Deer hunting can have a variety of meanings to different hunters. Prime motivators include time spent in the woods, often with family and friends, frequently the continuation of a long-standing tradition. It also provides a chance to put meat in the freezer, a welcome bounty for the winter months to come. Oftentimes, it's a combination of these factors that draws numbers of sportsmen and women to the woods each fall.
Wildlife managers also welcome the benefits of the yearly deer season, as hunting not only provides a traditional form of recreation, it is also the most effective management tool in balancing the deer herd with the available habitat and level of social acceptance. Much of the fall harvest comes with the annual gun seasons, though archery season also makes a significant contribution, often in areas where gun hunters have difficulty gaining access.
Fortunately, West Virginia's deer herd is relatively stable, and the season structure hasn't changed much in recent years. As such, a good tool in evaluating what might happen this year is to look at what occurred in past years. Considering how a county produces in relation to its amount of available habitat, when blended with other harvest data, provides a better overall picture. However, counties are not all the same in size, and some counties produce more deer per acre because of pressure, habitat and genetics.
2015 DEER SEASON RECAP
According to West Virginia Division of Wildlife Deer Biologist James Crum, during the 2015 deer season hunters harvested a total of 138,493 deer in the combined seasons. This is a 32 percent increase from the 2014 harvest of 104,707 and 10 percent more than the previous five-year average of 126,067. The combined deer season harvest last year is the 21st largest total deer harvest on record for West Virginia, and represents one deer killed for every 106 acres of deer habitat in the state.
Last season, the traditional bucks-only firearms season harvest of 60,814 was a 62 percent increase from that taken in 2014. It was 20 percent above the five-year average of 50,795 in terms of bucks-only seasons.
The 2015 antlerless harvest was 39,852, a drop off of one percent from prior years, and 62 percent less than the record antlerless harvest of 104,199 taken in 2002.
2015's archery season harvest was 32,540, which includes 12,064 taken with a crossbow. This is a 46 percent increase from the prior year, and 28 percent above the five-year average. Muzzleloaders were used to take 5,178 deer in 2015, a decrease of a bit over six percent from 2014.
Of course, since 2012, the early six-day special antlerless muzzleloader season was dropped and the traditional mid-December portion of the season was moved to early December, opening the Monday following the close of buck firearms season. During the 2015 season, 51 counties were open to the two-week bucks-only season.
2016 DEER SEASON OUTLOOK
Crum says that deer hunting opportunities across the state will likely be similar to that of 2015, with the exception of increased antlerless deer season bag limits and more hunting opportunities in counties where recorded deer harvest data indicates female deer harvest should be increased to stabilize or decrease deer populations.
At the time of this writing, proposed 2016 seasons include the opening of archery season on September 24, which is the earliest a statewide archery season has ever opened in the state, with the 2016 muzzleloader season opener proposed to be December 5. The traditional two-week buck firearms season will open Thanksgiving week, on Monday Nov. 21.
CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE
Chronic Wasting Disease — found in deer in Hampshire and Hardy counties — is a threat to the state's deer herd, and should be a concern of all sportsmen. The WVDNR's efforts to control the spread and monitor CWD in free-ranging deer are ongoing.
During the 2015 season, samples taken from 202 hunter-harvested deer brought to DNR staffed stations in Hampshire and Hardy counties were tested for CWD. Of those, eight samples were found to have the abnormal protein associated with CWD, increasing the number of deer found to be infected in those two eastern panhandle counties to 188.
The best way to slow the spread of the disease is to lower the encounter rates between infected and non-infected deer. In Berkeley, Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Jefferson, Mineral and Morgan counties, it is illegal to bait or feed deer at any time. With some exceptions (see the regulations book for details), it's also illegal to transport dead deer or their parts beyond the boundary of Hampshire, Hardy and Morgan counties.
Of course, most Mountain State hunters don't have to worry too much about CWD, as finding good places to hunt is their largest concern.
For several years, Preston County has been one of the top, if not the top, deer producing counties in the state in terms of overall kill.
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. Even better, the county contains two state owned/managed wildlife management areas.
Briery Mountain is a 1,162-acre parcel 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.
Snake Hill WMA provides more than 3,000 acres of public hunting land 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.
Traditionally, Hampshire is one of the state's highest deer producing counties, and typically the best overall one in the eastern part of the state. And it has ample public hunting land.
Nathaniel Mountain WMA is the county's largest public wildlife area. It covers 10,675 acres, and ranges in elevation from 1,000 feet 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.
Short Mountain WMA, located south of Nathanial Mountain, provides another 8,000-plus acres of public hunting land, which is also covered mostly in oak-hickory and Virginia pine. In the area, two mountain ridges converge, forming a horseshoe-shaped basin below.
Primitive camping with pit toilets is available at both of these state-owned WMAs
The third highest deer producer in 2015, Lewis County features two sizeable WMAs, both of which encircle popular fishing lakes.
Stonecoal Lake WMA encompasses nearly 3,000 acres, which includes the lake. This WMA is about three-quarters covered in hardwood forests,while the remainder is a mix of clearings and brush/shrub covered fields and forest openings.
Stonewall Jackson WMA covers nearly 19,000 acres, which 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 WMA's can be accessed from Interstate 79, which runs through the state in a north-to-south direction.
Mountain counties, such as Greenbrier, offer remoteness for the hunting experience. Despite having a lower deer-per-square-mile harvest rate, which relates to the amount of forestland the county boasts, it produces plenty of deer, making the state's top 10 list this year.
Hunters can choose between three public areas in Greenbrier, including both national and state forest land, as well as a state WMA.
Neola WMA is located in the northeastern portion of the county. Part of Monongahela National Forest, this 100,000-plus acre tract also contains Prince State Forest. The terrain is rugged, and covered in oak-hickory and oak-pine
The 2,385-acre Meadow River WMA is better known for its waterfowling, but this bottomland/gentle upland tract also holds plenty of whitetails.
Greenbrier State Forest (www.greenbriersf.com), found in the southern part of the county, provides another 5,130 acres of public hunting land. This mountainous state forest is covered mostly by mature hardwoods, and includes 3,280-foot Kates Mountain. Camping and cabins are available.
Agriculture-rich Mason County is traditionally one of the top deer producers in West Virginia, particularly in terms of deer taken per-square-mile of habitat. Last year was no different, and there's no reason not to expect the same for 2016.
Hunters looking for public land in Mason County can choose between Chief Cornstalk and McClintic WMAs.
Chief Cornstalk WMA covers nearly 12,000 acres, and 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, brushland, wetlands and forests. The area is found between Point Pleasant and Mason.
Like Mason County, for several years Jackson County has been a top deer producer, and one with an outstanding harvest rate compared to forested land.
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 area has camping options, be sure to check on the availability during deer season. The DNR often keeps campgrounds open through the two-week buck season, but it's wise to inquire beforehand.
Finally, remember to consult the 2016 regulations booklet — available online at www.wvdnr.gov — to keep abreast of any regulatory changes for this year. Deer hunters can be a traditional group, but regulations do change, so stay informed to prevent any problems during the deer season. Good luck.