Photo by Kenny Bahr.
During the 2006 deer season, Kentucky whitetail hunters returned with a bang to post a near-record harvest of 122,233 animals — just shy of being 10,000 more than the previous season. Following the highest harvest on record in 2004, the 2006 season missed the mark of 124,752 by just 2,500 deer. Hunters obviously found a good deal more success in the Kentucky woodlands last season.
Or else it was time to restock the freezer from the big harvest two years before.
Either way, the numbers certainly show that whitetails in the Bluegrass are alive and well — and plentiful.
Over the past five seasons, harvest numbers had climbed steadily from approximately 115,000 in 2002, to 116,000 in 2003, and then the record season of about 124,000 in 2004.
In 2005, the significant drop in the kill back to 112,000 or so didn’t seem to fit the upward trend. Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department Resources (KDFWR) deer biologists weren’t sure why the decline occurred. After a record season, the chances of topping it the very next year are normally slim. Yet a reduction of more than 10,000 was somewhat unexpected.
Perhaps the hop up from 2005 to 2006 of about 10,000 animals was likewise a little unusual. With the additional harvest data from 2006 now in hand, it’s certain that the herd remains in excellent shape — and that in 2005, hunters just didn’t take as many deer as they did the year before, when the record was set.
That year, the weather was quite warm early in the season. Perhaps deer didn’t move as much as usual. Or maybe other conditions made hunting tougher than it normally is.
Whatever the reason, 2005 was an off year, though the 2006 season was another story altogether. Hunters got on track and took very nearly the minimum 125,000 deer that KDFWR biologists would like to see harvested each season.
It’s interesting to note that of the 20 counties with the highest density of deer per square mile from last year, only one county within that list changed for this year.
Using harvest numbers versus the number of square miles of habitat as an indicator, Logan County entered the top 20 counties for highest density, while Scott County dropped out. All of the remaining counties listed using 2005 season data stayed on the list after 2006 data was calculated.
Of the top 20 Kentucky counties, eight show a density of 10 deer per square mile, while all the other 12 have better than seven deer per square mile. Note that the counties with the best densities aren’t necessarily the counties with the highest harvests. Counties with less habitat can have a lower harvest, yet rank high in deer per square mile — just because in general, fewer deer are taken from smaller counties.
Statewide, the Commonwealth had 37 counties with a harvest of 1,000 animals or more, eight with over 2,000 and two more with more than 3,000 deer taken. Last year, then, more than a third of Kentucky counties produced harvests of 1,000 deer or better.
Likewise, five other counties on the top 20 deer-density list had fewer than 1,000 taken, but scored very well using that parameter as an measure of herd size.
From all indications, the 2007 season should give hunters the same opportunity to be successful, reach that magic mark and help keep the herd in balance and in check.
Here’s the breakdown by wildlife region of the trends in herd growth throughout Kentucky, and where you can expect to find the highest concentrations of deer this fall.
Last season, if you recall, in Kentucky’s toughest region for deer hunting, one lone county topped the 1,000 deer-per-county harvest minimum we use to help determine the better places to find numbers of whitetails.
Last season, three counties came on strong and made the cut — although interestingly, the county wasn’t one of the three in 2005.
Whitley County had a harvest of over 1,000 animals in 2005, but reported a few less in 2006. But a reported 958 whitetails wasn’t too far off the mark. Likewise, Casey and Cumberland counties also nearly broke the 1,000-mark harvest club. Each had more than 970 deer taken last year.
This indicates that these three counties are knocking on the door of having much improved herd numbers, say, over just five years ago — despite having less-than-ideal habitat for deer to thrive in.
In the Southeast Region last season, top performers were Green County at 1,225, Pulaski County at 1,009 and Adair County at 1,001. You’ll note by looking at the map that these counties, as well as the others mentioned, are not in the heart of the Cumberland Plateau. Rather, they lie on the outskirts of the more mountainous Southeast Region.
