BY Kevin Kelly
Kentucky receives national acclaim for the quality of its deer herd, and the numbers help draw the attention.
The state has produced hundreds of trophy-class bucks over the past five seasons and hunters last season combined to take 138,899 deer overall. It was the second highest harvest total on record behind only the 2013-14 season.
“I think this might be the new norm for a little bit,” said Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “It’s also indicative of how many deer we have on the landscape.”
The 2015-16 deer season arrives Saturday, Sept. 5 with the start of the archery season, and the outlook points to another good season. Biologists say the herd is doing well and estimate it to number about 1 million at the outset.
“We’ve had two pretty harsh winters in a row and people may draw the conclusion that maybe we’re putting a hurt on the population,” Jenkins said. “With the mast crop that we had last year, which gave the animals that lived through the season a good boost, and with a mild and wet summer, the deer should be primed to go into the hunting season. I expect things to be good.”
Herd health assessments conducted last month on Yellowbank Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Breckinridge County, Paintsville Lake WMA in Johnson and Morgan counties and Green River Lake WMA in Taylor and Adair counties produced reassuring results.
“All three locations looked great,” Jenkins said. “Our herd is healthy and our hunters have done a good job of balancing buck and doe harvest.”
Kentucky takes a four-zone approach to deer management with Zones 2 and 3 considered the sweet spot.
“That’s right where the population is primed,” Jenkins said. “It’s good and healthy, we’re not having a lot of vehicle-deer collisions, we’re not seeing a lot of disease and we’re not having a lot of conflicts with agriculture.
“Zone 1 means we’ve got too many deer. Zone 4 means we need to grow the deer population.”
Deer populations in some counties hit hardest by the most recent Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) outbreaks are back to pre-2007 levels or better. A change in zone assignments for some counties in the Green River, Bluegrass and Southeast wildlife regions is indicative of that rebound.
Bullitt, Green, Hopkins, LaRue and Nelson counties are now Zone 1. Hunters may harvest an unlimited number of antlerless deer in Zone 1 counties but must have the appropriate number of additional deer permits.
“You can expect a slight uptick in the harvest total in those counties,” said Kyle Sams, deer biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “Most hunters like to see that change from a Zone 2 to a Zone 1 because it gives them the option to harvest more deer. And for the people that are experiencing damage, it gives them an outlet to take more deer.”
Other zone shifts to note: Grayson and Ohio counties have moved to Zone 2 from Zone 3. Zone 2 offers a 16-day modern gun season during which hunters may take deer of either sex. Allen County was Zone 2 last season but will be managed as a Zone 3 county this season.
The Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide – available online at fw.ky.gov and wherever licenses are sold – includes information about those and other regulatory changes from last season. One other note is that legal resident hunters, age 65 and older, may now hunt deer with a crossbow throughout the archery season.
Deer are still in their summer pattern when the archery season opens. The pattern shifts once acorns start hitting the ground.
Early returns from mast surveys conducted this summer point toward poor white oak acorn production across the state and red oaks producing acorns in some spots but not others. Beech and hickory nut production looks to be better than last year.
Final results from the mast survey will be available later this month once all data has been entered and analyzed. If the early returns hold true, hunters would do well to focus on those trees that are producing acorns. Landowners may consider planting a late fall or winter food plot in early fall.
“If there’s not going to be that bumper crop of oaks, that’s going to make the deer search for food a little more, potentially making themselves more available to hunters,” Sams said. “If you can find a white oak that is producing that would be a good spot to set a tree stand or get out and do some hunting around that area because they will key in on that first thing.”
Archery season continues through Jan. 18, 2016. In between, early crossbow and muzzleloader seasons arrive in October with the crossbow season picking up again in November at the outset of modern gun season. Modern gun season accounted for 74 percent of the overall harvest total last season and this year opens statewide on Nov. 14. December sees the late muzzleloader and crossbow seasons end.
Something else to consider is a quota deer hunt. There are 29 to choose from this year. New to the quota hunt lineup are a two-day firearms quota hunt in early November at Kentucky River WMA in Henry and Owen counties and an early December quota hunt for antlerless deer only at Veterans Memorial WMA in Scott County. Hunters may apply for quota hunts via the department’s website or by calling 1-877-598-2401 through the end of the September.
Whenever you plan to hunt this deer season, Sams reminds everyone to be safe in the woods.
“You never know who’s hunting on the next farm over, so communicate with the landowners around you if you can and be aware of your surroundings,” he said. “But also have a good time and enjoy yourself.”
Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.