Deer season means many things to many hunters. For many, it is a chance to revisit old haunts with old friends, an experience that sometimes includes time in a backcountry camp. It can also be an oh-so-brief period of tranquility before the frantic pace of the upcoming holiday season. But for most hunters, it means time to bag a deer.
Though deer harvests are down in general from the peaks of the early to mid 2000s, when more liberal management policies were put into place to curtail the burgeoning deer population, seasons continue to be quite productive. Last year's hunt produced a significant increase over the take of the prior season, particularly in terms of antlerless harvest.
"In 2013, deer hunters harvested a total of 150,877 deer in the combined deer seasons," reported James Crum, deer biologist for the West Virginia Division of Wildlife. "This is a 14 percent increase from the 2012 harvest and nine percent more than the previous five-year harvest average of 138,713. The combined deer season harvest for 2013 is the 17th largest total deer harvest on record for West Virginia."
Crum said that deer hunting opportunities for hunters across the state in 2014 are proposed to be similar to those in 2013.
"The substantial changes made in 2012 and continued in 2013, to the deer season framework as recommended in the revised White-tailed Deer Operational Plan completed in late December 2011 are proposed to be in place for the 2014 season. In general, these changes aim to increase the diversity of deer hunting opportunities, simplify hunting regulations, better distribute antlerless deer harvest to meet deer population goals and limit conflict among wildlife resource user groups. The revised plan also includes expanded efforts to monitor the deer herd through the collection of biological information at official game checking stations across the state."
According to Crum, during the 2013 seasons DNR personnel examined 3,262 deer from 28 counties to determine age composition of the antlered bucks and found that 34 percent of the bucks were yearlings and 26 percent were 3.5 years of age and older. He said that expanded tracking of the age composition of the buck harvest and other biological parameters of the deer herd will continue this year.
The season structure Crum referred to was merely proposed as this issue went to press. Be sure to consult the brochure supplied with your 2014 license for final details on this year's deer seasons.
As has been the trend for several years, the state's top deer producing areas continue to do so. So when planning a hunt for this season it makes sense to look at what happened during last year's hunt. As such, what follows is a look at the best spots around the Mountain State, on a district-by-district basis.
Keep in mind that total deer harvest tells only part of the story. Some counties, such as Greenbrier, produce high numbers of whitetails on a consistent basis. But there's a lot of forestland in Greenbrier County, so deer sightings in general might not live up to expectations to a hunter unfamiliar with hunting heavily forested, "big woods" areas.
Deer managers use a measurement of deer harvested per square mile of deer habitat in their work. This rate of harvest is also included in the examination of top deer counties, so you'll better understand the overall situation.
DISTRICT 1 — Northern
Preston County had the second highest deer harvest in the state last year with a total harvest of 4,058 whitetails throughout the combined seasons. It led District 1, which is located in the northern portion of the state. Its harvest per square mile rate was 8.53 deer.
As a whole, District 1 had a total 2013 deer harvest of 24,361 whitetails. Its deer per square mile of habitat rate was 9.49.
Sandwiched in a northeastern corner of the state — with Pennsylvania to the north and Maryland to the east — Preston has become a traditional producer of high deer harvests over the past several years.
Preston contains two state owned/managed wildlife management areas. Briery Mountain is a 1,162-acre parcel that's owned by the state armory and managed by the DNR. Hunters can expect to find a mixture on hardwood forest and open fields on this WMA. Hunting Briery Mountain requires a free permit supplied by the state armory board. Call Camp Dawson Natural Resources office at 304-791-4386 for more information. County Route 86/4 bisects the tract, which is located near Kingwood.
Snake Hill WMA provides more than 3,000 acres of public hunting land. The state-owned public hunting area is found along the Cheat River and is shared with neighboring Monongalia County. The terrain varies on the tract, with extremely steep slopes along the river canyon, and more moderate slopes in other areas. The cover is made up of oak-hickory and cove hardwoods. Openings, much the result of gas well clearings, are present. County routes 75 and 75/2 access the area, which is located near Dellslow.
DISTRICT 2 — EASTERN PANHANDLE
Hampshire County led District 2 with a total harvest of 3,417 whitetails, and a deer per square mile/habitat rate of 6.30.
District 2 is located in the Eastern Panhandle of the state. Its total deer harvest last season accounted for 17,023 deer, a rate of 6.24 deer per square mile of habitat.
Nathaniel Mountain WMA is the county's largest public wildlife area. It covers 10,675 acres, and ranges in elevation from 1,000 feet up to over 3,000. Hunters can expect to find an area covered primarily in oak-hickory and Virginia Pine forests. Nathaniel Mountain WMA is located near Romney. It can be accessed from County Route 10 (Grassy Lick Road).
Short Mountain WMA, located south of Nathanial Mountain, provides another 8,000-plus acres of public hunting land. It also is covered mostly in oak-hickory and Virginia Pine. Two mountain ridges converge, forming a horseshoe-shaped basin below. County Route 7 (Ford Hill Road) provides access.
Primitive camping with pit toilets is available at both state-owned WMAs.
