In 2021, 42,143 whitetail bucks were harvested by hunters in West Virginia. It’s safe to assume that most of them were taken by law-abiding whitetail nuts who worked hard to do everything by the book.
Unfortunately, one buck—which likely would’ve scored in the top 1% of deer harvested nationwide last year—became the focal point of an investigation after West Virginia Natural Resources Police (WVNRP) received a tip that the deer had been poached rather than harvested legally.
WVNRP Officer First Class Jacob Miller responded to the tip and first checked in with Ronnie Stumbo II, the alleged violator, to get his story. Stumbo told Miller he had shot the deer with a rifle in neighboring Lincoln County on Nov. 26, 2021, and had left the gut pile there. But, after Miller and Stumbo drove to the field and searched in the dark for half an hour, Stumbo admitted that he actually shot the deer in Mingo County, one of West Virginia’s four archery-only counties, and then game checked it in Lincoln County. Stumbo then took Miller to the actual location of the poaching.
“The deer was shot in a church parking lot,” Miller told MeatEater. “[Stumbo] actually used the church for some type of cover to get closer to the deer. He stood behind the building and shot the deer out of the parking lot, and the deer ran. He shot again, actually towards some houses, and the deer died in the creek.”
This wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill whitetail buck. According to a post on the WVNRP Facebook page, the buck likely would’ve scored in the 180-inch class, with a 19 ¼-inch spread and 14 scorable points. In the pictures, the main beams look thicker than gas station corndogs.
“Because we’re a bow-only county, the deer have a lot more time to grow and get a better age structure. The genetics are definitely there,” Miller said. “We have a lot of what you call trophy-class deer, deer in the 160s to 180s, some 190s. Our state record is in the 190s and it came from one of those four bow-only counties.”
Stumbo’s case was tried in the Mingo County Magistrate Court, where he was assessed a fine of $9,842. The judge found guilty of six charges including improper game check and providing false information, according to the court’s clerk. The value of that particular buck was taken into consideration in the fine calculation, resulting in a price that was higher than it might have been if Stumbo had poached a less impressive deer.
But some hunters decried the nature of the punishment in the comments on WVNRP’s Facebook post and elsewhere. Many thought the fine too small and demanded the poacher face jail time. West Virginia has recently dealt with some pretty big poaching cases, and the hunting community is understandably frustrated. But Officer Miller offered a slightly different point of view.
“I’ve been in law enforcement a long time, and I’ve always had that problem with magistrates and prosecution, that they don’t want to put anyone in jail,” Miller said. “A lot of magistrates are now taking these cases more seriously, but I think a lot of times the way they look at it, these people are poverty-stricken—they can’t afford to buy groceries, so how are we going to fine them that much for a deer or a turkey? They don’t look at it the same way the sportsmen do.”
Clearly, however, you can still feed your family while following the game rules. West Virginia regulations allow hunters to harvest several deer per season, especially does. At the end of the day, Stumbo was caught because someone had the courage to submit a tip, something Officer Miller calls on the rest of the public to get comfortable doing.
“Nobody wants to make that call,” Miller said. “It’s tight-knit down here, everyone’s friends. There’s going to be a family member or lifelong friend who does this and you’re going to be very reluctant to turn them in. But that’s the way we catch them. You’re not just helping yourself and the area around you, you’re helping the whole state.”