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 johnmc...@wvgazette.com.