DISTRICT 3 — CENTRAL
Centrally located District 3 features a variety of deer habitats, from heavily forested to a mix that includes farmlands. Due in part to the abundance of forestland, this district's harvest rate of deer per square mile of habitat is a more modest 4.99. Last season hunters bagged a total of 17,122 whitetails in district 3.
2013's top deer producer in District 3 was Lewis County, which features two sizeable wildlife management units, both of which encircle popular fishing lakes.
Stonecoal WMA encompasses nearly 3,000 acres, including Stonecoal Lake. This WMA is about three-quarters covered in hardwood forests. The remainder is a mix of clearings and brush/shrub covered fields and forest openings.
Stonewall Jackson WMA covers nearly 19,000 acres and includes the sizeable Stonewall Jackson Lake. Much of the hillsides surrounding Stonewall Jackson Lake are ideal whitetail habitat, featuring a fine blend of mixed hardwoods and reverting farmlands.
Both Stonecoal and Stonewall Jackson WMAs can be accessed from Interstate 79, which runs through the state in a north-to-south direction.
Braxton County, which had the third highest number of deer taken last season in the district, has significant public hunting areas. This includes more than 12,000 acres within the Burnsville Lake WMA, and more than 18,000 acres found at Elk River WMA. Burnsville Lake WMA features a mix of habitat, which includes uplands and bottomlands, steep terrain and more moderate areas. Elk River is found in steeper terrain, and is covered mostly in mature hardwoods with numerous benches providing breaks along the mountainsides.
DISTRICT 4 — SOUTHEASTERN
Like District 3 to the north, District 4 includes significant portions of heavily forested, high-elevation terrain. Last season hunters bagged a total of 11,042 deer here, a rate of 4.13 deer per square mile of habitat.
2013's top deer producer in the district was Monroe County, which accounted for 3,176 bucks and does. Its deer per square mile of habitat rate was 8.49.
Monroe County has limited public lands. Bluestone WMA is shared by Monroe, Summers and Mercer counties. It covers more than 18,000 acres around the New River impoundment for which it is named. It's covered mostly in mature oak-hickory forest, with terrain varying from bottomlands along the New River to moderate-to-steep slopes rising upward from the reservoir and side hollows.
With a total harvest of 2,617 whitetails, Greenbrier County was the second top harvest county last season in District 3. The take per square mile of habitat was 3.52, which reflects the heavily wooded nature of the county.
Hunters can choose between three public areas in Greenbrier, including national and state forestland, as well as a state WMA.
Neola WMA is located in the northeastern portion of the county. Part of Monongahela National Forest also contains Prince State Forest. The terrain is rugged, and covered in oak-hickory and oak-pine forests. Routes 92, 28, 84 and 39 provide access.
The 2,385-acre Meadow River WMA is better known for its waterfowling, but this upland tract also holds plenty of whitetails. Both the Dawson and Sam Black Church exits off of I-64 can be used to get to Meadow River.
Greenbrier State Forest, found in the southern part of the county, provides another 5,130 acres of public hunting land. This state forest is covered mostly by mature hardwoods. It's a mountainous area, and includes 3,280-foot Kates Mountain.
DISTRICT 5 — SOUTHWESTERN
Mason County, West Virginia, which borders the Ohio River, provided a total whitetail harvest in 2013 of 3,982. Its deer per square mile rate was 12.06.
Deer hunters in District 5 harvested 12,711 deer last season; its deer per square mile of habitat harvest rate was 5.37.
Hunters looking for public land in Mason County can choose between Chief Cornstalk and McClintic WMAs.
Chief Cornstalk WMA covers nearly 12,000 acres. It is mostly wooded, with 85 percent existing as hardwood forest. The terrain varies from gentle to moderate slopes. Camping is permitted via the 15 primitive sites found within the public hunting area. Chief Cornstalk is located near the towns of Gallipolis Ferry and Southside.
McClintic WMA's 3,665 acres offer much more diversity than most of the state's public hunting areas, which tend to be dominated by hardwood forest. Hunters can expect to find a mixture of farmland, brush land, wetlands and forests here. The area is found between Point Pleasant and Mason.
DISTRICT 6 — WEST CENTRAL
Jackson County led this west-central district in total harvest last season, where hunters killed a total of 4,384 deer. The deer killed per square mile of habitat rate was 12.05.
District 6 features an abundance of agricultural lands. Its mix of habitat serves the whitetail population well. The district had the highest deer take in the state last year with 26,868 bucks and does being checked in. Its deer per mile of habitat rate was a whopping 10.93.
Frozen Camp WMA provides the best bet in Jackson County for hunters looking for public land to hunt. While a couple other state wildlife areas exist in Jackson, they are of too small of size to be considered for deer hunting.
Located between the towns of Ripley and Marshall, Frozen Camp WMA contains over 2,500 acres. The terrain on Frozen Camp includes steep, wooded slopes and bottomlands. The ridgetops have some openings.
While the presence of camping options was listed above, be sure to double check on availability during deer season. While the DNR often keeps campgrounds open through the two-week buck season, it's wise to inquire beforehand.
Visit the WVDNR website for additional information regarding the state's deer hunting opportunities, as well as any last minute news.