Mountain State Late-Season Deer Hunts

Late-season bowhunting, plus more liberal bag limits and additional antlerless days, contribute to keeping our deer resource in check.

Sportsmen who are willing to bag does help to keep our deer herd in check and improve hunting for all. Photo by Larry Holjencin

by Bruce Ingram

Given that the January issue of West Virginia Game & Fish comes out in mid-December or so, Mountain State deer enthusiasts have the luxury of planning one or more bowhunts before the season closes on Dec. 31. And gun and youth hunters have options as well, plus there are a number of management and other issues that are worth taking note of at this time of year. Here, then, is a real potpourri of useful information for sportsmen who are after whitetails.

On a recent visit to Charleston, I was able to sit down with Curtis Taylor, chief of the wildlife resources section for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), and talk with him on a variety of topics. If you are a hardcore bowhunter, you well know how difficult taking a whitetail of either sex is during the last two weeks of December. Taylor says that if you still have a hankering for a big buck, then he has a recommendation.

"Most of the late-season bowhunting for trophy bucks is done in southern West Virginia, especially the four counties (Mingo, Logan, Wyoming, and McDowell) that don't have gun hunting," Taylor said. "In fact, I have found that a considerable number of bowhunters from around the state will go to those counties for a chance at a big buck. The individuals who do so are dedicated bowhunters - and what's more, dedicated trophy hunters. Some Pope and Young bucks are killed every December in those four counties.

"In mid- to late December, bowhunters in the rest of the state would be better served if they targeted does. The DNR is desperately trying to encourage hunters to kill more antlerless deer anyway. And, frankly, taking a doe during this time period is an accomplishment that any bowhunter should be proud of. The does that have survived until then are wary and have been hunted for several months. They are definitely not easy to kill."

If hunters are looking for public-land places to hunt during the late bow season and if they are targeting larger bucks, Taylor suggests a quartet of southern West Virginia public lands in the bowhunting-only counties. The ones he recommends are the Berwind Lake WMA (18,000 acres) in McDowell County, R.D. Bailey Lake WMA (17,280 acres) in Mingo and Wyoming counties, the Panther State Forest (10,640 acres) in McDowell County, and the Tug Fork WMA (2,308 acres) in McDowell County.

"No gun hunting in those counties means that even the bucks on these four public lands will have received less hunting pressure," Taylor said. "If there is one thing these public lands have in common, it's that fact. I would also encourage hunters to look at the Monongahela National Forest as a place to go for late-season trophy bucks. Park at a national forest gate, walk for several miles back into the national forest, and use topo maps and scouting tactics to find a place to hang a stand. Monongahela WMAs, such as Neola (96,928 acres in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties) and Rimel (67,251 acres in Pocahontas County), are good places to do just that."

For individuals who just want to take a doe, Taylor suggests the Nathaniel Mountain WMA (8,875 acres) in Hampshire County, Sleepy Creek (22,928 acres) in Berkeley and Morgan counties, and the Short Mountain WMA (8,005 acres) in Hampshire County. In the past, he notes, hunters from southern West Virginia especially, used to travel a great deal to these Eastern Panhandle counties. But with deer numbers being high around most of the state, hunters no longer feel compelled to leave their home areas.

One of the most important things that sportsmen in any state can do to protect their hunting, fishing and trapping heritage is to support programs that set aside land for the future. If hunting is to continue, people must have public land on which to go afield. One of the leading states in the United States in setting aside land for public hunting is West Virginia. The Conservation Stamp that all Mountain State anglers and hunters must buy (for the small cost of $3) every year is a miniscule price to pay. And the proceeds from that $3 stamp largely go toward the state acquiring land for you and me to hunt on - and more importantly, our children, grandchildren, and further posterity. Curtis Taylor is well aware of the benefits of the Conservation Stamp and is a huge supporter of it.

"The Conservation Stamp keeps the DNR in the land-buying business. The Conservation Stamp invests in the outdoors future of our kids and in the sport we love so much - hunting. If a kid, or an adult, or the parents and their family don't have a place to go hunting or fishing, chances are that they won't get into the sport or if they were participating, stop doing so," Taylor remarked.

