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By the numbers, some of the best spots to bow hunt

West Virginia's wildlife officials like to boast that bowhunters can find deer practically in their own backyards.

In some respects, they're right. Some of the state's best bow hunting can be found within the corporate limits of its largest cities. If deer can thrive there, they can thrive just about anywhere.

But just because deer are evenly distributed doesn't mean bow hunting opportunities are. Some hunting spots are indeed more equal than others.

A cursory glance at the state's 2011 bow-harvest statistics easily reveals a list of counties where archers killed the most whitetails. Those numbers, however, don't tell the full story. Counties with large surface areas tend also to have larger harvests.

Division of Natural Resources biologists measure counties' productivity by the number of deer that hunters kill in each square mile of whitetail habitat. That's a much more accurate assessment, but not foolproof either. Tiny counties tend to have grossly inflated deer-per-square-mile statistics.

So for purposes of determining which counties are truly the best bets for Mountain State archers, Woods & Waters has chosen to combine the two measurements.

The crack W&W stat squad ranked all the counties' bow harvests and deer-per-square-mile ratios and averaged them against one another. Three Northern Panhandle counties - Hancock, Brooke and Ohio - were tossed out because their tiny surface areas blew their per-square-mile statistics far out of proportion.

Here's how the top 10 broke out:

  • Preston County topped the list. Preston's bowhunters killed a whopping 1,322 whitetails last year, the highest total in the state. The county's average of 2.16 deer per square mile ranked fourth.
  • When one considers the amount of public hunting land available within the county, Preston becomes even more attractive. The 12,713-acre Coopers Rock State Forest and the 3,092-acre Snake Hill Wildlife Management Area lie mostly within the county, as does a small portion of the Monongahela National Forest's 58,798-acre Blackwater WMA.

  • The runner-up slot went to Monongalia County, which ranked first in deer per square mile with an average of 2.49 and eighth in overall bow kill with 776.
  • Like its big neighbor to the east, Preston County, Monongalia also boasts an enviable array of public-land hunting opportunities. Portions of the aforementioned Coopers Rock and Snake Hill tracts lie within the county's borders, as do the 1,036-acre Little Indian Creek WMA and the 766-acre Pedlar WMA.

  • The only downside to third-place Wood County's presence in the top 10 is the lack of public hunting to be found there. Only the 967-acre Sand Hill WMA lies within the county's borders, and only partly so at that.
  • Still, bowhunters must be finding plenty of private land on which to hunt, or Wood's statistics wouldn't be as good as they are. The county's average of 2.42 whitetails per square mile was the state's second best in 2011. The county's raw harvest of 749 deer ranked 10th.

  • Mason County is a perennial top-10 finisher in the state's yearly harvest statistics, and last year the county's bowhunters registered another rock-solid performance. They killed 788 deer, which is good for seventh in the harvest rankings. Their average of 1.94 whitetails per square mile ranked sixth.
  • The county contains two extremely popular public hunting tracts: The 11,772-acre Chief Cornstalk WMA near Southside, and the 3,655-acre McClintic WMA north of Point Pleasant. McClintic is one of the state's "older-age deer management" areas, and hunters who head there should be aware that any bucks they kill must have antler spreads of at least 14 inches.

  • Upshur County has long been popular with bowhunters, and 2011 showed why. Archers killed 748 deer, the state's 11th-highest total, and ranked third in productivity with 2.2 whitetails per square mile.
  • Year in and year out, Upshur performs well despite a shortage of public land. Only a small sliver of the 2,985-acre Stonecoal WMA falls within the county's borders.

  • For anyone used to looking at West Virginia's deer-kill statistics, finding a southern county in the top 10 could come as a bit of a shock. Southern counties are more known for the quality of their deer than the quantity.
  • And yet, there sits Raleigh County at sixth on our best-bets list. Raleigh's archers killed 812 deer last year, the state's fifth-best total, and the county tied for 13th in deer per square mile with an average of 1.48.

    There are no state-owned or leased public hunting areas within the county, but most of the lands of the New River Gorge National River are open to hunting. Hunters should check with the National Park Service in Hinton, Glen Jean or Fayetteville to learn where hunting is prohibited within the park.

  • At number seven on the list of top-performing bow destinations is Wyoming County, one of four counties in the state where firearm hunting for deer is not allowed.
  • Wyoming's presence on the list could mean one of two things - that the county's whitetail population is larger than most people might suspect, or that the county attracts so many archers that its bow kill is artificially high.

    Whatever the cause, last year Wyoming ranked ninth in bow harvest with 772 deer; and 12th in productivity with an average of 1.56 whitetails per square mile.

    What's more, the county produced eight bucks that qualified for the state's Big Buck Contest, the highest total on this year's best-bets roster.

  • Nicholas County's main deer-hunting claim to fame is that it produced the biggest typical-antlered buck ever killed in West Virginia. Now it can boast of being a top archery county.
  • Bowhunters killed 883 whitetails there last year, fourth most in the state. Nicholas' average of 1.43 deer per square mile ranked 18th.

    For public-land hunters, Nicholas is a playground. Within the county's borders can be found half of the 11,507-acre Gauley River National Recreation Area, all of the 5,974-acre Summersville Lake WMA, and a sizable chunk of the Monongahela National Forest's 35,864-acre Cranberry WMA.

  • Occupying the number-nine spot is Putnam County. Hunters in 2011 registered the state's 17th-highest bow kill by bagging 561 deer, and that total translated to a ninth-best productivity average of 1.69 whitetails per square mile.
  • Most of the county consists of small private woodlots and farms, but the 7,061-acre Amherst-Plymouth WMA near Bancroft provides a substantial destination for public-land hunters.

  • The final entry on this year's best-bet bow hunting spots is Jackson County. Long a favored destination for Charleston-area archers, Jackson ranked 14th in last year's bow-harvest rankings with 669 whitetails, and 15th in deer per square mile with an average of 1.48.
  • Two good-sized wildlife management areas provide steady, dependable public hunting opportunities - the 2,587 Frozen Camp WMA east of Ripley, and the 1,696-acre Woodrum Lake WMA near Kentuck.

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


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