Kentucky Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Our state continues to produce its share of world-class deer each year. Where are they coming from? (November 2009)

Sometimes you find them because you were looking, and sometimes you're not particularly looking, but you find one anyway. Either way, 22 Kentucky hunters found trophy-class whitetails last season, mostly in the old familiar places where big bucks have consistently shown up across the Bluegrass State in years past.

Two seasons ago, the trend was broken a bit when numerous Boone and Crockett (B&C) Club trophies came from much lesser known counties. And while a couple of monsters this past year became wallhangers from spots that historically don't give up higher quality bucks, most 2008 trophies were found back in the places hunters have become accustomed to considering the better trophy-producing counties Kentucky offers.

Though in total number of big bucks, the 2008 season was less productive than the immediate three years, but one lucky deer hunter did manage to post a very prestigious buck that joined the state's top 10 non-typical list of all time. Kentucky hunters rarely see non-typicals in the 240 class and better, but after last season, the state now boasts its top five non-typicals from 240 7/8 to the best yet 270 5/8. We'll tell you where the newest mega-buck came from last season as we move through our review of best potential spots for trophy bucks in 2009.

In addition to the fact that it's good that hunters are finding lots of trophy bucks, notice that this past season, these bucks are being taken by all methods and not just by rifle hunters. Four archery hunters scored, three blackpowder hunters cashed in, and even a crossbow enthusiast made good on a record buck in 2008. It suggests that trophy-class bucks can be found at any time during the season from early September through mid-January. Perhaps one key to success when you know a monster buck is around is being out there as consistently as you can during the season.

PURCHASE REGION

Three seasons ago, Christian County was the location for Kentucky's top non-typical when Dan Miller dropped his top 19 all-time 246-plus buck. The following season, another monster 197 2/8 non-typical met Michael Snyder's fatal rifle shot. We noted then that Christian was rising on the horizon as a top quality county.

In 2008, we got that confirmation when Ft. Campbell hunter Rick Weatherford found a non-typical buck that measured over 221. It wasn't hunter taken, but still shows this area is capable of growing an exceptional whitetail buck even in a region where trophy deer are somewhat unusual.

One new bright spot might be Calloway County this season, which was the right place for Blake Munger last season when his 186 6/8 buck netted him a spot in the top 10 non-typicals from 2008.

"We'd like to see a few more from Calloway before we really point to it as a trophy producer, so maybe someone else will come up with one this season and give us some consistency," said Brunjes.

"Based on past harvests, I believe a hunter's best bets in this region are still going to be Crittenden or Livingston counties, and possibly Ballard County outside what we know about how Christian County is doing," the biologist noted.

"Hunters hoping for a truly exceptional buck in the Purchase probably need to find out-of-the-way places to hunt and spend time in the higher quality habitat areas that do exist in this region.

"You have to try to put the odds in your favor, and do the homework in most cases to take a really good buck," Brunjes added.

GREEN RIVER REGION

At the onset of this article, we alluded that the 2008 season showed a number of trophy bucks once again came from counties with a rich history of giving up quality whitetails. This was especially true in the Green River Region, which has led the state in producing the most B&C deer many times in the last 20 years.

We also mentioned a truly monstrous non-typical fell last season, and Green River's Butler County claimed it when Robert J. Taylor connected with a 249 6/8 buck that surpassed all but three other non-typicals ever recorded from Kentucky. But Green River Region hunters know there are more trophies in this elite set of mid-western counties that continue to grow record deer.

You can check the list for the other seven besides the Taylor buck in 2008. Todd County is the only other county besides Clay in the Southeast where multiple trophies fell last year.

Almost incredibly even for Kentucky, the 2007 season saw Union County post three trophy bucks, and Henderson and Ohio counties posted two each. Won't often get much better for potential big deer locations than that, and the trend says 2009 will likely see others from one or more of those counties as anywhere else in Kentucky.

Counties in the Green River Region over the past two seasons have reported 18 trophy bucks. Recall 2008 was somewhat of an off year, and there were still that many taken here. Where corn and soybeans abound, so too, do big whitetail bucks. Numbers are one thing that tells it like it is, and as you can see the list last year, the year before and back about as far as anyone cares to remember, bears it out.

Todd, Logan, Hart and Muhlenberg counties get the heavy nod, out of truly a host of very good big-deer counties. Good growth and antler development, thanks to the high quality and abundance of food sources, along with the one-buck-per-season Kentucky limit are two top reasons why these counties do so well. If you're destined to find your name beside a Boone and Crockett Club entry, hunting spots with a cropland and woodland mix in this region is about the best choice you can make for best odds.

BLUEGRASS REGION

Bluegrass Region whitetail chasers managed three excellent bucks from last season, down a bit from the season before.

"There can always be an off year here and there. Not every season is going to be a chart topper either in trophy deer taken or harvested," said Brunjes.

"The Bluegrass has been much too good for too many seasons to be concerned that trophy buck potential here in many counties doesn't still exist," said the biologist.

"We did see a couple of lesser known counties give up some trophies two seasons ago, and again last season, when we checked what hunters had reported to us. I like to see that because it means the opportunities are more widespread. I think hunters appreciate that."

I suspect Jason Abell, who dropped a dandy 189 and change non-typical out of LaRue County, and Blake Jeffries with his Madison County muzzleloader typical 165

-plus B&C buck probably appreciated good management a good bit. Neither of these counties put much on the board in recent seasons as far as exceptional bucks go, but perhaps things are going to change for the future.

Good old Oldham County, a veteran trophy producer, continues to make a routine showing on the big-deer lists for two consecutive seasons and numerous other times in recent years. Something good is happening just north of the Louisville metro area, which Mike LeClair learned in 2008 when his arrow found the mark. He harvested a true trophy measuring 192 7/8 net inches for the fourth biggest non-typical in Kentucky last season.

