Last month we noted that Virginia's total deer harvest last season declined 21 percent. Of the deer checked in this past season, 88,148 were antlered bucks compared to 106,230 in 2013.
Also worth noting is that there were 14,592 were button bucks taken from the herd, compared to 20,082 in 2013. The trophy deer harvest dropped approximately 17 percent.
Several factors likely contributed to the decline in the harvest. Hemorrhagic disease (HD) killed both bucks and does in many areas of eastern and southern Virginia last summer. Virginia also experienced a very good mast crop. These two factors alone reduced deer sightings quite a bit.
The deer that avoided HD did not have to venture far to find food and thus were not as easily seen by hunters. Many counties impacted by HD last season had had outbreaks of HD several years ago and were just starting to see a recovery in deer-herd numbers.
Hunters should take the time to determine if their hunting area was hit hard by HD and scout with trail cameras to take inventory of which bucks made it through the season to know what the condition of the local deer herd is on the property.
Matt Knox, Deer Project Coordinator for VDGIF, stated, "The good news is that our data clearly indicates the buck age structure in Virginia is getting older over time. It is not rocket science, but the best place to find and hunt a big buck is in a club or area where they do not shoot little bucks.
Three things control antlers: nutrition, age, and genetics. Genetics is a given (i.e., it cannot be managed in wild, free-ranging deer herds).
In most areas of Virginia, nutrition is not limiting. It can be improved with food plots, but the major factor that deer hunters can control is age. If deer hunters want large, older bucks, then they need to quit shooting little, immature bucks."
As of press time, not all proposals by VDGIF were voted on or finalized. However, there was one adopted proposal that quality buck hunters should be well aware of: Natural deer urine scents or attractants are now banned due to concerns with Chronic Wasting Disease.
Synthetic lures and attractants would not be banned. Please read the regulations on natural deer urine or estrus products before laying down a scent trail this season.
Hunters in the Tidewater Region took 18,391 antlered bucks last season. While that number dropped from the previous season, it is still on par with where the region normally stands in comparison to the other regions.
A full 50 percent of the deer killed were does despite the HD outbreak and a heavy mast crop.
This season there are proposals to limit the number of antlerless days in some counties that were hard hit by HD. If proposal is adopted, hunters may not pass as many small bucks in an effort to take home some meat.
While the HD is bad for both does and bucks, it is worse for hunters wanting to take quality bucks. A doe born one spring is mature and fully capable of producing offspring by the second hunting season.
But if HD kills an adult buck, hunters have to wait several years under the best conditions before that buck is replaced by another quality buck.
Look at the HD Outbreak map that VDGIF provides and keep mind that almost all of the counties in the region were hit with HD, but not all areas were hit to the same degree.
The Northern Neck counties, Eastern Shore and the far southern peninsula counties were not hit as hard, and usually have good numbers of quality bucks, particularly near agriculture areas and hardwood lots.
Todd Engelmeyer, VDGIF wildlife biologist, surmises that besides HD, hunters are mostly challenged with access to hunting land and the costs of joining clubs with lots of land to hunt trophy deer.
Joining a club can be the best way to have a quality buck hunt in this region. Clubs are more likely to control larger pieces of land and implement quality deer management (QDM) than a block of private landowners.
Although most of the public land opportunities are military bases in the region, those bases do harbor quality trophy deer. The trick is heading to the nastiest cover you can find and scouting it and then hunting it.
Hunting public land successfully takes hard work. A lightweight climbing stand and a packed lunch is what Aaron Proctor, one of the region's wildlife biologists, suggested.
Proctor pointed out some good news to leave hunters with from this region.
"Last season was fairly poor all around with regards to bucks due to acorns and HD. I expect this season to be better given the high likelihood we won't have a tremendous mast crop and a severe HD year."
The Southern Piedmont Region was also hit pretty hard by HD. Be sure to scout thoroughly if your hunting land happens to be in one of the HD hotspots of the region. Last season there were 21,303 antlered bucks tagged in this lush region of the state. The previous season 28,767 antlered bucks were harvested.
