When I opened my e-mail the other day and found the DNR's 2009 Mast Survey & Hunting Outlook I was eager to look and compare my observations with the findings on the survey. This annual survey, which began in 1970, is a compilation of observations of the mast conditions for 18 different species of hard and soft mast producing trees and shrubs from 290 locations throughout the state. It provides an estimate of the mast produced by each species in the various ecological regions of the state and described as abundant, common, or scarce. Researchers then calculate a mast index for each species according to ecological region and elevation.
Then they compare this year's index to last year's index and the long-term average, statewide and in the six regions. This survey is a valuable tool for biologists and wildlife managers to forecast hunting conditions, winter survival, and the overall health of game populations favoring these food sources.
The first thing I noticed was the bad news, compared to the 2008 survey the mast this year decreased considerably statewide and the 2009 mast index for all species decreased to the lowest it has been in the history of the survey. In fact, 15 of the 18 species monitored decreased by more than 20 percent from the average with the largest decrease observed in apple and chestnut oak. The statewide index for beech, hickory, oaks, and black cherry was well below the 39-year average. Soft mast species such as blackberry, hawthorn, crabapple, greenbrier, grape, and apple were also below the average. However, this is how the state did as a whole, some regions fared better than others did and certain species produced very well in specific locations.
The Eastern Panhandle region had beech, hickory, scarlet oak and yellow poplar above the 39-year average while most soft mast species are below the average. The mountain region had good hard mast production from beech and black/red oak trees with production better than last year. In this area walnut, black/red oak, scarlet oak, yellow poplar and dogwood all did better than the 39-year average but other hard mast species were below the average, soft mast was also below the long-term average. The central region was the big loser this year with all mast species failing to reach their 39-year average with chestnut oak and scarlet oak down over 90 percent from the long-term average.
There is some good news however, the hunting outlook in the survey is predicting similar or increased harvests for many animals over last years totals. Biologists expect the deer, turkey, squirrel, rabbit, and ruffed grouse harvests to be about the same or better than last years numbers with the only decrease expected in the bear gun season in December due to the bears going to den earlier than usual with the poor mast crop.
What does all this mean for the hunter? Well it means you will need to scout more thoroughly to find productive stands of beech, oak, hickory and other favored food sources of the game you are after. Certain areas in all regions will have places that produced much better mast crops than others. For instance, grape production was down 14 percent from the long-term average in the mountain region but I have found some grape tangles full of grapes while just 200 yards away the grapes are non-existent in similar grape arbors.
The survey found that white oak produced much better around openings and field edges than in the forests, early season hunters particularly archers will do better if they concentrate their efforts near field edges with good crops of white oak acorns especially if there happens to be an apple tree that produced in the area. Apples are a choice food for many animals early in the season, especially deer and bear; normally they are plentiful but this year most apples succumbed to the late spring frost. Where you find these two favorite foods you should find good hunting opportunities early in the season, if you can find an old field with white oak and apple together the hunting should be excellent
The mountain region where I do most of my hunting fared better than other areas of the state, mast crops may still be low but the survey found that almost all mast species did better at higher elevations than lower elevation. You should pay close attention when scouting ridge tops to locate feeding areas, granted there is not as much mast overall but I have found a couple ridges that yielded heavy crops of beech and oak that I plan on hunting this year. What this scarcity of food does is concentrate wildlife in the areas that did produce heavy mast crops with many different animals utilizing the same food source making some spots much more productive than similar areas nearby. This also means that game will be on the move much more this season seeking areas with good mast crops, which may be some distance from bedding and roosting areas and should provide hunters with the opportunity to see more game.
There was more good news in the outlook; brood counts for ruffed grouse and turkey were up 50 percent through July in the mountain region giving us more game birds to pursue this fall. With the mast situation as it is turkeys should be concentrated and where you find good crops of beech, cherry and acorns should provide the best hunting. Grouse tend to show up anywhere but looking for them around dense stands of dogwood, crabapple, and grape where you find fruit is a good bet. Squirrel hunters will do best where they find hickory when the season opens but once it is depleted as the season progresses look for them in the oaks where they will be gathering nuts for winter
This is just a brief summary of all the information available in the survey, to view the entire document visit the WV DNR website at where you can find a link in the hunting section for the complete survey. Remember this survey is just an average and there will be localized areas that produced better than others did and scouting is the best way to find the best spots in your hunting area. Spending a few hours scouting will help you familiarize yourself with the area, locate abundant food sources and the trails that connect feeding and bedding areas. Thorough scouting may be as important to ensure a successful hunt this year as any other preparations you are likely to make.