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It could be a big year for big bucks

John McCoy
Bucks with sizable antlers are turning up more often at game-checking stations throughout West Virginia. The number of trophy deer killed during last year's firearm buck season more than doubled the number killed during each of the previous two seasons.

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.

Last year was particularly good for trophy seekers. Firearm hunters bagged 27 whitetails that qualified for the DNR's Big Buck Club, a 145 percent increase from 2010, a 136 percent increase from 2009 and a 35 percent increase from 2008.

Foster isn't predicting similar success for 2012, but he did predict that hunters would kill approximately 60,000 bucks before the season ends.

"That harvest would be similar to last year's," he said. "A couple of factors should contribute to that. Following the banner mast crop in 2010, we had a really good fawn crop in 2011. The bucks in that fawn crop will be yearlings this year, so hunters should have a lot more young bucks to hunt."

Sportsmen who aren't concerned about killing big-antlered deer should find oodles of those young bucks in counties where deer are most abundant. Foster said the counties from the Northern Panhandle down along the Ohio River boast the highest whitetail concentrations.

"If you look at last year's buck kill, those were the counties with the highest numbers of bucks killed per square mile," he added. "Those would be the best places for hunters to go if they aren't interested in trophies."

DNR officials estimate that as many as 300,000 hunters will venture into the woods for Monday's opener. Paul Johansen, the agency's assistant wildlife chief, calls the buck season a "bonanza" for small businesses, especially in deer-rich rural areas.

"During the buck season, there are lots of hunters spending lots of dollars in small communities," Johansen said. "I'm no economist, but I've heard that dollars spent in small communities circulate longer, and that increases the economic impact."

Those 300,000 hunters are roughly equivalent to the number of people who attend five sold-out West Virginia University football games. In the case of the WVU fans, the financial impact would be spread out over most of a 12-week season. For hunters, the impact occurs over just 12 days.

"And when you think about it, the buck season's impact is concentrated even more than that," Johansen said. "The real push of the buck season occurs during the first three days of the season and the following Saturdays. That really concentrates the cash inflow to those small rural businesses.

"The bottom line is that the buck season means bucks to hunters and bucks - the green kind - to West Virginia's business people."

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


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