Because development is becoming more common in the region, particularly around Smith Mountain Lake (as we noted in the last issue), deer are finding sanctuaries in such areas. Some homeowners are beginning to tire of deer eating their plants and gardens and some may be more open to hunters thinning their numbers with a bow or crossbow.
Hunters might also consider looking for big bucks on properties adjoining other lakeside properties. The sanctuaries may be off limits to hunters, but deer are no respecter of boundaries. They come and go as they please.
Careful scouting can reveal where a big buck might be traveling a few hundred yards from a subdivision near the lake to a larger parcel open to hunting. Be sure to have permission no matter where you are hunting, though!
Dan Lovelace is not only a respected wildlife biologist with VDGIF, but an avid hunter who spends plenty of time in the field. His advice to hunters looking to bag a quality buck is to hunt early in the season, either archery or muzzleloader, and particularly the first couple weeks of November.
He reports that antler development was average in his area during the 2014 season due to a lack of hard mast in the fall of 2013. However, he expects there may be more quality bucks in 2015 due to an excellent mast crop in the fall fall of 2014 and a relatively mild winter in his region.
SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN REGION
The Southern Mountain Region hunters killed 18,160 antlered bucks taken last season compared to 19,123 the season prior. Finding good habitat and access to that habitat can be tough in this region.
Most good deer habitat is on private agricultural land, which is typically posted and leased by other hunters.
Betsy Stinson, wildlife biologist, says that Craig, Giles and Montgomery have the best deer densities in her district. They are also where there are public lands in the form of National Forests.
One tactic that might pay off when you are looking for an older buck is to scout via Google maps or topo maps and look for public lands that border private lands. Then scout to see which of those private lands have fields or agriculture.
Again, as noted above, the deer don't pay attention to boundaries and may bed on public land but travel to the private land to feed. Hunters who do some scouting in such areas could score a nice buck.
Stinson noted that for hunters, keys to successfully taking a big buck include preseason scouting, hunting well off the beaten path, knowing what food sources are available in the local area, and having the patience after patterning the right buck to hunt until that buck shows up.
One last tip for hunters looking to hunt public land would be to call the National Forest Service and inquire where the latest controlled burns have taken place. When the burns are over, new or successional growth spurts up and deer gravitate to such areas.
The website for the regional and district offices of the National Forest is www.fs.usda.gov/main/gwj/about-forest/districts. Phone numbers are listed on the site.
The total numbers of harvested antlered bucks last season in this large region was 30,294, down from 34,724 the season before.
Much of the habitat in the western portion of this region is poor from the point of view of deer: it consists of the national Forest's relatively mature woodlands. However, the National Forest Service has been doing some prescribed burning and it is helpful in promoting improvements in habitat in localized areas.
The website for contact information is the same as above. The same tip for hunting public land adjacent to private land applies in this region also.
Nelson Lafon, VDGIF's other deer program coordinator, suggested that hunters who are serious about big bucks should study deer density maps as well as Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young maps.
I took a look at the latter two and found that although habitat can be poor on National Forest lands, many of the western mountain counties had entries for record bucks. Getting well away from the truck and scouting works for at least some dedicated hunters looking for a record buck!
Mike Dye, also with VDGIF, has some advice about accessing private lands further south in the region. He suggests that instead of knocking on doors, prospective hunters use their own network of acquaintances to find a place to hunt. The old saying, "It's all about who you know" is very true.
He also notes that Culpeper and Orange are worth looking into — the cost to join private hunt clubs in those areas is not as high as it is in Northern Virginia or the Richmond area. He ended by saying that Louisa County has a lot of timber operations going on, creating thick areas that hold deer.
While deer numbers may not be extremely high, there are some quality bucks that come from the county each year.
We would be remiss if we did not mention the high deer density in Northern Virginia. Biologists are trying very hard to get hunters to take does in this region. Earn a buck regulations are in place in Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun counties for this reason.
Should a reader be able to access private lands in these counties and be willing to take a few does to meet the requirements of taking a buck, there is a good chance that an older buck will cross paths with you. There is little hunting pressure and archery is definitely the way to go.
With respect to public land, Fort Belvoir is a suggestion as would be Quantico Marine Base.
In summary, scout ahead of time and be patient when looking for your wall hanger this year. There are deer available no matter where you hunt.