Old-school hunting enthusiasts in our state continue to do their part to manage the deer resource by posting impressive harvest numbers -- one shot at a time -- each season. Here's the latest! (December 2007)
Photo by Tim Black.
The last day of West Virginia's muzzleloader season had quickly arrived, but I had my agenda already planned. I would meet my contacts at a Monroe County farmhouse, where we would divvy up the property for a morning hunt. By midmorning, if no deer had been taken, I would head for my Monroe County property that borders the Jefferson National Forest.
Nearly right away, the plan unraveled. I couldn't find the correct meeting spot until just before sunrise, thus causing the four other hunters who had been waiting for me to be late arriving at their respective stands. Then when I trekked to my stand location, it was totally devoid of fresh tracks and droppings. There weren't any acorns remaining on the ground, either.
After shivering against the base of a chestnut oak for what seemed like hours (and without glimpsing any whitetails or hearing any shots from my compatriots), I abandoned the lowland farm and headed to my mountain wood lot. The wind was howling there, making the 20-degree temperature in the vale seem balmy.
Just when I was about to give up for the morning, I saw a doe making her way across the frozen mountainside of my land along the national forest border. I mounted my in-line, found the doe in the scope and trained it on her, and then noted that she had crossed over onto public land. Last year during the muzzleloader season, antlerless deer were not legal game on national forest land in Monroe, so I had to let the doe slink away into a mountain laurel thicket.
Several more hours elapsed before the cold, as it had done earlier in the lowlands, drove me away from the highlands. Once again, the daunting challenges of West Virginia's December muzzleloader season had defeated me. Moreover, my tardiness had hurt the chances of four West Virginia hunters -- not exactly a memorable performance on the part of this writer.
My ineptitude aside, last year was not a good one for Mountain State smokepolers as a whole. Sportsmen checked in 6,890 whitetails, a decline of 24 percent from the 2005 season and a steep drop of 52 percent below the five-year average harvest of 14,417. Indeed, the harvest has been in freefall the past five years, as the tally from 2002 through 2006 has been 17,458, 16,272, 15,104, 9,064 and 6,890, respectively.
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist Jim Crumb reports that part of the reason for the decline was new licensing requirements in order for hunters to tote a smokepole afield. Other factors were three counties no longer allowing antlerless-only hunting, and four other counties allowing only one antlerless deer during the season. Usually, antlerless deer contribute to about 80 percent of the overall muzzleloader harvest.
Because of the more conservative regulations among other factors, the DNR anticipated the harvest decline, as the past few years the state has been trying to increase the antlerless population after a period when the DNR was trying to reduce the herd. The periods of decreasing and increasing the herd are all part of a sound strategy by the DNR to help local deer numbers to be in better harmony with their environment.
A primary way to accomplish this objective is through the harvest of antlerless deer. Eventually, the deer and their habitat will reap the benefits, and hunters will ideally have healthier animals to pursue. Dick Hall, game management supervisor out of the Elkins DNR office, comments further.
"The 2006 muzzleloader season harvest was reflected in the number of counties which had an either-sex muzzleloader season," he explained. "In 2005, 41 counties were open as compared with 29 in 2006. Furthermore, in 2006, we changed the license structure whereby the RG/RRG license could no longer be rolled over and used in the muzzleloader season. In order to take a second deer in 2006, a hunter had to buy the RM/RRM license. A reduction in the deer population in many counties also contributed to a lower muzzleloader kill."
For enthusiasts like myself, the next question that comes to mind is: Will there be more counties open to antlerless hunting this coming season? In southern West Virginia where I do most of my hunting, I had to read the regulations carefully in order to find a county where antlerless hunting was permitted. Fortunately, the answer is "yes" regarding whether or not more counties will be open.
In 2007, 29 counties or parts thereof will have a two deer of either sex bag limit: one deer on base license and one deer on RM/RRM licenses, Hall continued. Sixteen counties or parts thereof will have a two-deer bag limit: one either sex and one antlered deer or one on base license and one on RM/RRM license. Five counties or parts thereof will have a two-deer bag limit: antlered deer only or one on base license and one on RM/RRM license.
