CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia has fewer deer now than it did two decades ago, but more big-antlered bucks.
That's good news for hunters about to head afield for Monday's opening day of the annual firearm season for bucks. Gary Foster, game management supervisor for the state Division of Natural Resources, said a simple change made 14 years ago to the state's hunting regulations makes this year's hunters more likely to kill deer with better-than-average headgear on their noggins.
In 1998, the DNR gave private-land deer hunters the option of taking either a buck or a doe during the buck season. Foster said the change made a significant difference in buck-kill dynamics.
"Before we put that regulation into effect, it wasn't unusual to see 80 percent of a county's yearling bucks get killed each year," he explained. "Not very many bucks survived long enough to grow trophy antlers.
"Now, since hunters have the option of taking an antlerless deer, the percentage of yearling bucks being killed has dropped below 50 percent. More yearlings are surviving, and they grow bigger antlers the following year."
According to data taken at game-checking stations, antler rack sizes and beam diameters have grown slowly but steadily since the doe-buck option went into effect.
Foster believes hunters' buck-season tastes have changed, too.
"[Hunters are] more selective than they were 20 years ago," he said. "Back then, they'd be perfectly willing to shoot a spike buck or a four-pointer. Now they're holding out for bucks with better racks."
The state's most trophy-rich counties - Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming - have been closed to firearm hunters since 1979. The counties immediately surrounding those four are open, however, and Foster believes antler-seeking sportsmen would be wise to focus their efforts there.
"The key is to look for counties that have remote, relatively inaccessible areas," he said. "Bucks in those remote areas can grow to be 41/2 to 5 years old, and those are the bucks that usually have trophy antlers. A lot of that [remote] country can be found in Kanawha, Boone, Nicholas, Fayette and Raleigh counties."
Agricultural counties are also good bets. Foster said Mason, Jackson and northern Putnam counties have been reliable big-buck producers the past few years.