Kentucky Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Harvest Counties

Kentucky Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Harvest Counties

No matter where you live in the Bluegrass State, there's likely a top harvest county near you. Here's a statewide look at some of the very best! (October 2008)

Last year, the Bluegrass State's deer season started with somewhat of a scare, thanks to a significant outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) across a good portion of the Commonwealth late last summer.

Reports came in to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) from many counties. Farmers and hunters out scouting pre-season began finding dead animals. EHD generally hits Kentucky in isolated areas nearly every year, but last year it was much more widespread -- and noticeable.

Some hunters were concerned about the effect it might have on the upcoming season. But then again, they were probably aware that overall, Kentucky's herd of more than 900,000 deer wasn't going to be hurt too badly by this disease.

Counties with high deer densities -- such as those in the Green River and Bluegrass regions especially -- seemed to be where most of the trouble occurred. Yet when all the 2007 figures were in, only 8,800 fewer deer were taken compared to the previous season. And couple that with the fact that in 2006, the harvest jumped nearly 10,000 over 2005's total.

There's no question that the outbreak did reduce local deer populations somewhat, though a majority of hunters still found very good success last season.

Of the 113,436 whitetails taken, the buck-to-doe ratio from last year's harvest was split perfectly at 50-50.

Firearms hunters accounted for roughly 98,000 whitetails, while archers bagged 14,000. These figures are right in line with the average harvest numbers taken over the last five years -- and even a tad higher than just two seasons ago.

It is interesting to note that last year, the top 20 counties with the highest number of deer per square mile of habitat remained exactly the same as the previous year . . . with one exception.

Scott County in the Bluegrass Region knocked out Logan County in the Green River Region to make the 2007 "Best Bets" list of where to find the most deer.

In 2006, eight counties had 10 deer or more per square mile, based on the harvest in 2005. For 2007, the number of counties with 10 deer or more per square mile increased to 10.

Boone County sits atop the deer density list, at just shy of 14 animals per square mile of habitat. In 2006, Boone came in second to Crittenden, so along with Crittenden and Owen, it continues to rank consistently in Kentucky's top five counties for holding more deer than anywhere else.

The other four regions besides the Bluegrass Region experienced declines in harvest from the previous season. But this season, barring another unusual occurrence like the EHD outbreak, those four regions will likely bounce back.

For 2008, statewide deer harvest numbers are expected return to their usual mark of 120,000 or so.

Let's research each of Kentucky's five wildlife regions and review what happened last season. From that, maybe we can deduce what hunters may expect this year.

To give you better odds of success, we'll highlight the best that each region has to offer. We'll also note some tidbits that our map and chart don't show.

In recent years, counties in the Purchase Region have been making good strides for having good numbers of whitetails. Two years ago, every one of the far-western block counties had a higher harvest than the year before.

Last season, about 1,000 fewer deer were checked in, but the take of 17,226 was still very good.

The Purchase is the region with the fewest counties, but it managed to rank third out of the five in deer harvest totals.

Seven counties in the Purchase Region produced more than 1,000 deer each during the 2006 season, and again in 2007. Crittenden, Graves and Christian counties all posted over 2,000 through the Tele-Check harvest reporting system. For deer numbers, they are solidly locked in as the best three counties in this region.

Also, Crittenden County appears near the top of the top 20 deer density list, making it an excellent choice to find a spot to hunt.

Graves and Christian counties are quite large in size, which tends to lower their density ratio. But there's still a whole lot of deer being taken in these counties. Densities in these two counties are virtually identical, at 5.03 deer per square mile.

This doesn't put them into the top 20, but they're certainly well above the middle of the pack and within the top 40 of Kentucky's 120 counties.

Last season, the biggest mover in the Purchase was Carlisle County, where in 2007, more than 100 more deer were taken than in 2006. So keep an eye open here for more good things in 2008.

Other counties in the region continue to develop, though lack of quality habitat does reduce the ability for some of them to increase quickly.

Judging by the harvest alone, hunters in the Green River Region -- one of Kentucky richest agricultural areas and traditionally in the big deer-producing group of counties -- found it a tougher season in 2007.