Unfortunately, the biologist stated, the past restrictions on killing antlerless deer on public land will remain in effect. That is why, for instance, I had to let that national forest doe walk away last December.
"Public land openings will remain essentially the same for the 2007 muzzleloader season," Hall said. "We have increased the number of wildlife management areas and state forests open to antlerless deer hunting with conventional firearms for youth and Class Q hunters (three days) from 21 to 48 and on private land in all counties having a firearms deer season."
In short, smokepolers will largely have to depend on private lands for antlerless hunting. Another important point to emphasize is that according to information published in the current Big Game Bulletin, "Antlerless deer will not be allowed to be taken on an unfilled RG or RGG additional deer license during the 2007 antlerless deer Class N season or muzzleloader season."
Hall urges sportsmen to consult the Web site of the DNR for complete, up-to-date information: www.wvdnr.gov. The current hunting regulations booklet is another excellent source for information.
STATE'S TOP COUNTIES
West Virginia sportsmen can gain insight on where to go this December if they know what the top smokepole counties were last year. The top 12 counties (with harvest numbers in parentheses) were as follows: Lewis (390), Preston (330), Monroe (289), Mason (288) Jackson (279), Ritchie (268), Upshur (257), Monongalia (251), Wood (230), Hardy (228), Barbour (221) and Grant (219).
There is no question that districts I and VI remain the hotspots for muzzleloader hunting. District I, which takes in the Northern Panhandle and much of the northern part of the state, f
eatures a number of small counties; yet, they combined to tally 1,905 whitetails -- leading the state.
As a group, the District I counties feature rolling hills, small tributaries of the Ohio River, scattered wood lots, small acreage agricultural concerns and brushy fields. For many, if not most, West Virginians, District I is a considerable driving distance; but if I really wanted to tag a deer during the December smokepole season, I would contact landowners in this region. Counties such as Barbour, Harrison, Marion, Marshall, Monongalia, Preston and Wetzel have considerable deer herds.
District VI, which encompasses the north-central part of the state and totaled 1,852 deer, features similar land type characteristics. Counties such as Doddridge, Gilmer, Jackson, Ritchie, Roane, Tyler and Wood usually account for solid harvests. This is another district that sportsmen should consider for this December.
Coming in third in the regional breakdown is District II, which covers the Eastern Panhandle and surrounding counties. Traditionally good counties in this district include Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Mineral and Pendleton. Terrain varies quite a bit in these domains, from Mineral, which lies along the Potomac, to Pendleton, which has a great deal of highland habitat.
In the other three districts, smokepole hunting was, for the most part, challenging in 2006. District III, which covers the mountainous central counties, accounted for 822 whitetails. Lewis and Upshur counties accounted for the vast majority of those deer, while the rest of the counties did not even top 50 in the harvest table. Finding a late-season deer and navigating through what is often deep snow will likely be a challenge in most of this region in 2007.
District V, which encompasses much of the western counties, only registered 668 whitetails. Mason County accounted for the greatest number of those, with Putnam second with just 112. Killing a doe in this region, outside of Mason, could be difficult this December.
In District IV, which is largely the steep mountains and narrow valleys of southern West Virginia, the total was 473, with Monroe tallying well over half of that figure. For perspective, Greenbrier County was next with just 76. Public-land opportunities for antlerless deer are scarce here, so hunters will have to look to private land. Look for hunting to be quite challenging come December.
CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE (CWD)
The West Virginia DNR continues to strive to communicate to the public the latest about CWD. Earlier this year, the DNR announced that that three more free-ranging deer in Hampshire County tested positive for CWD. These latest findings bring the total number of CWD-positive deer found in Hampshire County to 13. These most recent samples were collected from a total of 101 adult deer taken in March and April by DNR personnel as part of an ongoing and intensive CWD surveillance effort.
