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West Virginia Game & Fish Magazine

6 District Bowhunting Hotspots in West Virginia

Here's a district-by-district outlook at some of our state's top counties for early-season bowbenders. Is one or more near you?

By Bruce Ingram

Last month this magazine covered West Virginia's top five bowhunting counties, based on overall harvest, from the 2002 season. Those counties (with tentative harvest numbers in parentheses) were Preston (1,699), Randolph (1,669), Greenbrier (1,213), Nicholas (1,170) and Fayette (1,069). For this issue, West Virginia Game & Fish will cover the top county in each of the six districts, unless that county was profiled in August. First, let's take a quick look back at the season as a whole.

The 2002 season was indeed an epic one, as state's stick-and-stringers checked in a record number of whitetails - 36,292 to be exact. That tally was a 4 percent increase over the 2001 mark of 34,768. A major reason for the record harvest was the lack of hard mast throughout most of the Mountain State.

Chris Ryan, a wildlife biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), said in the 32 years that the DNR has been tabulating the amount of mast present, the fall of 2002 was the worst year. Biologist Ryan said that DNR personnel attributed the lack of acorns and other nuts to a late-spring freeze, which had a devastating effect on many mast- bearing trees. Thus, the deer were much more concentrated around fields, food plots, orchards and those few trees that did drop acorns. And savvy West Virginia archers were able to take advantage of those concentrated whitetails.

Monongalia Looks Good for 2004
District I, which basically encompasses the Northern Panhandle and a goodly amount of northern West Virginia, experienced a bow harvest increase of 7,603 in 2001 to 7,845 in 2002. District I's Preston County led the state and was the only county from this district in the top five. However, lurking not far below the top five was another county that commands some serious consideration as a topnotch destination for this autumn: Monongalia.

Photo by John R. Ford
Finishing ninth overall in the state and second in its district, Monongalia County (869) has consistently been producing solid kills over the past half decade - and just as consistently has been overshadowed by Preston County's fine harvest. From 1998 to 2001 the bow harvests were 811, 871, 844 and 898, respectively, from Monongalia. So the slight decrease in 2002 was very insignificant, especially when considering the fact that the county has recorded bow kills in the 800s throughout the past five years.

Another thing that Monongalia has going for it - specifically when compared to Preston - is that the kill rate of the former does not reflect just how good the bowhunting is. Chris Ryan said that many of the counties smaller than Preston in District I offer just as good hunting as this perennial leader, but they don't have as high a harvest only because of the difference in size. In short, Monongalia has no shortage of deer, as is true with even smaller District I areas, such as Marshall, Ohio, Brook and Hancock.

However, one thing that Monongalia does lack is a large wildlife management area (WMA). The one public land of fair size in the county is the Snake Hill WMA (2,000 acres). Snake Hill is situated across the Cheat River from Coopers Rock State Forest. A large amount of the WMA is very difficult to hunt because of its steep terrain, especially that part that borders the Cheat River Canyon. Other parts of this public land feature some gently rolling hillsides and a few scattered clearings and gas wells. But these are also the locales likely to see the most hunting pressure, especially on Saturdays.

Hardy Has Healthy Numbers Of Whitetails
District II consists of the Eastern Panhandle as well as a number of other counties in the eastern reaches of the state. Not one county in this region made the top five, or for that matter, the top 10 or 20 listing. But, once again, the size of the counties in this district had at least something to do with their ranking in the bow harvest results.

As a whole, these counties accounted for a harvest of 4,008 deer last year, a slight uptick from the 2001 tally of 3,961. And as a group, these counties had the lowest cumulative harvest of any district in West Virginia. Again, size had something to do with that.

The county that led the way in District II was Hardy (646). From 1998 to 2001 harvest figures were 518, 633, 606 and 747, respectively. The numbers have yo-yoed up and down to such an extent in Hardy that it is hard to put a finger on what the long-term trend in the county is. Likely, those harvest fluctuations have been more a result of mast availability than any other factor.