Three fewer counties had harvests above the 1,000 mark than in 2006. And some 6,800 fewer deer were taken throughout the region. In our state, the Green River Region places second overall among the best counties to find deer.

Though the effects of EHD were hardest felt here -- with the top four counties being fairly hard hit by the disease -- still the region managed to pump out well over 26,000 whitetails.

To give an example, hunters in Hardin County reported about 100 fewer deer last season. But Hardin placed second in the region behind Hopkins County, whereas Hardin had ranked only fifth the season before.

Two years ago, the top four counties each checked in more than 2,000 whitetails. This past season, none of those same four broke that mark.

Fortunately, whitetails ar

e a resilient species.

If you use density to determine the counties with the best deer populations, then Webster, Logan and Trigg counties have bubbled to the top in the Green River Region.

Webster County carries more than six animals per square mile, while Logan and Trigg come in just below six per square mile. Interestingly, both Hopkins and Hardin counties -- the top two in deer kills last season -- have densities of fewer than four deer per square mile.

This happens often, and the reason is that although there may be fewer deer per square mile in the high-harvest counties, there may be much more hunting there.

Hunting pressure by itself can generate a larger kill number. Also, more habitat may be available in one county than another, allowing deer to spread out. That lowers density figures, but not necessarily the numbers of deer. This is why it's good idea to get a more accurate picture by looking at both sets of information.

Last season, Ohio County also took a good hit on the chin from EHD, but it's still a good choice for locating high numbers of deer. Even in a down year, it still posted a harvest of more than 1,600.

Breckinridge and Hart counties had similar fates in 2007, but for this season, they are no means down and out.

In normal years, they both place strong and have the potential to jump by 200 or 300 animals or more in a single season.

Of the top 20 counties for deer density, Bluegrass Region counties hold all but three. What does that tell you?

Seven counties in the Purchase Region produced more than 1,000 deer each during the 2006 season, and again in 2007.

And in the 2007 deer season, 17 counties out of 31 in the region posted harvests of over 1,000 animals each. The year before, only 16 counties reached above the 1,000 deer average. The state's total harvest was up by nearly 1,000 whitetails as well.

Bluegrass Region counties are booming with whitetails. Hands down, they are the best places to seek permission to hunt if you want an excellent chance to score this season.

It would be hard to point hunters to any particular spot. If there's an iota of habitat in this region -- and even in some places where it's actually pretty poor -- you can find white-tailed deer in the Bluegrass Region.

In 2007, more than 37,000 deer were taken in the Bluegrass Region. That sounds like a lot. Yet the potential is there for even another 10,000 more, easily. Perhaps the only thing holding down the number is the fact that most deer hunters take only one whitetail per season.

It's certainly not from any lack of hunting days or the limit on antlerless deer, because there isn't one in most of the Bluegrass Region counties.

In this region, as far the best counties for deer density go, the cream of the crop includes Boone, Owen, Campbell, Kenton and Gallatin.

Notice that most of these counties lie along the region's northern tier and border the Ohio River.

But as you'll see from the chart, five more counties also have densities of more than 10 deer per square mile. That's pretty astounding.

Last season, the counties that showed quickly accelerating growths in deer harvest included Carroll, Campbell, Harrison and Scott. At the start of this article, we pointed out that Scott County bumped out Logan on the density chart, and experiencing a jump in harvest of better than 350 animals.

Last year, it seems, the boys and girls hunting here had a field day. Next door in Harrison County, likewise, about 200 more deer were taken than during the previous season.

Similar stories occurred last year in Carroll and Campbell counties, both of which jumped above the 1,000 deer mark for the first time. All these counties are up-and-coming hotspots to find deer this season.

Who knows? You may have the luxury of being a little picky, since the odds are that if you stay in your stand on a regular basis, you'll see many deer during the season.

You'll find a wide range of habitat and density ratios across the Northeast Region. There are 21 counties grouped in this "zone" of Kentucky, and last season's harvest per county ranged from over 1,600 knocked down in Bracken County to only 76 deer taken in Martin County. Unless you have absolutely nowhere else to hunt this coming season, avoiding Martin County is sound advice!

