Bluegrass State Deer Special Part 1: Our Top Harvest Counties

We've done all the legwork to let you know the Commonwealth's top harvest counties from last season. Is one near you? (October 2009)

Just over 200,000 licenses or permits that allow the purchaser to hunt deer were sold in Kentucky last season. While some of this group, such as seniors or disabled persons, may have not actually hunted deer though their license included that privilege, that's still a good number of people interested in bagging a whitetail. When license-exempt landowners are added in, the number of active hunters easily makes up for those who get a multi-license package but choose not to hunt deer.

Comparing the 120,000-plus animals reported harvested last season with the statewide herd estimate of more than 900,000 deer, there's little doubt that the resource is sufficient to meet the needs of hunters. At the same time, though, Kentucky's white­tail herd is not neatly distributed in equal proportion across its 120 counties. A study of the harvest of recent seasons is an excellent way to predict where the best odds of success lie, and that's what we're going to give you in this review of top harvest counties in the Bluegrass State.

Before we concentrate on how things panned out during the 2008-09 season, let's practice a little biology without a license, and look at a couple of interesting short-term trends over the past three years.

During each of the past three years, more than 40 counties in Kentucky have produced 1,000 harvested deer. There were 47 counties over the 1,000 mark in 2006, 42 in 2007 and 44 last season. Also, during that period, fewer than 10 counties changed to either join the 1,000 harvest club list, or dropped off the list. In other words, most of the leading counties for deer harvest have remained very stable for the past three seasons. We can conclude that will likely be true this year, and into the future, barring any unforeseen catastrophe.

Here are a couple of other interesting facts about the development of Kentucky's deer herd. Ten years ago, the 1998-99 season marked the first time Kentucky hunters reported over 100,000 animals taken -- 103,907 to be exact. It was the first year the tele-check phone-in harvest system became the only way to report a harvested animal, despite a widespread fear that the system wouldn't work. Bowhunters were permitted to buy a bonus deer permit for an extra doe in Zone 1 counties for the first time. Kentucky's statewide herd was estimated at 700,000 to 750,000 white­tails, and the highest deer density county was Owen County with 10.11 deer per square mile of habitat.

Since the 2000 season, Kentucky hunters have remained above the 100,000-harvest mark for eight straight seasons. That speaks well for the consistency of opportunity. The last three seasons have all given up more than 113,000 whitetails, including last season, which surpassed 120,000. There should be equally good results possible this fall.

"We had a good bounce-back season in 2008, after the reduced take in 2007, which was probably somewhat due to the loss of some animals to hemorrhagic disease," said Dr. Tina Brunjes, big-game program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

According to Brunjes, Kentucky's whitetail harvest jumped up almost 7,200 deer last season. Blackpowder hunters really turned it up a notch or were seeing more deer last season, bagging more than 3,000 more white­tails than the year before. The bulk of the rest of the increase can be attributed to modern gun hunters, who found about 3,800 in their scopes.

In fact, last year's final figures wound up as Kentucky's third-best deer season on record. If Kentucky hunters can knock down 122,500 or more deer this season, the 2009-10 year for deer would take over second place all-time. The best year so far was 2004 when 124,752 deer were reported -- and even that figure is well within the possibility to eclipse.

Now, here's one final trend to watch. Since the 1999 season, Kentucky's deer harvest has been characterized by one lower harvest year, followed by a big increase year. Except between 2002 and 2003 when the harvest was within about 1,500 of each other, the seesaw pattern has been amazingly consistent for the last decade -- especially the last six seasons in a row.

Starting with 2003, for example, the deer harvest bounced from roughly 116,500 to 124,700 in 2004. In 2005, it dropped back to 112,400, followed by 122,200 in 2006. The two most recent seasons repeated the pattern a third time, with the 113,400 down cycle right on cue in 2007 and the rebound to 120,600 last year.

If the trend holds, it would suggest the 2009 season wouldn't be as productive as last year, all else remaining equal. Ironically, Kentucky's deer to hunter ratio is about 3:1, which is as high as it has ever been, and indicates that a greater harvest is certainly possible based on deer availability.

