It is definitely no big secret that Kentucky has great potential for producing trophy deer. In fact, it consistently ranks as one of the top states in the country for Boone and Crockett bucks. Although the potential for taking a trophy buck in the Bluegrass State has been good for many years, the past decade has really been an eye-opener for hunters not only in the state, but across the country. Kentucky has become one of the go-to locations for hunters seeking a big deer.
Several states are well-known for producing big bucks, but in some states only particular areas or certain counties really have potential to yield a trophy-class buck. Kentucky is quite different in that there is the very real chance of a Boone & Crockett buck turning up in almost any county in the state. Even so, based on Boone & Crockett search data, we opted to showcase a three-county section of Kentucky — Pulaski, Lincoln and Wayne — and discuss the trophy buck possibilities there.
First, what really determines the potential for this area producing a trophy? Genetics are often mentioned, but they are really the least important of the determining factors for producing antler size and quality, especially here in Kentucky. David Yancy, a wildlife biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), refers back to the white-tailed deer restoration efforts between 1946 and 1999. Deer were trapped and moved all over the state, so “our deer are quite genetically homogenous,” Yancy said.
The more important factors in producing a trophy rack are buck age and habitat. Another way of looking at it would be buck age, deer population density, food supply (quantity and quality), soil minerals and then finally genetics. The presence of these factors in these three counties is what makes them particularly likely to produce trophy animals.
According to the search, Pulaski County is in a three-way tie with Grayson and Hart counties for the number four position (with 28 entries each) in producing trophy “Typical” and “Non-typical” whitetails in Kentucky. Also, Wayne County ties with Henry County for 10th place with 16 entries each. Having only six entries, Lincoln County places much farther down the list of Kentucky trophy Counties. Interestingly though, it not only adjoins Pulaski County to the south, but is also geographically positioned between Casey County, one of our two 9th place counties (Butler is the other) and Garrard County. The latter is where Ben Brogle took a 260 1/8-inch non-typical, our state’s largest hunter-killed non-typical trophy back in the 2002-03 season.
So, what might account for all of this? Yancy said, “Some of the answer probably has to do with the size of the county. Most of our top 10 trophy counties tend to have larger land areas, and more square miles of habitat provide additional chances for more hunters to come into contact with big bucks during shooting hours. Considering Lincoln, Pulaski, and Wayne counties, Pulaski is largest in land area followed by Wayne, and then Lincoln. Boone & Crockett’s deer listings for those three counties fall out in exactly the same order. However, remember that deer density and food supply also play roles in trophy whitetail production.
“Lincoln, Pulaski, and Wayne counties all three have low (Wayne) to moderate (Lincoln) estimated numbers of deer per square mile of land area. Pulaski falls between the two, but closer to Wayne County’s estimate, and the three each provide at least a fair mix of open and forested land (as compared to the very heavily-forested, nearby McCreary County for example), so food should not be greatly limiting in any of them.” He notes that cover is important too because it allows bucks to survive to older ages, but moderate populations and good food sources are likely what explains this area’s ability to produce trophies.
“A cursory examination of land cover data/maps for the three counties of interest indicates that Lincoln County is considerably more open or less forested than Wayne County, and Pulaski County falls more or less squarely between the two of them. So, given our state’s one antlered deer per hunter per year regulation, this suggests that perhaps antlered bucks are better able to avoid hunters in Wayne than in Lincoln County and thus get another year older; and with greater age tends to come larger antler size, until 5.5 to 7.5 years of age, anyway. Once again, however, Pulaski falls between the other two with the result that adult bucks are probably less vulnerable to harvest there than in Lincoln County, but more so than in nearby Wayne County and thus more Boone & Crockett qualifiers end up being recorded from Pulaski County.
