If you're an Eastern bowhunter, chances are you long to sample the wild flavor of chasing big game in the American West. Who doesn't? Huge, scenic country with plenty of wildlife and elbow room inspires us all.
But dreaming of the West and actually going there can be two different things. For most Eastern bowhunters, the realities of distance, time and money make stalking the Rockies more a fantasy than a plan. And so, most continue to wish they could go, instead of actually going.
If this describes your situation, I have encouraging news. You can get a lot of the same elements of a Western bowhunting adventure without even crossing the Ohio River. Just point your truck toward the wilds of West Virginia.
The Mountain State rarely gets much press as a trophy whitetail destination, but it should. The steep, wooded ridges of the Appalachian Mountains house a surprising number of Pope & Young-class bucks.
One look at the countryside and you know you'll have to work for them. There's little flat, open land, especially in the southern counties that harbor a lot of the Mountain State's P&Y deer. But the challenge of the habitat heavily contributes to the number of trophies.
So does the management plan. Since 1979, four of the state's most southerly counties — Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming — have had no legal firearms hunting for deer. While deer densities are lower than in many other parts of the nation, the lack of legal gun hunting means a fair percentage of bucks reach maturity.
As you can tell from the accompanying map of P&Y entries, the bow-only counties are all good. Logan is perhaps the best of the bunch, leading the state in all-time entries, but anywhere in this part of the state has big-buck potential.
In general, the map suggests the western half of West Virginia is the part to focus on for big deer. Of course, not all trophy bow bucks here (or anywhere else) end up being officially measured and then entered, but available data point toward the bow-only counties and several bordering the Ohio River as having the best odds. Since 2010, Kanawha County (home to the state capital of Charleston) has joined Logan, Wyoming and McDowell as the most productive counties for P&Y entries.
There's a lot of public land across the state, and some of these tracts are large. Private lands held by coal-mining interests and timber companies also are expansive, and some of these can still be hunted by permission. Throw in the reasonable price of over-the-counter deer tags, and West Virginia becomes a viable option for the DIY bowhunter who wants to get away from it all without breaking the bank.
Of course, the wild nature of the land means that, as much as anywhere else in the East — and maybe even more than the West — you must do your homework. That includes study or aerial imagery, then ground truthing to confirm what you think you're seeing on those photos. You can pretty much forget hunting obvious field edges or food plots, as deer here feed mainly on native browse and mast. That said, where coal lands have been reclaimed, some plantings of clover and other forages do draw in game.
In short, West Virginia is still a pretty wild place filled with options for old-school sportsmen to bowhunt trophy bucks in an untamed environment. For those who don't mind a taking on a rugged challenge, the opportunity for bargain bucks still is to be found in this land of big woods and rushing waters.