It should make the results interesting, don't you think? Will hunters come through again with a highly successful season and break the trend? Brunjes and the fish and wildlife agency hope so, especially in terms of taking more does from Zone 1 counties. It's the biologist's ongoing objective in high-density areas.

From a regional standpoint, Kentucky hunters will have several choices available to encounter good deer numbers this season. Based on last year's best harvest counties and how the harvest converts into deer density, we can project some of the better places to be for success this time around. Let's look at each region, and see what's "jumping" in your favorite hunting zone.

PURCHASE REGION

Though the Purchase Region in far western Kentucky added no more counties to the 1,000 harvest list last season, it did post two more counties in the top five overall harvest counties for 2008. With Christian and Graves counties joining steadfast Crittenden County, the Purchase Region by-passed the Bluegrass Region in claiming the majority of the top five kill counties last season.

Seven of the Purchase Region counties have reported over 1,000 deer taken each of the past three years, and are the obvious choices for locating some hunting ground in 2009. Crittenden and Livingston counties ranked highest in the region for deer density, with over 11 animals and eight deer taken per square mile last season, respectively. That really shows a lot of deer availability, despite the consistently top shelf deer harvests in these counties year after year.

Graves and Christian counties are two spots in the Purchase Region that hunters should take a hard look at. Both areas are checking in with about six deer harvested per square mile, though both counties posted approximately 2,500 deer each in the kill column last season. The density of whitetails in these counties is lower simply because there's a lot more deer habitat in t

hese counties. Both counties have more than 400 square miles of habitat, compared with Crittenden and Livingston with 200 to 240, respectively.

Region-wide, nearly 1,500 more deer were checked in from the Purchase Region during the 2008 season versus in 2007. The statistics say there are more than enough whitetails to sustain the 1,500 increase experienced last season. Hunters just have to get in the woods and do their thing.

GREEN RIVER REGION

One of Kentucky's "powerhouse" places for producing and growing whitetails, the Green River Region in midwestern Kentucky shows up nearly completely shaded in on our Top Harvest county map -- and it does so consistently.

With a good smattering of scarcely populated counties people-wise, this big chunk of farmlands and woodlands provide deer very good overall habitat. Their flourishing numbers allow hunters in this area to "rack up" a lot of venison steaks annually. You don't find any of the even dozen Green River Region counties in the top 20 for deer density primarily because there is so much habitat in these counties. The animals are spread out over more territory that can support deer.

The Green River Region as a whole reported a very noticeable upswing in harvest last season. Some 2,100 more deer were taken in the region in 2008 as compared with 2007. Every county that posted more than 1,000 deer harvested reported more animals taken last season than the one before, except Grayson County. Several counties were up 150 to 200 animals, like Hart, Logan and Henderson, indicating growth in those counties is likely occurring.

At the other end of the spectrum, Simpson, Edmonson and Hancock counties have settled into the lowest three harvest counties in this region. However, all three areas saw better harvests last season, which is also probably a result of the herd increasing slowly in those counties.

BLUEGRASS REGION

If there's anywhere in Kentucky where hunters ought to be able to find deer in abundance, it's the Bluegrass Region. The Bluegrass Region holds 17 of the top 20 highest deer density spots based on harvest. Wow! It now takes a ratio of eight deer harvested per square mile of habitat to even break into the top 20 counties, which is where Jefferson County happens to be situated.

The cream of the crop top five counties in the Bluegrass Region last season all posted more than 2,000 deer taken. Combined, these counties produced 13,000-plus animals for hunters, or one-third of the harvest for the entire region. Bottom up, Anderson, Grant, Shelby, Pendleton and Owen counties really rocked last season and should be focal points this year as well.

And what about Owen County -- the top producer statewide in 2008? Yeah, it blew the doors off last year with an incredible 3,910 deer reported. That might also explain why it comes in as the county with the highest deer density in Kentucky, running at 14 deer downed per square mile of habitat last season.

The Bluegrass Region to some degree is almost like feast or famine for finding good numbers of deer. Counties located adjacent to Fayette and south of the Lexington metro area don't have the same ability to generate big deer herds because of less favorable habitat. To the north and west of UK's hometown, nearly anywhere within the region, hunters are going to encounter a reasonably high number of deer.

