The sport of deer hunting includes a variety of aspects, such as the prospect of putting a supply of healthy venison in the freezer.
But for some hunters the activity goes beyond the harvest of a deer or two; to them deer hunting means exercising a combination of sound planning and self discipline to up their chances of taking a trophy buck.
Now we can't help you with the self-discipline component. When an immature buck walks by you'll just have to restrain yourself to let it walk. But we can help with the planning. That's what this issue is all about: providing you with the needed information to up your odds of taking a big Mountain State buck this year.
First of all, keep in mind that the term "big buck" is both relative and subjective. Antler growth is affected by the genetics, age and nutrition of the buck carrying them. A big buck from a high elevation, heavily forested county with more limited food sources will likely be less impressive than one from the fertile bottomlands of an Ohio River valley bottomlands.
Genetics play a key role. Just as the male offspring of two slightly built human parents isn't likely to become a National Football League lineman, good blood lines are important in whitetails. And even with a variety of good food sources and proper genetics, a buck has to attain some age before it grows impressive headgear.
In a state like West Virginia, where many of bucks killed are 1 1/2 years old, the available remaining pool of male deer is more limited. While 2 1/2-year-olds can have some might nice antlers, a buck doesn't really reach maturity until its fifth year.
According to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, antler size is correlated to the age, health and genetics of the buck. Proper nutrition and herd management will ensure the health of the buck. Older age-classes and superior genetics can be favored by allowing younger bucks to get older and selectively leaving better quality bucks for breeding purposes.
It is recommended that antler size be compared by using the average number of points and the average outside spread of the antlers. The average number of points and antler spread of yearling bucks is usually four points and 8 inches in West Virginia.
These yearling buck averages are similar in our bowhunting-only counties in southern West Virginia. However, in these counties the average age of bucks is much higher and trophy bucks are more common. A 5 1/2-year-old buck in southern West Virginia averages 11 points with a spread of 19 inches.
The subjective part of the deal is that the harvest of a nice buck is a personal thing. For one hunter it might be a quest for a record-book caliber buck, one worthy of a cover shot on a magazine like this. Yet another might be happy with what's simply his or her personal best buck.
For many years the WVDNR has administered the annual Big Buck Contest, which honors the biggest typical and non-typical whitetails entered in the program each year. Historically the contest categorized typical and non-typicals taken with gun and bow. Three years ago two more categories where added, those being muzzleloader and crossbow harvests. The contest serves as a good barometer as to the overall quality of bucks, and where they are being taken.
According to a statement by the WVDNR, 292 hunters had deer antlers scored at one of the six district offices, field offices, or during the West Virginia Hunting and Fishing Show in Charleston. From those, 65 hunters qualified for the 2010 Big Buck Contest. Contestants were required to meet certain conditions to participate. The racks needed to meet or exceed a minimum score established for the respective category, an Official Game Check Tag had to be presented, and a Fair Chase Statement had to be signed.
Eleven bucks killed by gun hunters scored above 140 points typical or 165 points non-typical. In the Typical Gun category, the winner was Jeffery Whitman from Hurricane with a 10-point buck killed in Ritchie County that scored 157 7/8. There were no entries this year in the Non-typical Gun category.
Muzzleloader hunters needed to score above 140 points typical or 165 non-typical to qualify. There were no typical or non-typical bucks taken with the muzzleloader this year that met the minimum score.
Bowhunters killed 52 deer that scored above 125 points typical or 155 points non-typical. The winner of the Typical Bow category was Bucky Sargent of Blair, with an 11-point buck from Logan County that scored 163 6/8. There was no non-typical buck taken with the bow this year that met the minimum score.
Two bucks killed by physically challenged crossbow hunters scored above 125 points typical or 155 points non-typical. The Typical Crossbow category winner was Carl Pate of Williamstown, with a 16-point Wood County buck that scored 149 3/8. The Non-Typical Crossbow category winner was Joe DeBerry of Rockport, who took a big 18-point buck in Wood County that scored 171 4/8.
The Boone and Crockett Club or Pope and Young Club rating systems are used to score bucks, depending upon the method of harvest. The B&C guidelines are used to score deer harvested with firearms or crossbows. Certificates are presented for racks scoring at least 140 points typical or 165 points non-typical for firearms and muzzleloaders, and scoring at least 125 points typical or 155 points non-typical for crossbow.
Deer harvested with a bow are measured according to P&Y standards. Certificates are given for racks scoring at least 125 points typical or 155 points non-typical.
West Virginia has the somewhat unusual situation that there are four bowhunting-only counties located in the southern portion of the state. Because of this weapon limitation, many bucks have the chance to live to maturity.
