Kentucky deer hunters are probably wondering about the upcoming season after last year's phenomenal deer harvest. It is absolutely remarkable the success deer hunters have been having in the Bluegrass State in recent years. Harvest records continue to topple, bringing an element of excitement to the imagination of what could happen this year.
In 2012, a record harvest of over 131,000 whitetail deer was recorded in Kentucky. That record was demolished the next year when more than 144,000 deer were taken in the Bluegrass State. Coming off back-to-back record years it would be easy to imagine a significant drop in last year's harvest. Instead hunters posted the second highest total ever with 138,898 deer reported harvested through the telecheck system.
Overall Kentucky's deer population is obviously in great shape. Numbers are good in most areas of the state save one, and in some areas the population density is actually above target goal. Some of the highest deer densities in the state are within a geographic area often referred to as The Golden Triangle. This is a section encompassing the Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky areas. This area is heavily populated and even has one of the highest densities of hunters. However, because of a lack of public ground and private land that is difficult to gain access, it is not easy to keep the deer population within density goals.
Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), says he is very pleased with the overall deer health and population in the state as well as the harvest results last season.
Jenkins inherited a program and deer population left in great shape by his predecessors. He has no plans of making any radical changes, perhaps just tweaking things a bit here and there. Obviously, the goals are herd balance and proper population densities. According to Jenkins, Zones 2 and 3 have very good population densities, but to reach the "sweet spot" for the other two zones requires reducing the population in Zone 1 and increasing it in Zone 4.
The latter is probably the most daunting task Jenkins and the KDFWR faces in coming years. Most all of the Zone 4 counties in Kentucky are in the southeastern section of the state, particularly the counties along the borders of Tennessee, Virginia and part of West Virginia. These counties dramatically lag behind the rest of the state in deer numbers.
Jenkins says there are a variety of reasons why the numbers there are lower, some of which the Department is still trying to determine. Most of the area is comprised of closed canopy forest, which means there is very little undergrowth or browse within the forest. Additionally, there is little logging or edge habitat. Again, this means that there is very little available browse. Therefore, the main deer forage is hard mast, such as acorns and beechnuts. When this hard mast is in good supply, deer numbers improve a bit. However, when there are mast failures, deer numbers fall.
Now hunters may remember that deer stocking in Kentucky ended in 1999, which isn't that long ago in regard to deer management. Plus, Jenkins believes the state might have "jumped the gun a bit" with the allowable antlerless deer harvest in that area of the state. Coupled with natural mortality due to hemorrhagic diseases, such as bluetongue virus and epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), deer numbers are far from optimal in southeastern Kentucky. Cutting back on the antlerless harvest a little in the Zone 4 counties might be one way to help numbers rebound in the southeast.
Before making any radical changes in Zone 4, Jenkins plans to do a survey of hunters within Zone 4 areas, which is in the works. Jenkins says it is important to find out if hunters are satisfied with deer numbers as they are now or if they would like to see numbers increase. If hunters are happy with the way things are, there is no reason to make sweeping changes in the zone. If more deer are desired, hunters may have to sacrifice antlerless harvest opportunities to allow reproduction to boost population.
Additionally, Jenkins and the KDFWR are doing some studies in Zone 4 counties on fawn mortality and adult doe mortality. They want to get a better idea of mortality due to hunter harvest, predation, natural mortality and road kill, along with any other factors affecting population and reproductive success. The more information the Department can compile, the better the plan can be for managing the deer population in the area.
"Overall, things are in great shape for this season," said Jenkins. "There was a good acorn crop last year after coming off two hard winters in a row. We have not received much in the way of reports of winterkill deer. There are a lot of good healthy deer out there."
Of course, just having a lot of available deer does not always mean a big harvest. Weather plays a huge role when it comes to actual harvest numbers. In years when there is optimal weather on peak hunting days, such as opening weekend of modern firearm season and other weekends during the deer season, harvest numbers soar. In other years, though, when inclement weather keeps hunters out of the woods and deer hunkered down, the numbers drop. So there is much more to hunting success than just a big population.
Individual hunters are often encouraged by good overall numbers, but personal success still boils down to location, time and, sadly, the providence of luck. Of course, some areas simply provide more opportunity than others; so to up the odds hunters need to focus on areas where the odds are more in their favor.
