Success of Kentucky deer hunters is nothing short of astounding. Almost yearly, hunters are rewriting the record books in one form or another, with record harvests and numerous Boone and Crockett bucks being taken.
Kentucky hunters hit another home run last season by smashing the previous state record for deer harvest by more than 11,000 deer. The total was 155,730 deer, which was quite impressive considering the previous record, set two seasons ago, was 144,409 deer. The harvest dipped a little in the 2014-15 season to 138,899, before coming back in big way.
In fact, last season's total was an 8 percent increase above the previous record and 12 percent higher than last season. Hunters enjoyed near perfect hunting weather during some of the significant hunting times and a mast failure kept deer moving in search of food, which certainly aided the increase in harvest.
Before 2010, deer harvest figures always fluctuated up and down some, which is normal for most game species, not just deer. However, since the 2010-11 season, Kentucky deer harvest numbers have mostly been on an upward trend. It is definitely a great indication of the quality genetics, habitat, food availability and management by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). It is also a nice reflection on Kentucky's hunters, their hunting savvy and their self-imposed decisions on when to harvest and when to pass up a shot.
Most of the data for harvest methods remain fairly stable from one year to the next. However, there was a significant increase in the number of deer taken by crossbow last season. A jump of 54 percent was noted with some 70 percent of the crossbow harvest occurring during the modern firearm season. Crossbow hunters took 4,565 deer last season, up from 2,962 the season before.
Overall, the deer herd in Kentucky is in excellent shape, though there are a few places where deer numbers are lower than desired and other areas where the population needs to be curtailed some. Fortunately, there were no recorded instances of chronic wasting disease (CWD) and no other major disease outbreaks. Of course there are most always some cases of hemorrhagic disease, but there has not been a major outbreak since 2007, when more than 4,000 suspected cases were reported.
CWD is a very scary subject and one Kentucky hunters are concerned about every season. The KDFWR has a CWD plan in place should it be discovered in the state and the department routinely checks for the presence of CWD. So far, it is has not reached the state, but it has been discovered in the neighboring states of Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.
A more recent and very alarming occurrence is the newly discovered presence of the disease in Arkansas, first discovered in February 2016 in a cow elk shot in October of 2015. Arkansas wildlife officials are working to see how widespread the disease is within the state This is of particular concern to Kentucky hunters because Arkansas borders Missouri and Tennessee and is not far from the western edges of the state.
Currently though, the Bluegrass State remains CWD-free and the herd is healthy and numerous with total population estimates nearing 800,000 animals. The upcoming season promises many possibilities, and hunters should anticipate great success, depending upon weather conditions during weekends and prime hunting dates.
This section of Kentucky is about the only place in the state where deer numbers are not as high as desired. Despite an aggressive stocking effort when the state was in the deer restoration phase, numbers in the southeastern counties have lagged behind the rest of the state and many areas have actually shown decline. The KDFWR implemented two separate but complimentary studies in an effort to determine the decline.
One study is on adult females to monitor adult doe mortality and the causes of mortality, as well as fertility and birth rate. The research is centered in Clay County where workers capture adult does. The does are fitted with high frequency (VHF) collars and monitored twice weekly. Pregnant females are examined by ultrasound to determine the number of fetuses and then a vaginal implant transmitter (VIT) is inserted for later determination of the birthing location to aid the second, concurrent study.
The second study is to determine the recruitment rate of deer fawns. Fawns are located by use of the VITs, as well as thermal imaging cameras at night, which detect heat signatures of deer. The fawns are then captured and fitted with an expandable collar that remains with the fawn until death or until approximately nine months of age at which time it releases and falls off. There were 35 fawn collars deployed in 2014, and 31 in 2015. Determining fawn survival rate and cause-specific mortality are important parts of understanding why deer numbers are in decline and how best to manage the herd in this location of the state.
Despite lower deer numbers than the rest of the state, hunters in southeastern Kentucky still enjoy good hunting, although some of the terrain is quite challenging. Plus the Southeast Region has the largest number (38) of wildlife management areas (WMAs) of any of the five regions, actually more than double any other single region.
Hunters took a total of 25,218 deer in the region, including over 16,000 antlered deer. Restrictive harvest on females leads to more disproportionate numbers in the buck to doe harvest ratio than the other regions. Unfortunately, no single county within the region placed in the top tier based upon harvest numbers.
