By Bob Fala
West Virginia DNR’s highly anticipated autumn outdoor foods report has just been released. That is, just what’s the story on the “mast” out there, as it’s commonly called in the collective. And no, the report’s not late; it’s just that several of the hunting seasons out there are opening up earlier than in the past. When hundreds of surveyors add up the nutty hard mast from acorns and walnuts to the soft or fleshy versions from dogwood berries to crabapples, here’s the skinny.
Thanks to the famous survey, the trends or comparisons and contrast with the long term can be made. As always, there can be local and regional differences so hunters must get familiar with their own neck of the woods. But cutting to the chase, here are some of the highlights from the present year’s crop survey.
Outdoor foods are at neither bumper or bust levels. They are decidedly around the long term 42-year average when considered in combination for the eighteen varying mast producing species surveyed. I like to call this type of crop one of sustenance or survival. That is, it should be good enough to bolster winter survival if things don’t get too abnormally cold and snowy.
For the bad news first, the ever important acorn oak mast is sparse. However, it comes with a plus-side kicker. There is decent oak mast at the higher upstate elevations above 2,800 feet. Beech mast, the triangular and delicious beechnut of course is found in abundance and thus rated exceptional this year. Walnuts and hickories also produced well and above the long-term average.
On the soft mast side of the equation, the ever important black cherries have produced nicely along with wild apples, which are also abundant. Other important soft mast producers coming through on the plus side are wild grape, hawthorn, crabapple and dogwood. Hunters can now apply this important information to their bag of tricks for the various fall hunting seasons.
For example, beech and hickory flats with good nut crops should be quite attractive to a host of huntable wildlife species. For another, if you hunt the beech and cherry dominated northern hardwoods forest type found say in Tucker, Grant and Preston counties; game can be mightily scattered amongst the abundant food supply. This could make for some tough hunting.
The annual bear kill is perhaps more closely related to the mast conditions than most. Late, as in December gun bear hunters may be hampered a bit as the bruins tend to den earlier when the victuals run out. On the other hand, the earlier in the fall archery bear hunters tend to do their best when mast is more limited. At those times, they can place their tree-stands where the beechnuts or cherries have hit.
Despite those possible negatives to the late season bear hunters, DNR biologists are predicting yet another record bear harvest nevertheless. You have to consider all the varying seasons in combination and the overall liberalization of the black bear regulations package. Just when the bears will “saturate” as exhibited by a stabilization of their continually growing numbers and range, no one really knows. In the meantime, enjoy the ride as the good times roll onward.
For other popular game species like squirrel, rabbit, deer and wild turkey and in view of the current mast and other factors; DNR is also projecting higher hunter harvests. Grouse and raccoon are projected to be about the same. The only negative or “down” forecast for this fall is for wild boar. DNR’s stated reason being that last year’s relatively high kill per Hurricane Sandy’s early fall tracking snow comes somewhat at this year’s expense.
So just like the weather, get out there and muster up some lively conversations on the mast situation. The worst thing that could happen is if you take this talking a little too far, you could wind up with a new nickname. Hickory Nut has a nice ring to it…
(PS Bob’s book Ramblin’ Outdoors is available at your local newspaper office.)