Photo by Mark Werner
The 2004-05 Kentucky deer season produced a record statewide harvest when hunters saw a marked jump from the previous season to the tune of 8,200 more whitetails added to the total season bag.
What does that say about the “state” of deer hunting in the Commonwealth, and about the expectations for this year’s season? One answer is that on the whole, deer numbers continue to grow in Kentucky, as does opportunity for Bluegrass State hunters to be successful just about anywhere they go.
Kentucky has been on a steady trend of increasing harvest for years. After the 1999 season, when just over 95,000 deer were taken statewide, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) deer managers opened up the throttle regulatory-wise, and since the 2001 season, harvest has been on the upswing. The 2000 season saw the harvest break over the 100,000 mark, and it has not been below 103,000 since. Biologists say, however, the need to continue taking more does is still there in 2005 and beyond.
“It’s great to be able to say we had a record season last year, but more importantly, it’s good because hunters so far have responded to our call the last couple of seasons to take additional does from the population and help slow the growth of the herd overall,” said Jonathan Day, the KDFWR’s big-game program coordinator.
“You can see with the growth rate of our herd how crucial it is to the health and management of the deer population to have generous antlerless deer kills at the point of development,” Day noted.
“We want to manage the growth and shape it where growth is needed and can be supported by the habitat, and be very mindful of keeping higher density areas well-checked to avoid excessive conflict with landowners, motorists and other concerns,” Day said.
(Editor’s Note: Johnathan Day has now resigned the KDFWR to pursue a teaching career in his home state of Georgia.)
Out of the 124,752 deer checked last season, 51.6 percent were female, which is vitally important to balancing the herd and maintaining the quality of animals within the herd. There were 49 counties last season that posted more than 1,000 deer individual harvests, compared to 48 the season before. Kentucky has no shortage of whitetails, and more hunters are being successful than in past years.
Let’s take a region-by-region look at what happened last season in Kentucky, and glean some insight about where the best deer hunting will be this year. A post-season review is often a great indicator of where things will be hot the next year.
If we are going to talk about the best of the best, then we better talk about the Bluegrass Region first for deer harvest.
While things already looked very good for deer production in these counties, the 2004 season rolled in and topped the previous year in the Bluegrass Region by more than 3,000 more whitetails.
The gently rolling hills and knobs of this region cranked out more than 41,000 deer during the 2004-05 season. That was in spite of having some of the worst deer habitat and least accessible properties, many of which are clean-as-a-whistle, highly guarded horse farms. A host of the top harvest counties per square mile, as well as the elite 1,000 or more deer-kill counties, are found in the Bluegrass Region.
With the exceptions of Bracken, Crittenden and Livingston counties, every other county left in the 20 highest deer density counties are in the Bluegrass Region. This was also true in 2003-04, which indicates very stable herds and lots of deer in the midsection of the state.
Although you could drop a stand in any one of about 20 counties in this region and have a decent chance of seeing whitetails, there are six in the Bluegrass Region that offer the absolute best odds this fall. Most of these will not come as a surprise to those who have kept up with the development of Kentucky’s deer population over the last two decades.
At the top of the list remains Owen County, which just missed posting an amazing 4,000 deer in the harvest books last season. Since the 2000 season, Owen County has given up more than 3,000 deer a year, and in 2004-05, yielded 3,997. Owen also heads the list of highest deer density counties, showing more than 14 animals per square mile of habitat.
Also coming in with very high marks last season were five other counties in the Bluegrass Region. They are Anderson, Grant, Henry, Pendleton and Shelby. All produced more than 2,000 deer last year and should do the same this season. Anderson and Shelby counties are also found in the top density counties, standing at more than 12 deer per square mile. Henry, Grant and Pendleton also have right at 10 deer per square mile. All these counties team with opportunity.
Excellent deer habitat and landowners who grant access combine into a win-win situation for hunters in these counties. All but Pendleton County saw an increased harvest in 2004 over 2003.
