By Stephen Smoot
One of the key elements of a good hunting harvest is the level of “mast” on the ground through the fall months. Every year, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources conducts a survey of mast, or wild fruits and nuts on the forest floor that are produced by 18 different species of trees and shrubs.
The WVDNR release advises that “locating good, natural foods can increase a hunter’s chance of success.”
WVDNR, in conjunction with the state Division of Forestry, survey the same areas every year to get an accurate and consistent assessment of mast production. Evaluations will categorize production of each type as “abundant,” “common,” or “scarce.” Species unusual to the area are also noted. Surveyors tabulate mast producing species limited to certain regions, such as blueberries, paw paws, huckleberries, and more.
Experts divide mast into categories of “hard,” which includes mostly nuts, and “soft,” which encompasses apples, hawthorn, crabapples, berries, and other fruits.
As the WVDNR report states, “many wildlife species are highly dependent upon mast crops produced by trees and shrubs.” Not only does abundant mast help to boost the hunting harvests, it also provides a good indicator for healthy levels of reproduction going into the next year. Caloric values of mast exceed those of other food sources, such as herbaceous plants, feed, or agricultural crops.
Acorn crops from white oak and chestnut oak rose tremendously over 2021 levels, 137% and 52%, respectively. Scrub oak also rose by 17%, while sassafras edged up 8%. White oak and scrub oak were the only examples to outperform the 51 year mean levels as well.
All other types of mast saw declines, sometimes substantial, over last year. Beech dropped 73%, walnut by 67%, and hickory by 28%. Soft mast numbers tended to drop over last season, as well. Surveyors saw 42% fewer apples, 41% less hawthorn, and 40% less crabapples. Compared to long term numbers, they all declined between 18% and 25%.
Furthermore, the WVDNR revealed that most of the steep soft mast declines are relative to excellent crops last year. In its release, it stated “Most species were close to their long term averages.”
The report advises that mast patterns will help “diligent hunters.” It states that those hunting squirrel, raccoons, bear, boars, and deer should seek out “areas with overstory white oak and chestnut oak” that “probably offer the best prospects in general in the 2022 fall hunting seasons.”
Chris Ryan, supervisor of the Game Management Services of WV DNR’s Wildlife Resources Section, noted in a release that “White oak acorns are some of the most preferred wildlife foods in West Virginia. And they will have an impact on wildlife movements and hunters’ harvests this fall.”
WVDNR additionally released its hunting forecast. Overall, the white tailed deer harvest should approximate numbers from 2021. Higher white oak mast numbers will restrict movements at first. Firearms, muzzleloader, and antlerless numbers should reach those of last year, but WVDNR predicts lower bow season numbers and says “archers would be wise to hunt white oak flats.”
Gray and fox squirrel harvests should not deviate much from last year. Mast production from 2021 helped to sustain reproduction over the year, but hunters should focus on areas of white and chestnut oak acorns.
WVDNR forecasters predict “much more conservative bear seasons than hunters have experienced in the past decade.” Success in reducing the overpopulation by following the Black Bear Management Plans serve as much of the reason why numbers should decline. Details, such as whether a hunter can use hounds, are restricted to certain parts of the season and specified counties.
Wild turkey hunters will see numbers similar to 2021, based on the second straight summer of “the best production observed over the past five years.”
Hunters should expect lower numbers of wild boar, slightly less ruffled grouse, and rises in numbers of raccoons and rabbits.