John E. Phillips
In the last 5-10 years, the State of Kentucky has blossomed as a trophy-buck state, with the state record non-typical whitetail scoring 270 inches and a buck scoring 283-5/8 in 2012 harvested in Muhlenberg County. Why has this happened? What has caused the tremendous turnaround in the number of big bucks with heavy body weights and large antlers being taken in Kentucky? To get these answers, Dream Sporting Trips talked to several people, including Kentucky’s Mr. Deer and Elk - Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk coordinator for Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (http://fw.ky.gov).
The Recent History of Kentucky’s Deer Herd with Gabe Jenkins
“Several factors have caused Kentucky to become a trophy-buck state,” Jenkins reports. “Each year, Kentucky puts new listings and new hunters in the Boone and Crockett Records Book
(https://www.boone-crockett.org.bgRecords/TrophySearch.asp?area=bgRecords). One of the major factors is our hunters have learned to recognize yearling bucks, and they aren’t harvesting them. There has been a downward decline in our harvest surveys of yearling bucks being taken. So, Kentucky hunters are letting their bucks get older before they take them.”
Another factor that also has increased the number of older-age-class bucks being taken by Kentucky hunters is that since the 1990s, Kentucky hunters have had a limit of one buck per hunter per season. Jenkins feels that this one-buck limit has been the driving force that has allowed more bucks to move into the older-age classes. When someone only can harvest one buck, the hunter wants that buck to be an older-age-class buck that he or she proudly can show-off. This limit also enables hunters to see more bucks on their hunting trips.
Kentucky arrived late to the table with the restocking of deer. “We were one of the last states in the nation to restock deer in certain parts of our state,” Jenkins explains. “We were still restocking deer up until 1999.” Most of the deer used for Kentucky’s restocking were captured from the western portion of the state and moved to the eastern section of the state during the 1990s.
“The rut is driven by photoperiods (the amount of sunlight and number of hours in each day) and population size,” Jenkins says. “A healthy balanced deer population that’s not over the carrying capacity of the land means there’s a fairly-even sex ratio between bucks and does and a very well-defined rut. An expanded rut often is caused by an overpopulation of deer. In Kentucky, using the management system that we’re under, we do see a small rut in October and a little bit of a rut in December and January, but the majority of the breeding takes place during November.”
In 2004, Kentucky was 5-years out from its last restocking of deer. At that time, Kentucky revamped its deer program because of new information learned by wildlife biologists and fresh input from Kentucky hunters. Those decisions made in 2004 have produced the large number of mature older-age-class bucks that the state homes today.
Initially, Kentucky had a two-buck limit. Wildlife biologists and hunters had quite a bit of discussion about a one-buck limit similar to the states around Kentucky. Kentucky sent out numbers of hunter surveys to see if the hunters would support a one-buck limit. The results from the surveys were very positive in favor of the one-buck limit. Kentucky, like many other states in the East, realized that to control its deer herd as it grew, the state would have to reduce the number of does to steadily increase the number of bucks, and to keep the deer herds from becoming overpopulated. “Our hunters in Kentucky don’t hesitate to take does,” Jenkins emphasizes. “We have a lot of sportsmen who just enjoy the taste of venison.”
Kentucky’s Deer Hunting Today
“We manage our deer herd in hunting zones,” Jenkins reports. “For instance in Zone 1, hunters can take an unlimited number of does with no daily limit. Zone 1 is in the southeastern portion of the state that’s mountainous and doesn’t have very-good habitat for deer. So, the habitat limits the number of deer that this region can carry. Zone 1 is the most liberal in the state on doe harvest.
“In Zone 4, hunters can harvest four does per season. We tighten restrictions even more on our doe harvest by limiting the number of unantlered deer you can take by the weapon used. In Zone 4, all four does can be taken with a crossbow, but only one antlerless deer can be taken with a modern muzzleloader, during the last 3 days of the late muzzleloader season. The reason we have such a tight restriction on the unantlered harvest in Zone 4 is because we’re trying to grow the deer herd there.”