On the other hand, the herd in Bracken County is still increasing, despite any effects EHD might have had in slowing its growth.

*Most recent data available from the KDFWR

The county now sports a density of 8.5 deer per square mile, versus 7.6 deer the year before.

Robertson and Boyd counties each carry between six and seven deer per square mile -- which is quite good, though the harvest in both counties is well below what Bracken usually produces. The deer in Robertson and Boyd are more available than in two-thirds of the rest of the region, but there appears to be significantly less hunting pressure. These are a couple of excellent counties in the Northeast to consider this fall.

Rounding out the five counties with takes over the 1,000 level last season are Lawrence, Carter, Greenup, and Lewis counties. Morgan County narrowly missed the elite group, coming in with a reported kill of 989 deer.

Last season, three of the top five counties increased while the other two dropped slightly.

Morgan was up again. This season, look for it to climb above the 1,000 harvest plateau.

You can expect all these counties to have the potential for another good harvest season, especially if hunters are in the mood and find good conditions during the fall seasons. In 2007, the region as a whole was off from the previous season's number by fewer than 400 deer, which averages out to only about 30 deer per county.

Based on the Northeast's long-term harvest history, that lost ground will be made up for in 2008.

This time around, the Northeast should get back above the 16,000 mark and give the Purchase Region a hard run for the third-best of Kentucky's five management regions.

Last season, the counties that showed quickly accelerating growths in deer harvest included Carroll, Campbell, Harrison and Scott.

"EHD might have had a bit of an impact in isolated areas last year," said Dr. Tina Brunjes, who serves as the Big Game Program Coordinator for the KDFWR. "But generally, we've seen very little growth in several of the Southeast Region counties the past few seasons,"

Hunters are aware that herd growth in nearly the entire Southeast is slow, limited by poor habitat. In recent years, the KDFWR has expanded some doe hunting opportunities in some counties, and is monitoring very closely what impact that is having on overall whitetail availability.

Doe hunting may possibly need to be limited in some spots more than it has been lately, to try to maximize whatever growth potential does exist in the bulk of this region.

Hunters will find better deer numbers toward the western end of the region, in counties like Cumberland, Pulaski, Green, Adair, Whitley and Casey. Knox, which is farther into the more mountainous part of the Cumberland Plateau, was the only other county where more than 800 deer were taken last year.

At present, the highest deer density in this region is in Green County, with about 3.5 deer per square mile.

Surprisingly, Clinton County has three deer per square mile, but was second-to-last in harvest last season. There's likely more opportunity in Clinton than appears evident from the number of deer being taken.

Cumberland County holds just under three whitetails per square mile, but had a nice harvest last season. So it places as another noteworthy spot to check out this season.

Said Brunjes, "So many counties in the Southeast Region just don't have the potential for high numbers of deer. I'd encourage hunters to consider searching out lands in the Bluegrass and have sort of a backup plan.

"This helps increase the pressure in high-density counties, which we need, putting hunters in better locations for success. And it takes some pressure off the slow-growth counties to let them do catching up -- especially in numbers of antlerless deer.

"It's sometimes hard to get access to private land," she said. "But persistence will eventually pay off, if you can assure the landowner you'll treat his property with respect and make sure there's a little something for him in return for your getting to hunt.

"No matter where you go, you have to do things the right way," she said.

"And once you show you can, it's a whole lot easier to be able to return in future seasons."

Lastly, the biologist notes that some hunters have feared that last season's EHD outbreak took a greater toll on the bucks in the population than it did on the does.

But of the 25 counties that were hardest hit, only six had a greater decline in buck harvest. The others indicated an equal and -- in the big picture of things -- fairly minimal impact on bucks and does alike.

"When it comes to seeing good numbers of deer this season," the biologist said, "hunters will not notice the loss except in a few very localized areas. I expect a better season this year under normal conditions, and more deer to be taken by the time the season closes in January."

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