By Dave Payne Sr.
Forester Ray Boggs would like to find some ginseng behind his house, but all he sees is deer sign. That’s fine with him.
This fall is special for Boggs, who has worked with the state forestry department for three decades. He planned his retirement for October, just as the fall fire season begins and archery deer season starts. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” he said. “I’m going to do a lot of hunting.”
The dry summer conditions have left his mountainside bone dry and dead leaves, falling to the ground weeks early, crumble beneath his feet. With nuts scarce, deer have been eating more green vegetation, including most of Boggs’ ginseng.
Dousing rains from the remnants of two hurricanes that swept up the Appalachians came too late to save either his mast crop — deer foods such as oak acorns, beech nuts and hickory nuts — or his precious ginseng. He points to a hole surrounded by freshly dug earth.
“Look,” he says. “Looks like a skunk dug up a yellow jackets’ nest.” He soon realizes that the skunk only got one nest of several. Looking down at his feet, he sees yellow jackets rushing out of their hole single file, struggling to get airborne. Boggs runs, and I quickly follow.
When we stop, Boggs looks around to make sure none of the stinging insects followed. He forges ahead to an opening where deer have bedded down. Three or four, probably does, he says. He continues walking back into the woods, kicking leaves at his feet, looking for acorns or anything else deer like to eat. He files the information in his head and works to connect the dots, trying to get a “feel” for where the deer are, where they will be and what path they will take to get there.
This year, pre-season scouting is especially important as poor mast conditions throughout Appalachia mean deer will be concentrated in predictable areas, though maybe not by the stand you’ve sworn by for years. A poor mast report is actually good news for hunters, though still bad news for deer. Most deer kill records are broken during poor mast or mast failure years.
Wildlife officials hope that poor mast conditions will lead to larger kills as they try to streamline their respective state’s deer herds. Poor mast conditions cause deer to be more concentrated in areas where there is food and move about more in search of it, increasing the chances a hunter will see deer.
Bernie Dowler, deputy director of the WV Division of Natural Resources, said the mast this year is most similar to that of 1997, when a record-breaking 80,029 bucks were killed in the state. Wildlife officials throughout the region are reporting very spotty mast conditions. While Appalachian biologists report poor conditions overall, localized areas, some maybe only an acre or two in size, are producing a good mast crop. Hunters need to find out where those places are before they hunt.
In West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, a May frost adversely affected some nut and berry crops. While drought conditions seem to more adversely affect higher elevations, mast conditions may not be better for lower ground, as the frost hit those areas the hardest, said Scott Warner, a West Virginia biologist. Some areas escaped the hard-hitting frost, possibly because of foggy conditions.
Mast conditions vary considerably, even over short distances. Occasionally, wildlife agents in the field, only a few miles from one another report vastly different mast. “Scouting will pay some bigger dividends this year in helping hunters bag their respective quarry because of the very spotty mast conditions,” said Paul Johansen, assistant chief of game management in West Virginia. “Getting out in the woods a few days or weeks prior to hunting can make the difference between success and failure.”
Bob Duncan, wildlife division director for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said that mast production is especially poor in higher elevations, though not as bad as officials had feared.
“At first we thought there would be very little production,” Duncan said. “We were really surprised to see we didn’t have a mast failure. This isn‘t the best year for mast, but it‘s not a failure.”
When scouting, it is important to deduce where deer are during certain times of the day and get a feel for their daily routine. Deer are creatures of habit and are primarily motivated by food, water, sex and escaping hunting pressure.
One way to tell how recently a deer has been in the area is to look at the tracks and droppings. In dry soil, tracks will be free of debris inside the hoof print and will have sharp edges. Fresh tracks in moist soil will show the same moisture content as nearby earth.
Deer droppings are another good way to figure out when a deer visited. There’s no need to touch them and see if they’re warm. Fresh droppings look black and moist while old droppings appear grayer and lack that fresh luster.
Deer tend to sleep around midday, usually in the same location as long as hunting pressure is low. When hunting pressure increases, they can often be found bedded down in thick brush where few hunters go. A circular imprint in grass or soil can identify their beds. Since deer spend a much of the day in their bedding locations, the areas are usually full of droppings.
Traditionally hunters, especially firearm hunters, have viewed rubs and scrapes as the ultimate deer sign and in some ways it is, because only bucks make them. Bucks make rubs by scraping their antlers back and forth on trees or bushes and usually start doing so as the rut, the period when deer are sexually active begins.
In the Appalachians, the rut usually peaks in Mid-November. Also at the beginning of the rut, bucks scrape their front hooves to clear the ground of debris. The buck urinates in the spot to leave a primeval calling card for does. Does in heat wander around looking for scrapes and whenever they find one they urinate in it. This lets the buck know the doe is in heat and he will trail her scent.
Sometimes hunters find a scrape and hunt over it only to see no bucks. Sometimes, the scrapes are abandoned, but more often than not, the buck is simply visiting his scrape at night, which is when they usually maintain their string of scrapes. A fresh scrape will be wet with urine or have freshly dug dirt.