CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- Like a locked-and-loaded flintlock rifle, West Virginia's muzzleloader season for deer could use a nice, hot spark.
To say last year's season was disappointing would be a gross understatement. Hunters killed just 5,345 deer, far below the current five-year average of 7,511. State wildlife officials attributed the decline to hunters' lack of awareness that the season had been moved up a week.
Traditionally, the muzzleloader season fell in mid-December, after the firearm season for bucks and the traditional firearm season for antlerless deer.
Last year, however, Division of Natural Resources biologists requested a change. They created a new three-day firearm season for antlerless deer in late October, pushed the traditional firearm season back into mid-December, and moved the muzzleloader season into early December. DNR officials aren't sure why so many blackpowder enthusiasts chose to stay at home, but Paul Johansen, the agency's assistant wildlife chief, said at least some fall-off was to be expected.
"It always takes a year or two to get full recognition of a change in regulations, especially when there's been a major change in season dates," he added. "We did our best to get the word out, but that's always somewhat difficult. When it comes to hunting regulations, a lot of info seems to get exchanged by word of mouth.
"In the end, I think hunters failed to recognize a significant change in the [deer]-season framework."
Now, with the second edition of the early-December muzzleloader hunt set to open on Monday, Johansen is optimistic that more blackpowder enthusiasts will venture afield.
"I think sportsmen are aware of the change now, and are ready to take advantage of the season," he said.
Weather, as usual, could determine how many people choose to hunt.
"Let's hope the weather cooperates better than it did on days two and three of the buck season," Johansen said, referring to the rain and snow that drove hunters from the woods on Nov. 26 and 27.
"I would think there would be plenty of deer for [hunters] to hunt. Based on the less-than-optimum kill during both the buck and antlerless components of the buck season, a lot of deer that were expected to be harvested are still out there and available. And a lot of those deer will be bucks."
Reach John McCoy