Top 5 Muzzleloader Counties in West Virginia

Top 5 Muzzleloader Counties in West Virginia

You'll find lots of great deer hunting in the counties detailed here, so get out your favorite smokepole and be prepared to ready, aim, fire!

By Bruce Ingram

Last September, while I was driving my vehicle across a field on my Monroe County land, I startled a group of deer that had bedded down in a pitch pine thicket. Three members of the group were does, but the fourth member of the quartet was a dandy 10-point buck.

A dream, I would guess, of many West Virginia landowners who hunt is to shoot a trophy-sized buck from their own property. My land adjoins the Jefferson National Forest (NF), so I figured that the whitetails would be traveling back and forth between that public land and my property, and that I would not be the only individual who would encounter this particular buck.

And so it was that during the succeeding bow and gun seasons, I took various stands on my land, hoping to see the big boy again. But as the months and the seasons went by, I began to give up hope of ever doing so. Nevertheless, the buck was in my thoughts every time I took a stand.

On the third day of West Virginia's muzzleloader season last December, I was on stand near that pine thicket. About 4 p.m., a mature doe emerged from the grove and began feeding in the field toward me and had moved to within about 85 yards. Suddenly, I spotted a 10-point buck blast out from the national forest, charge across the field and begin to "court" the doe.

Had the doe come back into heat? How on earth had the buck survived the bow and gun seasons? How close would the duo come to my position? Should I shoot the doe if she moved within range or should I hold out for the buck? Those questions flashed through my mind.

I placed the smokepole's sights first on the buck and then on the doe, but both were too far away and moving too quickly for me to risk a shot with a primitive weapon. Some smokepolers feel confident shooting at distances over 60 to 80 yards, but I don't. For several minutes, the buck harassed the doe while they were both in the field, and then the latter trotted into the pine thicket with the former following. I saw them briefly while they were on the fringes of the copse, but I although I stayed on stand until the end of shooting light, neither whitetail ever made another appearance. Nor did they do so when I spent much of the following Saturday hunkered down in the same area. And as the final seconds of the 2002 smokepole season elapsed, I wondered if that buck and I would cross paths in 2003. The answer to that question won't be long in coming, as this year's season will run from Dec. 15 to 20.

Muzzleloading hunters are now allowed to place scopes on their rifles. Photo by Steve Kohls

In 2002, the muzzleloader harvest was 17,413, which was approximately 20 percent above the 2001 tally of 14,189. What's more, the 2002 total was only 7 percent below the record harvest of 18,346 deer taken in 1997. Before the season began, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) officials had predicted a higher harvest because of the spotty mast conditions across the Mountain State.

A lack of food, especially hard mast, such as acorns, can result in deer concentrating around agricultural areas, fields and the few hard- and soft-mast foods that do exist. The result is that hunters can much more easily pattern deer movements under these conditions, thus increasing an individual's chances for success.

Another possible reason for the higher harvest was a major change in the regulations. That change permits muzzleloader hunters to use telescopic sights. I have gone afield with a scoped muzzleloader in several states, but in the past always had to remove the scope when West Virginia's season began. I was thrilled when the news came down that I could use a scope in the Mountain State. I am sure that many other state hunters feel the same way. Of course, I am also sure that many traditionalists, who favor more primitive frontstuffers such as flintlocks, were understandably upset about the new regulation. Obviously, no one has to affix a scope to his gun now; we just merely have that option.

A final reason the DNR listed as a possible cause for the higher kill was the presence of snow over much of the state during the muzzleloader season. Snow creates two advantages for hunters. First, the brown coat of a winter deer stands out more against a white background, allowing hunters to better espy this game animal. And, second, a number of West Virginians I have been afield with over the years like to track late-season deer. Tracks in the snow enable a hunter to be more alert and ready to shoot as he approaches a deer's bedding or feeding ground.

