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Friday, September 27, 2002

Deer hunting forecast

If Virginia's deer season goes by the script, hunting will be excellent this fall


   Predicting hunting seasons can be tricky.

    It's usually pretty easy to theorize what should happen. However, uncontrollable factors such as weather and disease can blow the predictions right out of the water.

    If Virginia's deer season goes by the script, the upcoming season should be excellent.

    At the heart of the matter is the state's whitetail population, and it is booming.

    Not only are their plenty of deer, but the bucks are getting bigger. Many hunters are voluntarily passing up shots at young bucks to hold out for bragging-sized bucks. The result is the average age of bucks taken by hunters is increasing, meaning more hunters are tagging trophies.

    A couple of factors may temper the excitement about the upcoming season.

    Biologists have confirmed a serious outbreak of hemorrhagic disease in Virginia. The disease is already killing some deer and the death toll could reach the thousands.

    Drought also may hurt deer. They're not starving or dying of thirst, but in some especially dry area the deer may not be in prime condition.

Lots of deer

    If you're a deer hunter in Virginia and are intent on putting some meat in your freezer this fall, you shouldn't have too much trouble.

    "It's going to be a good year," said Matt Knox, the biologist who oversees the state's deer program. "The numbers are there."

    Just how many deer is something of a mystery.

    Biologists don't really know how many white-tailed deer live in Virginia. A figure of one million has been thrown around, but that's really just a guess. There's just no accurate way to count live deer.

    It's not hard to count dead deer, though, and that's the primary way the state tracks population trends. The hunter kill is a pretty constant percentage of the herd. So if the annual hunter kill goes up steadily, that indicates a growing herd.

    Taking into account deer/auto accidents and damage complaints, it appears Virginia's deer population is on the rise.

    Last fall hunters killed about 215,000 whitetails during the roughly three-month-long season. The number was the highest in years, and wasn't too far from the all-time high kill of 218,476 in 1995.

    A rising kill is not necessarily good news.

    "If it's up again this year, that's very, very bad," Knox said.

    That would indicate that the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries isn't meeting its objective of maintaining a stable herd, the department's goal in most Virginia counties.

    A rising population would also likely force the department to seriously revamp its antlerless deer hunting regulations in an effort to slow or reverse the growth.

Where the deer are

    If a hunter wants to see lots of deer, he's best off hunting on private land. Private property that's a mix of hardwood forests and cultivated fields offers ideal habitat for whitetails, and the deer thrive in such areas.

    As more hunters focus their efforts on private property, pressure has become light on many public lands. National forest and state wildlife management area lands usually offer only marginal habitat, but they hold deer, including some trophies. It just can take more time to find the deer.

    The annual acorn crop can have a huge impact on where deer can be found in the fall. In banner years, deer can be difficult to locate because they don't have to travel far to find food.

    A bad mast crop can lead to a higher deer kill. Deer often will be forced to feed in open fields, where they are more vulnerable to hunters.

    This fall it appears hunters in Western Virginia will see some of the good and some of the bad.

    A late frost last spring apparently zapped the acorn crop in some areas. In other areas oak trees are loaded. Because the acorn crop is spotty, hunters would be smart to scout their hunting grounds before opening day. Especially in areas where the mast crop is poor, hunters who can find acorns should find concentrations of whitetails.

    As usual, the best hunting for mature bucks will coincide with the rut, the timing of which is a favorite debate among hard core hunters.

    Knox simply points to the numbers, saying most big Virginia bucks are taken during the second week of the early black powder season and the first week of the general firearms season. This year that period runs Nov. 11-23.

    Dry weather apparently has affected the condition of some deer.

    "The drought has been tough on them," said Knox, who has been watching the deer in Bedford County, where he lives. "They are thinner than they have been."

    Fawns may not have grown as fast as they should have.

    "They need tender green food," Knox said. "Nothing has been tender, and green is a relative term."

    While hunters in some Western and Midwestern states are nervous about chronic wasting disease, another disease is being felt in Virginia. The state is experiencing its worst hemorrhagic disease (HD) outbreak since 1999.

    The disease, which is spread by tiny biting flies, isn't always fatal. Many infected deer die during the disease's early, acute phase, when the deer are hit with a tremendous fever. Dead and dying deer often can be found near water, which they seek in an attempt to alleviate the fever.

    Knox said the death toll could be "in the thousands." While that would barely make a dent in the statewide population, it can hurt specific landowners. Mortality in some hot pockets can reach 50 percent.

    "If you're that guy who goes out and finds 10 dead deer on your land, those are 10 deer you're not going to be hunting this season," said Knox, who recently got a phone call from a distraught landowner who found a huge buck dead on his property in Southampton County.

    HD tends to be found almost exclusively east of the Blue Ridge range, though Knox said the state is investigating a couple possible cases west of the Blue Ridge.

    The disease will abate when a hard frost kills the transmitting insects.

    As for chronic wasting disease (CWD), which is always fatal to deer it infects, there is no indication that the disease is anywhere near Virginia. Still, biologists in the state plan to randomly sample hundreds of hunter-killed deer for CWD this fall, just to be on the safe side. Biologists also will test any elk killed in Virginia - and some are here, having wandered into Virginia from neighboring states that have been stocking elk.

New regulations

    This is an off year for hunting regulations, so deer hunters won't have to learn a bunch of new rules. The only real change is the implementation of an urban archery season in some localities, including Blacksburg and Lynchburg.

    The season, which is tightly controlled by each participating locality, opened Sept. 21 and runs until the statewide early archery opener. Hunters may take only antlerless deer during the urban archery season.

Outlook: Excellent


   Urban archery - Sept. 21-Oct. 4

   Early archery - Oct. 5-Nov.16

   Late archery - Dec. 2-Jan. 4

   Early muzzleloader - Nov. 4-16, east of the Blue Ridge*

   Early muzzleloader - Nov. 11-16, west of the Blue Ridge*

   Late muzzleloader - Dec. 16-Jan. 4*

   General firearms - Nov. 18-30*

Bag limit:

   East of Blue Ridge - Two per day; four per year, one of which must be antlerless**

   West of Blue Ridge - One per day; three per year, one of which must be antlerless**

For specific boundaries and exceptions, consult the Virginia hunting regulations booklet or see

Bonus tags also may purchased separately for use on private lands for the taking of antlerless deer, subject to county-specific regulations.

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