There are 10 counties showing more than 10 animals harvested per square mile on our chart. Hunters ought to be finding these animals on the ground this season in these spots as well. Bowhunters have been faring particularly well in Owen, Oldham, Jefferson, Scott, Shelby and Spencer counties in the Bluegrass. In the more urban counties, this is definitely the way to go after deer. Archery is perceived as less intrusive and potentially dangerous in areas closer to people and domestic animals, and hunters can often get permission easier to bowhunt in places where a lot of deer are obviously present.

Selecting the higher density counties for archery hunting just makes sense. The chance of getting an animal in close is simply a greater probability on lands where more deer are living. It helps put the odds in your favor.

NORTHEAST REGION

The Northeast Region roared back this season with nearly every county showing an increase in harvest, and collectively, this region reported just shy of 1,800 more deer taken in 2008 than in 2007. One of only two regions to actually add a county to the 1,000 or more harvest club, the Northeast placed Morgan County on the chart for last season. Mason and Boyd counties missed the list by less than 50 animals each.

The top three recommendations for finding deer this season in this 21-county area will be Bracken, Lawrence and Carter counties. All three areas posted a healthy 1,500-plus deer kill last season. Bracken and Robertson were the only two Zone 1 counties in the Northeast Region last season with unlimited doe harvest.

Lewis and Greenup with their good Ohio River bottom country round out the best of the best in the Northeast for 2009. Both went well over the 1,000 mark in 2008. Zone 2 management and harvest restrictions are generally used for counties that have herds developed in best proportion to the habitat available.

A good portion of the Northeast Region continues to be managed for some herd growth, with some restriction on antlerless deer limits for hunters. That approach will continue into the near future to permit county herds toward the southern half of the region to keep expanding. Deer densities in many of these counties are hovering between one and three deer taken per square mile, which is fairly low.

SOUTHEAST REGION

The monster harvest year in 2006 kicked three counties over the 1,000 mark for the first time in the Southeast Region. In 2007, the region couldn't quite manage a single county, though the top three all posted over 900 animals.

Last season, the Southeast Region climbed back in with at least one county above the 1,000 kill threshold -- Green County, which gave up 1,107 animals to successful hunters. Pulaski and Adair counties posted a harvest of 986 and 984, respectively. Overall, the region managed to see just 81 more animals taken in the total harvest of 16,623 in 2008.

Green and Taylor counties, in terms of harvest density, rank higher than Adair and Pulaski for deer per square mile. Green is holding just above four deer per square mile, which is highest in the Southeast, followed by Taylor with just above three deer per square mile harvested. Adair County checks in at 2.62 taken per square mile, though Adair County has 100 more square miles of deer land than Green County.

Pulaski County narrowly missed the 1,000 mark with 986 whitetails reported last season. The density rating of 1.66 deer taken per square mile seems low, but recall that Pulaski County has just shy of 600 square miles of habitat. Only Pike County is larger with 780 square miles of landmass suitable for deer.

Rounding out the top five harvest counties, Whitley and Laurel appear to be two more of th

e best places to find deer this season. Both counties came in last season at more than 800 animals taken. Each county's harvest was higher indicating growth for which they are being managed.

The last two counties that showed good jumps in harvest during the most recent season were Knox and Cumberland. Knox County is obviously benefiting from deer expansion from the two better populated neighboring counties of Whitley and Laurel. Cumberland County is the only other county to post more than 700 deer out of the Southeast Region the last two seasons in a row, and both counties should still offer some good spots to find whitetails this year.

These counties are clustered to the western side of the region, but herds seem to be slowly picking up strength toward the east. Limited habitat continues to keep these herds from expanding quickly, but most seem to be holding their own or making forward progress. It will take a long time for enough animals to be present in the majority of the Southeast Region counties for a harvest to get above 1,000. Those noted, however, are on the doorstep and deserve a good look for hunters in this neck of the woods.

Kentucky deer biologists continue to want the annual harvest to be in the 120,000 to 130,000 range to keep high-density counties in check and see some growth in those counties with fewer than three animals taken per square mile. Remember to check your animals as required, and if you can take additional antlerless deer, do so and donate it, or give the meat to someone if you can't use it all. You might be surprised how many people would enjoy venison, if they only had someone to offer it to them.

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