tag one more whitetail for the freezer, instead of trophy hunting.
I have been afield on the Stonewall Jackson WMA, which lies in District III, and the diversity of habitat there is outstanding. This public land lacks the mountains that so many other WMAs do; instead, rolling hills and gentle slopes characterize Stonewall. Also, you should look to take stands at overgrown old farms, hardwood forests, creek bottoms and the odd wildlife opening. Much of Lewis County features this same type of habitat, a reason why it was ninth in the smokepole harvest figures in 2004.
A second public land that Ryan recommends is Burnsville Lake WMA (12,579 acres in Braxton County), yet another quality destination in District III that is centrally located. Burnsville accounted for 64 whitetails last December, good for second place in the late season. Of that number, 48 were does.
Burnsville features similar habitat to that of Stonewall, although the former is a tad hillier and does not offer the reverting farmland-type terrain that the latter does. Still, Burnsville does proffer its share of regenerating cutovers, brushy openings and old fields. Braxton County was a strong second in the harvest chart last December and is certainly a sound choice as a destination for the 2005 season.
The other choice of Ryan's was the McClintic WMA (3,655 acres in Mason County), which has become almost legendary as a superbly managed public land. No other WMA in the Mountain State contains the diversity of habitat that McClintic does. Indeed, I would wager that this public land boasts some of the most varied wildlife habitat of any public land in the Eastern United States.
McClintic features some 600 acres of farmland, 1,100 acres of brushy land, 180 acres of wetlands and 1,775 acres of mixed hardwoods. Deer thrive in such habitat, and the smorgasbord of foods there ensures that even during harsh winters, the animals will have something to consume.
The McClintic WMA recorded only 14 deer during the muzzleloader season, 11 of which were does and three were button bucks. Readers may rightfully ask why no bucks were taken, and the answer is that the public land has a restrictive regulation in place. The regulation states that all antlered deer during the muzzleloader season must have a minimum outside antler spread of 14 inches (ear tip to ear tip). Some of the bucks that hunters had to let walk last December may be "shooters" this year.
Mason County itself ranks 10th in the harvest tally from last December, a marvelous figure considering its modest size. Many of the counties that placed ahead of Mason, especially ones like Randolph, are larger in size. Mason County contains numerous farms, stream bottoms and cattle and dairy concerns.
Prospective hunters for this month should know that only single-shot muzzleloaders, which includes the very popular inlines, of .38 caliber or larger are legal. A muzzleloader outfitted with telescopic sights is legal. The latter regulation has been in place for several years and is one that many sportsmen, including this writer, have eagerly taken advantage of. I like having a low-power scope on my smokepole, as I feel that my shots will be inherently more accurate -- especially in low-light conditions.
Scopes also help hunters to quickly and more accurately identify the sex of a deer -- an important consideration in counties that have restrictions on antlerless harvests. Scopes also assist a hunter to better evaluate a buck's antlers -- a vital matter on many places where trophy management plans are in place or on a public land, such as McClintic, where restrictions on antlered bucks exist.
Finally, a firearm that has been converted into a muzzleloader by use of a plug, or a double-barreled or swivel-barreled muzzleloader, is illegal for deer hunting during the muzzleloader season.
Hunters should also be aware that when being transported in or on a vehicle, muzzleloaders will be considered unloaded when uncapped or when the priming charge is removed from the pan. As a safety precaution, I think it just makes common sense for inline users to remove the caps from nipples when it is time to quit hunting for the day or to drive to another wood lot. Many sporting goods stores sell cappers.
HOW TO TIPS
Some hunters still -- and surprisingly, at least to me -- don't consider the taking of a doe a major accomplishment. But as for me, I consider a mature doe a very difficult quarry to outwit in December.
"I think that harvesting an adult doe with a muzzleloader is a tremendous challenge and one that any hunter should be proud of accomplishing," biologist Ryan said.
If you're interested in going after a mature doe, or a buck for that matter, this season, here are some tips.
One of the reasons many West Virginians look forward to hunting the muzzleloader season is the opportunity to track deer to their beds or feeding areas. There is something very elemental and invigorating in one's sporting soul to trail a deer for long distances across the white stuff. One of the most thrilling hunts I have had was the one mentioned at the beginning of this story where I inched along for hundreds of yards after a whitetail.
Without doubt, a major frustration concerning tracking is determining how fresh a track is. Tracks made in fairly hard, crusty snow often are impossibly hard to decipher as to their age. An aid in aging is for hunters to look for droppings along the course of a trail. Although moisture can be absorbed by deer droppings and thus belie their freshness, hunters can still gain insight into the age of tracks if droppings nearby appear to be fresh. And even if the droppings are old, the presence of various droppings can very well indicate that the deer have been using the area for a considerable period of time. Then a hunter might be better off taking a stand in the area instead of following trails.
I had hunted the muzzleloader season for too many years before I realized the importance of dressing warmly. Two areas of concern especially stand out -- feet and head. Several years ago, I bought two pairs of boots, one with 1,200 grams of Thinsulate, the other with 800. I once asked a boot company executive whether there was a guideline in his company's literature when hunters should don boots with 800, 1,200 or an even higher number of grams of Thinsulate. The executive told me that no such formula existed and if it did, it would be worthless.
His reasoning was that individuals vary so much in their ability to withstand cold, that no arbitrary number of Thinsulate grams could be listed as the correct one for a particular temperature. Some hunters may want to do like I did and buy several pairs of winter boots.
Another aspect concerning keeping our feet warm is to wear heavy socks. Some hunters prefer wool models, and I have come to particularly prefer some merino wool socks that I obtained several years ago. During the wintertime, always avoid cotton socks because they do not wick away moisture.
A hunter whose head is warm will be much more likely to stay afield longer and, at the same time, watch for deer much more attentively. I have two hats that I use for December muzzleloader hunting. One of them is a blaze orange model that has a Gore Tex shell and a water-resistant outer layer. The other is a thick wool hat that features long earflaps that tuck under my chin. The latter is the one I prefer when air temperatures drop under 20 degrees and when I am likely to spend hours sitting still.
The December muzzleloading season is quite possibly the most challenging time all year to kill a West Virginia whitetail. But that challenge is also why this season is certainly one of the most invigorating times all year to be afield.