Getting Ready for West Virginia's Bow Opener

It's never too early to start thinking about the bow season -- and planning your strategy as to where you'll be hunting this fall.

By Bruce Ingram

Upon arising at 4 a.m., on opening day of West Virginia's bow season, I began by eating an English muffin, donning camouflage and driving to my land in Monroe County. No, I didn't have to get up at such an early hour, but what avid archer can remain in the sack when opening day has arrived?

The 75-minute drive was uneventful, as was the search for a tree stand to hang my portable. Not wanting to stumble around in the dark for a specific tree, a week earlier I had nailed a posted sign to a red oak that I deemed to be in the perfect spot for me to arrow a deer on its way to its bedding area come dawn. Ascending into the oak, I noticed that some limbs from a striped maple obscured a shooting lane to the left, so I had to snip the offending branches. Now all was right with the pre-dawn world.

An hour or so after sunrise, I heard, then saw, three deer climbing the Monroe County mountain to bed in a copse behind my stand. Unfortunately, the deer had come in from behind me, and the lead doe spotted me as I turned around to look. She stood just 12 yards behind my portable, and for a fleeting moment our eyes met. Prey creatures do not take kindly to making eye contact with predator creatures, i.e., humans. The doe bolted, which scared the two does behind her.

Luckily, though, the duo behind only moved off about 10 yards, which actually placed them in a better shooting lane for me. As I drew back on my compound, one of the whitetails spotted movement and snorted. My arrow fell from its rest and crashed to the ground, and the trio of does all ran back down the mountain. Heart pounding, nerves frayed, I collapsed into the seat of my portable, bitterly disappointed at my incompetence.

Photo by Tim Black

I love to bowhunt, but the supreme challenges of the pastime make me understand why that in any given year only approximately 20 percent of West Virginia's archers arrow a whitetail. Last year, I was among the 80 percent or so who did not affix a tag to one of the state's bucks or does.

But my, oh my, what a year those West Virginians who did score had! Curtis Taylor, chief of the Wildlife Resources Section of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), said that the 2002 season was a record one for archers. Before the season began, DNR biologists had predicted a higher harvest, and the 2002 total was 4 percent higher than the old record of 34,768 that was recorded in 2001.

Taylor said that the DNR was very pleased with the various reports around the Mountain State. Bowhunters were able to locate and arrow deer under varying conditions, which shows their ability to deal with a number of biological and environmental factors. And Taylor was very specific about what those factors were.

"The major factor affecting last year's archery season was the very spotty mast crop throughout West Virginia," he said. "This concentrated deer and other wildlife near fields where the mast was scarce and close to the available food sources in areas of plentiful mast. DNR biologists recently analyzed over 20 years of data that shows the significant correlation between archery harvests and mast conditions. Basically, the less available the mast, the higher the archery harvests and vice versa.

"In addition to the spotty mast conditions, the timing of the archery season, favorable weather conditions, the ability to harvest additional deer through the RB stamp, and a healthy deer herd, all contributed to the banner 2002 archery harvest."

Taylor said another factor was one that certainly might not have occurred to many people, including this writer. The traditional bucks-only gun season is held during Thanksgiving week in West Virginia. This has proven to be a tremendously popular and biologically sound season because hunters are able to get time off from work and the majority of does have already been bred. Last year, Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 28, which is the latest possible day that Thanksgiving can occur by law. This means, Taylor explained, that archery hunters had more time available to hunt during the rut, which improved their chances of killing both bucks and does.

I also asked Taylor about how things are shaping up for the 2003 season, in general, and the future of bowhunting, specifically.

"The future is very bright for West Virginia archery hunters," he said. "With a liberal bag limit, a long season, the availability of public land, and a diversity of opportunities, West Virginia is definitely a great destination for some terrific archery hunting. We have over 1.2 million acres of public land available through the national forests, wildlife management areas and state forests.

"Our wildlife managers conduct sound wildlife management practices on these lands and they offer a diversity of opportunities throughout the state. While many of these public lands receive considerable hunting pressure during the first couple days of gun season, I think that archers will find much less pressure during the bow season if they are willing to do some scouting. Scouting new areas well before the season and talking with your local wildlife manager will help to increase your odds of finding that ideal public land spot in 2003."