GREEN RIVER REGION
Hunters claimed just shy of 31,000 deer from the rich Green River Region last season, providing a 10 percent overall increase from 2003-04. The hop in region numbers here contributed greatly to the statewide jump from 115,540 deer in 2003 to the record 124,752 killed in 2004.
There were 15 counties in the Green River Region that yielded more than 1,000 deer last season. Of those, 14 stayed the same or increased in harvest over the 2003 season. Over half of the remaining 10 counties in the region also had higher harvests, so there is still a good bit of growth happening throughout the counties. Hunters should start seeing the benefits by getting looks at more deer almost everywhere in this region.
Some specific spots to note for better opportunities this season include Ohio and Muhlenberg counties. Last season, these two counties were predicted to jump some in harvest, thanks to the Peabody Wildlife Management Area going to a 10-day either-sex gun hunt approach rather than a five-day quota and five-day open hunt. Both counties responded as expected, with Ohio County hunters harvesting more than 2,500 and Muhlenberg passing the 1,600 mark. Either should be an excellent choice again this season in regard to finding deer. Hopkins County should not be overlooked either, since it yielded more than 2,500 whitetails last season.
Breckinridge and Hardin counties were also big producers for the Green River Region in ’04, both giving up 2,000
or more deer. But interestingly, each only has about 4.5 deer per square mile. Part of the reason why there is a big harvest and relatively low deer density is because these two counties have about 450 square miles of deer habitat, compared to about half that amount in counties ranking higher on the list.
Lastly, a good choice this season is Webster County. It might be tough to even locate this small mid-western county on a highway map. But Webster ranked fourth in this region for harvest last year and is definitely a giant for deer numbers in a region with tough competition from so many other good counties.
Nearly 20 counties in the Green River Region could near or eclipse the 1,000 benchmark for deer harvested. All but four are already above 800, which with another increase like was experienced last season would knock hard on the door to hit “elite” status.
If you are near the far western end of Kentucky, you do not have to make a long trip to the interior of the state to find quality whitetail hunting. Several counties in the Purchase Region, or the area west of the line of Crittenden, Caldwell and Christian counties, have blossomed into excellent deer harvest counties in recent years.
Top honors in the Purchase Region for last year and a good bet for this season again is Crittenden County, and next-door neighbor Livingston County will not be far behind. Crittenden was at the top of the statewide harvest, only the second county in Kentucky to surpass 3,000 animals last season, and ranks second in density in the Commonwealth with 12.63 deer per square mile.
Christian County cracked the list of top five harvest counties in Kentucky last season with 2,600 animals taken. The four other counties that topped the 1,000 benchmark in the Purchase Region were Graves at 2091, Calloway with 1,255, Trigg claiming 1,315 and Caldwell at 1,237. These seven counties make up half of the Purchase and are primarily located to the eastern side of the region, where row cropping occurs and a good deal of woodlands is also found.
Counties in the Purchase Region enjoyed a 2,000 animal harvest increase this season over the last, which equates to about 9 percent more deer. All 14 counties except Fulton County, which reported only four deer less this season than last, increased in harvest over last year. The Purchase has slowly caught up with the Northeast and Southeast regions, both of which have more counties, and last season produced 17,784 deer. This compares to 17,416 in the Northeast Region and 17,660 in the Southeast Region.
|KENTUCKY’S TOP 20 HARVEST COUNTIES/SQUARE MILE*|
|Rank||County||2004 Harvest Total||Deer/ Sq. Mi.|
|The most recent data available from the KDFWR|
Many of the counties in the Purchase Region are large in terms of available habitat, so they do not score high on the deer per square mile list. Yet, the Purchase is really coming on as a deer-producing region, and no doubt will continue the upward trend into the foreseeable future. The top three counties have all increased in harvest by an average of 480 deer in the last five seasons — nearly 100 per year!
The Bracken County deer herd continues to grow and now shows a little over eight deer per square mile in this smallest county in Kentucky. It was no small feat, though, to yield 1,544 deer last season, and see a 183-deer jump in harvest over 2003 numbers.