The three CWD-positive deer were collected within the CWD Containment Area located north of U.S. Route 50 in Hampshire County in a small geographic area situated near Slanesville. It is important to note that currently there is no evidence to suggest CWD poses a risk for humans or domestic animals.
Director Frank Jezioro emphasized that the DNR has "implemented appropriate management actions designed to control the spread of this disease, prevent further introduction of the disease and possibly eliminate the disease from the state."
More information on CWD can be found at the CWD Alliance Web site: www.cwd-info.org
In numerous outdoor magazines, many if not most articles detail how hunters can kill big bucks. When late-season deer-hunting tactics are covered, once again the emphasis is on how to kill trophies. There is also quite a bit of information about how to hunt the second rut and the need to hold out for true trophy animals.
To put things bluntly, such information is largely useless for the majority of West Virginians who will be afield this December during the muzzleloader season. During some 15 years of hunting with a bow and muzzleloader in mid to late December, I have seen exactly one West Virginia buck chasing a doe. That buck was a massive 10-pointer.
Point of emphasis, that is one rutting buck in 15 years, so I might not be due to witness another such sighting until, say, 2020 or so. In the meantime, I believe that yours truly and you the reader would be better served by concentrating on how to tag an antlerless whitetail this December. I have little confidence that there is such a thing as the second rut (please don't write letters to the editor because of that statement) or that very many of this magazine's readers will see rutting deer in mid to late December. If you want to hold out for a large buck and a chance to smoke him, by all means do so. Again, most of us should target does in counties with an antlerless season.
That said, what should we base our hunting strategies on? The answer is simple -- food, but the implementation of that strategy is difficult. Mid to late December Mountain State whitetails are primarily driven (and I am including every animal from old trophy bucks to button bucks and does) to locate food sources.
The problem lies in determining just what those menu items will be at this time of year. When devising a strategy, a wise place for us to start is with the hard-mast situation. Perhaps two out of every five years will see much of the state experience a large or considerable crop of white acorns. The problem is, however, that by mid-December even in abundant white oak acorn years, these nuts have usually already been eaten.
Red oak trees, however, are much more consistent in their bearing, and the state contains quite a few species, among them Northern red, scarlet, black and blackjack, just to name a few. Last year in some places around the state, red oak acorns still lay on the ground in mid to late December. Hunters who were able to locate these spots were likely to have had more success than those of us who could not.
Many Decembers, though, even the red oak acorns will have been consumed. Smokepolers will then have two main strategies to choose between. The first gambit is to set up between a field and bedding area. When hard-mast foods are gone, deer are often forced to enter fields to find nourishment. Once there, they will browse on twigs and leaves around the field edges and gain what nourishment they can from the various kinds of grasses and weeds that grow in the openings. This is hardscrabble feeding for sure, but a deer that is successful at it will survive the winter.
One year, I watched a Monroe County hunter take a large doe that entered a field a half hour or so before sundown. The temperature was frigid, the sky was gray and overcast, but my buddy was euphoric that he had remained on stand during discouraging conditions.
The second strategy is to look for soft-mast food sources and oddball ones. For example, in southern West Virginia as elsewhere, one of the most likely soft-mast foods th
at will still be available is the persimmon. Even in December, persimmons, frozen though they may be, will still be clinging to low-hanging limbs or partially covered with frost or snow. You can be sure that deer know about these ice-coated balls of nourishment -- I have heard some deer hunters call them "persimmon popsicles."
A good example of an oddball food source is the honeysuckle. Many times, I have witnessed late-season deer browsing on honeysuckle leaves and twigs and have even seen them walk across grassy openings to honeysuckle patches along the tree line.
Our December muzzleloading season will likely be challenging again this year. However, this season was never meant to be easy, especially given the primitive nature of these guns. I plan to go as often as I can and perhaps even take a doe to a check station.
Find more about West Virginia fishing and hunting at: WVgameandfish.com