The Bluegrass State has come a long way in regard to trophy whitetail hunting in the last few decades. It has not been all that long ago it was popular for Kentucky hunters to travel out of state in search of guided or unguided trophy hunts, partly because many people like to travel to hunt in new locations, but also because other states had reputations for producing trophy bucks. Now hunters from all over the country are flocking to Kentucky because of its reputation for big deer.
Recently, Kentucky has been ranking in the top five every year for numbers of Boone and Crockett (B&C) whitetails taken by hunters. In fact, the state really got noticed in 2012 when it led the nation for number of B&C bucks taken in one season.
To qualify as a Boone and Crockett record, a typical buck must have a net score of 160 or higher and a non-typical must score at least 185 or higher, which means Kentucky hunters were serving up a lot of antlers.
Gabe Jenkins, the deer and elk program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), said trophy buck hunting in Kentucky has been fantastic and the state has really hit the national spotlight over the past five to 10 years.
In fact, the state has really become a favorable destination for traveling trophy hunters because of good trophy potential, reasonable license and tag fees, and the tags are available over the counter.
However, even with all the attention and interest from trophy hunters, the overall number of out-of-state tags sold has not increased dramatically. Hunters come to Kentucky, hunt a year or two and leave. Then, other hunters travel to pursue whitetails in the Bluegrass State.
Tags have been sold to hunters from all 50 states, but overall, the number of out-of-state tags has only ticked up a bit and the impact to deer harvest has been negligible.
Last season was another banner year for hunters in Kentucky. Although the state did not lead the nation again, hunters in the Bluegrass State did harvest 32 B&C bucks known as of press time and there are most certainly more that will never be officially documented.
It is a great testament of the health of the deer herd when hunters consistently bag large numbers of deer, along with numerous trophies year in and year out.
Jenkins said he is really pleased with the health of the deer herd, and some of the stats from the trophy harvest really show just how good hunters have it here in Kentucky.
"Back in the year we led the nation in trophy bucks, I think we had something like three trophies come from Whitley County in one season," said Jenkins.
"Now Whitley County is not really what you think of when you think of trophy buck areas. It has a closed canopy, not a lot of agriculture and fewer deer numbers. And yet hunters were able to take three trophies there in one season.
We saw that again this past year. There were a total of six trophy bucks taken in Pulaski County, which is down by Somerset. That is just unbelievable.
There was only something like 910 males with visible antler taken in the county, so it is just phenomenal to have six trophy whitetails come out of one county like that."
According to Jenkins, about 1 in 1,000 animals qualify as a B&C record. For whitetails the odds are even less, with something close to 1 in every 2,500 whitetails making the record book. To have six out of 910 qualify, phenomenal may not even be a strong enough description.
The western coalfield region of Kentucky has traditionally been the production area for trophy bucks in the state and still produces a good amount.
However, there has been a big increase in the number of trophies taken in the central and eastern portions of the state in recent years. Now it is very likely for a trophy buck to be taken in any county in the state. In fact, Lee County is the only county in the entire state to have yet to produce a B&C buck.
There are numerous reasons Kentucky has been producing so many trophies lately and appears destined for the trend to continue.
First, the deer herd is very healthy and has a good balance. The KDFWR stays on top of deer numbers, disease outbreaks and other factors, adjusting zones and harvest as needed. Hunters also do a great job of managing the herd and keeping antlerless harvest where it needs to be.
Deer in the state also have good genetics, especially in the western coalfields and Green River regions of the state. Over in the eastern part of the state there are fewer deer, so trophies are produced because the bucks have the opportunity to reach an older age. Statewide the opportunity to take a trophy is quite high.
Selective harvest by hunters also plays a huge part in making more trophies available within the population. Over the years, there has been a decline in the number of yearling bucks taken by hunters. Hunters are choosing to let these young bucks pass by to have more time to grow for future years.
The average buck taken by Kentucky hunters is 2 1/2 years old and that factor has increased over the years concurrent with the yearling harvest going down. Lately though, the 2 1/2-year-old age harvest has been slightly decreasing too.