Other hotspots in the Northeast Region posting very good harvest numbers are Lawrence, Carter, Greenup, Boyd and Morgan counties. All five topped the 1,000 mark in 2004-05. Robertson and Boyd counties fell just short of the top 20 list for deer density, both counties registering more than seven deer per square mile. That is good for the type habitat found in the Northeast Region.
The Northeast Region as a whole saw a slight decline in harvest in 2004 of about 500 whitetails. Five of the seven counties with harvests over 1,000 last year had a lower kill than during the 2003 season. Using one year of information alone does not usually give a solid picture of why numbers are up or down, but it is possible that the season structure in these counties did what it was designed to do and slowed herd growth last year.
Most of these counties are being managed under Zone 2 criteria, which allows a whole lot of either-sex hunting with firearms. Giving hunters the opportunity to take antlerless deer during both muzzleloading seasons, the youth firearms seasons and the modern gun season indicates keeping growth under control is a priority in these counties.
There are still plenty of deer in this part of the state and hunters should have little problem finding something to take a crack at in the top producing counties during the course of the season.
Hunters in the Southeast Region of Kentucky had improved success last season, taking more than 1,000 additional deer than during the previous year. Growth of the herd is very slow in this region, but if you look closely, you can see where progress is made. Interestingly, too, county harvests in the Southeast Region tend to fluctuate year to year more than most other regions. Perhaps less quality deer habitat creates a tougher environment for whitetails to really get established and going. When food sources are good and sustained, populations generally do better. In years when less food is available, deer have a tougher time flourishing, may not reproduce or survive the winter quite as well.
At any rate, the top three counties in the Southeast for deer this season will likely be Casey, Whitley and Pulaski. All three topped the 1,000- harvest mark last season and appear to have a pretty stable population.
|OUR TOP PUBLIC LANDS FOR 2004 DEER HARVEST|
|Daniel Boone NF||1,565|
|Land Between The Lakes NRA||190|
|Barren River Lake WMA||128|
|Lake Cumberland WMA||114|
|Clarks River WMA||113|
|Yatesville Lake WMA||99|
|Taylorville Lake WMA||93|
Casey and Whitley counties had slightly higher kills in 2004 than in 2003, but Pulaski County yielded almost 150 more deer than the previous season. That is a significant jump for a county in this region where growth is usually very gradual.
There is still more excitement in other places in the Southeast Region as well. Hunters may want to keep an eye on Wayne, Rockcastle, Estill and Breathitt counties for this season. None of these posted huge harvest numbers in 2004, but all had very noticeable increases in harvest last year.
In Wayne County, hunters took 125 more deer, in Breathitt the harvest was up by more than 150 animals, Estill County hunters dropped over 200 more whitetails, and in Rockcastle County right at 300 more deer were reported than in the 2003 season. Percentage wise, those were some really big leaps in harvest, which strongly indicates growing herds in these counties.
If the KDFWR continues to take a conservative approach to doe harvest in the Southeast, growth of the herd has more potential to happen quicker. The Southeast Region will never match the Bluegrass or Green River regions simply because the habitat will not allow it. But there is additional room for herds to expand in this area, and biologists are continuing to let the deer numbers come along as fast as possible, while providing as much opportunity to hunt locally as possible.
“It will probably be tough to match the record take in ’04, but there are certainly enough deer in Kentucky that it could happen,” Jonathan Day pointed out.
“It will be up to hunters to decide how many deer they want to take and use, or provide to Hunters for the Hungry, to keep our harvest up around the 125,000 mark or so,” he continued.
“The herd can easily withstand another big year, and staying on track with increasing antlerless harvests remains the key to quality hunting, herd balance and control in the Zone 1 and 2 counties especially,” Day concluded.
Kentucky should be set for another banner deer hunting season, so get ready and take advantage of it!
FINDING TROPHY BUCKS