As mentioned, the four-zone management system in Kentucky began in 2004. The State of Kentucky gets a list of all the bucks that score high enough on B&C to be registered in the Boone and Crockett Records Book. Kentucky has official measurers who submit copies of the B&C score sheets to the state, and all that information is in the “Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide” the department puts out every year. Then Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources yearly can check the quality of the bucks taken in the state. To see this data, you can go to Kentucky’s Fish and Wildlife Resources website and click on 2016-2017 “Hunting and Trapping Guide” (http://fw.ky.gov/Hunt/Documents/1617huntingguideentire.pdf).
“There are increases in the numbers of bucks that go into the Boone and Crockett Records Book every year,” Jenkins says. “The ‘Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide’ will give you the hunter’s name, the weapon he or she harvested the deer with, the county where that deer was harvested, and the buck’s official score.”
Dream Sporting Trips tried to pin Jenkins down to a specific county that he would hunt for a trophy buck, but he smiled and answered, “I’ll hunt any county in the state.” Traditionally a large number of trophy bucks have come from the Green River region in the central/western part of the state. However, in the last 10 years, Kentucky’s trophy bucks have been taken in about every county. For example, Whitley County in southeastern Kentucky, one of the most-rugged and difficult terrains in Kentucky, produced four trophy bucks in one year that all scored high enough on B&C to go into the Boone and Crockett Records Book.
When Dream Sporting Trips asked Jenkins to name the best time to hunt deer in Kentucky, he immediately answered, “The first 2 weeks in November, because that’s when the pre-rut takes place, and the rut generally kicks in about November 14. Our archery deer season arrives the first Saturday in September - September 3 - and ends on January 16, 2017 - Martin Luther King Day. You can hunt with a bow during that entire season. Modern gun season arrives the second Saturday in November, and the closing day depends on the zone where you’re hunting. In Zones 1 and 2, gun season starts November12, 2016, and ends November 27 for either sex. In Zone 3, gun season starts November 12 and ends November 21, and you can take either-sex deer. In Zone 4, gun season begins November 12 and ends November 21 for antlered deer only. Muzzleloader season in Zones 1-3 is October 15-16 and December 10-18 for either sex. In Zone 4, muzzleloader season is October 15-16 and December 10-15 for antlered deer only, and December 16-18 for either sex.”
At this writing, a resident hunting license costs $20, and a nonresident license is $140. You also have to purchase a deer permit that allows you to take one buck and one doe or two does. The cost of the deer permit is $35 for a resident hunter and $120 for a nonresident hunter. So, a nonresident will pay $260 to hunt deer in Kentucky. If you plan to hunt on public lands on Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), study the rules and regulations specific to the WMA you want to hunt. For more information about deer hunting in Kentucky, once again go to the “Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide” to read the annual deer report and learn plenty of deer-hunting information about both public and private lands.
Kentucky’s Private Land Option – Integrity Outfitters
Because of the productive and well-thought-out deer-management program that has been put in place by Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (http://fw.ky.gov), the demand for quality deer lands has been in high demand. By planting agriculture and green fields specifically for deer and monitoring Kentucky’s deer herd with trail cameras, private landowners can manage their deer herds even more intensely than the state does. One of these landowners is Travis South of Integrity Outfitters (http://www.integrityoutfitters.com) located in Windsor, Kentucky, an unincorporated community in western Casey County. Integrity Outfitters has 2,700 contiguous acres, and 2016 is the second year this property has been open for commercial hunting.
“One of the reasons we can provide older-age-class bucks for our hunters to hunt is because of the rule that a hunter only can take one buck per season in Kentucky,” South explains. “For that reason, hunters are far more selective about the bucks they choose to harvest. Due to this regulation, we often see bucks 4-1/2- to 5-years old being taken. A bowhunter took our biggest buck (so far for 2016) on September 8th that I conservatively measured at 160 inches. Our hunting operation permits bowhunting, gun hunting and muzzleloader hunting on our property during the appropriate seasons.
