New regulation could bolster deer harvest
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia wildlife officials believe the 2013 firearm season for buck deer will be a season filled with opportunity.
The 12-day hunt, which opens Monday, will feature a new regulation that allows hunters to kill more than one deer in a single day, and also will feature a deer herd more vulnerable than usual.
"I think [those factors] will increase the overall harvest of deer, particularly antlerless deer," said Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. "The big unknown, as always, is what the weather is going to do to us."
Inclement weather has torpedoed many seasons' high expectations, but the two-deer rule might help offset that tendency.
"During the buck season, in counties where there is concurrent antlerless-deer hunting, being able to take two deer in a day could be significant," Johansen said.
"Under the rule, only one antlered buck may be taken in a day, so for hunters to take advantage of the regulation change they'll have to be willing to take an antlerless deer. The great thing about the new rule is that hunters won't be required to leave the woods to check their first deer. They could go ahead and kill a second deer and then check the two together."
Antlerless-deer hunting will be allowed in 51 of the state's 55 counties this year, although six of those will be open only in certain areas. The four fully closed counties - Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming - are closed to buck hunting as well as antlerless-deer hunting.
Johansen believes the two-deer rule will help hunters take better advantage of the limited time they have in the woods.
"We all know that time is precious, and that people have only a certain number of days available to them," he said. "With this new regulation, hunters will have a chance to take a second deer in the limited amount of time they have out there."
He also expects the two-deer option to cause what he calls "an uptick" in the annual antlerless-deer kill. "And I think that uptick will grow in future seasons, as hunters grow more aware of the regulation and begin utilizing it more widely," he added.
The primary focus of the buck season, of course, centers on antlered bucks. Johansen said there are plenty of bucks to go around, and plenty of those bucks carry nice sets of antlers.
"Last year, data from our biological game-checking stations showed that hunters on average are checking in older bucks," he said.
As recently as 20 years ago, 70 percent of all bucks checked during the firearm season were just 1 1/2 years old and had tiny antlers. Over the course of the past few seasons, the percentage of bucks 2 1/2 years and older has risen steadily.
"In 2012, more than half the bucks checked in - 58 percent, in fact - were 2 1/2 years old or greater," Johansen said. "It has been a very positive shift. Certainly hunters want bucks with bigger racks, and they're getting them."
The trend began when DNR officials began allowing hunters to kill antlerless deer during the buck season. Hunters became more selective. They passed up young spike or fork-horn bucks, which gave the animals another year to mature and grow larger antlers. Antlerless deer became hunters' "ace in the hole" to put venison in the freezer when the more desirable big-racked bucks failed to show.
Two other factors could, and probably will, affect this season's outcome. One is food, which is relatively scarce.
"We got terribly spotty acorn production this year," Johansen explained. "In fact, I'd call it spotty to nonexistent. So deer won't be found in oak flats and on oak ridges. They'll be feeding where they can find food.
"Most likely, that means they'll be browsing on soft mast or grazing in open fields or around edges of fields. Deer will be more visible, and therefore more vulnerable to the gun."
The other factor is mating activity.
"Hunters should keep in mind that the rut will still be going on," Johansen said. "Breeding behavior can dominate other types of behavior."
Bucks that are still seeking to mate during the firearm season will likely show less caution than usual, and that could also play into hunters' hands.
Even with several factors working in favor of sportsmen, Johansen believes this year's buck kill will be similar to last year's, when hunters bagged 56,173 animals.
"I think we could safely expect a harvest in the 55,000-60,000 range," he said.
Buck season at a glance
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.