That’s a key in locating where more whitetails will potentially be in this neck of the woods. Yet in much of the region, things are starting to blossom nicely, given the Southeast’s overall habitat quality.
Last season, the total number of deer taken in the Southeast Region was 17,770, a significant jump from the previous season. Most of the 29-county region saw a jump in individual county harvests last season. Generally, these counties still register as the lowest in density, or deer per square mile, but numbers do appear to keep climbing slowly.
Several counties in the middle of the pack for this region saw jumps of 50 to 100 more deer harvested last year. Last season, more than 20 counties reported harvests of over 400.
Counties in the region that ranked highest in deer density were Cumberland, Taylor and Adair, all of which are carrying about three deer per square mile of habitat. In this region, Cumberland and Taylor counties — though not among the counties with 1,000 or more deer harvested — are still good spots to find more deer this season.
In 2006, the Northeast Region reported more than 16,000 deer taken, which was also an increase over the previous season. In terms of harvest, the better counties remained the same as the previous season. Once again, Bracken County is tops in the Northeast in terms of highest deer density, holding 7.66 deer per square mile. But Boyd and Robertson counties are barking at Bracken’s heels, with six deer per square
mile — give or take.
The biggest harvest numbers from last year were posted in Lawrence, with more than 1,500 being taken. In this region, Bracken (with 1,450), Carter (1,427), Lewis (1,303) and Greenup (1,220) all posted high deer densities, at almost four deer per square mile.
Lewis comes in just shy of three deer per square mile, and Carter and Lawrence fall in between the highs and lows out of this bunch.
In this region, the top five counties all saw good increases in harvest over the previous year, a sign of the excellent 2006 season throughout Kentucky. They’ll likely top the 1,000 mark again this season, and perhaps be joined Morgan or Boyd counties, which narrowly missed the list last year. Both counties had takes well over 900 in 2006.
Counties in the Northeast Region continue to be generally managed under a four-deer season limit. In some cases, only two of those four may be taken with a firearm. This restriction cuts down on the number of antlerless deer being taken, given that most hunters are going to hold out to take their one buck with a gun.
In fact, a majority of hunters take only one deer anyway, often taking a doe late in the season when if no buck can be found.
Counties with some of the lowest harvests and densities in the region are Martin, Montgomery, Magoffin, Menifee and Floyd. Although deer are present, hunting these counties will be no doubt tougher. For their best chance of success, hunters in these counties will need to scout for pockets of higher deer numbers.
Generally, counties like these remain under a stricter management approach, trying to maximize herd growth in the shortest amount of time. During some periods of the season, that may mean no hunting of antlerless deer with a firearm, so be sure and check seasonal regulations for all the details.
During the 2006 deer season, both the Bluegrass and Green River regions placed 16 counties apiece in the 1,000-harvest club. But overall, the Bluegrass Region was responsible for adding about 3,000 more animals to the total statewide harvest than was the Green River Region. These two counties are tops in Kentucky for producing large numbers of white-tailed deer. Both contain the best habitat and receive the most hunting pressure, which adds up to higher harvests. Bluegrass Region hunters took more than 36,500 deer in their 31-county area of central and north-central Kentucky.
The Bluegrass Region is where hunters will find the most generally liberal gun-hunting season. A large number of counties open to a 16-day modern gun season, for either sex of deer the entire time.
Most counties also offer unlimited doe harvest — a reflection of how well a county’s herd is doing.
A majority of the counties (16, to be exact) on the top 20 deer-density list are located in the Bluegrass Region. Ironically, that region also carries some counties such as Bourbon, Fayette and Jessamine that lie right at the bottom of the list. They offer extremely limited habitat, compared to other more rural counties in this region.
Outside the top spot, Bluegrass Region counties occupy all the rest of the first 10 slots for highest numbers of deer per square mile. Statistics for Boone, Shelby, Owen and Gallatin counties are right at or above the 12-deer-per-square-mile mark, while Anderson, Campbell, Spencer, Henry and Pendleton all offer nine to 10 deer per square mile.