Subsequently there has been a slight uptick in the number of bucks taken in the 3 1/2- to 4 1/2-year-old range. The one-buck harvest regulation leads to hunters being very selective about the buck on which they use that tag.
According to Jenkins, the Northeast Region is pretty much ideal in terms of deer population, with numbers averaging 20 to 30 deer per square mile. The herd also has good balance, and the density seems to make hunters happy. Four trophy bucks have been submitted so far, with Pike and Lewis counties bringing in typical and Nicholas and Bracken counties scoring non-typical bucks.
This area has some of the lowest deer densities in the state, but remarkably, it led the state for trophy production last season as hunters took a total of 13 B&C bucks in the 2014-15 season. Nearly half of them came from Pulaski County. Wayne and Lincoln counties each provided two trophies. The remaining trophy bucks came from Whitley, Clay and Knox counties.
The Southeast Region is pre-dominantly habitat containing a lot of closed canopy forest with very little agricultural or edge areas. The deer herd predominantly relies on mast for food, so population numbers swing up and down with the mast production.
Deer numbers in this region average in the low teens per square mile. Even so, hunters take a lot of very nice deer as evidenced by the number of trophies taken last year. With so much forest and land and a lower deer density, bucks have the ability to better elude hunters and live longer, thus reaching trophy size.
This section contains some of the highest deer densities in the state; much of the area has as many as 50 to 60 deer per square mile. There is not a lot of agriculture in the Bluegrass Region. Most of the agriculture is in the northern part of the region in the counties along the Ohio River.
Hunters shoot a lot of deer in this region and there are a lot of nice bucks taken because of the sheer number of available deer. The region as a whole gave up some 43,000 deer last season. Owen County led the state with a harvest of 3,470 deer and Pendleton County came in at a close second with a harvest of 3,305 deer.
There were a total of four B&C bucks taken in the region last year. Owen County had two and the others came from Garrard and Franklin counties. All were scored as typical. There is some public land opportunities in the region, but most of the WMAs are regulated as quota hunts for modern gun usage.
GREEN RIVER REGION
Jenkins said this region has been the "meat and potatoes" of Boone and Crockett production over the years. However, the area has been hit hard three times by outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in recent years. Bad outbreaks occurred in 2007 and 2010 and some areas were affected again in 2012.
In response, the KDFWR reduced zone designations in the area to allow the herd time to rebound, which it has done nicely. Jenkins said population estimates are now back up to where they were pre-2007 and the Department is moving the zone designations back up as well.
There are a lot of good deer in the region and there is a lot of forage to sustain them. It was the second best region in the state last year as hunters tagged a total of 11 trophy bucks there. The only county to take more than one was Todd County where hunters harvested two trophy bucks.
The other counties where a trophy buck was harvested were Breckinridge, Butler, Grayson, Larue, McLean, Ohio, Union, Warren and Webster.
This is one of the traditional areas where lots of trophy bucks have been tagged throughout the years. Surprisingly, no B&C bucks were reported as coming from this region last season. That should be no discouragement to hunt the region though, as plenty of deer and plenty of trophy bucks are in the area.
This area has a lot of agriculture and cannot withstand population numbers in the range of 50 to 60 per square mile, which is what would happen if it was not for its designation and the encouragement to harvest as many does as possible.
The KDFWR likes to keep numbers down closer to 30 deer per square mile, which keeps hunters happy with plenty of opportunity, keeps farmers from too much crop loss and reduces the number of vehicle collisions.
There have been three fantastic years of deer harvest in a row and Jenkins has been asked several times if hunters have harvested too many deer. His definitive answer is: "No, we haven't." He said there has been a lot of good weather during peak hunting times over the past three seasons, which has bolstered the success, but the herd is healthy and balanced, and there is absolutely no cause for alarm.
"There are a lot of deer on the landscape," said Jenkins. "Our hunters do a good job of managing the herd and keeping numbers and balance where it needs to be. We just need to keep doing that. Everything ahead looks bright, numbers are good and the potential is great."
This is certainly encouraging news just prior to the onset of the rut.