In 2002, the top 10 counties (with harvest numbers in parentheses) were as follows: Randolph (1,081), Greenbrier (1,080), Braxton (990), Fayette (637), Pocahontas (632), Preston (617), Ritchie (529), Lewis (528), Grant (514) and Hardy (498). By district, the harvest figures were as follows: District I (Northern Panhandle and northern West Virginia, 3,316), District II (Eastern Panhandle and eastern West Virginia, 2,433), District III (central West Virginia, 3,940), District IV (southern West Virginia, 3,092), District V (western West Virginia, 1,329) and District VI (northwestern West Virginia, 3,303).

All districts recorded higher harvests, although in districts V and VI, the increases were small. Districts I and II saw their harvests rise by over 300, District III by over 1,000 and District IV by over 1,400. In District I, counties not in the top 10, but with harvests of over 250, include: Barbour (263), Harrison (372), Marshall (321), Monongalia (345) and Wetzel (442). For District II, those counties were Hampshire (425) and Pendleton (332); and in District III, they include Upshur (385) and Webster (277).

District IV counties with that distinction included Monroe (487) and Summers (455); and in District V, the representative was Mason (340). For District VI, Calhoun (259), Doddridge (302), Gilmer (309), Jackson (423), Roane (397), Tyler (343), Wirt (300) and Wood (318) all made the grade.

Randolph County
Randolph is one of the largest counties, not only in West Virginia but also in the entire East, so its sheer size is often the reason it leads the way in deer harvest in any given season or year. Much of Randolph County consists of public land, and snow will likely blanket much of that real estate come muzzleloader season, as was true this past season. Many of the farms in this District III area lie in the valleys, many of which are part of the Monongahela NF. Indeed, flat land is at a premium in this very mountainous county.

Public land options include the 37,674-acre Beaver Dam Wildlife Management Area (WMA), the Cheat WMA (80,771 acres) and Otter Creek WMA (68,782 acres -

this WMA also lies in Tucker County). Randolph also shares several other WMAs in the Monongahela NF. Among them are Potomac (139,786 acres) and Tea Creek (67,919 acres).

Greenbrier County
Greenbrier is the second-ranked county and another one that contains a great deal of public land. I have hunted both private land farms and the WMAs of the Monongahela NF in this county, and both have a great deal to offer. But given the fact that late-season whitetails are notoriously hard to pattern in Greenbrier, as is true throughout the Mountain State during the smokepole period, I would prefer to be afield on private land where deer densities are higher.

Still, diligent hunters who take the time to learn late-season food sources can punch a tag on public land in Greenbrier. Some of the best options are the Neola WMA (97,928 acres - which Greenbrier shares with Pocahontas County) and the Greenbrier State Forest (5,130 acres). Of the two, I would suggest the Greenbrier State Forest, although I have been afield on both. Some recent timber management on the Greenbrier SF could produce some interesting deer hunting.

Braxton County
The third place finisher was Braxton County. The deer herd in this District III region has steadily increased over the past two decades, and the harvest figures prove that trend. Another plus for this central West Virginia county is that it contains two intriguing public lands.

The Burnsville Lake WMA (12,579 acres) is located conveniently to Interstate 79 as well as to U.S. Route 19 - two main roads for central West Virginia. Burnsville Lake WMA possesses a pleasing mix of young timber, old fields, regenerating forest, upland terrain and rolling hills. This is one public land that could provide some very stimulating sport for the sportsman who is willing to scout it.

Also a strong possibility is the Elk River WMA (18,225 acres). This WMA does not have the habitat variety that Burnsville Lake WMA does, as the former is more mountainous and wooded. But its rugged terrain makes for a solid destination for hunters who are willing to hike far away from the crowds - such as they are during the late season when the hunting pressure everywhere has greatly diminished. The Elk River WMA is also located off Interstate 79.

Fayette County
The fourth place finisher was Fayette County. A decade or so ago, I remember being less than lukewarm to an invitation from a Fayette County landowner to go afield with him during the December muzzleloader season. In fact, I ended up turning down the invitation, feeling that the county just didn't harbor many whitetails. I also remember that same landowner telling me that the deer herd was steadily increasing there.