I have hunted in Hardy and like its mixture of valley farms surrounded by heavily wooded mountainsides and hillsides. As one would expect, the key to bowhunting success in that situation is gauging where to put a stand so as to intercept deer moving to or from those agricultural lands to bedding areas above, likely in mountain laurel copses.

One of my favorite places to hunt is the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, and Hardy County has a large amount of this public land in the form of the Wardensville WMA (55,327 acres).

As is characteristic of the Washington and Jefferson, Wardensville, which also lies in Hampshire County, contains a great deal of mountainous terrain with the occasional wildlife clearing. Successful archers on this public land will be the ones who know how to pattern big-woods deer and determine where the best saddles and natural funnels are.

Braxton Beckons
District III, which covers much of central West Virginia and is known for its large counties and mountainous terrain, is a major league destination for archers as it had two of the top five counties in 2002: second- place Randolph and fourth-place Nicholas. Reflecting the lofty finish of that duo was the fact that the district experienced a significant harvest increase of almost 1,000 whitetails from 2001 to 2002 as the tally rose from 6,736 to 7,640.

Since Randolph and Nicholas were covered last month and the sixth- place county - Webster (1,051) - is well-known around the state as a deer hunting destination, now would be a good time to take a closer look at another fine District III county: Braxton (925). Braxton ranked fourth in its district, but a very respectable eighth in the state. From 1998 through 2001, the county's harvest totals were 676, 869, 631 and 843, respectively. As was true with Hardy, those fluctuating figures are more likely a result of mast availability than a lack of whitetails.

One key to being successful on private land in this county is gaining permission to hunt the farms that lie along the banks of the Elk River and many of its tributaries. These farms often sport good populations of whitetails, and the scattered woodlots there adjoin fields and crop areas. Good hunting can also be found outside of communities such as Sutton, Gassaway and Frametown.

The Elk River WMA is probably the most popular public land in Braxton County, but archers shouldn't overlook the Burnsville Lake WMA (12,579 acres). A real attribute of this WMA is that it offers a number of different habitat types. Both hill and mountainous terrain exist, as do creek bottoms, old fields, regenerating timberland and mature hardwoods. Find the transition zones between any two of these habitat types and hang your portable within 15 yards of a well-traveled trail. On opening day in October that game plan might result in your visiting a check station. For more information on the Burnsville WMA, contact the resource manager at (304) 853-2371.

Related Resources

Summers Sounds Good For Fall
Like District III, District IV, which includes much of southern West Virginia, featured two counties in the top five: Greenbrier at No. 3 and Fayette County at No. 5. The district as a whole enjoyed a substantial increase in the bow harvest with the kill rising from 5,413 to 6,301. Again, because Greenbrier and Fayette were scrutinized last month, Summers sounds like a good county to learn more about for this issue.

Simply stated, the deer bow harvest in Summers soared in 2002 as the kill rose from 678 in 2001 to 839. That surge seems to be part of a trend as the harvest figures from 1998 to 2000 have been 544, 580 and 594, respectively. If conditions are favorable, could the 900 mark be broached this season?

Summers is a typical southern West Virginia county in many respects. The deer herd was small for much of the 20th century, but beginning in the mid-'60s to early '70s, deer numbers began to rise and have been on the increase ever since. I have hunted in Summers County and one of the things I like best about it is the pastoral nature.

This is a county of small towns, like the colorfully named Jumping Branch and True, and vast expanses of rural countryside. Lots of homes with 5- to 10-acre woodlots behind them border country roads, and the bowhunting behind those homes can be fantastic in October. Asking for hunting permission for those locales is usually futile, but gaining permission to hunt the county's farms is very doable.

A super public land destination for October archers is Bluestone Lake WMA (17,632 acres), which Summers shares with Mercer and Monroe counties. The New River flows through this WMA, and the bottomland hardwoods can draw excellent numbers of deer when mast conditions are favorable.

Hunters who are looking for nice bucks can escape the more heavily pressured stream flats by trekking into the mountains that surround the New. I have camped on the Bluestone WMA, and archers will find the sites there a good base if they should plan multiple-day hunts. All in all, on both private and public land, Summers looks to be a good destination this year and in the coming seasons as well.