“Finally, local soil mineral differences appear to be unimportant (in the upper southern and lower Midwestern states anyway) as trophy bucks evidently can still be produced on what are considered to be ‘poor’ soils. For example, we have records of Boone & Crockett qualifying whitetails being harvested in all of Kentucky’s Appalachian counties except Magoffin. Thus, buck age appears to be the single most important factor in the production of larger antlered white-tailed deer, and that’s good because it’s the element over which hunters have the most direct control (i.e., via their individual harvest decisions).”
Now that we have stoked the interest in hunting this area, the next question is how to gain access. Perhaps the best situation might be to own or have permission to hunt private ground there. However, here are three other options to consider.
Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.
ACCESS OPTION 1
Public land is certainly an option and there have been numerous trophy bucks taken off public land in Kentucky. One place to consider is Rockcastle River Wildlife Management Area (WMA) because the KDFWR just acquired it in 2016. Prior to that, it was private land and had developed a fairly abundant deer population because the former owners, and perhaps even adjacent property owners, either did not allow it to be hunted at all or permitted only “light” hunting. So, in theory at least, there could still be an older-than-average antlered bucks on the site. Also, since much of the area is reclaimed surface-mined coal land and because at least one or more adjacent landowners grow wildlife food plots on their property, the supply of herbaceous or early successional deer forage in the area should be quite high.
Other options include Daniel Boone National Forest property in Pulaski County, some of which adjoins Rockcastle River WMA, and portions of Lake Cumberland WMA that lie in Pulaski and Wayne counties.
Yancy suggested, “Those interested in deer hunting on Lake Cumberland WMA should consider using a boat to get on portions of the area that are not accessible via public roads; just be sure to inquire in advance with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Manager’s Office in Somerset, Kentucky to determine whether potential hunting locations will be boat-accessible at winter pool lake levels.”
ACCESS OPTION 2
Leasing has dramatically changed the landscape of hunting across the country. Although personally, I wish it had never come to the point it is now, the reality is that if one wants to hunt quality private land, the options are limited. It typically must be owned either by the hunter, a relative or close friend or it must be leased. The days of knocking on a stranger’s door and getting permission to hunt are, for the most part, a thing of the past.
There are lots of options for finding a lease, however. Individuals with property to lease often advertise in local want ad papers, on Facebook or sometimes Craigslist. Hunt clubs do the same thing.
Hunt clubs are generally comprised of several members who divide the cost of leasing land, thereby making it more affordable to rent large tracts of quality property. When a member drops out, these clubs often advertise to find a replacement. If you to decide to join a hunt club, be prepared to adhere to a set of custom hunt rules for the club.
Many realtors are now offering property for lease. Some of these are listed as Whitetail Properties or Mossy Oak Properties, while others are simply run under the realtor name. Many specialized hunt leasing companies are also out there, and a simple search on the Internet will pop up many results.
ACCESS OPTION 3
A third option is to employ the services of an outfitter. This is often a bit pricey, but if a hunter wants to access a certain section of the state and to have an opportunity to harvest a mature whitetail, it may well be worth shelling out a few bucks. And with all the popularity of trophy hunting in Kentucky, more and more outfitters are springing up around the state every year.
Searching for an outfitter actually servicing the three counties spotlighted here only resulted in one hit, although there may be others this writer did not find. Whitetail Heaven Outfitters hunts Pulaski County and is owned by Tevis McCauley. They also hunt other Kentucky counties as well as in Ohio and Indiana.
Whitetail Heaven has been hunting trophy bucks for many years and their properties are managed extensively. Along with prime natural habitats, they use food plots, minerals and supplemental feedings to enhance the quality of the deer population. The average harvested buck with their service is right at 150 inches and the average size typically goes up each year.
Guided whitetail hunts there and at most other Kentucky outfitters typically start at about $2,000 and goes up from there. There is a 130-inch minimum harvest size at Whitetail Heaven and some farms have a 140- or 150-inch minimum. Contact them at (800) 689-6619 or (859) 509-2704, or go to whitetailheavenoutfitters.com.