Matt Knox, Deer Project Coordinator for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), reported that there were 209,197 deer taken last season compared to 190,745 taken during the previous season. These figures do not account for special late urban seasons that occur after the general firearms season in early January. The total harvest increased 9 percent.
Of the total, the number of antlered males harvested was 103,310, button bucks numbered 15,000 and does added 90,887 whitetail to the tally. The doe kill reflected 43.4 percent of the harvest.
Rifle hunters took 88,085 deer (42 percent). Shotgun hunters put 51,402 deer (25 percent of the statewide kill) in the freezer. Smokepole hunters took 42,517 whitetails (20 percent) while bow hunters arrowed 15,078 deer (7 percent) followed very closely by crossbow users with 11,719 deer (6 percent). Pistol users managed 212 deer last season.
Those figures show that 67 percent of deer were taken by firearms, 20 percent by muzzleloader and 13 percent by archery gear.
Youth/Apprentice weekend yielded a total of 3,076 deer. VDGIF further reports that more hunters are using the telephone and Internet to check deer. Approximately 167,700 deer or (80 percent) were checked in this manner.
The increase in the number of deer killed last year does not necessarily mean Virginia has more deer.
Biologists consider a harvest variation of up to 10 percent as normal. Factors that can impact deer and deer hunting include Hemorrhagic disease (HD) outbreaks, mast crop conditions, weather, season bag limits, and coyote predation to name a few.
These factors do not necessarily mean the deer herd is on a long-term decline (or increase). Much of the state calls for stabilizing or even decreasing the deer herd to meet management goals. Biologists have instituted liberal doe harvests in many areas and the process is working, which is what state wildlife managers expected.
Hemorrhagic Disease Update
Knox filled in DMAP cooperators on the HD report from last year. His report stated, "Thankfully, fall 2015 was a 'quiet' HD year in Virginia. We needed it after the fall of 2014. If we had any HD activity at all in fall 2015 it appears to have been minor and in Southampton and those counties just east and north of Richmond (the upper middle peninsula). These are the two 'traditional/normal' HD areas in Virginia. The bad news is that in several areas in the upper middle peninsula counties in and around Caroline, King and Queen, King William, Essex and in King George, we were hit pretty hard with HD in fall 2012 and then again in fall 2014. Reports from some DMAP cooperators in these counties indicate that deer herds in some areas are down significantly. To address these deer population declines we have cut the doe days in most of these counties over the last several years. It typically takes a deer herd (approximately) 2 to 3 years to recover from a significant HD event. I expect it will take at least this long in this area after two significant HD events in three years. We will continue to monitor this area closely and make more regulation changes if they are needed."
Barring any bad HD outbreaks this year, hunters statewide should see decent opportunities to take a deer. There were no proposed regulation changes for hunters this season. However, hunters should take the time to read and refresh their memories about regulations where they are hunting.
Habitat and food sources, including mast and agricultural crops, are plentiful in the Tidewater, which helps both deer and hunters. When the acorn production is down, hunters can watch hay fields, soybean, peanuts or other crops.
Peter Acker and Aaron Proctor, both wildlife biologists with VDGIF, noted that the mast crop was slim over much of the region with a few red oaks producing some acorns. Acker noted that the HD that hit Southampton, Greenville and Dinwiddie in 2014 has definitely had a lingering effect on deer herds there. The same is true of King George and Westmoreland. He suggests using trail cameras to inventory deer on your hunting property prior to sitting in a stand.
Southampton and Surry have great soils and great habitats combined with hunters that are doing a good job managing their local herds, which has helped the deer herd. Acker also points out that the area south of the James River and west of Suffolk to I-95 is fertile and habitat rich, which equates to good deer numbers if managed properly. Overall, most private land in the Tidewater is said to be good deer habitat, with the possible exception of land in and around Virginia Beach.
Hunters who do not have access to private land may want to consider Chickahominy WMA in Charles City County (5,217 acres), Big Woods WMA in Sussex (2,208 acres) and Cavalier WMA in the City of Chesapeake (3,800 acres). Big Woods WMA is the one furthest from urban areas and gets the nod for having less hunting pressure. Big Woods WMA does allow dog hunting. Depending on your point of view that can be a plus.
SOUTHERN PIEDMONT REGION
We spoke to Dan Lovelace, Katie Martin and Blair Smyth, all wildlife biologists covering this region. Statistics on deer harvest per square mile of habitat show that there is a cluster of counties along the western edge of the this region — in the foothills of the Blue Ridge — that are noteworthy. These counties see good harvests on their private lands. Overall, HD has not really been a factor in Bedford, Roanoke, or Botetourt. Hunters in this region who want to find good deer numbers should look for agricultural activity. Much of the agriculture in Bedford is hay, pasture, or dairy.
