West Virginia's deer harvest plummeted in 2010, but the state's take of trophy bucks didn't.
Although hunters killed 31 percent fewer whitetails overall, the number of bucks taken to wildlife officials for antler scoring increased 12 percent.
"This is one more piece of evidence that the percentage of older-age bucks is actually increasing throughout most of the state," said Gene Thorn, who oversees the Division of Natural Resources' Big Buck Club.
In 1997, when DNR officials started allowing hunters to kill antlerless deer during the annual firearm season for bucks, they predicted that West Virginians would eventually begin killing more trophy-class whitetails.
"When hunters who would have killed bucks [during the firearm season] end up killing antlerless deer, the bucks that aren't killed almost always end up with bigger antlers the following season," Thorn explained.
The DNR's recently released Big Buck Club results lend credence to Thorn's point of view. Hunters took 292 whitetails to DNR biologists for antler scoring after the 2010 season, up from 260 in 2009.
Sixty-five of those deer scored well enough to merit membership in the Big Buck Club.
"The final number of Big Buck Club honorees declined, from 80 in 2009 to 65 last year, but the larger number of bucks submitted for scoring is evidence that there were actually more deer worthy of being scored," Thorn said.
Twenty-six of the state's 55 counties ended up producing at least one Big Buck Club trophy, a dramatic increase from 2009's total of 18 counties.