Here's a district-by-district review of our state's top six bow harvest counties from last season. Is there one near you?
By Bruce Ingram
Last year, West Virginia bowhunters checked in 29,790 whitetails, which was a decrease of some 19 percent when compared to the previous year's harvest. What's more, the tally was 10 percent below the five-year average of 33,370.
But the drop in the harvest was not a concern for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR). The goal of the DNR is not to grow ever-larger deer herds in the state's counties so that hunters can kill ever-increasing numbers of deer. The objective is to wisely manage the deer that the state does have so that the herd is composed of larger, healthier animals.
The bow season is one tool the DNR utilizes to help manage the herd, and the best way to accomplish that goal is for state sportsmen to harvest does.
"Continued liberal doe harvests are the key factor relating to larger and healthier animals in the deer population," said DNR Director Ed Hamrick. "Where deer populations are above their management objectives, we will continue to recommend appropriate antlerless deer harvest regulations."
An examination of the breakdown of the deer harvest per each of the state's six management districts reveals a number of counties where the bowhunting should be rewarding this autumn.
Preston Perseveres at the Top
For the past five years, Preston County has held the top position for number of deer harvested by archers in District I. This district, which includes the Northern Panhandle and the northern reaches of the state, has itself been at the top in the harvest per district rankings as well, with tallies from 1999 through 2002 of 7,457, 7,261, 7,504 and 7,899, respectively. Preston itself has recorded harvests from 1999 through 2003 of 1,499, 1,298, 1,376, 1,674 and 1,279, respectively.
"Preston is not known for big- racked bucks, but it is known for having a lot of deer," said Chris Ryan, a wildlife biologist for the DNR. "And Preston is very likely to lead District I this fall in the number of deer killed with a bow. Our main focus is not to increase the number of deer in Preston, but to better manage those we do have. And we are getting closer to that goal."
The major public-hunting land in Preston County is the Coopers Rock State Forest (12,698 acres). But this steep-sided area is not known for its large numbers of whitetails. The backcountry of the forest does harbor some decent bucks, however.
Of course, Preston is not the only county in District I that is likely to offer outstanding bowhunting this coming October. Monongalia often finishes second to Preston and has recorded harvests of 871, 844, 898, 863 and 748 from 1999 through 2003. Like Preston, Monongalia features a number of scattered wood lots with fields, pastures, and agricultural areas generously intermixed. A number of bottomland creek-type habitats also exist in this northern West Virginia county.
Other counties with very respectable harvests last year were (with totals in parentheses) Harrison (554), Tucker (540) and Marion (482).
Cully McCurdy of Marlinton still-hunts his way toward his Monroe County deer stand. Photo by Bruce Ingram
Hardy Handily Leads The Way
Like Preston, Hardy has led its home district in the bow harvest each of the past five years. From 1999 through 2003, the tallies have been 633, 606, 747, 794 and 642, respectively. District II, which consists of the Eastern Panhandle and the eastern reaches of the state, has recorded harvests of 3,600, 3,437, 3,961, 4,257 and 3,513 from 1999 through 2003, respectively.
Because of its relatively small size in comparison to the other districts in the state, District II annually ranks last in the bow harvest. Another factor in the harvest has been the loss of wildlife habitat in parts of the Eastern Panhandle, as the suburbs of Washington, D.C., have been encroaching.
"I would guess that Hardy will likely lead District II in the number of deer harvested with a bow this fall," Ryan said. "The county has a lot of deer for a county in the eastern part of West Virginia, but it is not known for its trophies. Hardy also has a nice blend of wildlife habitat. There are some mountains, but there are also rolling hills and some valleys. The forest is predominantly oak-hickory, and the South Branch of the Potomac flows through the county. The bottomland farms along the South Branch often offer some of the best deer hunting."
Wardensville Wildlife Management Area (WMA) at 55,327 acres is the major public land in Hardy County. What Ryan calls "rough stuff" characterizes this WMA, which is part of the George Washington National Forest and also lies within Hampshire County. Indeed, the Wardensville WMA features very rugged, steep terrain and extended stretches of unbroken hardwood forests. A true backcountry hunting experience can be found in the hinterlands of Wardensville WMA.
