Late-season deer hunting in Virginia offers multiple ways to get your tag.
Ask Bluefield's Tommy Cundiff, who operates River Monster Guide Service, how he feels about pursuing our state's late season whitetails, and he might tell you the story of the fine mid-December 8 pointer (which scored 130 1/8) that he killed with his muzzleloader. He also might tell you that he killed that buck on public land — the Clinch Mountain WMA. But don't expect him to explain more specifically than that.
Also worthy of comment is that the fishing guide had witnessed rutting activity taking place, and found active rubs and even scrapes in the area. The locale was classic Western Virginia public land deer habitat. A mountain laurel copse and bedding area exists along a ridgetop and a hardwood grove lies below the thicket.
Down the mountain from the hardwood section, a stream courses. Adding to the appeal was the fact that a cold front bringing rain and wind was forecast for late afternoon. It was 2 p.m. when the action started; Cundiff was set up near a combination rub/scrape line that ran through the hardwoods.
"This big buck came charging through the oaks, chasing a doe like it was the early rut," recalled Cundiff. "I grunted at him to stop, and to my surprise he did, about 35 yards away. The shot wasn't really all that hard."
Cundiff emphasizes that the most important aspect of his success was not his grunting or the secondary rut possibly being a factor. What was crucial was the type of habitat he was in — that aforementioned trio of laurel thicket, hardwoods, and water source.
"During the late season, I hunt the same type of habitat in the Washington and Jefferson National Forest in Bland, Tazewell, and Craig counties," he said. "All I try to do is find spots with those three features more than a half-mile back in the national forest. Most people won't make the effort to walk even that far back.
"I want to really emphasize that there aren't many does, or bucks for that matter, in the national forest. You're not going to see the number of deer that you do on private land. But you will have a better chance to see older bucks, bigger bucks, than you would on many private land places. And those bucks will be unpressured, too, especially in the late muzzleloader and bow seasons."
Although some hunters experienced success during the late muzzleloader season, many struggled during this time. During the last week of the season, for example, I hunted every day in Botetourt County when the antlerless season was in and only observed deer on one day.
On that outing, I saw four small bucks running past me during the late afternoon. The last day of the season was wretchedly cold and newly fallen snow made hunting conditions miserable — and affected the kill, believes Matt Knox, deer project coordinator for the Virginia Game Department (DGIF).
"The late muzzleloader deer kill was down significantly last year by thousands because the last day was snowed out in many/most western counties," he said."This is traditionally a big deer kill day and the only either-sex deer hunting day in many areas, especially on public land. I think this [type of snowfall] was the first time that this has happened on the last day in my 25 years [with the DGIF]."
Indeed, a comparison of this year's top 10 smokepole counties with last year's figures shows how much state hunters struggled to see and harvest deer last year. The 2016-17 top 10 counties (with harvest in parentheses) were Bedford (496), Augusta (284), Grayson (282), Scott (264), Rockingham (247), Franklin (192), Carroll (191), Shenandoah (188), Rockbridge (170), and Washington (156).
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During the 2015-16 season, Bedford again led the way but with 525 deer checked in, 29 more than this past season. Scott was second with 454, a significant difference of 190. Augusta was third two years ago with 393, 109 more than last year. And so it went throughout the top 10.
Old Dominion sportsmen looking for places to hunt should consider public land options, says Knox. And from now through the winter months to come is a good time to do so. The biologist has this advice for late-season muzzleloaders.
"I would focus on WMAs west of the Blue Ridge," he said. "I think using the late season for scouting is a good idea. Furthermore, if hunters go out and look for sheds in late February and March, the deer trails that are nearly invisible in October and November because of the falling leaves stand out like a network of interstate highways in late winter."
Tommy Cundiff recommended the national forest and the Clinch Mountain WMA as western destinations, but many other possibilities exist, too, as is Knox's point. For example, a solid public land choice in the Wytheville area is the Big Survey WMA (7,300 acres). I have gone afield on Big Survey during the late muzzleloader season, and from my experience, it is very lightly hunted as is typically the case on western public lands come December. Big Survey is a land of tall timber and even taller mountains, again as is typical of western public lands.
If you enjoy the splendid isolation of extremely light hunting pressure and upland hunting, consider the Highland WMA (14,283 acres) in Highland County. Also if you're the type of individual who enjoys still hunting whitetails by following their tracks through snow, this is definitely a place to consider. If any public land in the state has snow now, it would be the Highland WMA. Obviously, this is another WMA that has extremely mountainous land and very few openings.
The largest state WMA is the Goshen/Little North Mountain (33,697 acres) one in Rockbridge County. I visited Goshen last spring and was impressed with the amount of habitat work accomplished: fruit trees planted, openings created, and timber stand improvement completed. A series of logging roads run through Goshen and are marvelous byways to travel to look for deer sign.
