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Officials hope for bigger early antlerless season

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia wildlife officials are eager to see if more hunters embrace the state's newest antlerless-deer season.

The three-day "early antlerless season" didn't attract as many hunters as expected when it debuted last fall. Gary Foster, the Division of Natural Resources' game management supervisor, believes it's because hunters didn't pick up on the change.

"We changed the overall season structure, and we don't think hunters understood all the changes we made," Foster said. "Essentially, we took the first three days of the 'traditional' antlerless season - the one that began right after the end of the buck season - and we moved it to October. At the same time, we moved the muzzleloader season up a week, into the slot the traditional antlerless season used to occupy."

By moving the bulk of the traditional antlerless season to October, DNR officials hoped to persuade hunters to take large numbers of female deer out of the population before the onset of the whitetail rut, or mating season.

Biologists believed that reducing the number of females would compress the rut into a shorter time frame, which in turn would shorten the birthing season and reduce the amount of predation on newborn fawns.

Foster didn't characterize last October's inaugural season as disappointing, but he said the 3,600 deer killed during the three-day hunt wasn't enough to affect the rut.

"Still, if you look at the numbers, it was an improvement over the numbers we were getting during the 'traditional' December antlerless season," he added. "We were only getting about 1,000 deer killed during the first three days of the traditional season, and we got 3,600 during [last year's] three-day October hunt."

Foster and his DNR colleagues hope for a larger hunter turnout for the season's second go-around, which is scheduled for Oct. 24-26.

Paul Johansen, the agency's assistant wildlife chief, said it sometimes takes hunters two to three years to adjust to major changes in the hunting-season lineup.

"We're not concerned about last year," he said. "We believe hunters will adjust, and we believe that as they become more familiar with the season, their participation in it will increase. It will take at least a couple more years before we have a good handle on how hunters view the season."

To make the season more appealing to sportsmen, DNR officials and the state Natural Resources Commission have sweetened the pot a little. Not only have they increased the number of counties open to antlerless-deer hunting, they've also increased the daily deer bag limit to two. 

"The number of open antlerless-deer counties will be as liberal as we've had for a long time," Foster said. "And with hunters able to harvest up to two deer in a single day, we anticipate this year's harvest to slightly exceed last year's."

Weather, as always, could knock Foster's prediction into a cocked hat.

Biologists expect most of the kill during the three-day season to take place on Saturday, the hunt's last day, because that's when most hunters will be off work. Good weather on that day would bode well for a high harvest. Cold, rainy weather could wash away any chance of a substantial kill.

Mast conditions also can play a significant role in hunters' success. Foster said the current scarcity of oak mast would probably force hunters to alter their usual hunting pattern.

"Hunters who live in areas where there are beech trees should target those areas," he said. "And if hunters can find areas where there are some acorns, they should focus there as well.

"Because of the limited mast conditions, I would expect deer to be out in the fields more than usual. That, if nothing else, should play in hunters' favor."

Mating activity could also affect the season. Some bowhunters have already reported rutting behavior, both from does and bucks, but Foster doesn't believe that activity is widespread.

"The people I've been talking to haven't seen much rutting activity," he said.

The peak of West Virginia's rut usually occurs in early November, and Foster believes this year shouldn't be any different.

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


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