Matt Knox, Deer Project Manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), calculates that hunters in Virginia killed 190,745 deer last season. In the previous season, 2012-13, the number was 242,734.
In other words, the harvest declined a little over 21 percent. Of the deer checked in last year, 88,148 were antlered bucks (106,230 in 2013), 14,592 were button bucks (20,082 in 2013), and 87,937 were does (116,304 in 2013). The doe harvest accounted for approximately 46 percent of the harvest.
Rifle hunters took 34 percent of the deer while shotgun hunters brought home 27 percent of the whitetails. Muzzleloader season continues to be very popular and many hunters use them instead of shotguns where legal. A full 25 percent of the deer were taken with a smokepole. Bow hunters took 8 percent of the deer, followed closely by crossbow users with 6 percent of the harvest.
Youth and Apprentice Day on Sept. 27 of last year had a total deer harvest of 1,890. This number dropped from 2,682 the year before but was very near the 5-year average.
Matt Knox and Nelson Lafon are both deer project coordinators for the VDGIF, and are responsible for the overall implementation of the deer management plan for the state.
Both Knox and Lafon note that there were three main contributing factors for the decrease in deer harvest last season.
First, the deer management plan for a majority of the state has for a number of years called for stabilizing or decreasing the deer herd to meet management goals. To that end, VDGIF used hunters and liberalized doe harvests as the main tool to meet that goal. These aggressive doe harvests have been ongoing for several years and their effect is starting to be realized. Deer management specialists and wildlife biologists expected the harvest to decline at some point.
A second contributing factor in the decline in deer harvest was a very good mast crop of acorns in most of the state. Finding acorns under the oak trees was easier for the deer this past year than it was the previous season, when we saw a noticeable bump in the harvest figures as a result of less food in the woods.
When there is a lot of food available, and that food is spread out in the woods as acorn are (rather than being concentrated in openings, as agricultural crops can be) deer don't have to travel as much to eat and are less susceptible to hunters. While a good mast crop this past season may have meant fewer deer seen, the upside is that the deer went into the winter in good shape.
The last factor that contributed to the harvest figures being down was Hemorrhagic disease (HD). Overall, HD was mainly a factor in the eastern counties (and most particularly, the Tidewater), although some Southern Piedmont and Southern Mountain counties saw effects from the virus. Keep in mind that many of the same areas saw a bad HD outbreak four seasons ago. With a noticeable loss of deer to HD and a great mast crop, hunters in some areas had a very tough time of things last season.
SUNDAY HUNTING UPDATE
Sunday hunting was legal for the first time in Virginia on private lands last year.
Biologists say that Sunday hunting needs to be studied for a minimum of five years to begin getting solid statistical analysis on the impact it has on the deer population. However, for those interested, the first year's results are in.
David Steffen of VDGIF has presented the board of VDGIF with the following data on the topic. The total deer harvest was 190,745. Without counting deer taken on Sundays, the harvest would have been 177,934. This meant that 7.2 percent of the deer harvest occurred on Sundays.
It may be interesting to know that when looking at the average daily harvest, Sundays were always less productive days than Saturdays as a whole for archers, muzzleloaders and firearms users. However, of the three, archery hunters fared the best, with more deer taken on average on a Sunday than on a weekday. Muzzleloader hunters fared about equally with a weekday hunting, but and Sunday firearms hunters took fewer deer on a daily comparison than Saturdays or weekdays. Obviously, Saturday is the big day to be in the woods for most hunters.
PROPOSED 2016 CHANGES
Hunters should take a detailed look at the regulations this season before venturing afield, as there were many proposals at press time to reduce the doe days in counties hard hit by HD. Also, there was a proposal to extend the youth/apprentice day to a full weekend of hunting. Last, hunters may also see a prohibition on the use of deer urine and natural based lures and scents.
Each year we break down the harvest by an index of deer harvested per square mile of deer habitat. This is the most accurate picture of deer density that is available.
Over the past 10 years the list has changed only slightly from year to year. For instance, this year Fairfax County, which has a very high deer density but has very small amounts of huntable land, was added to the list. More archery hunters are taking advantages of the opportunities in that region these days.
Grayson County is always a very good county to visit to deer hunt if you have access and thus it is regularly on the list — but was not last year. The same could be said of Isle of Wight and Accomack.
Here's a look at the deer hunting prospect by region across the state.
The Tidewater Region arguably has the best deer habitat in the state. Swamps and river bottoms give deer a number of places to hide, eat and breed. Agriculture is still very common, with vast fields of soybeans, peanuts, corn and hay. These areas will continue to see stable deer harvests, partly because the deer here are not solely dependent on mast crops. The peninsulas usually have dense deer populations for this reason. It is hard to beat farmland near great river-bottom soil where there are not only row crops but plenty of mast crops too. However, the abundant number of acorns and HD outbreaks made hunting very tough.
