deer head in Llano, Texas

Tradition, wildlife management, and passionate sport come together in deer season. A convenience store in Llano, Texas, devotes a wall to hunters' souvenirs, November 2008.
Photo: Julie Ardery

When November rolls around in the mountains, soft flakes of snow fall to the ground and excitement fills the air ““ Deer Season.

West Virginia is a hunter’s paradise. Here, deer hunting is a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Boys and girls grow up taking hunter education courses, taught in many of the schools to ensure young hunters are safe hunters. Others youngsters learn by example.

Each year the West Virginia Department of Education allows county school personnel to vote on a calendar — 180 days of instruction (in some districts, the superintendent decides on the calendar for the upcoming school year). Every district must account for snow days and vacations days around Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring break. The State tells the counties they cannot hold school past a certain day in June.

In Nicholas County, the schools are closed down for the entire first week of deer season. Thanksgiving occurs on Thursday of that week so it is called “Thanksgiving Break.” The few times that school administrators have tried to hold school during the first week of deer season, they were not able to get enough substitute bus drivers to drive for regular drivers to get the students to the schools, nor could they arrange for enough substitute teachers to teach for the regular teachers. More to the point, there weren't enough students present to make it worthwhile to heat the buildings ““ Everyone is in the woods deer hunting, especially men and boys.

hunters in West Virginia

Matt Maxson (right) and a cousin take a deer during West Virginia's hunting season of 2005
Photo: Matt Maxson

The deer hunt is a guarded ritual.

A trip to deer camp for three or four days, or a whole week, is an annual outing where the bonding of father and son, friend and friend take place. High in the mountains, a one or two room cabin equipped with a wood stove for heating and cooking, bunk beds and fold-out-cots provides a place for hunters to eat, rest and stay out of the weather. When the time to go to camp approaches, hunters load cardboard boxes filled with supplies for the week into the back of the pickup truck. They haul enough plastic milk jugs full of water for cooking and drinking; food includes deer or beef jerky, cans of pork and beans, sardines, cartons of eggs, Irish potatoes, slabs of bacon, strong coffee and cold drinks. Warm quilts or sleeping bags are rolled up tightly and tied with strings — a pillow stuck between — to insure a good night’s sleep. They bring a change of clothes. Waterproof boots, good for walking, are part of the hunting gear, as are caps to shield the eyes from the sun or rain. Of course, they bring along deer rifles with scopes, major and necessary purchases for hunters. This gun is hauled in a gun case and stowed in a secure place in the truck. Ammunition is kept separate.

Preparation for the first day in the woods is carefully thought out. Hunters do their scouting a day or so before the season opens. The hunter is looking for fresh deer tracks in the snow, bent twigs, bark skinned off trees or deer waste. On the day of the hunt, hunters are out before daybreak to make sure they are in place before early morning movement of the deer. Deer are able to pick up even the slightest movement; their wide-set eyes give them a large range of vision. Camouflage coveralls or jackets and pants help the hunter blend in with the trees and leaves. Blaze orange is a requirement for safety purposes ““ 400 square-inches visible from both front and back of hunting jackets or vests. Deer see only blues and yellows. They cannot see orange or red. According to experts, the blaze orange appears brown or gray to the deer.

At the end of the first day, the hunters return to the cabin about sundown with or without a deer. The designated cook has peeled and fried Irish potatoes, heated the pork and beans, made hot coffee, and fried slabs of bacon for the evening meal. The cabin is warm. The hunters sit on the bunks or in makeshift chairs and relive the day ““ the 12-point buck that got away, the trophy deer hiding in the weeds over the next ridge. Tomorrow is another day.

processing deer meat
Matt Maxson and a fellow hunter process a deer at a West Virginia hunting camp, 2005
Photo: Matt Maxson

Venison (deer meat) is a mainstay for many mountain families. When deer season is over, the winter meat is processed and packed away in the freezer. Larry Conard, an avid hunter who worked in our maintenance department, would come over after deer season and tell us he had killed a deer so his winter meat was in.

Approximately 320,000 licensed hunters were in the West Virginia woods for the 2008 deer season. Not all hunters are out there for the venison, even though it is a healthy, low-fat alternative to beef. They are hunting for sport. In 2007 more than 67,000 bucks were harvested in West Virginia during the two-week buck season. Deer must be field tagged and checked at a check-in station within 72 hours of the kill or 24 hours of the last day of deer season, whichever comes first.

deer and collision

A motorcyclist collided with a deer in Stones Corner, Virginia, a fairly common hazard along rural roadways. (Out came the cell-phone camera!)
Photo: Imnewtryme

Deer management, which includes curbing populations, is a major challenge for rural residents in West Virginia. Deer enjoy gardens. They are nocturnal animals, so jumping fences and tearing up row after row of corn in the middle of the night while you sleep is natural and normal for them. Our neighbor Owen Simms, who shared a garden with us, always put up an electric fence. You had to turn off the electricity before going between the barbed wires which boxed off the garden or you would get the same shock as the deer. Owen also hung up tin pie pans so they would shine and clamor, another attempt to scare the deer away.

Vehicle collision is also a real concern for drivers along the winding mountain roads. Often a deer will crash through the windshield, totaling a vehicle and injuring the people inside.

In 1992 deer hunting in West Virginia became important for another reason, beyond overpopulation control and the tradition passed down from generation to generation. Deer hunting in West Virginia now feeds the hungry. 2008 marks the 17th consecutive year for the Hunters Feeding the Hungry Program sponsored by the West Virginia Division of Wildlife. Hunters simply take their deer to participating meat processors, where the kill is turned into two-pound packages of ground venison. Through the participation of generous hunters and financial contributors (who fund the processing fee), more than 16,681 deer have been processed — on average, 38 pounds of ground venison are realized from each deer.

The Mountaineer Food Bank of Gassaway and the Huntington Area Food Bank collect the venison and then distribute it to the hungry ““ through food pantries, soup kitchens, and senior centers and directly to needy families. More than 638,726 pounds of highly nutritious meat has been put on the tables of needy families throughout West Virginia as a result of this program. The deer hunt in West Virginia, a hunter’s paradise, has become a worthy cause.

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