Ryan also suggests that bow-benders consider Hampshire County, which has recorded harvests of 560, 447, 539, 583 and 480 from 1999 through 2003, respectively. Last year, the tally was good enough for third in District II. The habitat in Hampshire County is very similar to that in Hardy.
Coming in second last year was Grant with 539. Finishing fourth and fifth were Pendleton (440) and Berkeley (438).
Randolph Rolls Along At No. 1
Once again, Randolph County topped the bow harvest chart for District III, which largely consists of the mountainous counties in central West Virginia. From 1999 through 2003, Randolph achieved bow kills of 1,846, 1,585, 1,542, 1,682 and 1,208, respectively. Last year, Randolph was second in the state only to Preston County. But there is a major caveat regarding Randolph's lofty ranking.
"It is true that Randolph led District III in the bow kill category last year, and the county is very likely to lead the district in 2004," Ryan said. "But that high ranking is just because Randolph is such a large county in size. There are a lot of other counties around the state that offer better deer hunting, and there are counties certainly within District III that do so as well. One of those that do, for example, is Lewis County. Lewis has a lot more deer than Randolph does."
Lewis County was not even among the leaders in District III, as the county recorded 485 bow-killed whitetails last year. But once again, that relatively low ranking was because of the size of the county. Lewis trailed such counties as Webster (724)
, Upshur (637), Braxton (604), and was tied with Pocahontas. Overall, District III has had bow harvests of 7,415, 6,335, 6,736, 7,713 and 5,581 from 1999 through 2003, respectively.
Ryan recommends the Stonewall Jackson WMA (18,289 acres) as a topnotch bowhunting destination and describes it as a place where sportsmen "definitely have a good chance to kill a deer with a bow." I have hunted the Stonewall Jackson WMA and like its great diversity of habitat. In places, the WMA offers rolling hills and old farmland slowly returning to forests. In other places, archers will be able to find oak-hickory stands. Stonewall Jackson Lake also lies within the WMA and creates a form of edge habitat.
Greenbrier Goes To The Top
District IV encompasses a major portion of southern West Virginia. Last year, Greenbrier County led this district in total bow harvest. This county has boasted bow harvests of over 1,000 in four of the past five years. From 1999 through 2003, Greenbrier's tallies have been 1,040, 1,005, 997, 1,280 and 1,009. In contrast, the only other District IV county to top 1,000 in that span has been Fayette, which recorded 1,119 in 2002.
"The major reason Greenbrier has been ranked No. 1 the past five years is because of its large size," Ryan said. "Greenbrier is a very interesting county to bowhunt because it has two faces. In the western part, Greenbrier has the Monongahela National Forest and a number of mountains. Farmland is fairly scarce, and there aren't many deer, although there are some nice bucks in the backcountry of the Monongahela.
"In the eastern part of the county, the Greenbrier River and the farms and fields along its banks characterize the habitat. This part of the county has a heck of a lot more deer and is not known for its big bucks."
The Neola WMA (97,928 acres) is a major public hunting ground in Greenbrier, which the county shares with Pocahontas. West Virginia archers who like the proverbial elbow room often trek into the backcountry of the Neola WMA, where the deer are few, but the bucks are often large. Some 90 percent of the Neola consists of unbroken forest canopy, and the terrain is quite forbidding.
From 1999 through 2003, the harvests in District IV have been 4,868, 4,839, 5,413, 6,507 and 5,707. Besides Greenbrier, the counties in the top five for the district are Fayette (911), McDowell (763), Raleigh (666) and Monroe (619).
Of that group, McDowell obviously offers the best chance for a broad beam, as it is one of the four counties in the state where gun hunting is forbidden. The other members of the quartet are Wyoming, Logan and Mingo. For numbers of deer, I would suggest trying to gain access to one of the many bottomland farms in Monroe County.
Kanawha Is King
District V, which sprawls over much of the western part of the Mountain State, usually ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of number of deer harvested with a bow. From 1999 through 2003, the kill totals have been 5,194, 4,527, 5,441, 5,257 and 4,687, respectively. The leader the past two years has been Kanawha County, which has recorded totals of 892, 768, 961, 1,004 and 784 from 1999 through 2003, respectively.
Before Kanawha became king, Mason County had led the way from 1999 through 2001 with totals of 912, 784 and 1,063, respectively. Mason has been second in 2002 (842) and 2003 (723).
