Kentucky deer hunters dropped about 3,200 fewer whitetails last season than during the previous year. Though some hunters can legitimately say their success was lower last year than in 2009, biologically speaking that minimal difference in harvest equates to back-to-back seasons that were virtually the same. No huge jumps or significant declines in overall deer numbers were experienced.
The list of the top 20 counties with the highest deer densities bears out the same conclusion. There were a few counties that shuffled in rank in terms of the number of deer per square mile of habitat, but only Jefferson broke into the list at the No. 20 spot, forcing Robertson off the list.
Those top counties ranged from just over seven deer per square mile, to slightly above 14 per square mile in Boone County. Boone County has topped the list statewide for several years running. Clearly, now that fawns are on the ground, these numbers are elevated even higher the figures that were gathered early in 2011.
From one other comprehensive vantage point, counties that gave up more than 1,000 whitetails during the 2010 season changed only slightly from 2009 as well. One new county was added, and three others dropped off. We'll look in detail at how things played out in all five of Kentucky's deer harvest regions last season, and describe expectations for the 2011-12 season throughout the commonwealth.
Kentucky's Big Game Coordinator Dr. Tina Brunjes expected an excellent fawn crop this year, and very likely a rebound in total statewide harvest. Mast production in Kentucky last year was exceptional in nearly all counties, which tends to boost deer production the following spring. Does enter the breeding season in good shape, and have good food sources the entire winter, which often means more twins and triplets born in May and June.
"We'll know more after this season concludes, but one thing we know for certain, is that the stage was set nicely for a very healthy deer herd, and that usually leads to an increased harvest,' Brunjes said
With the exception of Christian County, where 75 fewer deer were harvested in 2010 than in 2009, every county in the Purchase Region had an increase in harvest last season. Kentucky's overall deer kill may have been down, but it didn't happen here. More than 18,800 animals were reported taken in this 14-county block located in the state's far western reaches.
Crittenden County hunters bagged down nearly 300 more deer last season than the previous round, and jumped past Graves County to claim the top harvest spot. That's despite Graves County having also experienced about 200 more animals taken in 2010.
Half the counties in the region surpassed the 1,000 per county harvest mark. The same seven as did in 2009, which also included Christian, Livingston, Calloway, Caldwell and Trigg counties. All were well above 1,000 deer taken, and Marshall County edged closer that elite group with its increased kill last year to 940 deer. This year likely will see Marshall County get in if only a few more hunters take an extra doe.
It is possible that hunters in counties that border the Ohio and Mississippi rivers may find some changes in their hunting areas due to flooding in the late spring, though most likely deer will return to bottoms by the onset of the fall gun season. That inundation occurred right before the fawning season began.
Deer however, are very adaptable, and though they may have to move out of their normal home range to have their young, when they can, they will return. The terrain may look different, but these animals adjust nevertheless.
Hunters using flood prone areas in this region definitely need to scout early and see what, if any, effect floodwaters have had. Some places may look completely different now than in past years.
When practically all counties in a region have a surge in harvest, it speaks well for the entire area as a place to find deer.
If you hunt on public land, you need to consider, Clarks River and Land Between the Lakes Wildlife Management Areas. They are the best in the Purchase Region. Clarks River had the highest firearms take, while LBL topped the archery-kill list.
GREEN RIVER REGION
Butler County barely dropped out of the 12 counties in the Green River region that reported over 1,000 deer killed in 2009. Yet, this portion of mid west Kentucky managed to show an increase in overall harvest. It is a similar situation as to what's found in the Purchase.
Hunters have many excellent choices in this rich agricultural zone for finding large numbers of whitetails this season. More than 27,000 animals crossed someone's sights and were successfully taken in 2010. Brunjes expects no different result this fall.
"If you take a quick glance at the harvest map, you quickly notice a block of counties to the east of the Purchase and west of the Green River Region that indicate high herd densities," the biologist said.
"The southeastern section of the Green River consistently has a lower volume of deer due to less favorable habitat," she added. "The other block to the northeast is a second hotspot where lots of deer are found every season."
Brunjes noted that hunters should not use the deer density chart alone as a guide for selecting the best places to hunt. The density chart doesn't show many counties in the Green River region, yet about half report more than 1,000 animals taken each season. Many of the high kill counties are really large in land size, which drops the density ratio when that habitat acreage is divided by how many animals are taken.
Conversely, a very small county with the same number of deer as a larger one will rank higher in deer per square mile, though the big county has just as many or more deer. It's important to use both density and number taken to choose good spots to take a deer each year.
Public land harvests from 2010 show that Peabody, Barren River, Sloughs and Yellowbank WMAs yielded the best harvests in the Green River Region. Hunters must be sure to check whether there are firearm or archery-only hunting seasons on various WMAs, and whether they are open or draw hunts each season.
Peabody WMA is by far the largest and can accommodate the most hunters in this region. More than 500 whitetails were taken from this area last season. It consistently ranks at the top of Kentucky public land opportunities in hunter success.
