West Virginia hunters ready for another buck season

ELKINS, W.Va. — Hunters will be thick in the woods Monday morning for what remains the most popular hunting season of the year in West Virginia. The two week rifle season for buck deer is still the biggest draw for even the most casual of hunters. It’s estimated 250,000 to 300,000 hunters will be on the landscape for opening day.

The tradition is rich in West Virginia and reflects the state’s culture. Coal mines, steel mills, and other manufacturing facilities are often forced to either idle or scale back operations during the opening week of the hunting season. School systems typically are closed for the entire week, but those counties which will attempt to have classes have indicated concerns in recent days they may be forced to go to a remote learning schedule in expectation of a large number of absences by personnel and students.

For many, it’s a time of reunion around a family deer camp. The shared stories of previous hunts or bucks killed from years gone by, serve to connect generations of Mountain State hunting families. New traditions and stories will also emerge with each passing year.

It’s the one season where the actual hunting is almost less important than the camaraderie and relationships in camp. But the anticipated harvest for the 2022 season is expected to be similar to 2021.

“We expect the harvest to be around the same level or maybe slightly higher,” said Brett Skelly who leads the Deer Project for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

Weather can impact the season harvest. Historically, bad weather tends to shorten the time hunters are willing to spend in the woods and consequently could lower the number who stick around long enough to kill a deer. The bulk of all deer killed in the two week season are taken in the first three days.

The rifle season in West Virginia by tradition, always opens the Monday before Thanksgiving. The moving date from year to year makes it closer or further away from the peak of rutting activity depending on the year. This year is one of the years when it’s a bit closer and hunters will likely find many bucks still on the prowl for willing does. The pursuit tends to cause bucks to drop their guard and become much more vulnerable to hunters.

“There is a spread to when the breeding season is occurring, but primarily the bulk of it’s done in a week to two week window and it’s taken care of in early November,” said Skelley.

Since the rifle season removes the highest number of bucks from the landscape, the season is deliberately timed to make sure it happens after the crucial bulk of breeding is finished.

“All of the season frameworks are based around deer biology and to make sure there’s always enough bucks out there to breed the does. We take them out after the job is done and they’re kind of a surplus at that point,” he explained.

The other key factor in buck season success is patterning deer feeding habits. Food, or mast, plays a large role in deer movement during the hunting season. This year’s mast crop was hit and miss across the state, but where there is food available it will concentrate deer. Skelley suggested pre-season scouting will be important.

“If they’ve got some acorns hitting the ground, the white oak looks pretty good in some parts of the state or looking at the topography and finding pinch points to set up and catch those bucks cruising and looking for does,” Skelley said.

The average rack size for bucks taken in West Virginia continues to grow. There are no antler restrictions in West Virginia, other than seven Wildlife Management Areas designated as “older age deer management areas.” Bucks in those areas must have a 14-inch outside antler spread to be legal to harvest. Those restrictions are on the Beech Fork Lake, Bluestone Lake, Burnsville Lake, Little Kanawha River and McClintic WMAs, and Coopers Rock and Calvin Price State Forests.

Hunters in some counties could possibly encounter deer with tracking collars. The DNR has a whitetail deer study ongoing in Hampshire County, Barbour/Upshur Counties, and Mason/Jackson Counties.

“We have some deer running around with collars on them, both bucks and does, for hunters those are completely legal to harvest, so long as they are hunting during the appropriate time and season. Those are legal to harvest, we just ask that you return the collar to your local DNR district office,” Skelley said.

One of the study goals is to learn more about deer mortality. Deer killed by hunters are well within what researchers are attempting to gauge in the study.

Hunters will also be able to kill antlerless deer during a coinciding season with the buck season for the entire two weeks provided they have the Class N stamps. Hunters need to consult the hunting regulations for county specific bag limits on does during the buck season. Some counties in West Virginia also have a coinciding firearms season for black bear, although hunters are encouraged to check the regulations carefully since some of those have been changed drastically from recent years for the 2022 hunting season.

Finally, hunters in four West Virginia counties, Barbour, Mason, Jackson, and Upshur Counties must bring their deer, buck or doe, to a designated “biological game examination station.” If they are killed on the first two days of the season, November 21 and 22.

Each county has several designated locations to allow for the gathering of biological data, those are listed in the DNR regulations brochure or at the DNR website. The stations are created each year to enable biologist to collect herd health data on whitetail deer which was lost when the state transitioned to the on-line system for game checking.

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