After a blistering hot summer, the recent cooler weather has stirred thoughts of whitetail deer hunting among Shenandoah Valley sportsmen. And now, part way through September, only a brief wait remains before we can be perched along a trail in the woods or sitting at the edge of a food plot with bow or crossbow in hand. A short while after that, muzzleloader season will arrive, followed by the modern firearms opener.
Bow season is set to open Oct. 6 this year, blackpowder Nov. 3, and modern firearms, Nov. 17. There will also be a special Youth Deer Hunting Day on Sept. 29 for hunters 15 and under.
The outlook for hunting whitetails, whichever type of equipment you choose, is very good for the coming seasons. During the past year, 233,104 whitetails were harvested by Old Dominion sportsmen. That figure included 98,874 antlered bucks (at least 1 1/2 years or older), 21,008 button bucks (less than one year), 113,106 does and 116 deer whose sex was not reported.
Matt Knox, leader of the deer program for the state, expects a similar kill this year since the herd has mostly stabilized. This has been the goal of the Game Department for the last few years, and they've done a good job managing the herd to obtain that objective.
Last year deer harvests were down slightly in the Tidewater, but up in all other regions. In the Northern Mountains, where the Shenandoah Valley lies, the kill was up three percent.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is still a concern in the area, but so far it has not become a major problem. Two deer were detected with the disease in Western Frederick County last year. This brings the total CWD cases to four since 2009. It's believed the initial infected deer crossed over from West Virginia at some point and that's how it arrived in Virginia.
Thousands of deer are sampled in our area each year to make sure the disease doesn't become a major problem. But the fact is there's little that can be done to prevent a few cases from occurring, except keeping deer numbers at a reasonable level. That's why it's important to harvest enough does each year.
Another disease that can be an even more important problem in the state to the whitetail herd is hemorrhagic disease (HD). Dry conditions are favorable for the spread of this disease, so it's fortunate that HD has not been a major problem in the area this summer.
When ponds and creeks dry up, the gnats that carry this disease can multiply rapidly. Bitten deer hemorrhage internally and soon die, often near a pond or stream. Luckily, that doesn't seem to have occurred this summer to any significant extent in the Shenandoah Valley.
The mast crop is always a major subject of interest as deer season approaches. So far, from my surveys, there seems to be a very heavy crop of acorns, especially on chestnut and white oaks. These species are highly favored by deer.
Bucks I had been seeing in fields a few weeks ago suddenly stopped showing up. Checking in the woods immediately confirmed why. Acorns were everywhere. They had switched to feeding on this abundant food.
If you find an area with several white or chestnut oaks dropping acorns, check it out for scuffed leaves where deer have looked for the nuts and fresh droppings. Hang a stand downwind of that area and you should be in a good spot for a bow or crossbow hunt next month.
Another plus for this fall's hunting season, according to Knox, is the mild winter we had last year. "It is not unusual for deer to lose a significant amount of their body weight during winter," he said. "This did not happen in Virginia during the winter of 2012. The deer herd came out of the winter in better than average condition."
Knox expects an excellent season for hunters on private land in the Shenandoah Valley and surrounding mountains. On public land, the outlook is fair to good. But that's better than it was just a few years back.
The deer harvest on national forest lands in Western Virginia has declined 60 percent since the 1990's. Deer habitat deterioration is the major culprit. Without land use changes that decline can't be totally stopped.
But to help slow the deterioration of the herd, game managers have cut back on doe hunting. As an example, on national forest lands during muzzleloader season in Shenandoah and Rockingham counties, only bucks will be legal for the entire season. Knox says it appears that "the public land deer herd decline has apparently bottomed out" because of this reduced female kill.
That bodes well for national forest hunters this fall. No, the chances won't be as good as on a prime piece of private agricultural land in the Valley with good cover. But there will be plenty of territory to explore, and if you hunt hard enough and are lucky, there are some bruiser bucks in the National Forest.
Good luck wherever you hunt this fall. And always keep safety foremost in mind.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.