Plentiful crops draw game for state hunters
West Virginia hunters on the lookout for raccoons, deer or bears will have good luck this season depending on where they decide to hunt, according to the state Division of Natural Resources' annual mast survey.
While state trees produced slightly more fruit this year than in 2011, those crops are not consistent throughout the state. Some areas will experience a bumper crop of acorns, cherries, chestnuts and other mast, while others will see scarce production of those same crops, according to the report.
Curtis Taylor, wildlife resources section chief for the DNR, said high-elevation areas like Randolph, Greenbrier and Nicholas counties generally have seen a drop in mast production this year, while the southwestern counties are having a good year.
But those are generalizations.
"It's just a hodgepodge across the state. It can be ridge top to ridge top, depending on where you're at," he said. "Your favorite hunting hole might not have anything in it this year. On the other hand, your favorite hunting hole might be loaded.
"There's no substitute for getting out there and looking."
He said the varying mast production is largely caused by weather.
Some areas saw lots of frost, which will drastically reduce the amount of fruit that oak and hickory trees produce, while other received hardly any frost at all.
Extended periods of rainfall also have interfered with pollination in some areas.
"(Trees) are just like a tomato or anything else. They've got to be pollinated to produce fruit," Taylor said.
Researchers believe the varying mast levels will cause animal populations to swell in some areas and drop in others.
Researchers predict the state's raccoon harvest will increase over 2011 levels. This year's spotty oak production could limit the number of raccoons in some areas, but good cherry production in other areas will lead to increased raccoon populations there.
A distemper outbreak in southern West Virginia could hurt the raccoon harvest in that region, however.
The state's buck and antlerless deer harvests also should be higher in 2012, according to the report.
Researchers predict an increase in reproduction, and last year's mild winter should lead to many 1 1/2-year-old deer in the woods. Some regions will see more kills than others, however.
Hunters in some counties may see fewer animals because of localized Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease outbreaks. Taylor said the DNR identified EHD cases in Mason, Calhoun, Jefferson, Mason, Monroe, Pleasant and Greenbrier counties last year.
The outbreaks probably will not affect the overall harvest, however. Taylor said even at its worst, EHD kills only 10 percent of a deer population.
"All of them that get it don't die. I wouldn't even say countywide. There may be pockets where there are fewer deer," he said.
This year's mast report also predicts a good year for bear kills.
As long as the state avoids a major snowstorm, the high number of acorns in some areas will keep bears out of their dens in December, researchers predict.
Varied oak production throughout the state means bow hunters will have to work harder to find bears, researchers wrote, but they recommend looking for bruins in black cherry patches that have produced a strong crop this year.
Researchers predict the state's wild boar and fall turkey seasons will be similar to last year.
Though mast conditions were below average last year, the mild winter balanced that out because fewer animals died in the cold.
Spotty mast conditions could lead to plenteous squirrel populations in some areas, while other regions will see fewer squirrels this year, according to the report.
All hard mast-producing trees except walnut and beech trees increased production since last year. Chestnut oak increased 360 percent since 2011, white oak increased 206 percent and hickory increased 18 percent
Beech production dropped 60 percent from last year's levels. Walnut production decreased 37 percent.
Soft mass production also is varied. Apple production also is down 28 percent since last year, while cherry production increased 378 percent. Sassafras increased 69 percent over 2011, while greenbrier production remained almost the same.
Overall, the 2012 mast index is 5 percent higher than the state's 42-year average.
"You have good years and you have bad years and you have average years. This year we're above average," Taylor said. "When you look at it on a graph, it's just up and down, up and down. There's no consistency to it because you can't rely on the weather."
Volunteers from varying specialties - including wildlife managers, foresters, biologists and conservation officers - compile the annual mast report, collecting data from 309 sites around the state.
Find the DNR's complete 2012 West Virginia Mast Survey on www.dailymail.com.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or email@example.com.