Last season Virginia deer hunters saw a noticeable decrease in deer harvest numbers in all categories, including buck numbers. The buck harvest numbers included 95,543 antlered bucks and 19,191 button bucks taken. This was down from 108,443 antlered bucks and 23,592 button bucks from the year prior.
During my conversations with the biologists around the state, hwever, I heard a recurring theme about the buck harvest and a positive trend that biologists are seeing that bodes well for hunters who seek quality bucks. Fred Frenzel, VDGIF biologist working the northern mountain regional counties, was first to point it out.
"These days we are seeing more younger hunters in their 20's and 30's who are pushing quality deer management (QDM) and passing the younger bucks. It seems that some of the older hunters remember the days when we were working to increase the deer herd and that required passing does and shooting only bucks. These days we have reversed things somewhat and now in most areas we need an increase in the doe harvest and hunters are able and encouraged to pass younger bucks."
I also remember the days when the hunting regulations permitted one buck to be taken per season; then the limit was changed to two bucks and finally a doe was added to the bag limit. Quality deer management will, without a doubt, lead to bigger bucks. The willingness and ability to manage for quality bucks on the land you hunt in Virginia has now become more important than what part of the state your land is in with respect to your chances of taking a trophy.
A QUICK LOOK AT THE DATA
Harvest figures always bear some mentioning and are of interest to readers.
Loudoun (4.9 bucks harvested per square mile) topped our chart of the top 20 counties. It was tied by last year's top county, Charles City (4.9) and then Southampton (4.3) made a surprise jump to the third slot. Last season Southampton was not even on the list. Accomack (4.1), King William (3.6), Isle of Wight and Henrico (3.5 each) were also newcomers.
Matt Knox, VDGIF's Deer Project Coordinator, helped connect some dots about the rut last year. Anecdotal info from hunters I talked to showed a bit of confusion by some as to when the rut occurred. Knox pointed out observations by his staff show that the rut was early last year. He noted that in Bedford it was on fire the first day of muzzleloader season, which was the end of October! He also pointed out that they received fawn calls early too, which backs up the observation of the early rut.
"My comments to deer hunter concerning the rut are, if you want to see a rut don't shoot small bucks. Young bucks can breed but they do not exhibit strong "rutting" behaviors. I kept a hunting log for the first time last fall and I saw 37 antlered bucks (while) hunting 27 mornings and/or evenings. Of course I saw some of them more than once. If I had to guess, I would say I saw about 20 different bucks. This is normal. I killed zero! This is normal also. If you shoot the first and most of the bucks you see, you will never see a rut. Second, you have to be in the woods to catch the rut; you can not schedule it in on a work calendar," he explained.
He went on to explain that he also saw a lot of late rut activity into February while out looking for sheds. He stated that this was more than likely fawns breeding, which will mean spotted fawns into the archery season, a good sign of a healthy herd.
THE REGIONAL BREAKDOWN
Last season the harvest dropped from 25,123 to 23,304 antlered bucks in the Tidewater. However, 11 of the top 20 buck-harvest counties in the state were in this region. As was mentioned last month, habitat is prime in the Tidewater counties and because the western counties had mitigating weather conditions that probably cut down on their harvests, the Tidewater counties provided relatively good hunting. The drop in antlered buck harvest was at 8 percent, which is considered within normal variability from one hunting season to the next, even when the herd is healthy.
We spoke with Aaron Proctor about the buck hunting opportunities in the region. Proctor noted that at this time there are no Earn a Buck regulations in the region. Hopefully with hunters' help biologists can stay ahead of the deer herd to stabilize or reduce the herd. Hunters can pass on small bucks, take does and, eventually, reap the rewards of hunting a population of deer that includes larger bucks. Proctor noted that some of the nicer antlers that he hears about or sees are coming from older deer hunt clubs that practice QDM.
"These clubs self police their ranks and practice good management techniques to pass on good genetics. Many of these clubs are located in Surry, Southampton, Isle of Wight and Sussex, but any club that is willing to put in the time and develop the habitat and QDM practices can do the same thing," he relayed to us.
In the Southern Piedmont region hunters saw a decrease in antlered buck harvest from 28,849 to 25,492. This a harvest decrease of approximately 12 percent, but that decrease was certainly caused in part by acorn production that was incredibly heavy and that under those conditions deer do not have to move much to get food and are therefore less likely to be spotted by hunters.
Jim Bowman, VDGIF wildlife biologist from the region, spent a few minutes bringing us up to date on the prospects in the region. He noted that antler restrictions have become a very popular rule with many hunters. On Fairystone and Featherfin WMA there is a "4 points of at least one inch on one side" rule now in effect. Hunting on Featherfin WMA is governed by a series of quota hunts that take place on multiple hunt dates. The newer quota hunt has generated some positive feedback and hunters have expressed appreciation for the buck management practices there. The habitat at Featherfin includes pine and hardwood ridges and reportedly is great deer country.
Fairystone WMA offers a 5,000-acre quality managed deer hunting parcel. The land is fairly steep with narrow valleys forested with beech in the bottoms and a mix of pine and hickory or oak on the hillsides. This WMA is an open hunt rather than a series of a quota hunts, but hunters that do some preseason scouting can find areas that are remote and offer not only a good chance at a quality buck but a quality hunt in a beautiful setting too.