"Once again, Kanawha is a county that led its district just because of its size," Ryan said. "It is also a county that has two distinct personalities. In the northern part, Kanawha has numerous oak-hickory forests and is quite steep, although by no means is the habitat there as rugged as in some of the central mountain counties.
"In the southern part of Kanawha County, you'll find coal country, where a lot of strip mining has taken place. This part of the county is not known for its numbers of deer. The main public land in Kanawha County is the Kanawha State Forest, but it also is not known for having a large number of deer."
Ryan suggests that if District V archers are after venison, they should consider hunting in Mason County. Mason is that uncommon West Virginia county that ranks at or near the top of its district in number of deer harvested, yet actually contains good numbers of whitetails as well. Many counties, the biologist emphasizes, rank high in the deer harvest, but relatively low in the number of whitetails tagged per square mile of wildlife habitat. This is not the case with Mason County.
Mason features quality bottomland habitat, as both the Ohio River and a number of its tributaries are located within. Of course, the Ohio forms much of the western border of Mason. In that bottomland can be found some of the richest soil in West Virginia. The phrase "corn-fed deer" does not often match up with West Virginia, but it does in Mason County.
The major public land in Mason is the almost legendary McClintic WMA (3,655 acres). I don't believe I have ever interviewed a DNR biologist who had a negative word to say about McClintic. They speak with great pride of management activities there, as this public ground is famous for its superlative habitat diversity. Farmland, brushy fields, wetlands, ponds and mixed forest all exist in goodly and pleasing proportions. Please note that given this outstanding habitat, McClintic can receive considerable hunting pressure during the gun seasons and also on Saturdays, even during the bow season. Plan to visit this WMA during the weekdays, if at all possible.
Also, bowhunters, and all deer hunters for that matter, should be aware that McClintic has a restrictive regulation in place regarding bucks. All antlered deer taken must have a minimum 14-inch outside spread. The goal is to create a situation where a public land truly contains some older age bucks. Other counties worth considering in District V are Logan (675), Putnam (542) and Lincoln (432).
Wood Is Wonderful
In 2003, Wood County paced District VI with 683 bow-killed whitetails, following harvests of 756, 604, 795 and 737 from 1999 through 2002, respectively. Wood replaces Roane (843) and Jackson (782) counties at the top of the list. Interestingly, no one county has been dominant in District VI, which consists of the counties in north-central West Virginia, over the past five years. Jackson County (921) led in 2001, while Jackson (640) and Roane (639) finished in a virtual tie in 2000. Roane (823) paced the field in 1999. Overall, District VI has recorded harvests of 5,408, 4,353, 5,617, 5,511 and 3,999 from 1999 through 2003.
That lack of dominance by any county is actually a good thing about bowhunting in District VI, as archers can expect quality sport just about anywhere they go. And biologist Chris Ryan agrees.
"Wood is one of those counties that has a high bow kill, yet also has a very good deer population," he said. "But the same is true for a lot of those District VI counties that lie along the Ohio or have tributaries of the river. Many of those counties have deer populations, in fact, that are higher
than desired levels according to our management objectives. We would like to decrease the numbers of deer in some areas. Wood and these counties are characterized by their rich bottomland and rolling hills."
Another characteristic of District VI locations is that they generally are lacking in major public lands. Some of the larger ones in the district are the Frozen Camp WMA (2,735 acres) in Jackson County, Ritchie Mines (2,300 acres) in Ritchie, The Jug (2,065 acres) in Tyler, and Woodrum (1,700 acres) in Jackson. Obviously, these public areas pale in size to the gigantic WMAs in the Monongahela National Forest and the George Washington and Jefferson, as well.
Of the District VI public lands, Frozen Camp offers some intriguing possibilities. Much of the terrain is hilly by District VI standards, although the elevation is far less than what can be found over much of West Virginia. This upland habitat can give the enterprising archer a chance to put some distance between him and other humans. Habitat diversity exists in the form of some fields and open ridgetops.
I eagerly await the opening of West Virginia's bow season in October. Bowhunters have a dazzling array of choices, whether they are after big bucks or a mature doe for the freezer. Remember that right now is the time to be planning those autumn excursions.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to West Virginia Game & Fish