By in large, last year for Bluegrass Region hunters was similar to the one before, with only 800 or so animals fewer taken in 2010. In a region that produces 36,000 plus, or right at 1/3 of the total statewide harvest, 800 isn't a significant decline. Oddly, some of the traditional high harvest counties are where most of the decline occurred. Still, in the case of Owen County, more than 3,400 whitetails were still taken in a "down" year.
If you want to find deer in Kentucky, Owen County is probably always going to be at the top of the list of spots to get permission for a hunt. Production there is simply amazing, but very impressive, too, in several other counties in the north central section of Kentucky.
The Bluegrass Region is the area of the commonwealth where both the deer density ratios and harvest both overwhelmingly point out that there's no better region in the state to take a deer. Regardless of the pressure exerted from surrounding metro areas where many hunters reside, almost every county in the region north and west of Lexington are superb choices.
More than half the counties in the region eclipsed 1,000 in harvested deer last year. Tina Brunjes expects the 2011 fall season to be no less impressive in hunter success.
"We need the pressure on antlerless deer maintained, and in some cases it could stand to be increased, to keep up with the production," Brunjes said.
"In the high density counties, the ratio of deer per square mile of habitat has been holding virtually the same for several years now," she continued. "But when that ratio starts getting much above 10 deer per square mile, that usually indicates a larger harvest can certainly happen with no ill effects on the herd as a whole.
"I encourage hunters in this region — statewide for that matter — to take as many does as they can use, give away or donate to a charity, and take every youngster they can during any deer season.
"The odds of success are so good in much of the Bluegrass, I hope kids are getting every chance they can to be out there," Brunjes noted. "It helps manage the herd, and gives them a great experience as well."
Three other absolute "cream of the crop" counties are Pendleton, Shelby and Grant counties. All these were also topped 2,000 deer harvested last season, and if fawn production meets expectation, there will be no shortage of animals for potential harvest.
Northeast Region hunters produced a nearly 15,000-animal total harvest last year, which, given the quality of habitat and lower deer numbers, isn't bad. However, it was 2,000 deer off from the previous season.
The top 10 counties in this region, excluding Bracken, all experienced a lower harvest. The block of Lawrence, Carter, Greenup, Lewis and Morgan, along with the leader Bracken yielded the bulk of deer taken in 2010. Those counties offer the best options in the region this season, for those wanting meat in the freezer.
"It's hard to say how this season will pan out, but I really doubt we will have the overwhelming mast crop we did last year, which is the major factor why fewer deer were taken in 2010," Brunjes suggested. "When mast is extremely heavy, deer have to move much less during the fall to locate food.
"The result is that hunters, who hunt forest opening edges, or a particular stand of oaks, won't see as many deer moving to a concentrated area for food. The deer can go just about anywhere, often short distances from where they bed, and have all they want to eat," the biologist said.
In the Northeast Region, where much of the hunting is in forested territory rather than along agricultural fields or more integrated habitats, it's tougher when food is so abundant. It doesn't force deer to search a wide range for acorns, and that means stand hunters don't get an eyeball on as many animals.
"We're confident the herd in the higher density counties along the Ohio River are in good shape and will continue to offer the best chances for success this season," Brunjes pointed out.
"If we have a normal or off year for nut production, I expect the harvest will quickly rebound throughout the region, and hunters will see more deer activity especially in October and November," she added.
Though nothing like the powerhouse Bluegrass and Green River regions for whitetail production in Kentucky, the Southeast Region does sport a number of good counties for deer hunting.
An unusual year, the 2010 season almost has to be thrown out as much of a basis for predicting the hotspots for this year.
Senior Deer Biologist David Yancy explained.
"Not only did we have a similar mast explosion in the Southeast, as we did pretty much everywhere else, but we had a major regulatory change last season that reduced the number of antlerless deer hunting days over practically the entire region," Yancy said.
"Most of the region's counties were not showing the growth we wanted the last few years, so six days of the blackpowder season when does were permitted for harvest were trimmed off the late season in December.
"That, along with lower densities to start with, the lack of movement due to food availability, combined with the law change to reduce the harvest," said the biologist.
"What we should see for this year is healthy whitetails, and more of them in the herd to produce more fawns and help boost the numbers in future seasons."
He also expects that to get back to normal harvest levels in up coming years.
"We'll still have some good hunting in several counties where the mountainous terrain and total lack of farming tends to hold deer production at bay in many parts of the Southeast," he said.
Top counties to try are going to be Green, Pulaski, Lincoln, Casey, Clay and Adair. All produced more than 600 animals each last season and traditionally they have been at the top of the harvest list in recent years.
You'll notice that most of these are "fringe" counties just along the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, where the better habitat for deer exists in the Southeast Region.
SUMMING IT UP
Overall, hunters will find few changes this year in regulations and harvest options statewide. There are other good options besides the ones we've highlighted here, but getting permission and doing a little scouting in these hotspots should put you in the driver's seat for another successful season in the Bluegrass State.