Since before the time Europeans settled in these mountains, hunting has been a tradition in West Virginia. The image of the mountaineer in buckskin clothing and coonskin cap, and carrying a flintlock rifle, has endured. While dress and weaponry have changed, West Virginians’ passion for hunting remains strong, and modern wildlife management has maintained viable populations of virtually all game species.
In fact, there are many more whitetail deer and wild turkeys now than there were 100 years ago, when both had been reduced to near extinction by habitat destruction and unregulated hunting. The black bear, our state animal, similarly threatened as late as the 1970s, has also made a remarkable comeback. These three species, which played such important roles in the survival of early settlers, constitute the centerpiece of Mountain State hunting.
West Virginia’s first game laws were passed in 1869, although it was not until well into the 20th century that additional statutes gradually reversed the decline in game animals. Game laws have been refined over the years, as has enforcement, starting with the 1933 act that replaced game protectors with conservation officers.
All West Virginia hunting seasons are held in the fall, with the exception of spring gobbler season, which was begun in 1968 and has become immensely popular. All game species are native animals except for European wild boars, which were introduced into three counties in southern West Virginia through stocking. Boar hunting was begun in 1979 and continues as the most challenging of our big game seasons, due to the rugged terrain the hogs inhabit and their innate craftiness.
Although deer, bear, and turkey command the most attention, the gray squirrel and the cottontail rabbit lure thousands of hunters to the woods and fields annually. Historically, young hunters first hone their skills in the squirrel woods. Rabbit hunting is equally traditional, although rabbit numbers have declined because of changing habitat with the loss of fields and increasing forestation. The numbers of ruffed grouse, a bird that epitomizes the wild places of West Virginia, have dropped for the same reason. The trapping of fur-bearing animals, including mink, raccoon, foxes, and beaver, rounds out the West Virginia hunting scene, if on a reduced scale compared to decades ago.
Each year more than 350,000 hunters take to the woods in West Virginia. October and November are the traditional hunting months, when most of the seasons merge, and early morning and late evening are prime times for hunters, with wild game on the move. Serious hunters adapt their strategy to the habits of the game they are seeking, and to the availability of food supplies in the woods. The most striking changes have come in bow hunting, with tree stands, elaborate camouflage, and high-tech bows in vogue now. In another respect, technology in weaponry has taken a step backward with the advent of a muzzle loader rifle season for deer.
Prior to the enactment of the first hunting laws in West Virginia in 1869, subsistence hunting took place throughout the year. But even then, autumn was the favored time because animals had grown to maturity and fattened on the plentiful foods of summer. Also, with colder weather the meat was easier to preserve. Present hunting laws recognize these factors, as well as the need to protect animals during the time of raising their young.
Early, unregulated hunting was done mostly for food and clothing. Like the Indians before them, the early settlers depended on animals, especially whitetail deer, for food, clothing, and even soap made from the tallow. Market hunting of deer played a part in that animal being reduced to near-extinction by the early 1900s, and at one time large numbers of cottontail rabbits were shipped from West Virginia to eastern markets.
The emergence of hunting clubs began in the early 1900s. Historian Roy Bird Cook, in his preface to sportsman W.E.R. Byrne’s classic book, Tale of the Elk, mentions attending a meeting of the West Virginia Fish and Game Protective Association at Clarksburg in 1907. Today, more than 100 outdoor organizations exist in the state, most of them affiliated with the West Virginia Wildlife Federation.
Every county of the state has its legendary hunters. Topping the list is the fabled frontiersman Daniel Boone, who lived in Kanawha County for about 10 years. Powell Mountain in Nicholas County was named for William Powell, an early hunter in that region. Eli ‘‘Rimfire’’ Hamrick of Webster Springs, the renowned mountaineer, reputedly gained his colorful nickname due to his skill with a rifle firing rimfire cartridges. Perhaps the late Ed Buck was the last of the mountain men in West Virginia. A biology teacher at Richwood High School, he hunted and trapped for more than 40 years in the remote Cranberry Backcountry.
West Virginia has 1.5 million acres of public hunting land, about 10 percent of the state’s total acreage.
This Article was written by Skip Johnson
Last Revised on May 10, 2013
Stone, Frank & Charles Costilow. History of Conservation Law Enforcement in West Virginia. Charleston: West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, 1974.
Allen, Tom & Jack Cromer. "White-tailed Deer in West Virginia," Bulletin. West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, 1977.