CHARLESTON — West Virginia wildlife officials say hunters should expect an “outstanding” 2020 firearm season for buck deer.
Just how outstanding will be clear only after the two-week season concludes Dec. 6. Paul Johansen, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the final result will depend largely on the first three days.
“Weather can potentially throw a ringer into any prognostication,” Johansen said. “Even so, we’re expecting a much better season this year than we had last year.”
Truth be told, it would be hard for the kill to be more dismal than it was in 2019. Hunters killed just 36,472 bucks, an 18% drop from 2018.
Weather was decent during the season’s first two days, but went sour after that. Both weekends suffered from bad weather as well.
The 2019 season also fell as late on the calendar as it ever has. The rut was over by then, and bucks weren’t moving as much as usual.
If that weren’t enough, an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease caused scattered deer die-offs along a wide swath that encompassed many of the state’s central counties. Wildlife officials believe the disease’s presence discouraged some hunters from going afield.
Johansen said weather is the only factor that could significantly affect this year’s hunt.
“I think the stars are lining up for us to have a really good harvest,” he said. “We have several reasons for making that projection.
“First, (roughly 10,000) fewer bucks were taken in 2019 than in previous seasons; those ‘surplus’ bucks have rolled over into this year’s population. Many of those bucks will probably have bigger antlers. The bottom line is that there are a lot of bucks out there this year.”
Bowhunters, who have been afield since Sept. 26, have already reported taking some extraordinary bucks. That should bode well for firearm hunters.
What’s more, with this year’s hunt starting Monday, Nov. 23, the whitetail rut should still be ongoing during the season’s early days.
“For that reason, bucks may have something on their minds besides food,” Johansen said. “But the abundance and scarcity of mast will play a role.”
Outside of scarlet oak and red/black oak acorns, this year’s mast crop was poor.
“This year’s hard-mast index was down 22% from the long-term average,” Johansen said. “Soft mast was bad, too.
“Deer tend to move a bit more when mast isn’t abundant. Deer will be traveling to oak flats where red/black and scarlet oak acorns are present.”
Johansen said he believes the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will play a significant role in this year’s buck kill.
“We’ve already seen a COVID-related increase in participation in other forms of fish- and wildlife-related recreation,” he explained. “For that reason, we expect an increase in the number of hunters this year, as well as the amount of time those hunters spend in the field.”
This year, for the first time, hunters will have an extra day added to the buck season. In May, members of the state Natural Resources Commission voted to end the buck season on Sunday instead of Saturday.
“Hunter participation goes up on weekends, so this will probably help boost the harvest,” Johansen said.
Weather will be the wild card.
“If we get good weather on the first two or three days of the season, we’ll probably have a really good harvest,” Johansen said. “If we have rain or snow, it won’t be as good. What we hope for, and try to bribe the weatherman for, is good weather.
“Barring bad weather, we’ll have good kill this year. It will certainly be better than it was last year.”
If they’ve purchased a doe stamp, hunters who don’t bag a buck will have the option to take an antlerless deer instead. At least some concurrent antlerless-antlered deer hunting has taken place during the buck season since 2001, and the two-week hunt now accounts for the lion’s share of the state’s annual doe kill.