In the remainder of the state, where bucks can be taken with firearms, several counties have produced multiple bucks during the past three years of the Big Buck Contest. Kanawha County leads the list, with seven bucks on the top 10 list during these years. Other counties with multiple top 10 racks are Fayette, Raleigh, Mercer, Boone, and Mason. While record book bucks are occasionally taken from the northern half of the state, including the northern and eastern panhandles, the majority comes from the state's southern half.
On a district-oriented basis, District 4 has the most trophy-producing counties. Districts 5 and 6 are also well represented. In the northern regions, the District 1 county of Brooke has produced gun-harvested record book bucks. The best bet in District 2 might be Hampshire, which put one in the books as recently as 2008. District 3's Preston, Upshur, Braxton and Clay are all good choices for nice bucks.
Keep in mind, also, that most large-racked deer come off of private lands. West Virginia law permits hunting on private land providing it is not posted, fenced, or the landowner hasn't specifically stated doesn't permit you to hunt there.
Next, let's look at several public hunting options in the counties that have been most productive for big bucks in recent years.
Kanawha County, which contains the state capitol of Charleston and associated suburban areas, features two sizeable public hunting areas.
Morris Creek Wildlife Management Area covers nearly 10,000 acres in both Kanawha and Clay counties. This steep and heavily forested state-owned public hunting grounds in proximate the Elk River. It can be reached via County Route 67 from the Clendenin area, as well as CR 65 in the Leatherwood Creek portion. Camping is not allowed on the state WMA, but it is available on nearby Kanawha State Forest.
Kanawha State Forest adds another 10,000 acres to the public hunting ground mix in this county. This state forest contains a mix of terrains, from stream bottomlands to both moderate and steep slopes. It's covered in a mixture of hardwoods. Take Exit 58-A off of Interstate 64, and then State Route 214 to the second traffic light. Turn left at the light and follow the Kanawha State Forest signs.
Developed counties like Kanawha tend to grow big bucks, to a large degree, because of limited hunter access due to their urban nature. Enterprising hunters score on big bucks by doing their legwork and getting access to these areas.
It's not surprising that Fayette County has been producing record book bucks in recent years. While Fayette isn't under a bow hunting-only restriction, it does have one other element that allows some deer to reach an older age. It is rugged terrain that discourages hunting in many areas.
The same can be said of nearby Raleigh County.
Beury Mountain WMA has over 3,000 acres of public hunting land. While much of it is steep, there are also some areas of more moderate slopes. Oak-hickory forests dominate Beury Mountain. It is located along the southern border of Babcock State Park. Camping is not available on the WMA, but is found on the state park land. Take U.S. Highway 60 east to the Lookout, then SR 41 south to Landisburg. The WMA is located three miles from Landisburg by way of CR 19/33.
Plum Orchard WMA adds another 3,000 acres to Fayette County. Hunters can expect to find gentle to steep slopes with oak-hickory forests and old re-vegetated strip benches with high walls.
From I-77 at the Pax or Mossy interchange, follow SR 23 and 23/1. To access from U.S. 19, take SR 15 from Oak Hill to Mossy, then take SR 23 and 23/1.
Camp Creek State Forest represents Mercer County's largest public hunting area at 5,300 acres. It's quite mountainous with narrow ridge tops and some rock outcroppings covered by oak-hickory forest.
To reach Camp Creek SF from exit 20 off of I-77, turn onto SR 19/5 and follow the signs for two miles. There's no camping on the WMA property, but it is available at nearby Camp Creek State Park. No hunting is no permitted on park property.
Though small by West Virginia standards, Tate Lohr WMA offers another 500 acres of public hunting in Mercer County. It features moderate slopes ranging in elevation from 2,100 to 3,550 feet.
Tate Lohr is found four miles south of Oakvale and is accessible by U.S. 460 and CR 219/6, 219/8 and 219/9.
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.
In addition to Cornstalk and McClintic, Mason County shares Green Bottom WMA with neighboring Cabell County. Green Bottom covers nearly 1,100 acres, but deer hunters are limited to muzzleloaders and archery gear.
Green Bottom features forested bottomlands, wetlands and also cultivated lands. It's found about 16 miles north of Huntington along SR 2.
As explained earlier, the four bowhunting-only counties of Mingo, Wyoming, Logan and McDowell produce the majority of the state's record book bow-kills. Half of the 52 bow-kills from last year's Big Buck Contest came from this four-county area. Other counties that figured prominently in the bow-kill category were Kanawha, Boone, Mason and Mercer.
Much of southern West Virginia is in the southern coal belt. There is some public land, like R.D. Bailey and Beech Fork WMAs, but most of the land is in private ownership. Large tracts are owned by mining and timbering interests, many of which are open to hunting. Pocahontas Land Development is an example of one corporation with extensive southern West Virginia land holdings that are open to hunting. Hunting leases are becoming more popular, though and they are well marked with posters.
Visit the WVDNR website at www.wvdnr.gov — for information regarding licensing requirements and seasons.
There you have it; the prospects for the coming season based on past results.