Yet farther to the west in the Bluegrass, hunters have historically done very well in finding big bucks in the Hardin, Meade and Bullitt counties pocket in and around the Ft. Knox Reservation. Likewise, the northeastern counties of Grant, and previously mentioned Harrison and Pendleton counties, the latter of which still holds Kentucky's top typical listing of 204 2/8, deserve serious consideration annually.

One other tidbit that might encourage hunters to scour this region for places to hunt is that the top two all-time typicals and non-typicals have been taken or found in Bluegrass Region counties. Yeah -- that's a big, big indicator of the quality this region can produce. In fact, five of the top 10 typicals claimed the Bluegrass Region home before their racks were scored and added as part of Kentucky's illustrious trophy buck history.

SOUTHEAST REGION

Even though overall it is the most rugged and forested wildlife management region in Kentucky, the Southeast Region has blossomed nicely into a large set of counties where hunters have found trophy-class whitetails more often in the last year or two. Some 15 B&C bucks have been taken from the region in the last two years, which shows a surge in production from five years ago.

Clay County powered up in 2008 and gave up two exceptional typicals that qualified for B&C Club honors. Pulaski and Rockcastle counties both hit the list in 2007 and 2008 with monster bucks, and last season, Estill County posted a double listing. Usually when counties have multiple trophies in the same year that means it's time to start paying attention, if you're interested in finding high-quality bucks.

The most interesting development in the Southeast Region, after last season's buck crop was harvested, might be that Russell and Clinton counties both showed up on the list. Jacob Tyles dropped a superb 185-class non-typical, while Richard Richardson scored with a 170 1/8 qualifier out of Clinton County just to the south. But what is exciting is those two bucks indicate a higher potential for improving quality, and there's a very nice seven- to eight-county block in the western end of the Southeast Region where quality bucks are showing up regularly.

There are a couple of other regions in Kentucky, as the map indicates, where a contiguous group of counties have exhibited high potential and make the cut of best counties for big bucks. Those regions, however, actually hold better habitat. Still, a little older age structure and good genetics are pushing these counties up in the Southeast Region as ones deserving some hunter attention.

It will be quite interesting to see if hunters in this block, or elsewhere in the Southeast not usually known for giving up big whitetails, show up in next year's trophy group. Based on the last few seasons, things favor more big bucks will come out of the same area this season.

NORTHEAST REGION

Compared with the other four regions, the Northeast Region in terms of counties with high trophy deer potential only surpasses the Purchase Region to the far west. Save for Lewis County last season, hunters in the Northeast Region in 2008 came within one deer of being blanked on record-book bucks. That's just the way it was.

What's even odder is that Lewis County is one of the top three, out of 120 counties in Kentucky, in producing trophy-class whitetails over the last decade. It added another last season when Jack McEldowney got a 162 4/8 bruiser in his sights during gun season.

"This isn't to say that the Northeast won't produce a trophy buck, because one can show up anywhere under the right circumstances," said Tina Brunjes, big-game coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).

"But we've just not seen consistent production from many areas in this region, probably mostly due to less quality habitats there than in other more agricultural regions to the west," Brunjes said.

And who took another trophy buck out of the Northeast last season? Jim Whisman's 171 5/8 typical out of tiny Robertson County wound up taking the top spot for typicals for last season. While a 170-class B&C buck doesn't necessarily sit atop the charts in Kentucky, it is still a buck that falls into the top 1 percent of bucks taken each season, and that's an achievement in itself.

In case you're "hunting" the map for Robertson County, find Bracken County, which is one of about five counties in the region that is quite good for big whitetails and go just south. Bracken is along the Ohio River not too far from the city of Covington where among others in recent years, Dennis Sharp arrowed an impressive 200-class non-typical buck just last season.

And though it overlaps the Bluegrass Region, the nice little four-county block of Bracken, Robertson, Pendleton and Harrison (just over the regional line) is looking good for additional trophies this season, based on previous performances.

Kentucky hunters are finding good numbers of heavy-antlered deer season after season. Many times one, two or three big bucks will be taken in the same county or from counties that have produced several trophy deer in past seasons. The state as a whole will likely rebound this season in terms of trophy buck production after a down year, and predictions are as many as 30 will be taken in 2009.

"I'd recommend talking with landowners early on, scouting and looking for bigger buck sign, and trying not to disturb your hunting spot until you're in there hunting once you've got a stand location selected," said Brunjes.

Big bucks are often loners, stay in and around heavier cover and move most often very early and near dark. When you find evidence of a bigger buck, plan your hunt so you can stay put for a long time. Stay relatively close to a bedding area where you see does regularly. Feeding areas are good, but they often mean a buck has to get out in the open, which older deer avoid most of the time, especially as hunting pressure and human activity in the woods increases.

One final tip is to be a selective buck hunter. The same old story that all deer hunters have heard is so often true. "I saw an OK buck and right after I shot it, one twice as big stepped out or was following behind it." Use the rule of thumb that the outside spread should be easily distinguishable out beyond the ears as a starting point. If not, let it walk.

Most typical bucks that qualify for a Boone and Croc

kett listing are going to have main beams 24 inches or better, a minimum inside spread of 18 to 20 inches, be at least a 10-pointer and have well-matched tines with at least 3 points on either side 10 to 12 inches long minimum.

Short-tined bucks, or those with narrow racks and smaller diameter beams aren't likely to make the 160 three-year award book minimum.

Lastly, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is interested in knowing the score of all whitetail bucks taken in the state that meet the minimum B&C score. A list of measurers around the state is available from the agency's information center by calling toll-free 1-800-858-1549 weekdays after the mandatory 90-day drying period.

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