Now I feel foolish about having turned down that invitation, as Fayette now boasts a very solid deer herd, and I have not received a follow-up invite to go afield with that landowner. The farms in Fayette often have considerable numbers of deer within their bounds, and those private lands would be your best option if you have a chance to go afield there this December.

For public land devotees, the Beury WMA (3,061 acres) is a good choice. This public land, which is located near Babcock State Park, no doubt features a deer herd that benefits from the private lands around it. Most of Beury Mountain is forested, so late- season deer may well be leaving this WMA in the evenings to feed on adjacent private lands. Positioning a stand on the border of Beury and a farm could well prove to be a smart gambit.

Pocahontas County
Rounding out the top five was Pocahontas. Some 75 percent of Pocahontas consists of public land, and much of that government property lies in seemingly never-ending mountain chains. I recently went afield with Cully McCurdy, who lives outside of Marlinton and who used to manage the Calvin Price State Forest, which sprawls over 10,000 acres in Pocahontas County.

McCurdy recently said that Calvin Price is heavily forested and that it does have a huntable deer herd. This state forest also features some fairly steep terrain and a few wildlife openings. Another Pocahontas public land is the Neola WMA (97,928 acres), which McCurdy currently manages. He has created a number of wildlife openings on Neola that could be real late-season whitetail magnets. Both Neola and Calvin Price are located near Marlinton and state Route 39.

I asked Chris Ryan, a wildlife biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), if my observation of the 10-point buck chasing the doe was something that other hunters should expect to witness during the late muzzleloader season.

"I don't believe that muzzleloader hunters can count on finding nice bucks that are chasing does at this time," he told me. "You were very, very fortunate to see something like that. Some rutting activity no doubt goes on, but for the most part, hunters will likely be more successful if they concentrate on looking for does and finding late-season food sources.

"In my opinion, any hunter who kills a mature doe during the muzzleloader season has accomplished something to be very proud of. This is not a time when deer - bucks or does - come easily. There's nothing wrong, of course, about holding out for a big buck, but it will be hard to fill a tag by doing so."

I agree wholeheartedly with Ryan, and, to be honest, I would have shot any mature doe that passed by me last December on my Monroe County land - if only one had done so in such a way that a killing shot could have been made. Like many West Virginia hunters, I will sometimes pass on does during the early archery and rifle seasons, but if I am afield in the 20-degree or colder weather of mid to late December and a fat doe meanders by and presents a good shot, I am not going to hesitate to place my in-line's sights on her.

Another relevant point that Ryan makes is that finding food sources is a major key to late-season success. Last year, for example, the hard-mast crop failure resulted in the deer concentrating near agricultural areas. The deer I did see moved early in the afternoon on their way through the Jefferson NF and to agricultural lands in a Monroe County valley below. They often began their migration from my land as early as 3 p.m.

This leads to another how-to tip about late-season muzzleloading. Given the scarcity of food, deer may begin moving earlier in the evenings than during the bow and rifle seasons. Deer instinctively know that they will have to travel farther to find nourishment, and they may leave their beds very early in the afternoon.

In fact, I like to be on stand around noon and stay in that location until sunset. I saw a number of deer this past season, during the late bow season, arise and begin foraging between noon and 1 p.m. This year during the muzzleloader period, I hope to take advantage of these midday meanderings - as one friend of mind calls deer movements then.

A good place to take a stand in the middle of the day is a patch of honeys

uckle or an old orchard. During the late season, I have probably witnessed more deer feeding on the green leaves of honeysuckle than any other menu item. Sometimes fallen, mostly rotten apples will be scattered about in old orchards, which makes these places marvelous destinations. But another reason that deer frequent fruit tree farms is because of the grassy rows that lie between the trees. Even if the fruit has all been consumed, the deer can still extract nourishment from the brown grass.

West Virginia's late muzzleloader season is a challenging time to be afield: Cold weather, freezing rain, snowfall and unpredictable deer are all part of the experience. I hunt every day I can during the late season, though most of time I come home without visiting a check station or even firing a shot. But like many readers of this magazine, I love trying my luck with West Virginia's deer during this wonderful time of the year.

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