Week 34. Jeff Phillips: Star City Whitetails
From the top of Mill Mountain, you can get a pretty good view of the different whitetail deer habitats in Virginia.
Where is Mill Mountain? you ask.
It’s probably best known for the 88-foot tall neon star on its summit towering over the city of Roanoke. From the top, a sharp eye can look out across the namesake "Star City" to the millions of acres of National Forest and Appalachian Plateau to the north and west. On the other side, to the south and east, the piedmont rolls down to the peanut farms and corn fields of Southside and the coastal plain.
It's from here in Roanoke that Jeff Phillips runs Star City Whitetails, a hub for Virginia hunters. "I get to interview the best deer hunters each year in Virginia," says Jeff. "You learn a lot talking to all of these hunters." Star City Whitetails also features hunting articles, profiles, weather conditions, VDGIF rules & regs, recipes, and photo galleries from across the Commonwealth.
I caught up with Jeff recently on a September afternoon as the rut was getting closer. Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
What's the background behind Star City Whitetails?
My grandfather lived on Smith Mountain Lake, and he basically introduced me to the outdoors back in the late 70’s. I took to deer hunting early on, and that was my love.
Ever since I shot my first deer when I was 12 years old, I ate it up, and as I’ve gotten older, it hasn’t dwindled a bit!
In 2009, I started taking a video camera with me when I hunted. That October, it was early bow season, and I had a tripod set up. A couple of deer started working their way into the field, and all of a sudden, they stared bolting toward me. I know I didn’t spook them because they ran right past me.
Well, I look up and I saw two coyotes coming right toward me! Long story short, I shot one of the coyotes with my bow, and I had it all on camera perfectly.
I shared it with some friends, and they said I suggested I start a YouTube channel. Not long after that I launched the website, Star City Whitetails, first with videos, and then I began writing. Then I started a Facebook page, and that’s what really got the website going. I’ve built an organic following, and its evolved nicely over the years!
I’ve written a ton of articles, and I interview the best deer hunters each year in Virginia. You learn a lot talking to all of these hunters. I truly enjoy living vicariously through these Virginia hunters, reliving their hunts and in turn sharing these stories with the Virginia hunting community!
You must hear some pretty cool stories from across the state.
One of my favorite stories that I covered in 2016 was on Brent Boney. This hunter harvested a 210 6/8” buck in Greensville County near Emporia.
He’s a member of a hunt club, and they hunts dogs there. They all draw pennies [which have a random number] to decide who gets which plot, so there is a randomness to it. One November, he’s out there, and the dogs push the biggest buck he’s ever seen. He takes a shot at a buck as the dogs ran it through there, and he misses. It was a real monster — they had no trail cam pictures of it, but he kept telling everyone about it. Some believed him; some didn’t.
Well, the next year, they drew pennies, and he gets that stand. That afternoon, his daughter gives him a call that a group of dogs have veered off, and she’s going to run them by him. Soon enough, they ran that buck by him again, and he shot it. 26 points – just a great deer! I wrote the article and put it on Facebook, and within six months, North American Whitetail covered it.
What’s amazing is that they didn’t have trail cam pictures of him at the club. That deer lived in that area -- obviously he was in the area. But he was able to fool the dogs, fool the hunters, and avoid trail cam pictures.
Is Southside known for some of the bigger bucks in Virginia? What are some of the best whitetail areas in Virginia?
Virginia is now on the map as far as being a big buck state, and both the eastern and western Virginia are well represented with admirable Boone & Crockett bucks!
Here in the western part of Virginia we have some big ole mountain bucks that have quality genetics. Of course I’m used to this type of “hike-in” hunting and some days I will set all day back in the mountains hoping to see a buck that’s never seen a human!
Eastern Virginia has some great soil quality from years of planting, and their ability to use dogs during the hunt adds a real advantageous twist. I’m still hoping to go on a dog lead hunt at some point. I think it would be a real hoot!
Some of the top counties across Virginia are Bedford, Floyd and Franklin In the West and Albemarle, Sussex, and Southampton in the East, just to name a few!
The rut is obviously prime time, but how does whitetail behavior change through the season that hunters can watch for?
October in Virginia is a great time to catch bucks in their normal patterns and even still traveling together.
In November, which is obviously the pinnacle deer hunting month in Virginia, I would encourage any hunter to go every chance they have, and let no excuse like “windy conditions” get in your way!
When would you say is peak rut?
The peak rut is fairly reliable in your given area each year in Virginia. I’ve seen big bucks chasing does in the first week of November all the way through December. I have killed big deer the first week of November, and killed my biggest buck the 22nd of November.
But there isn’t a better time than the 10th-20th of November. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cold front approaching, or if there is a certain moon phase. Don’t get caught up in what so-called experts write about the rut in your area. Go with your past knowledge and read the deer sign in your area to get you tuned into the bucks in your neck of the woods!
If you had to plan a vacation, plan it around the 10th-20th of November.
How does your approach change through the season?
I start practicing about a month prior and I’ll get out and cut shooting lanes if I can. It used to be that it wouldn’t be a week without me going and checking the trail cams, but this summer, I’m almost excited not knowing. I stopped checking because the vast majority of bucks, I don’t ever see on the trail cams.
In October I will do much more elevated stand hunting. In November when the big boys are on their feet I will set up more on the ground and use wet conditions to move around slowly through the property I’m hunting. In October I’ll start with my crossbow, and in November I’ll move to a muzzleloader and mid November I will transition to a rifle.
I will utilize late muzzleloader as well in late December and early January.
The excitement I have for the beginning of each deer season in October never changes. The smell, colors and sounds of the woods is the one true constants in my life that has never changed and I’m so very grateful for that opportunity each fall!
I think about deer hunting all year. I think about it 365 days. On a hot, muggy, horrible day, I often think about what that big buck is doing. On a pouring-down rain or on a 2-degree night, my mind goes to that buck, and what he’s doing! The respect I have for a mature whitetail is immense, and I’m always looking forward to my next hunt.