Another interesting point that Todd Engelmeyer, district wildlife biologist, notes was that the hunting community's perception about the impacts of HD may have caused some clubs or landowners to back off the doe harvest to keep some deer in the herd for next year. Clubs and hunters that practice this will see their herds recover quicker from HD. However, even without a reduction in hunting pressure, the mast crop was a huge factor.
"The military bases in my area had 30- to 40-percent reductions and they don't dog hunt and their hunting pressure was about the same as last year. They hunt fields and the deer just weren't there," Engelmeyer said.
He went on to state that New Kent felt the worst impact of HD in his district, followed by some areas on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.
"But the disease was very spotty with some areas unaffected in the middle of very hard hit areas," he added.
Another district biologist from the far southern portion of this region is Peter Acker. Acker says that Greensville had the highest rate of HD in the state and Dinwiddie, Sussex, Surry, and Southampton (in descending order) were also hit pretty hard. Aaron Proctor, wildlife biologist, notes in that Prince George, Chesterfield, and Charles City County got hit with HD pretty hard as well.
The biggest key to bagging deer this season is finding areas that were not hit hard by HD and getting access to hunting those lands. Scout ahead of time to determine the local deer population.
SOUTHERN PIEDMONT REGION
Dan Lovelace, district wildlife biologist, was able to provide the scoop on his area of the state.
He notes that in addition to the great mast crop last season and liberalized doe days over the past few years on private land, HD impacted hunting in his district. The disease was reported in many eastern and southern counties of the region, including Amelia, Brunswick, Charlotte, Halifax, Prince Edward and Mecklenburg. Not only did it affect last season's hunting, but it willimpact the number of deer seen this season.
Lovelace pointed out that private lands surrounding Smith Mountain Lake in Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania counties have seen an increase in deer densities. Because development has occurred around the lake, property owners are unknowingly creating deer sanctuaries and great habitat. This has caused homeowners to begin to complain.
Contacting property owner associations or private landowners may provide hunters, particularly archery hunters, with an inroad to have a place to hunt. The Urban Archery Program is another great idea for hunters wanting to bag a deer. Last, public land at Smith Mountain Lake State Park offer great chances at seeing and taking deer. Be sure to apply before the deadline for managed hunts.
SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN REGION
The Southern Mountain Region was the last region of the state to see deer herds recover from all-time lows in the early 1900's. Some areas of the region are still looking to increase deer herds, particularly on public lands of the National Forest, were habitat is not what it should be.
However, other counties within the region have private lands that have a deer management goal of reducing deer numbers. Because of the good mast crop and deer management goals, biologists expected a reduction in the harvest.
Betsy Stinson, one of the biologists from the region, says that her district was not hit that hard by HD, although some clubs may have cut back on their antlerless harvest a bit. In her district the counties with the densest deer population include Craig, Giles, and Montgomery, and although public land hunting can be tough, those same counties would be the better bets for public land opportunities as well.
One tip that can be of value to hunters is to contact the National Forest Service and determine where they have conducted controlled burns in the past few years. Controlled burns create areas where undergrowth and good browse and cover is regenerated after the fire — areas that deer gravitate to. Burns 2 to 3 years old are likely the best locations. The same is true of timbered areas.
One other thing that Matt Knox notes about this region as a whole is that it experienced some late winter mortality in March when there was snow and very cold temperatures. This will result in fewer deer this fall in those locations.
Checking private lands and doing an inventory with trail cameras prior to the season (or some good old-fashioned scouting on public land) will pay off later in the season.
NORTHERN PIEDMONT AND MOUNTAIN REGIONS
Nelson Lafon gave us an update on the hunting conditions last season in this region as a whole. He started out by saying that the previous season saw a mast failure and a spike in the harvest. Those two factors, along with this season's bumper hard mast crop, made the deer numbers appear even lower than they were. Chronic Wasting Disease, although present in the northern and westernmost edge of the region, does not appear to be curtailing hunting pressure.
Access to private lands is the toughest challenge for hunters, and likely will remain so as the region continues to develop outward from metropolitan areas. That aside, hunters wanting to punch a tag should consider getting access in Fairfax County (archery is the easiest way to do this) and other urban and late antlerless-only season areas as deer densities are the greatest.
Don't overlook private lands in Frederick, Warren, Clarke, Loudoun, Prince William, and Culpeper counties. Lands that have cattle, horses or agriculture are prime locations to attempt to get permission to hunt.
This season may be a bit more challenging to fill deer tags due to last year's HD outbreak and late winter mortality, but the likelihood of another bumper crop of acorns is not high. Deer should be on the move during the pre-rut. Consider long-term goals for your hunting property with regard to personal deer management objectives and determine a healthy balance. Good hunting this month!