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Courtesy Cody McCulloch
Cody McCulloch with the 265-pound bear he killed with a bow in Bedford County. Poor mast years like this one favor early season hunters
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Hunting strategies that worked well last season may come up short this time. That's because the acorn crop, a vital food for wildlife, was abundant last year and poor this fall.
West Virginia is reporting that its mast crop is one of the worst in the 43 years it has been keeping records. Virginia's mast survey hasn't been completed, but I am hearing from one end of the state to the other that it isn't good. Wildlife officials verify that.
"The anecdotal reports I am getting is that white oak mast is poor, very, very poor," said Matt Knox, deer project leader for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Last week in this space, I reported on how the lack of acorns will impact squirrels and bears. Now let's look at Part II, deer and turkeys:
A poor mast year tends to make deer more vulnerable to hunters; thus, the kill rises, although Knox isn't predicting any major increase. In fact, opening day of the bow season was off 5-percent from last year, probably the result of a miserable hot day.
What is certain, there will be a difference from last year in where deer are found and what they are eating.
"When there are acorns, there is literally food everywhere and the deer are spread out over the landscape," Knox said. "Also because there is often a lot of food they tend to feed for shorter periods, making them less vulnerable to hunters."
During a poor mast year, like this one, deer must range more to satisfy their nutrition needs. This often lures them into fields and meadows where they tend to concentrate. They will be attracted to food plots, apple trees, garden spots and late agricultural crops like soybeans. These make ideal ambush spots for hunters.
There's always the chance that you still may be able to locate isolated pockets of oaks that somehow escaped the mast failure. Scouting them out can put venison in your freezer.
This season is destined to be a trophy year, thanks to last fall's heavy mast followed by a mild winter, factors that gave bucks the opportunity to put more of their energies into antler development. That's not likely the case next year.
Mast failures can impact winter survival of deer, resulting in a higher mortality for fawns, and even adult deer if the winter is harsh, Knox said.
The disease, HD, also can be a factor, but, unlike last year, there have been few reports of outbreaks this time, Knox said.
The late Kit Shaffer, a renowned wildlife biologist and turkey hunting expert, once told me that if I wanted to find flocks of turkeys in the early fall, first find beechnut trees.
That advice may be more pertinent this season than any in a long while, considering acorns are scarce and beechnuts are abundant.
"Turkeys will be moving more this year, looking for food, and the hunter who spends time in the woods hunting and scouting will prosper," said Richard Pauley, president of the Botetourt Longbeards Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
"Once you find where turkeys are feeding, it might be wise to wear out the seat of your hunting pants and sit and call, rather than wearing out your hunting boots," said Pauley who classifies the acorn crop as "a total failure."
With acorns out of the picture, turkeys will be concentrating on soft mast, including wild grapes, persimmons and dogwood berries. When these preferred sources of food disappear, turkeys will go to cedar berries and "the little helicopter seed pods that drift down from the tulip poplars," Pauley said. Turkeys get innovative, and turkey hunters are wise to do the same.
Once you find turkeys working a food source they will keep coming back to it because there aren't that many options for them, said Pauley.
There appears to be a decent crop of young birds this fall, and they can be seen forging for grasshoppers, and weed seeds in fields, where they are likely to remain during the early season.
Pauley believes there is a potential for a high turkey kill, but hunting pressure-or lack of it-will impact that more than the mast crop. He is one of the stakeholders helping to put together a Wild Turkey Management Plan for the DGIF. The document, scheduled to be voted on in January, recommends additional opportunities for fall hunters in an effort to reverse a decline in their numbers.
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