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Not a banner year for Big Buck Contest

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- By all accounts, West Virginia's woods last fall were crawling with nice bucks.

Hunters couldn't stop talking about how many 8- to 10-point racks they were seeing. Biologists at Division of Natural Resources game-checking stations tallied record numbers of 3- to 5-year-old whitetails.

Curiously, though, fewer bucks qualified for the state's annual awards program.

Gene Thorn, the DNR biologist who coordinates the agency's Big Buck Contest, isn't sure why so many hunters who killed nice deer chose not to have the antlers scored.

"We scored fewer deer than usual, and fewer qualified for the contest," he said. "That's kind of strange, because the quality of last year's buck crop was so high."

Only 189 hunters brought their bucks in for scoring, a 23 percent drop from the most recent five-year average. That's curious on a couple of levels. Overall, the buck harvest was just 7 percent below average, and the heavily buck-oriented bow harvest was down just 10 percent.

One would expect any drop off in trophy scoring to roughly match the overall decline in the number of bucks killed. Thorn isn't sure why trophy scoring fell off so much more.

"It was weird," he said. "At the [West Virginia Hunting and Fishing Show, where DNR biologists provides an antler-scoring service], we scored a lot of deer the first evening but then it just died off.

"We ended up scoring fewer than usual, but the quality of them - my goodness - was just outstanding. We scored more Pope and Young-class bucks in that time frame than I can remember us ever handling. Normally we get a lot of bucks that score 100 to 120. The ones we scored last year seemed to run significantly larger than that."

Thorn believes unseen reasons might have prevented hunters from getting their racks scored.

"I think maybe a lot of guys weren't able to get their bucks back from the taxidermist in time for the show," he said. "With the overall buck quality so high, the taxidermists could have been swamped. If that was the case, a lot of bucks killed in 2012 might get scored next year and show up in next year's Big Buck Contest rankings."

Thorn also believes superstorm Sandy had an effect.

"It really affected deer hunting, especially in the central part of the state where it hit hardest," he said. "People weren't able to get around because downed trees were blocking the roads. In a lot of places, even the simple act of walking in the woods was made difficult."

Despite the disappointing overall numbers, Thorn liked what he saw in the bucks that qualified for Big Buck status.

"It was encouraging to see how widely they were distributed throughout the state," he said. "It used to be that almost all the trophies came from the bow-only counties - Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming - or from counties that touched their borders. Now we're getting trophies from every region in the state."

Last fall, 35 counties produced bucks that qualified for the Big Buck contest. By comparison, in 2005, only 18 counties were represented.

Some of the counties had rarely, if ever, made the list before. Hampshire County, for example, isn't known for bragging-sized bucks. Neither is Harrison, Tucker, Taylor, Upshur, Pendleton, Calhoun, Ohio, Lewis, Hancock or Marion.

The top trophy producers didn't change much. Wyoming County yielded 13 Big Buck honorees, Logan nine, McDowell eight and Mingo five. Kanawha, Raleigh and Lincoln produced four each.

"Every part of the state has big bucks now," Thorn said. "Some counties where you never would have found trophy bucks showed up on the list this year."


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