Winter Hunting Hotspots for Kentucky

A covey rise, mallards setting their wings, cottontails exploding out of honeysuckle thickets, whitetails slipping through a snow-covered cedar stand, squirrels chipping away at acorns on the forest floor, or turkeys yelping and cackling from the canopy as a crisp, clear dawn approaches. These are the sights and sounds of winter hunting in Kentucky.

You can experience each in a hunting experience somewhere in the commonwealth in December and January as you fill the winter period with a variety of quality opportunities. They are all available, and can help you forget the cold.

Most sportsmen these days tend to refer to themselves as a "deer", or a "turkey" hunter, or maybe a "duck" hunter. We tend to hone in on a single species — possibly two, and that's what occupies our interest and time during the peak of the hunting seasons. The first two true winter months in Kentucky, though, provide the chance to pursue a wide range of game species, using several different methods and equipment.

For those who have branched out to give chase to small game, big game, migratory birds, while enjoying shotgunning, rifles and archery — this is the prime time to get all your itches scratched. You can make that Kentucky Sportsman's License pay dividends for you.

Let's fill your game pouch with a half-dozen possibilities for these next couple of months for filling up any free days that comes up.

MIDSTATE RABBITS

Both private and public lands in Central Kentucky yield good numbers of rabbits for hunters willing to beat a few bushes. Even if you don't have, or know someone with hounds, old barn lots, briar patches along grain fields and honeysuckle thickets can yield rabbits in January. It's one situation where dragging your feet, going kicking and maybe even "screaming" a little is acceptable and encouraged behavior.

Two or three hunters working together is a successful approach, especially along narrow strips of thicker, taller weeds and brush. You can flip for who gets the "jump" duty, which should produce some shots on either side out in front as you walk slowly abreast with each other. The "kick" man doesn't have to bark, but a yell when a rabbit bolts does alert the outside guys. Sometimes, you get just one trigger pull, and that itself is part of the allure.

Those fortunate enough to hunt with dogs can find more rabbits jump shooters won't see. Larger brush piles where territory has been cleared, larger expanses of thick grasslands or exceptionally nasty stands of vines and briars are great spots, especially during in colder weather. Later in January, when it freezes more often at night, many rabbit hunters get started later in the morning as the sun comes up and thaws the surface a bit. Dogs can run better in those conditions.

Rabbits progressively move into and use heavier cover as the season progresses, but can often be found even in super cold weather in the vicinity of any kind of green ground cover. Also check hillsides with tall grass, cedar tree thickets, or forest edges where mowing leaves some hiding zones.

Wear good boots, and don't dress to heavy for walking.

A couple of good choices of public lands in the mid-section of Kentucky for cottontails are Taylorsville Lake, Green River Lake and Yellowbank wildlife management areas. Any public lands that contain more open lands, versus heavily forested generally have better rabbit numbers.

On public land you will almost always find that the seasons for rabbits is different from the statewide dates, and may include some closed days due to other types of hunts being scheduled. You can check those dates online at www.fw.ky.gov, or in the Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide.

FALL TURKEYS

The plentiful hills and hollows of the Appalachians in Eastern Kentucky are home to excellent numbers of wild turkeys. The early December shotgun season offers one of the best winter boredom-breakers for the winter.

There are several tactics to employ for a successful turkey hunt, but the key is finding the birds to begin with. The volume of the mast crop, spring hatch success and weather patterns all play a part scouting as you locate birds and learn how they are moving.

It's likely that you or hunters you know have encountered turkeys during deer seasons. While a lot of traffic in the woods will change how groups of hens and poults travel for a while, by the second week of December, birds should return to their usual roosting and roving routine. Using your own sightings or asking around can give you leg up on the scouting.

One of the most enjoyable and exciting experiences in the early winter woods is locating a large group of turkeys before fly down, then listening to the incredible racket when they are waking up and heading to the ground. There's nothing else like it.

Once you locate a roost, those birds will be in that vicinity almost every morning of the season. Planning your approach and set up at first light around the turkeys' schedule to increase your odds of success.

Getting close at fly down is a plus, if chatting a young tom over is the tactic you choose off the bat. Young birds often are easily fooled, and sometimes a hen will come investigate another hen, giving you an easy shot.