Kentucky only had four counties last season that surpassed a deer harvest of 3,000 animals and half of those were in the Bluegrass Region. Furthermore, those two counties ranked No. 1 and 2 in the entire state and the region had another four counties that surpassed 2,000 deer harvested. The top six counties and deer harvest totals were Owen (3,470), Pendleton (3,305), Shelby (2,531), Grant (2,401), Boone (2,125) and Henry (2,031).
Taylorsville Lake Wildlife Management Area led public land harvest with 117 deer taken at this 9,417-acre property. Other good results came from the Kentucky River WMA with a harvest of 91 deer and the Veterans Memorial WMA (2,500 acres) with 74 deer harvested. Kentucky River WMA (3,555 acres) is in Henry and Owen counties, both in the top six.
This region is home of the other two counties surpassing 3,000 deer harvested, the third and fourth best counties in the state. Hunters took 3,224 deer in Crittenden County and 3,062 deer in Christian County. Just barely missing the 3,000 club was Graves County with a harvest of 2,964 deer. Hunters took more than 1,000 deer in Trigg, Livingston, Calloway, Caldwell and Marshall Counties.
The sprawling Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL) is one of the top spots for public land deer in this region, partly because of its immense size, with 107,594 acres in Trigg and Lyon counties. Hunters took a total of 209 deer in the Kentucky portion of LBL last season.
Not far away is the Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge, which produced the second highest total harvest in the region with 148 deer taken. Clarks River totals 9,212 acres in Graves, Marshall and McCracken counties. Other good public options include Livingston County and Lake Barkley WMAs.
GREEN RIVER REGION
While this region had zero counties hitting the 3,000 mark, it did have seven counties with solid harvest numbers of about 2,000, plus another that just missed the 2,000 plateau. Hopkins, Breckinridge and Webster counties all posted harvest numbers above 2,400 deer. Others in the 2,000 club were Hardin, Ohio, Hart and Muhlenberg. Grayson County hunters took 1,983 deer.
By far the best public land harvest in the region came from the Peabody WMA where hunters took an astounding 684 deer last season. Peabody offers hunters more than 45,000 acres with a mix of habitats including woods, crop fields, brushy areas, and wetlands. The property is located in three of the top counties in the region — Hopkins, Ohio and Muhlenberg.
No other public lands in the region came close to Peabody's harvest numbers, but there are still other great options. Hunters took 129 deer at Sloughs WMA in Henderson and Union counties. There were 125 deer taken at Big Rivers WMA and State Forest, which is located in Union County with a little spilling over into Crittenden County, the number one county in the Purchase Region.
Bracken County (2,142) was the only county to produce more than 2,000 deer in this region. However, there were seven other counties where hunters tagged more than 1,000 whitetails — Carter, Lawrence, Lewis, Greenup, Mason, Pike and Morgan.
Although there are no public lands in this region posting huge harvest numbers, such as Peabody or LBL, there are a few very solid public land choices. Yatesville Lake WMA in Lawrence County is one of the top counties in the region.
Hunters harvested 63 deer there last season and another 26 at the Yatesville Lake State Park and Lawrence County Recreation Area. Other options include Clay WMA, Fleming WMA, Grayson Lake WMA and Tygarts State Forest.
This region contains the counties with the lowest deer densities in the state. As such, only Green and Pulaski counties totaled more than 1,000 deer harvested. Hunters took 1,436 deer in Green and 1,258 in Pulaski. The next best counties were Casey (931), Lincoln (914), Adair (907), Taylor (862) and Whitley (833).
Oddly though, the Southeast Region is home to the location scoring the highest total deer harvest on public land in the entire state. Nonetheless, the total is not overly surprising, even with the lower deer numbers, given that the property is also the largest public hunting land location in the state. Hunters took a total of 1,043 deer at the Daniel Boone National Forest, which spreads through 21 counties and totals 638,529 acres.
Hunters also took 122 deer at Lake Cumberland WMA, which compares nicely to public lands in other regions in the state. There were 74 deer harvested at the Boone Forestlands WMA. Other public properties posting decent harvest figures included Carr Creek Lake WMA, Hensley-Pine Mountain WMA, Kentucky Ridge Forest WMA and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
NEW THIS YEAR
Hunters need to be aware there are many changes to the deer regulations this season. Some of the most significant are changes to some zone designations, a modification to crossbow regulations for resident hunters age 65 years or older and changes at several WMAs. To get the latest on these and other regulations, consult the 2015-16 Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide or go to www.fw.ky.gov.