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Early scouting could pay off for bowhunters

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wildlife officials have some timely advice for West Virginia's bowhunters: If you want to bag a deer this fall, you'd better get out and scout.

"Pre-season scouting is more important than ever," said Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. "Hunters need to get out into the woods and identify where apples, crabapples and acorns are abundant, because that's probably where deer are going to congregate."

DNR biologists haven't yet finalized their annual Mast Report and Hunting Forecast, but Johansen said field observers are reporting a spotty acorn crop and a relatively abundant soft-mast crop.

"Based on that, hunters will probably find deer around apple and crabapples, two of their favorite soft-mast foods," Johansen said. "And hunters probably won't find deer on oak flats, unless that particular oak flat happened to 'hit.'"

Food sources will be especially important during the weeks between the Sept. 28 opening day and the whitetail 'rut,' or mating season, which usually peaks in early to mid-November.

"All bets are off once the rut comes in, but for the early part of the season, food determines how much deer move and where they move," Johansen said.

The amount of time between opening day and the rut expanded dramatically last year when the state Natural Resources Commission voted to begin the season on the Saturday closest to the first day of October, roughly two weeks earlier than the traditional mid-October opener.

"The idea was to create extra days of recreation. The commission expanded hunting opportunities, and that's always a good thing," Johansen said.

DNR officials expected hunters to kill more deer during the lengthened season, but that didn't happen. The harvest actually fell 6.2 percent, from 27,404 in 2011 to 25,714 in 2012.

The decline didn't cause much concern because the firearm buck kill, which accounts for the largest share of the overall whitetail harvest, fell by a slightly larger percentage.

"Obviously, opening the archery season earlier didn't have a major effect on the harvest," Johansen said.

Another regulation change, new for the upcoming season, will allow hunters to kill up to two deer in a single day, provided one of them is antlerless.

"That's a big deal," Johansen said. "Most hunters have only a limited amount of time to go afield. With the new regulation, if a guy kills a deer in the morning, he can go back out in the afternoon and kill an additional deer. I think [the change] will be very popular with hunters."

Bowhunters are well distributed throughout West Virginia, but four of the state's southern counties - Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming - attract a disproportionate share of bowhunters' attention. Low deer populations in those counties forced DNR officials in 1979 to declare them off-limits to deer hunting with firearms.

"Since then, those counties have developed a well-deserved reputation for producing older-aged bucks, and today they're like a magnet for bowhunters," Johansen said. "No question, bowhunters consider Southern West Virginia to be the 'mother lode' for trophy deer."

The four counties have dominated the state's big-buck statistics since the mid-1980s, but they are far from the only game in town. Johansen pointed out that the number of archery-killed trophy whitetails from other counties has increased steadily since 1997, when a regulation change made it possible for bucks in firearms-hunted counties to grow significantly older.

"No question, when we started allowing antlerless deer during the firearm buck season, we started seeing larger-antlered deer in the population," Johansen said. "When hunters started killing does instead of young bucks, the age structure of our herd changed.

"Before [the regulation change], the deer killed during the firearm season were predominantly 1 1/2-year-old bucks. Now we're seeing a lot more 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-year-old bucks show up in the harvest, and those bucks are sporting bigger antlers."

Last year, 35 of the state's 55 counties produced bucks that qualified for the DNR's Big Buck Contest, the largest number in anyone's memory.

"It's a statewide phenomenon," Johansen acknowledged.

Another relatively recent phenomenon has been bowhunters' increased emphasis on hunting during the height of the rut. In years past, hunters used to take vacation during the first week of the firearm buck season. Now they're scheduling time off to coincide with the rut.

"I think that's media-driven," Johansen said. "Television hunting shows tend to focus on hunting really big bucks during the rut. Novice hunters are really tuned in to what they see on TV, so they believe you've got to get out there during the rut if you want to kill a big one."

There's some truth to that; big bucks are less wary during the mating season, and therefore more likely to make a fatal blunder. Still, archers kill big-antlered whitetails throughout the season, from opening day through the end of December.

"One of the beauties of our archery season is its length. Bowhunters have three full months in which to take a deer. That's a lot of opportunity," Johansen said.

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


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