"The DNR's ongoing goal of continuing to purchase land for the public to use is a real plus for West Virginia's economy - and that is not just my opinion, that is a fact. One of the reasons this state sells so many out-of-state licenses is that people know they can come here and have a quality experience on our public land: the national forests, the state forests, and the wildlife management areas - a number of the latter which have been bought with funds from the Conservation Stamp," he said.

"Some people have complained that taking an acre of land out of the private domain and turning it into public land hurts the tax base, because that acre cannot be taxed anymore. A recent survey shows, however, that an acre of public land generates way more revenue than if someone were paying taxes on it. You know, I really feel sorry for the fish and game departments in those states that don't have a Conservation Stamp or something like one. The people in those departments really have their hands tied when it comes to trying to obtain land for the future."

Taylor explained to me why that acre is good for the tax base and why that acre of public land offers so many benefits to citizens, regardless of whether they fish or hunt. When an in-state (or an out-of-state) sportsman journeys to a public land to go afield, the local economy always benefits. That sportsman will dine at the local eateries, buy supplies at the local hunting and fishing store, purchase gas from the local filling station, and stay at a local motel. If that individual brings along a spouse who does not hunt or other members of the family, the money spent multiples exponentially.

Although Taylor was too polite to mention the names of states that don't have Conservation Stamps and whose fish and game departments suffer because of not having them, readers don't have to look far to find a state that has a pathetic record of land acquisition.

Our sister state of Virginia has purchased only one tract (the Big Survey WMA in the western part of the Old Dominion) of land over the past 20 years. And that purchase took many months longer than it should have because, in part, of the uncertainty of whether Virginia would have the money to do so. Virginia ranks last in the country in purchasing public land and also ranks high in the amount of land lost to development every year. On the other hand, West Virginia ranks among the nation's leaders in setting aside public land - something we should all be proud of.

What's more, continues Taylor, not only does this newly created public land benefit hunters and fishermen, it also benefits all those who love wildlife and, of course, the wildlife. Individuals who like to bird watch, hike, bike and camp also enjoy the benefits of the Conservation Stamp. In fact, I would encourage the hunters and fishermen who read this magazine to encourage their non-hunting and fishing friends who use the outdoors to buy Conservation Stamps. Deer and turkeys to turtles and toads benefit from these land purchases.

Taylor also told me of how the DNR is quite proud of two recent purchases of wildlife management areas. Those newly created WMAs are in the Northern Panhandle, which has had a real scarcity of public land. Taylor says that the DNR has long had a goal of obtaining land in that region because of that scarcity and the large number of hunters and fishermen who live there. The two new WMAs, Cross Creek and Dunkard Fork, will help meet the needs of those sportsmen.

The new Cross Creek WMA (2,081 acres) lies in east-central Brooke County. The land is heavily forested, but it also contains a large percentage of property that is open because of past mining activities. As that open land regenerates itself in the years to come, it will develop from fields to young forests. As this occurs, look for those areas to be prime draws for whitetails. Taylor says the DNR will primarily manage Cross Creek for deer, turkeys, rabbits and ruffed grouse.

Fishermen may also find the Cross Creek WMA worth a visit. This new public land also possesses a number of ponds, which are good places to wet a line for bass and bluegills. Sportsmen can access Cross Creek via Amspoker, Tent Church, Pot Rock and Putney Ridge roads.

The second recently purchased property, Dunkard Fork WMA (470 acres), does not have as much potential as Cross Creek for drawing sportsmen, mostly because of its smaller size. Still, according to Taylor, the WMA has much to offer. Dunkard Fork is primarily forested and is a very beautiful piece of land. The WMA will offer limited hunting opportunities (again, because of its size) for deer, turkeys, grouse and squirrels.