“Anytime is a good time to take a mature buck here at Integrity Outfitters. However, I think the early season, which started September 3, is extremely good, because the deer are still moving the same way they’ve moved all summer long. Since we have 40 trail cameras out, we know when and where our cameras have photographed mature bucks. During the early bow season, the bucks haven’t felt any hunter pressure and are much-more predictable than at other times of the year. Even though the bucks aren’t as predictable during the first and second weeks of November when the rut arrives, this time is also productive for taking an older-age-class buck. More bucks will be on their feet chasing does then. Also, rifle season is in at this time, and hunters can take deer at longer ranges with rifles than they can with their bows.”
Travis South’s goal is to have mature bucks for his hunters to harvest during the entire season. He plants both early-season and late-season food plots that range in size from 1/4-acre up to 7 acres each. South’s property also homes some really-nice oak flats. Once the acorns start dropping, hunters are often more successful hunting the oak flats than the food plots. Because South’s trail cameras run continuously, he can keep up with the mature deer’s feeding and bedding patterns. South shows his hunters the trail-camera pictures from each stand to aid them in seeing and identifying the older-age-class bucks frequenting each area.
Two other factors that directly influence a hunter’s chances for taking an older-age-class buck are wind and hunting pressure. The wind determines which stands South puts hunters on to make sure that the hunter’s scent doesn’t spook the deer he’s trying to take. South also limits the number of hunters he allows to hunt his acreage to 25 hunters for the entire season from September 1 until mid-January to ensure that the bucks on any section of his land experience very-little hunting pressure throughout the entire season.
According to South, last season with 17 bowhunters, “We harvested four bucks with true low 140s average, and each bowhunter had an opportunity to shoot. During the 10-day rifle season with six hunters, three harvested bucks, two other hunters passed-up 140 bucks and others passed-up a 9 pointer and an 11 pointer in the 130s.”
To keep better tabs on his deer, South begins his hunting for the next season after the current deer season ends. “When I start getting trail-camera pictures of bucks with only one antler or with no antlers, I go to the woods with my shed-hunting short-haired pointer. I really enjoy getting out in the woods during the spring with my dog and finding antlers. Shed hunting also tells me which bucks have come through hunting season and should be of harvestable size for the upcoming season.
“Last year 50 to 65% of our hunters had an opportunity to take bucks that would score 130 or more. The good news is all the bucks that would score 130 inches on Boone and Crockett were passed-up last season, so those bucks should be of harvestable size this season. With the amount of food our land has available, those bucks easily may put on 10-15 inches of antler this season.”
To learn more about Integrity Outfitters, go to http://www.integrityoutfitters.com; call South at 540-239-9194; check out the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/integrityoutfitters/?fref=ts; or, email South at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another Fine Kentucky Private Land Option - West Kentucky Buck Company
Elijah Stewart’s West Kentucky Buck Company (http://www.wkbcoutfitters.com), located in Crofton, Ken., in Christian County, provides other opportunities to take big bucks on private land. The 2016/2017 season will be West Kentucky Buck Company’s third year of operation to hunt 2,200 acres of rolling hills and bottoms, including hardwoods, green fields, croplands and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands.
This year, Stewart plans to hunt 15 bowhunters and 15 gun hunters. “We've learned that the most-important ingredient in taking older-age-class bucks is to put as little hunter pressure on the deer as possible.” When Stewart goes onto a property to check his trail cameras, he goes in the middle of the day when the deer should be bedded down to let his scent age before the bucks are up and moving again.
The best buck taken in the 2015 season at West Kentucky Buck Company was a huge one that scored 194-7/8 on B&C. This 6-1/2-year-old buck had 13-scorable points. According to Stewart, “One of the big advantages that we have here at WKBC is that most of the landowners on adjacent properties are managing their deer herds the same way we manage ours. They're letting little bucks walk and allowing older-age-class bucks to survive until the next hunting season. They’re also managing their does, so that the lands have a tight one buck to one doe ratio.”