Additionally, Bowman pointed out that most people think that the National Forest is overrun with hunters and the pressure is high. While the National Forest lands may not offer the best places to take a trophy buck, the lands are often devoid of much hunting pressure and bucks can grow old and large on this vast and unpressured land. Hunters just need to work harder to find them.
Bowman also reiterated what Aaron Proctor had pointed out above about QDM and DMAP clubs.
"DMAP clubs are often selective about what they harvest. Therefore the buck kill on DMAP properties may be down some but the doe harvest may be up. This leads to older age-class bucks."
Because I have written these deer forecasts for a number of years now I have noticed some trends that made me curious. One that applies to this region is the fact that Amelia, Cumberland and Powhatan are almost always in the top 20 counties of buck harvests. I asked Bowman about this and he responded that the habitat and soils are good in these three counties. With a variety of habitat, including some agriculture, deer thrive. Bedford is also another county that always seems to make the top 20 and leads the region each year in buck harvest. The same theory applies here: Good soils, good habitat and good hunters equal a high harvest rate.
Hunters In this region punched 16,266 buck tags last season compared to the 19,324 bucks the previous season. Grayson County has been in the "Top 20" lineup since I have been doing this feature story and that has been a number of years. I spoke with Matt Knox to try to get a handle on why this occurs each year. He said that it puzzled him too until he looked at the deer kill in North Carolina and found that the county just south of Grayson has a very high harvest rate as well. Anywhere you have a high harvest rate you generally have a higher deer density too. If there are plenty of deer in the area then it stands to reason that more bucks will be harvested. Buchanan has a very low deer density yet 10 years ago the record typical buck was taken there.
One tactic that will help hunters take advantage of public land in this region to score on a big buck is to scout and hunt land that has been recently manipulated rather than areas with closed-canopy mature forest. National Forests that have had any logging or clearing activity in the last 10 years will help generate new browse in the open areas. New growth not only feeds deer but gives them a place to hide and is generally better habitat than mature forest. Diverse, transition or edge habitats are key places to look. Local National Forest offices can provide info on such activity and maps can often be purchased from them as well.
Last season 13,310 bucks were hauled out of the woods by hunters in this region, down from 15,823 antlered bucks the previous season. However, hunters have good news. The mast crop last year was one of the best in the region for 40 years. As in other parts of the state, the huge acorn crop decreased hunter success rates last year, but this year that heavy mast crop may help bucks get enough protein to grow unusually good antlers as well as pack on muscle mass.
David Kocka works part of the region as a wildlife biologist and he offered a few comments for us about the buck hunting over the last few years.
"Hunters are passing younger bucks and harvesting older age class deer," he said. "If you go to any of the hunting shows and observe the deer mounts put in the competitions you will see this for yourself."
The shows often have booths that promote QDM as well. The idea is catching on fast.
In this region the densest deer herds tend to be in the Northern Valley counties such as Frederick, Clark, and Shenandoah. Given the number of deer taken there year after year it should not escape hunters that they will see plenty of bucks in that area too. However, Kocka noted that sometimes the larger class bucks will grow better or faster when the resources are not being so rapidly used by high numbers of deer. Therefore hunters who find areas where the deer herd is not quite as dense will often find bucks that can take advantage of the resources available.
Fred Frenzel also chipped in a few notes about the upcoming season and harvesting bucks.
"We did not experience any late frosts (and) that typically means a good mast crop. And the National Forest is also not to be overlooked since fewer hunters are taking advantage of the public land. Also of note (€¦) is the fact that the soils in the Shenandoah Valley are outstanding and the agricultural land along the river bottom is prime territory to find high-class bucks. However, this land is private and existing hunters have a good hold on who hunts these lands. Finding a piece of land that you can gain permission to hunt is nearly impossible. Some of these properties are DMAP properties and they often practice some informal QDM.
This region has a good mix of areas with high deer densities and quality buck hunting opportunities. Last season the antlered buck harvest was 17,171; down from 19,324 the previous season. However, the acorn crop certainly had some impact the harvest. The good news is that the record mast crop left deer in great shape, giving them more resources to put into growing antlers this year after a relatively mild winter. There were few if any reports of HD in the area, too.
Typically there are large numbers of bucks taken in Loudoun, Fauquier and Rappahannock. With good soils and plenty of farms scattered in these counties, the bucks have the resources to trophy racks. If you can find a place that restricts the numbers of hunters or practices some sort of QDM or even participates in DMAP, then the chances are even better for a nice buck.
A second spot to consider is Fort A.P. Hill. The Army garrison had a low harvest last year but typically they see very nice bucks come off the post. There is an antler restriction in place so QDM is in effect and the hunters are reaping the rewards for the effort.
Don't forget the new WMA in Caroline County that we mentioned last month. Mattaponi WMA is 2,500 acres and adjoins Fort A.P. Hill. The new WMA has a good mix of habitat along two small rivers and should be a good prospect for deer hunters wanting to spend some time looking for just the right buck. This area of the state is slim on public lands so Fort A.P. Hill and Mattaponi are among the public-land hunters' best opportunities.
All in all things are looking up for hunters looking for a wall hanger. More of us are passing young bucks, the mast crop was good last fall, the winter was mild and deer came through to this season in nice shape. With the proper preparation, some scouting and accurate shooting, the chances are high that we might need to call a friend for help dragging out a "good one" this season.