Two other aspects of Dunkard Fork are worth noting. First, Taylor says that Dunkard Fork Lake, a 49-acre impoundment on the property, provides excellent warmwater fishing for black bass, bluegill sunfish and channel catfish. A catch-and-release regulation for black bass should help the fishery there. The lake also has a put-and-take trout fishery with fish stocked annually from January through May.

And, second, Taylor emphasizes that the lake will offer Northern Panhandle waterfowlers a place to go. Goose and various duck species commonly avail themselves of Dunkard Fork. Dunkard Fork WMA is located in northeastern Marshall County along the Pennsylvania state line; in fact, the upper end of the impoundment lies in the Keystone State. The WMA can be accessed via county Route 15. For more information on the Dunkard Fork and Cross Creek WMAs, contact the DNR District I office in Fairmont, (304) 367-2720.

Veteran DNR conservation officer Larry Case was asked about poaching problems in the state, and he told me that one of the most encouraging aspects of his job is that the new hunters coming along are extremely ethical young individuals. As a high school English teacher, I would agree with Case's optimism about the young people who are our hunting future. The students I teach are very ethical and would not consider breaking game laws. I attribute part of that ethical quality to the fact that young people take hunter education classes that are offered in public schools today, and that ethics are strongly stressed.

The incidents of illegal hunting in West Virginia are definitely on the decline. In 1978, for example, 1,124 deer were illegally killed in the state. Those figures remained high with 973, 1,102, 908, 1,138 and 934 deer killed illegally in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983, respectively. In 1984, that total dropped greatly to 784 and has been consistently declining ever since.

For instance, from 1997 through 2000, the number of illegally killed deer was 243, 157, 201 and 157. And here is the best news of all. In 2001, only 37 deer were killed illegally. The DNR conservation officers will not rest, of course, until that number is zero, but those figures are certainly great news.

Curtis Taylor emphasizes that the No. 1 management tool that the DNR has toward controlling deer numbers is the harvesting of antlerless deer. If West Virginia sportsmen want a healthier deer herd with a better buck-to-doe ratio, plus the opportunity to see and kill better-sized bucks, then does have to be harvested. In many areas of the state, the deer herd is at or above carrying capacity, a notable exception being certain areas of southern West Virginia.

When deer numbers need to be reduced, the percentage of does killed should be above 40 percent. The DNR was making progress in reducing the doe percentage. However, the antlerless harvest decreased in 2000 and 2001, and state game biologists were very disappointed with that decline. In 2001, Sunday hunting was legal under certain conditions for the first time since 1956, and I, like many individuals, took advantage of that fact. Archers had eight Sundays when they could go afield, and 9 percent of the total bow harvest was on that day of the week. A single Sunday was open to firearm bucks-only deer hunting and 720 whitetails were tagged on that date.

Unfortunately - or fortunately depending on your point of view - Sunday hunting has been made illegal once again in most counties across the state. Sportsmen will have to check the DNR's hunting regulations booklet for which counties will be open or closed on that date. The loss of Sunday hunting will not be a plus in helping the state manage its deer herd.

Taylor said that the DNR hopes to have a late-season youth hunt during the Christmas holidays and also a late antlerless firearm season after that period. This gun season will be in addition to the regular muzzleloader season in December. Again, check the hunting regulations booklet for complete information or the DNR's Web site:

Taylor also adds that those late-season deer hunts are a major reason why the second half of the fall turkey season was removed from December. For years, turkey enthusiasts, including this writer, have looked forward to that December season as one last chance to kill a turkey before the season closed.

However, Taylor explains that the DNR never wants to have gun deer and gun

turkey seasons running concurrently. Another reason, the biologist continues, to remove the turkey season from December is that hens, which have survived that long, will be the best breeders come spring. It just makes biological sense to protect those birds.

This autumn, hunters will still have their usual number of days to pursue wild turkeys; nothing has changed in that regard. The season will run from Oct. 19 through Nov. 16, and, of course, there will be exceptions regarding which counties will be open and their seasons. Check the regulations booklet or Web site for complete information.

"The DNR has a dedicated staff of biologists who work extremely hard, I am very proud of the work they do; we are like a big family," concluded Chief Taylor.

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