MILLBORO, VA. -- Whitetail deer are so abundant these days, Virginia game managers suddenly find themselves worried about overpopulation.
"We're concerned about orchard owners and farmers losing crops, about road kills, starvation and the overall health of our deer," said Bob Duncan, the state's assistant game chief.
With the herd at about 600,000, perhaps 100 times what it was a half-century ago, Duncan and his crew are pondering strategies to stem growth in some areas. One way is to increase hunting opportunities, and out here in rural, deer-happy Bath and Highland counties, that spells business.
This year, responding to liberalized deer hunting rules and limits, two commercial ventures will offer guided archery and rifle hunts on big tracts in the high country.
Lodge operations of this sort have flourished for years in the deep South, but Duncan said he never had heard of them in Virginia before.
Fort Lewis Lodge, with 3,200 acres here, and Virginia Upland Outfitters, with more than 4,000 acres in neighboring Highland County, will specialize in week-long and half-week excursions. Three-day bowhunts at both places go for $400, including food, lodging and guide service, which sounds like a bargain by Washington standards. The season opens Saturday.
Both these operations are impressively upscale, with comfortable accomodations in place -- a far cry from the rough-and-tumble deer camps you might expect in such a wild region, where more than half the land is national forest.
And with Virginia now permitting hunters to take two deer of either sex in the western areas, both outfits expect clients to get an excellent chance to bring home game.
Last year, in a modest trial run, Jim Adams of Upland Outfitters said he ran a dozen novice bowhunters through a one-day archery course, then took them hunting on his private land in Bath County for two days. Everyone got a shot at a deer, he said, and 40 percent took home a buck.
These are astonishing numbers for bowhunting, which is arduous and often unproductive. But these areas are loaded with deer.
To see for myself, I took a ride around Fort Lewis' acreage with owner John Cowden on Tuesday and spied deer meandering through the woods even in the middle of the day. In the evening, I spooked 30 out of a field just walking in, then took a seat in a tree, waited 15 minutes and watched them filtering back in.
The place was crawling with deer. "They're like big rabbits around here," Cowden said.
Cowden is so confident of plentiful game this fall he said he will advise clients on three-day bowhunts to go after a doe early, then concentrate on a trophy buck during the last couple days.
If it all sounds too optimistic for words, I have some reservations, too. Bowhunting is tough. But I can't say I've ever seen a place so loaded with deer as Fort Lewis, where 600 acres of valley farm fields draw game from the thousands of acres of surrounding high woods.
Adams, who helped develop Fort Lewis before striking out on his own, said his new tract 30 miles away is similarly rich.
As close as these two operations are in price and locale (four hours' drive from Washington), they follow very different business formulas.
Here's how they differ: Fort Lewis Lodge is lavish in accommodations, with a handsome new lodge and a rebuilt, antique mill for a dining facility. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on facilities. The food is good and plentiful, the scenery spectacular and the outfitters hope to handle as many as 20 hunters at a time. Virginia Upland Outfitters offers more rustic accommodations in a four-bedroom house high in the mountains, with a capacity of eight hunters at a time. The hunting land is rougher and more demanding and Adams has devoted his time and energy to extensive scouting. With fewer clients to care for, he aims to tailor hunts to the needs and skills of each hunter.
If I were looking for three days of relaxed hunting in a convivial atmosphere with good food and an emphasis on accommodations, I'd pick Fort Lewis.
If I were looking for serious hunting in a wild and stunning environment with the best chance of taking a trophy deer, I'd pick Upland Outfitters.
The best news is that there's a choice.
What both outfits offer is to take the preseason labor out of deer hunting and put you in a safe, deer-rich place, for a price. The price, by the way, goes up considerably during rifle season.
Duncan guessed that a market exists to support these businesses and that more back-country lodges likely will crop up as long as the deer abundance is sustained.
"The timing makes sense, where it might not have five or 10 years ago," he said.
In addition to deer hunting by archery, rifle and black powder guns, both lodges plan to offer fall and spring turkey hunting and Adams hopes to guide late in the season for the elusive ruffed grouse.
For information and rates, write to Fort Lewis Lodge, Millboro, Va., 24460; and Virginia Upland Outfitters, P.O. Box 100, Williamsville, Va. 24487.