Kanawha Can Be Fantastic
District V, which covers much of southwestern West Virginia, actually saw its harvest decline from 5,440 in 2001 to 5,097. Actually, those figures weren't far out of line from the tallies in 1998 and 1999 of 5,075 and 5,194, respectively. The year 2000 appears to be an irregularity for the district as the kill was only 4,527.

District V did not have any counties in the top five, but it did have a representative among the top 10 with Kanawha (989) finishing seventh. Between 1998 and 2001, the county's harvest figures were 822, 892, 768 and 961, respectively. So, for the most part, Kanawha is an area that gives every indication of being a place where deer numbers are on the rise.

Kanawha is a county of great contrasts, especially for West Virginia. The state capitol of Charleston lies within its bounds, as do several other well-populated areas (by Mountain State standards that is), such as South Charleston and St. Albans. But in many places, as few as five miles outside the downtowns of these communities exists some excellent bowhunting. Kanawha is not a county with a large number of major farms, but the farmhouses with "lower 40s" are numerous, and these homesteads are exceptional places to bowhunt with permission.

District V only features one major public land, the Kanawha State Forest (9,302 acres). Located south of Charleston and west of Marmet, this state forest can see major influxes of hunters, specifically during the gun season. But archers wishing to explore the public land on weekdays in October will likely encounter few other humans. The Kanawha State Forest does not contain any major rivers, but the flats adjacent to the many small streams that crisscross the property often are good places to put up a stand. Camping is available for a fee.

Roane Rates As Great
The countryside of northwestern and north-central West Virginia constitutes the majority of District VI. Last year this region saw a harvest of 5,401 deer, a slight decrease from the 2001 tally of 5,615. From 1998 through 2000, the kill totals were 4,706, 5,408 and 4,353 respectively. District VI placed no counties in the top five or 10, but it did have a stalwart at lucky number 13 in Roane County (824).

The 2002 harvest was the highest in the past five years for the county, as the totals from 1998 through 2001 were 649, 823, 639 and 736, respectively. As is often true with West Virginia counties, Roane is a rural place with colorfully named small towns such as Looneyville, Left Hand, Stringtown, Speed and Tariff. Archers don't have to travel far outside of these communities to find small farms and woodlots to pursue whitetails. Late summer is a good time to try to gain access to these locations.

Public land is largely lacking in Roane County, the major exception being a portion of the Wallback WMA (9,872 acres) that spills over into this area. Wallback also lies in Clay and Kanawha counties. Part of the Elk River flows through this public land, and some archers like to look for stand sites along this major bass waterway. As a whole, though, Wallback is known for its rolling countryside and mixed hardwoods. A good tactic is to locate well-worn trails in the dells and drainages that slope downward from those hills. Camping is not available.

The biggest mistake I made this past bow season was not scouting enough before the bow opener. Last year, I waited until late September to do some serious scouting in the Mountain State. I believe the delay cost me an opportunity at a 10-point buck. For example, in late September I was driving across a Monroe County field when I encountered that 10-pointer, which had bedded with a trio of mature does.

The deer fled from the car's approach and after they had left the field, I got out of my car and scouted the immediate vicinity. A stand of scrub maples and tulip poplars border the field on one side and a grove of Virginia pines on the other. Not one tree on either side possessed sufficient size for me to place a stand in. Deer trails were well traveled and numerous on both sides of the road, but they did me little good because of the lack of mature trees.

I then had the dilemma of deciding whether to fully explore the area and thus leave my scent behind or leave the locale immediately with the likely result that the deer would not long be affected by the car causing them to run only a short distance away. I finally decided to leave the area and on opening day hunted some 150 yards from the field along a grassy road that led into it.

In short, I never saw the big buck again until the late muzzleloader season. He was in the exact place I had spooked him in September, and on that smokepole season outing he was too far away to risk a shot. This year, I am going to find some of that buck's trails during Labor Day weekend and hang a stand then. Come opening day, we'll see what happens. The moral of this story is obviously to do your most intensive scouting, as far as locating trails, well before the season begins.

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