Pittsylvania and the western part of Franklin counties are good bets too. Hay and pasture land dominate the agriculture in western Franklin, while tobacco and grain fields can be found in Pittsylvania along with good pasture land.
Lovelace pointed out that Smith Mountain Lake is experiencing a lot of development, which is a limiting factor for hunting. Hunters who find the right landowners (ones who are fed up with deer browse damage to their property) can sometimes find themselves in a position to arrow deer in a deer-rich area. The lesson here is to network and find some archery opportunities that will put meat in the freezer while making good relationships with the landowners.
Smyth notes that Charlotte area hunters might have a tougher go of it this season due to the lingering effects of HD. Campbell County does tend to have decent numbers of deer, but also high levels of hunting pressure. Access is tough as a result.
Martin notes that the biggest impact on hunters in the eastern portion of the region will be access. Development continues and new landowners sometimes have a different attitude about permitting hunters to access their property. The district Martin covers has a decent amount of small grain production, which helps the deer through the summer and fall in years when mast crops are spotty (as they were last year). Martin also said that there is a fair amount of timbering that produces good successional cover the first 2 to 3 years after the cutting. All in all, Martin reports that private lands in Amelia and Cumberland have good deer populations due to habitat.
Biologists also suggest that public land opportunity could be good on the Cumberland State Forest and Appomattox-Buckingham State Forest due to active timber management. The Amelia WMA is also worth scouting.
SOUTHERN MOUNTAIN REGION
The Southern Mountain Region has come a long way in restoring deer herds. Although the National Forest is still "deer poor," private lands in the region could be considered quite good, particularly the counties in the northeastern portion of the region. Craig was the top county in the state in terms of deer harvested per square mile of habitat. Giles, Montgomery, Pulaski and Grayson were all listed on our top twenty counties list this year.
Matt Knox says that the biologists in that region feel that the mast crop can influence the deer harvests on private lands, and last year the mast was spotty. As all readers know, that meant that the deer were traveling more and seen more, which gave hunters more shooting opportunities.
Hunters who need access can find deer on National Forest, but the hunting will be tougher. Finding areas that have had some timber activity or areas that adjoin private land with pasture or some sort of food source will be the best bets. The National Forest offices can tell readers where timbering has been done. Scouting will be key to finding areas that deer are actively using.
Grayson County is also a very good bet if access can be obtained. The deer habitat is quite good. Grayson has had very liberal seasons for a long time and yet it continues to produce good deer numbers.
Other public land opportunities would include a serious look at Radford Arsenal Hunt. This hunt is tough to get drawn for, but it is intensively managed for hunting opportunities. Hunters who get drawn must take a doe and the next time they are drawn they can take a buck. Check out the website for details. http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/quotahunts/raap-faq.asp
Don't overlook Grayson Highlands State Park for a hunting opportunity either. This managed hunt takes place in early muzzleloader season and in early gun season. Check the regulation book or the website for details. http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/regulations/state-parks-hunting-opportunities.pdf
The Northern Region northern tier has good soils and a very good mix of farmland, apple orchards and pasture land. Loudoun, Fairfax, Clarke, Frederick, and Shenandoah are all in the top twenty list. All of the counties, with the exception of Fairfax, allow rifles. Private lands are very deer dense. Finding a place to hunt is tough, but if networking lands you a place to hunt, the chances are very good some venison is in your future.
Kevin Rose works the Northern Virginia district and reported that red oak acorns were plentiful last season, but the white oaks were not. Persimmons were abundant early in the archery season. There is plenty of suburban browse from plants in subdivisions, though.
As one would expect, access is a big issue for hunters in this region unless they participate in the urban archery seasons or managed hunts. Rose is looking to expand managed hunt opportunities in the next few years. Stay tuned for updates. Fairfax hunters participating in the Fairfax County Deer Management Program took over 1,000 deer least year, according to Rose. He suggests readers consider the managed hunts or become part of a suburban deer-hunting group. Check out this link for information: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/living/wildlife/deer-management/private-property.htm
This season's outlook is good but some work securing property to hunt on and scouting food sources will be necessary to be successful. The biggest challenge facing hunters will be loss of hunting land or opportunities. Spend time year around talking to people to find a place to hunt and then be sure to treat that landowner very well to retain the rights to hunt!