Yet another possibility, especially for sportsmen dwelling in the Roanoke and Salem area, is the Havens WMA (7,190 acres). Many years ago, I first hunted Havens, journeying there for grouse which will likely tell you something about the cover (mountain laurel thickets) and habitat (steep mountain hollows with rills). Even though Havens is close to two cities, don't expect to encounter many hunters there in December.
For Northern Virginia outdoorsmen, the Rapidan WMA (10,327 acres) in Madison County has long been a destination. Of all the western public land domains, the Rapidan is most likely to experience heavy late-season pressure, given its proximity to the population center of Fredericksburg and being just a two-hour or so drive from the D.C. area. With so many acres available, and so many of them expected to have hunters bustling about, the Rapidan is one of the places scouting with an eye toward dealing with other hunters can pay off.
LATE-SEASON DEER HUNTING AND URBAN ARCHERY
Ask Will Burkett of Botetourt County if he likes late-season hunting in suburban neighborhoods, and he might tell you about the 4 1/2-year-old doe he killed. If does can be considered trophies, and I think older does should be considered in that way, then Will's deer was in every sense a trophy. That Botetourt whitetail, killed on the last day of December with a crossbow, was the source of many high-quality meals in the months to come.
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Although that doe was taken in a Botetourt County neighborhood, the deer fell under the late-season archery category. Many counties, like Botetourt, permit bowhunting in suburban neighborhoods as part of the regular archery season. Other counties, cities, and towns have specific urban archery seasons.
The urban archery season, which began in 2002, runs annually through late March and only antlerless deer can be killed. This is simply an excellent option for those hunters who want more venison for the freezer. However, deer project coordinator Nelson Lafon says the late part of the urban archery season is very underutilized.
"Only 30 percent of deer are generally harvested during the late portion of urban archery, even though that portion is three times as long [as the early season]," he said. "I suppose it's mostly because hunters are more eager to get out during the early portion in September, and many hunters may be burned out or have full freezers by January. Although deer behavior is different during the January through March period than during the regular hunting seasons, it can still be a rewarding time to be out and there are certainly no shortage of deer to be found in many of our urban areas."
Lafon notes that the urban archery harvest last year was down about 13 percent, but that drop was not unexpected as the deer harvests during the regular archery and gun seasons also declined. A major reason, as is well-known, was the abundant acorn crop in much of the state. Urban and suburban deer favor acorns and are harder to pattern during heavy mast years, just like their country relatives.
Lafon says the urban kill was especially down in the cities of Chesapeake, Franklin, Hopewell, and Lynchburg; in the town of Saltville; and in Chesterfield, Fairfax, James City, and Roanoke counties. I have participated in the urban archery season in Roanoke County more than any other place, and I definitely found the deer there to be harder to pattern last year.
The Fairfax decline, emphasizes the biologist, was especially important in terms of the overall harvest, given the fact that the Fairfax bow kill is one of the major drivers in the urban archery kill. In Northern Virginia, the deer numbers are so high in Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties and the city of Arlington that the season extends through April.
Imagine being able to spring gobbler hunt on an April morning then going deer hunting in one of these domains in the afternoon. How amazing would that be!
Some cities, towns, and counties have hardcore participants in the urban archery season while others have very few individuals participating. Lafon says that nine cities have offered urban archery since 2004 (Bedford, Danville, Fredericksburg, Galax, Hopewell, Lexington, Poquoson, Staunton, and Winchester). The biologist believes that no readily apparent increase in total annual harvest can be attributed to the urban archery season in any of those places, except for Galax and Staunton.
I have talked to several urban archery enthusiasts in Staunton, and they use the September part of the season to kill does and scout for bucks that they can bowhunt come opening day of the regular bow season the first Saturday in October.
Lafon says the relative harvests from urban archery season, all archery seasons, and all weapons seasons vary greatly among participating localities. He also emphasizes that even the removal of a few deer can ease whitetail and human conflicts. Think traffic accidents and incidents of Lyme Disease as well as damage to gardens, shrubbery, and lawns.
Lafon emphasizes that it is very easy for cities, towns, and counties to qualify for the urban archery season. In fact, cities and towns by being cities and towns automatically qualify. Any county with 300 persons per square mile also can qualify. In 2017-18, 49 localities will be participating.
The three new arrivals are the City of Charlottesville and the towns of Boones Mill and Victoria. Boones Mill in Franklin County is a perfect example of how even small towns can participate. The town had a population of just 239 at the 2010 census.
I really enjoy both the late muzzleloader and the urban archery seasons. This past winter, I helped friend Doak Harbison of Botetourt County scout a Roanoke County neighborhood that has an overabundance of whitetails. This September we will be hunting that neighborhood for sure, and if either of us needs another antlerless deer for the freezer come January, we will be there again, too — after we finish hunting with our muzzleloaders during the late season.