If the birds fly down and move away, uninterested in coming to your calls, one other excellent method is to break up the flock and call back birds. The key is to scatter them in different directions if you possibly can. Scattered birds don't regroup as quickly, and are more susceptible to come in as singles. It makes them easier to get close and they are worried more about finding their flock than looking for danger.

Good public lands to find turkeys are the Daniel Boone National Forest, Fishtrap, Grayson and Yatesville Lake WMAs. There are good mixes of forested and field habitats available. But, be sure to check the regulations on these public lands ahead of time.

WESTERN KENTUCKY QUAIL

Quail have struggled in the commonwealth for years, as in most of the South, but efforts to improve the situation are afoot in many states including Kentucky. Guided by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and fueled by incentive programs, more and more habitat work is occurring on private lands to try to re-establish this resource to more traditional levels.

In the western third of the state, however, bird numbers have held up better than in central and eastern Kentucky. That's because of the significant amount of farming taking place and less industrial development found there. Large-scale landholdings where soybean and corn crops are raised, with fallow field edges offer good habitat. Many of the landowners there have gotten into habitat improvement programs, too.

Once crops are out of the field, those farmers are the ones to approach about a quail hunt, and usually can advise if their lands have any birds.

Another option is lands where coal mining has occurred and now is rehabilitated as expanses of early succession ground cover and scattered woodlands.

The Peabody WMA is generally best for quail in this region as far as public lands go. Checking with biologists or area managers of western WMAs may give insight on other areas to try. Because the seasons are often shorter on public lands for quail, that allows for better management of quail that are present.  A good rule of thumb you can use to boost that management is don't shoot coveys down to less than a half dozen birds.

January is a good time to get in a day's walk and some dog work. It's also a good opportunity to invite someone to go with you, since most hunters under the age of 40 probably have never been on a quail hunt.

DUCKS ON THE BIG WATER

The main duck season runs in December and January in Kentucky, and, in locations where water isn't frozen, hunting can be good. That's especially true especially on major reservoirs and the Ohio River,

Western waterways in the commonwealth attract birds pushed down by cold to the north, as does the Ohio River, its major tributaries and open water flooded timber areas along its course. Hunting from boats or blinds on shore can be productive.

Later in the season is generally the time when more birds are in Kentucky. Mallards and black ducks tend to dominate the harvest, but widgeon, scaup and several other species wander through as well.

Arranging a guided hunt through a private club or commercial operation is also an option in a few spots in extreme western Kentucky.

Several WMAs in the western half of Kentucky are anchored on smaller waterways, with shallow flooded areas. These hunt locations augment what is available on Kentucky, Barkley and Barren River lakes.

The Sloughs WMA along the Ohio in the Henderson and Union counties area is a top rated spot for cold-weather duck hunting. Check with the area manager there for hunting opportunities and any new developments or requirements. You also can call the KDFWR Information Center at 1- 800-858-1549 and ask for an update on waterfowl at some WMAs as the season progresses.

STATEWIDE OPTIONS

Two other super choices for cold-weather action can be found statewide.

First, if you haven't dropped that big buck yet and the modern gun season left you less than thrilled, late season muzzleloading in December, or bowhunting into mid-January should be considered. Last season, some 60 Boone and Crockett Club record book quality bucks were taken. It was a fantastic year for quality whitetails. And, clearly, there are many monster bucks left in the woods every year, even after modern gun hunters do their best.

In December and January, there are does still coming into season and being pursued by bucks. The woods have settled down as firearms hunters put their rifles away for the year. You may well be the only one in the woods anywhere close.

Add to that the fact that deer move all day at this time of year, and your odds of success should improve.

Lastly, maybe the absolute best time in the entire season for squirrel hunts is the winter. Squirrels are easier to spot and just as active, if not more for longer periods, as they were in September when the trees were covered with leaves. Especially those who use squirrel dogs, often come back with a limit of reds and grays.

Being alerted to activity on the forest floor often is advantageous in December and January. As forage on the trees is depleted, the bushytails spend more time on the ground looking for food. Squirrels will be looking for fallen nuts amid the leaf litter. Shotguns, .22-caliber rifle and even small caliber handguns with scopes are effective for squirrels.

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