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For many reasons, opening day was one for the ages

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On the first day of every West Virginia buck season, I always visit a game-checking station or two, and I interview hunters and biologists about their opening-day experiences.

Last Monday's opener was memorable for one simple reason: The weather was pretty much ideal.

For some strange reason, good opening-day weather comes along about as often as 30-point bucks do.

Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it snows. Occasionally the wind blows too hard. And once in a while, even in late November, it's too darned hot.

When it's raining or snowing hard, many hunters don't even bother to get out of bed. When it's windy, hunters have a hard time hearing deer. When it's too hot, deer tend to bed down and stay put.

In 24 years' worth of opening-day outings, I can think of only two or three occasions on which the weather wasn't too wet, too cold, too blustery or too hot. Monday was one of them.

Paul Johansen, the Division of Natural Resources' assistant wildlife chief, said he couldn't even remember the last time he experienced ideal weather during an opener.

"It's been quite a while, that's for sure," he said.

DNR officials always hope for good weather because it helps them "meet their harvest projections." In other words, it helps hunters kill the number of deer DNR biologists want them to.

Why is opening-day weather so darned important?

Hunters kill more bucks on opening day than on any other day of the season. More than half the annual buck harvest occurs on the season's first three days, and the lion's share of those deer bite the dust in those crucial first few hours of that all-important first day.

If wildlife officials had their way, every buck opener would dawn clear and cold, with no wind and a light dusting of snow on the ground. I can remember only one time in the past quarter-century when that actually happened, and hunters killed oodles of bucks when it did.

Monday's conditions weren't quite ideal. Temperatures were cool but not quite cold, and except for some frost the ground was bare. By all indications, though, the hunting was good. And for once, weather was a positive factor.

It wasn't the only one, though.

Mating behavior, which peaked earlier in the month, apparently was still going strong. Rutting bucks are pretty reckless, a trait that certainly works in hunters' favor. Several hunters I interviewed said the bucks they shot were either chasing does or had does with them.

This year's mast crop also played into sportsmen's opening-day success. White and chestnut oak acorns were abundant this fall, and savvy hunters focused their efforts on areas where those species dominated the mix.

We won't know until mid-December whether the weather, the rut and the acorn crop combined to dramatically increase this year's buck kill. Headed into the season, DNR officials predicted a harvest of about 60,000 - roughly the same as in 2011.

Biologists are usually conservative with such estimates, and unless I miss my guess they factor in the probability of less-than-ideal opening-day weather.

My gut feeling is that this year's harvest might push into the 65,000-70,000 range.

That's only a guess, and it's a guess based on intuition rather than evidence. But that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.


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