Taylor relates that many private landowners are willing to allow hunters to harvest does during the archery season in order to prevent crop damage and promote overall deer health. Harvesting an adult doe, he emphasizes, with archery equipment is much more difficult than killing a young buck. Hunters wishing to gain access to private land should contact landowners during the summer and must be respectful of the land while also being willing to harvest antlerless deer.

Preston County not only led District I, which is basically the northern part of the state, but also tied with Braxton County to place all of West Virginia with a bow harvest of 1,699. Preston is perennially near or at the top of the state in numbers of deer harvested, regardless of the season, as over the previous four years the harvest has been 1,192, 1,499, 1,298, and 1,376, respectively. Preston features a good amount of agricultural land by Mountain State standards, plus numerous small wood lots, pastures and overgrown fields. In short, Preston contains plenty of diverse habitat, the kind on which whitetails flourish.

Preston, of course, is not the only domain in District I worth checking before the season begins this year. As a whole, District I accounted for 7,445 deer arrowed last year, a substantial increase from the 2000 and 2001 totals of 7,261 and 7,603. Monongalia was the second ranked county in the district and ninth overall in the state with 869 deer ha

rvested by archers. Monongalia has been remarkably consistent over the years with bow harvests of 811, 871, 844, and 898 from 1998 through 2001, respectively.

Other counties of note in District I (with harvest figures in parentheses) were Tucker (822), Harrison (712), and Barbour (579). Note: All harvest figures for 2002 were the latest available at press time.

District II, which is mostly the Eastern Panhandle and surrounding counties, usually does not place counties on the top 10 list. Nevertheless, fine bowhunting opportunities do exist in the district and the kill increased in 2002 (4,008) from the 2001 (3,961) and 2000 (3,437) tallies. A major reason why counties in this district do not crack the top 10 listing is that many of them are among the smallest in the state. Another possible reason is the huge lose of habitat caused by ever-expanding Washington, D.C. suburbs.

There are a bunch of counties at the top of the District II harvest parade, with Hardy (646), Hampshire (640) and Grant (632) all cracking the 600 mark. Hardy has yo-yoed up and down in recent years with tallies of 633, 606 and 746 from 1999 through 2001. Hampshire has displayed that same swing with figures of 560, 447 and 539 over that same three-year period. Grant has been on a much more upward arc with harvests of 584, 597 and 653.

A dominant characteristic of hunting in District II is the influence of the Potomac River and its many tributaries. Some of the best hunting exists in river and creek bottomland where agricultural concerns border mature hardwoods or overgrown stream courses. Taking stands in the transition zones between those streams and, say, a corn field or pasture is often a great evening tactic. Morning outings are often most productive if an archer can find well-traveled trails inside saddles in the rolling hill country that also characterizes this region.

District III, which encompasses much of central West Virginia, experienced a phenomenal year in 2002, placing four counties among the top 10. Those counties include Randolph (1,669), which finished second; Nicholas (1,170), which came in fourth; Webster (1,051), which took sixth place, and Braxton (925), which claimed the eighth position. All in all, the district totaled 7,640 whitetails checked in, a major increase over the 2000 and 2001 harvests of 6,335 and 6,736.

Randolph is a popular destination for not only local archers but also for sportsmen across the state. A primary reason for this is because the county possesses so much land that lies within the Monongahela National Forest. Another reason is because the county ranks high every year as a bowhunting locale, as the harvest from 1998 through 2001 has been 1,247, 1,846, 1,585 and 1,542, respectively.

That is not to say that Randolph is an easy county to hunt. The majority of this domain consists of mountains and steep coves, so moving about in Randolph often takes quite a bit of effort. Farming and cattle-rearing operations exist, but they are often far apart.

Although those four top 10 counties certainly command - and deserve - a great deal of attention, other areas in District III are worth traveling to as well. Upshur County recorded a very respectable 809 whitetails, while Pocahontas County bowhunters tallied 827. Lewis County sportsmen accounted for 742. Pocahontas County, especially, has huge tracts of public land, specifically in the form of the Monongahela National Forest.

