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Open for two bucks

John McCoy
Ashton Ratliff, 13, of Ripley, watches biologist Eric Richmond measure the antlers of her first harvested deer. The five-point buck turned out to be a fairly average year-and-a-half-old whitetail, with antlers appropriate for its age.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's switch to a two-a-day deer bag limit might not have much of an effect on the number of deer hunters kill, but it does appear to be affecting how they report those kills.

Biologists at several game-checking stations reported slower-than-usual action on Monday, the opening day of the 2013 buck firearm season. Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said the number of deer reported in the morning and early-afternoon hours hadn't lived up to expectations.

"We had perfect weather today, and with that you'd expect to see more deer being checked in," said Johansen, who spent the day at a Raleigh County checking station. "I'm curious as to whether the ability to take two deer a day might be holding [hunters] out a bit."

In past years, hunters were allowed to kill only one deer a day. Anyone who killed a whitetail was required to stop hunting and to register the kill at a game-checking station. This year hunters are allowed to kill up to two deer a day, and can kill the second deer before checking in the first.

Johansen speculated that this year's hunters might be waiting to see if they kill that second deer before heading to a game-checking station.

"If that's true, we could be covered up [with hunters checking deer] into the evening hours," he added.

Chris Ryan, the DNR's supervisor of game management services, helped man a checking station in the Ripley area. He said almost all of the deer checked early in the day were antlered bucks, even though Jackson County is one of 46 counties where hunters are allowed to kill either bucks or does.

"The number of antlerless deer being checked in usually increases as the day goes along," Ryan explained. "Guys go out hoping to bag that big buck, but by late afternoon they're willing to shoot whatever they see."

Under the two-deer option, one of the deer can be an antlered buck, but at least one must be antlerless.

Ronnie Clark, of St. Albans, was one of the first hunters in the state to cash in on the two-deer option. At 9 a.m., while hunting in Mason County, he saw a four-point buck and a doe moving through the woods. He shot them both, but said afterward that he wished he hadn't.

"Dragging two deer out of the woods almost killed me," he said with a laugh. "It took me four hours to drag those deer two miles back to my truck."

Check-station biologists said hunters checked in some of what they called "nice bucks" -- deer with good-sized antler racks -- but said this year's racks are smaller on average than last year's.

Ryan attributed the change to two years in a row in which acorns and other preferred whitetail foodstuffs were relatively scarce.

"Last fall we had a spotty mast crop, and this fall it's even worse. We aren't seeing the racks this year like we saw last year," he said.

Randy Kelley, a DNR district biologist who headed up a game-checking crew in Putnam County, said this year's bucks appear to be as old as last year's, only with smaller antlers.

"As far as age is concerned, this year is almost a duplicate of last year," he said. "We're still seeing a lot of 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-year-old bucks. Of the ones we've checked so far, less than one-fourth of them [were born this year or last year]."

Most hunters interviewed Monday said they saw several deer in addition to the ones they killed. Justin Runion, of Racine, said he and his 9-year-old son, Bradley, saw "plenty of deer" on the way to their Jackson County hunting grounds, and plenty on the return trip.

They killed both the bucks they saw after they started hunting. Justin bagged a spike and Bradley took a six-pointer, his first deer ever.

Another young hunter, 13-year-old Ashton Ratliff, of Ripley, also bagged her first buck. Hunting in Jackson County, Ratliff saw just two whitetails on opening day. One was a doe, which she didn't shoot. The other was a five-point buck, which she did.

Hunters who killed deer on Monday are almost certainly glad they did, because hunting conditions were predicted to deteriorate sharply overnight.

"The weather reported to be rolling in Tuesday and Wednesday has me concerned," said the DNR's Johansen. "Hunters who didn't kill a deer [Monday] could have a rough time of it."

The forecast, for rain Tuesday and ice and snow Wednesday, could hardly come at a worse time. Historically, the first three days of the 12-day buck season produce roughly half the state's annual whitetail kill.

"If the weather reports are accurate, all that rain and snow could have a serious impact on this year's overall harvest," Johansen said.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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