The highest total county take in the region was in Pulaski County with a harvest of 1,743 deer. Green County hunters also did well with a harvest over 1,700. Other counties in the region with harvests over 1,000 animals were Adair, Whitley, Knox, Clay, Knott, Lincoln, Casey, Taylor and Wayne.
The Southeast Region is home to the largest public access hunting location in the state. The Daniel Boone National Forest is not only the largest access area, but also yields the largest harvest figures year after year, admittedly though because of its size and not due to superior deer density. Hunters tagged a total of 1,199 deer at the DBNF and there were another 105 taken at Boone Forestlands WMA. Other good options include Revelation Energy Hunting Access Area where hunters took 133 deer last season and Lake Cumberland WMA, which gave up 111 deer.
Hunters did quite well in the Northeast Region with a total take of 23,164 deer. This region is home to several counties known for producing Boone and Crockett bucks and anticipation is always high for the possibility of a trophy. Success rate is also good per hunter, although similar to the Southeast Region; there are some areas where the terrain makes for tough hunting.
Bracken County was the best in the region and placed No. 15 statewide for harvest. Hunters took a total of 2,326 deer in Bracken, the only county in the region to top 2,000 deer, and the tally had a great balance of bucks to does. Hunters tagged 1,159 females and 1,167 males. Other top counties in the region were Lawrence, Carter, Lewis and Pike.
There are no massive public properties, like the DBNF, in the Northeast Region, but there are several with very good hunting opportunities.
Yatesville Lake WMA offers plenty of good hunting options and hunters had a good season last year with a take of 144 deer. Another 44 deer were taken at the Yatesville Lake State Park and Lawrence County Recreation Area. Other good choices are at Clay WMA, Fishtrap Lake WMA, Fleming WMA, Grayson Lake WMA and Tygarts State Forest.
GREEN RIVER REGION
Portions of this region, like the Southeast Region, have had stricter harvest regulations and reduced bag limits due to lower deer numbers. Some of the counties suffered declines due to an outbreak of hemorrhagic disease in 2007. The reduced bag limits were put in place to help deer numbers rebound following the outbreak. Population estimates in these counties now put deer numbers at or above the level they were prior to the EHD event and bag limits have become more liberal again.
There were eight counties in the Green River Region where hunters took more than 2,000 deer last season. In fact, Breckinridge and Hopkins were not far from the 3,000 mark with takes of 2,913 deer and 2,840 deer respectively. Other counties topping 2,000 deer included Hardin, Ohio, Grayson, Hart, Webster and Muhlenberg.
This region is also home to one of the best public deer hunting lands in the state. The sprawling Peabody WMA in Hopkins, Muhlenberg and Ohio counties gave up one shy of 700 deer last season, which is quite impressive for a property the size of Peabody. Other great public options include Big Rivers WMA & State Forest, Sloughs WMA, Barren River Lake WMA and the Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center.
This region is in the heart of horse country and is annually among the best in the state for producing huge harvest numbers. The reasons are many, including above average densities, tremendous numbers of hunters and virtually unlimited bag limits. Much of the region is designated as Zone 1, meaning hunters may purchase as many antlerless tags as they desire. This leads to more does being taken and the buck to doe harvest ratios are among the best in the state.
In Pendleton County hunters took 1,799 females and 1,772 males. Similar balance was seen in Shelby County, with a harvest of 1,344 males and 1,306 females and in Nelson County, with a take of 1,187 males and 1,140 females. Owen County led the region and the entire state with a harvest of 3,701 deer, of which 1,925 were female and 1,776 were male. Incidentally, the Pendleton County harvest of 3,571 deer was second best in the region and state.
There is a lot of private ground in this region, so hunting access is more limited. But great public hunting is available at the Taylorsville Lake WMA, Kentucky River WMA, Veteran's Memorial WMA and John A Kleber WMA.
Western Kentucky is known for producing big deer and providing excellent hunting opportunities. Last year was no exception as three out of the top six counties were in this region. Hunters took 3,359 deer in Crittenden, 3,283 in Christian and 2,857 in Graves. Other counties with harvests topping 1,000 were Livingston, Trigg, Calloway, Caldwell and Marshall.
Land Between the Lakes once again topped the list of public lands for harvest, partially due to its size and access. Hunters took 251 deer there last season, but perhaps more impressive was the 187 deer taken at the much smaller Clarks River National Wildlife Refuge. Hunters also have great success at the WMAs located at Kentucky and Barkley lakes, as well as at the Livingston County WMA and State Natural Area.