By Paul Keily
Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge is located on 642 acres of diverse wetlands and grasslands in Woodbridge where many different types of wildlife make their home in a bustling metropolitan area. A cast of ospreys, songbirds, waterfowl and butterflies migrate to the area throughout the year, meaning you are likely to see different fauna with every visit. Many species call the refuge home, including North American river otters, great blue herons, whitetail deer, painted turtles, turkeys, spotted salamanders, bald eagles and red foxes. The flora of the area is just as captivating. The Occoquan River and the refuge’s many creeks allow for a transitional environment between wetlands, woodlands and grasslands where you can find plants from each habitat within walking distance of one another.
Every year in December or January, Occoquan Bay briefly closes to accommodate several controlled deer hunts. The hunts are limited in scope, and hunters are selected through a lottery process. In 2017, the application process moved entirely online. Applications for the lottery cost $15 for the public, and $10 for those with a federal Senior Pass or a federal Access Pass for those with disabilities. Applications were due in late September, and the winners were announced at the end of the month via email.
Winners of the lottery are assigned hunt permits valid for one day and one parking space at the refuge. Permits cost an additional $25, or $15 for those with a Senior or Access Pass, and must be purchased online during the two weeks after winners are announced. The selected winners must then complete an online hunting orientation consisting of a video and a 25-question test. If any hunters failed to meet these requirements by Oct. 14, their permits become available for a limited time on a first come-first
served basis to all hunters who entered the lottery.
Hunters Must Qualify before Admittance to the Refuge
Prior to the hunt, winners must qualify the firearms and ammunition they intend to use on the day of the hunt at an approved range. To qualify, hunters must fire three shots at a 12” diameter circle target at 50 yards, with a passing score of at least two striking within the circle from an off-hand position. Two attempts are allowed for each firearm. Hunters do not need to qualify annually, as qualification cards remain valid for three years. Any gauge of shotgun is acceptable, and only slugs may be used during the hunt. Buckshot is strictly prohibited to avoid pollution to the refuge. Hunters are not allowed to scout the area before the hunt.
On the day of the hunt, check-in starts at 5:30 a. m. at the front gate of the refuge. Permit holders and standby hunters form two separate lines. If any spaces are left available at 6:00 a. m., then the
standby hunters will be allowed to enter after paying a $20 fee. Admittance to the refuge ends at 6:15 a. m. sharp. Once hunters are inside the gate, they will be escorted to one of 22 tree stands with tripods. One mobility-impaired tree stand is available. Shooting must end at noon when staff begin to escort hunters out of the refuge. Hunters cannot leave their designated areas during the hunt.
Hunters must bring their own tree stand harnesses and cell phones to communicate with staff. Hunters may also bring along an aide to assist them with deer retrieval during the hunt. Aides must be at least 16 years old and must complete the orientation. If they have valid hunting licenses they may hunt, but must be available to help the primary hunter at all times. Aides are prohibited from driving deer to the hunter and should remain at the hunt stand or in the parking lot when not retrieving a deer. The names of aides must be submitted to staff two weeks before the hunt. Hunters may request a volunteer aide from the staff if they cannot find a willing participant.
Children under the age of 18 are allowed to participate in the hunt, but must be accompanied by an adult throughout the day. The adults may only possess firearms if they have their own hunt permits from the refuge.
Hunters Help Control the Deer Population
Harvest limits change from year to year, but the Occoquan Bay hunts are for whitetail deer only. To control the deer population, multiple deer may be harvested in a day, depending on a hunter’s tags, but only one may be antlered. Deer Management Assistance Program tags will be available for all hunters for antlerless deer only; these tags do not count toward daily or yearly limits.
Immediate check-in of all harvested deer is required. Hunters must use their cell phones to contact the check-in station. This number will be provided on the day of the hunt. Hunting can continue once staff are contacted. When presented at the check-in station, all deer must be field dressed. No additional
processing is to take place in the field. Entrails must be either buried or removed.
The Occoquan Bay staff work with other local parks, refuges and nature preserves to coordinate the time of each year’s deer hunt. Visitor Services Manager Rosalind Wu said, “The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries plays a central role in providing us with information about deer management, deer
movement throughout the state and any diseases that may affect deer populations. By July 31, we will announce the hunt dates for the 2018 season.”
The refuge is open year-round, and from Oct. 1 – Mar. 31, hours are 7:00 a. m. to 5:00 p. m. From Apr. 1 – Sept. 30, hours are from 7:00 a. m. to 7:00 p. m. Entrance fees are $2 for private vehicles and $1 if you are entering by foot or bicycle. Annual passes can be purchased for $10.
Paul Keily ([email protected]) is a lifelong Prince William County resident and graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University and is a special education teacher in the area.