Like District III, District IV, which covers most of southern West Virginia, claimed a number of top 10 spots in 2002. District IV had as its top counties Greenbrier (1,213), which came in third; Fayette County (1,069), which claimed fifth; and Summers (839), which rounded out the top 10. As a whole, District IV enjoyed a major increase in its deer harvest in 2002 with 6,301 whitetails checked in, compared to the 2001 tally of 5,413 and the 2000 total of 4,839.

Greenbrier is one of my favorite counties to go afield in, and it truly is a sportsman's paradise. The county usually ranks high in bow totals, as from 1998 through 2001 the totals were 725, 1,040, 1,005 and 997, respectively. Another plus is the great amount of public land available in the Monongahela National Forest and the Greenbrier State Forest.

If there ever were a real sleeper in this district, it would be Fayette County. Actually, Fayette can no longer be considered a sleeper as it truly has arrived as a big-time deer destination. Evidence of the dramatic rise in deer numbers exists in the bow harvests from 1998 through 2001 with totals of 665, 757, 676 and 884, respectively. Look for Fayette to top the 1,000 mark this year if hunting conditions are favorable.

Summers County is nearly as appealing as a destination with the harvests there on an uptick as well. From 1998 through 2001, the kill figures were 544, 580, 594 and 678, respectively. This county could well break the 900 mark for the first time this autumn.

District V, which consists of counties in northwest and north-central West Virginia, only featured one county in the top 10 listing - Kanawha with 989. This was a record for this Charleston-area county as it followed harvests of 822, 892, 768 and 961 from 1998 through 2001. Kanawha is yet another county where the magic 1,000 mark is within reach for this coming fall, which is certainly good news for residents of Charleston who now no longer have to travel great distances to find quality hunting.

As a whole, District V archers checked in 5,097 deer, surprisingly below the 5,440 total of 2001, which was the highest harvest in the past five years for the region. District V archers need not worry about this drop. Actually, the kill here has been fairly consistent from 1998 through 2001 with totals of 5,075, 5,194, 4,527 and 5,440, respectively.

Although Kanawha was the only District V county in the top 10, the region offers a prime destination that often is within that select group. Mason County fell from among the elite last year with a harvest of 819, down from the 2001 tally of 1,062. But this county features rich bottomland and a tradition of bowhunting excellence with figures of 976, 912 and 784 from 1998 through 2000. Don't be surprised if Mason rebounds this fall and rejoins its rightful place. Other counties with very respectable harvests included Putnam (704) and Lincoln (621).

District VI, which envelops many of the counties in northern West Virginia, as well as some north-central areas, has long been one of the best regions for hunters around the state to visit. Last year, the kill dropped somewhat with 5,401 whitetails checked in, down from the 2001 figure of 5,615. But, nevertheless, the 2002 harvest compares very favorably with the tallies from 1998 through 2000 as 4,706, 5,408 and 4,353 deer were recorded. The majority of counties in this region obviously are fine destinations to try.

Chief among them last year was Roane County with 824, a record for this county following harvests of 649, 82

3, 639 and 736 from 1998 through 2001. Jackson was almost as good with a harvest of 756. The 2001 season saw a record harvest in Jackson with 921. So the 2002 tally was very much in line with kills of 735, 747 and 640 from 1998 through 2000.

One of the great things about hunting in District VI is that even the counties that trail behind in the bow harvest offer quality time afield. For example, Wood (715) and Ritchie (703) didn't make any top lists, but the duo account for very respectable harvests year after year. Wood County hunters tallied 692, 756, 604 and 795 whitetails from 1998 through 2001. And over the same time period, Ritchie County stick and stringers checked in 608, 661, 593 and 705 deer.

Of all the ways we can pursue whitetails in West Virginia, I prefer to do so with a bow. I plan on being on that same Monroe County mountain on opening day this coming October. Maybe, just maybe, my fortune might turn out a little better. Sometime that day I could be on my way to a check station in Union or Gap Mills. Indeed, West Virginians everywhere should be optimistic about their chances this fall.

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