Last season, Stewart had five bowhunters who harvested three bucks that scored 141 inches, 148 inches and one old cull buck, and reports, “We had two hunters miss twice too. A father and son were on one of the hunts, and the father told us, ‘I missed a really big one.’ The following day his son bagged that buck, and he saw the flesh wound where his father had shot the buck. On the following Monday, the dad missed a buck that would score in the 160s, and we had another hunter who passed-up several bucks that would score in the 130s.”
Last season 50 percent of the hunters who hunted at WKBC had an opportunity to take buck deer that would score 130 points or more. Stewart like other Kentuckians is convinced that part of the State of Kentucky’s deer herd success is due to deer hunters only being able to bag one buck per season. These hunters don’t seem to mind letting bucks they may take in their home states pass unharmed in Kentucky to wait for bigger bucks that they may not ever see on the properties they hunt in other states.
Stewart runs 25 trail cameras on his property and explains, “We already have a trail-camera picture of one buck that will score in the 170s, several bucks that will score 150 or more and a pile of bucks that will score 130 on the property.” At WKBC, hunters often will see from five to 20 deer on either a morning or an afternoon hunt. Although the WKBC lodge will accommodate eight hunters, Stewart prefers to host just six hunters at a time. “We have a 130-inch minimum score for the bucks we harvest, and we don’t charge a trophy fee,” Stewart says. “We have several pictures of cull bucks. If a hunter wants to take one of those cull bucks, that’s fine with us. For instance, I have trail-camera pictures of one buck right now that has 70 inches of antler on one side of his rack, and the other side of the rack probably only has 30 inches of antler, so he's on the cull list.”
Another advantage of hunting WKBC is that because they run so many trail cameras you’ll be able to see some of the bucks you can expect to see on each stand you hunt. However, as any good deer hunter knows, just because you get a picture of a buck doesn’t necessarily mean that buck will show up when you're hunting. But you can know the potential for taking a trophy buck on almost every stand site.
To see pictures of some of the deer being harvested at WKBC go to the website http://www.wkbcoutfitters.com; or, the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/westkentuckybuckcompany. You can email Elijah Stewart at email@example.com or call 270-719-1469.
Some of Kentucky’s Recent Big Buck Deer Scores
* 283-5/8 on September 3, 2012, in Muhlenberg County;
* 258-1/8 on September 26, 2014, in Todd County;
* 250-1/8 on December 8, 2015, in Todd County;
* 230-6/8 on November 10, 2012, in Bracken County;
* 230-1/8 on September 16, 2014, in Webster County;
* 226-7/8 on November 11, 2012, in Pendleton County;
* 226 on November 9, 2013, in Warren County;
* 224-1/8 on October 12, 2013, in Bullitt County;
* 223-6/8 on November 10, 2013, in Monroe County; and
* 220 on November 23, 2013, in Meade County.
Kentucky’s Elk Herd Is Growing
The restocking of white-tailed deer in Kentucky is not the only positive conservation story of big-game species in the state. Starting in December, 1997, 1,549 elk were restocked over 4-1/2-years and released in the southeastern portion of the state at release sites, including Perry, Pike, Knott, Bell, Letcher and Leslie counties. Today, the most-current estimate of the elk herd in Kentucky is 10,000 animals.
Elk season begins the third Saturday in September and extends through January 16, 2017 – Martin Luther King Day. Kentucky issues 910 permits for taking elk, and all these permits are awarded through a quota draw. The number of out-of-state elk permits is capped at up to 10% of the available permits. Each season about 600 elk are harvested by hunters that produces an overall hunter-success rate of about 60%, with about 40% of those bulls. In 2015, a new state record was set for elk with a bull that scored 377-5/8 inches.
Also two Limited Entry Areas (LEA) are now available for elk in Kentucky. Tug Fork LEA is within the boundaries of the Revelation Energy Hunting Access Area in Floyd, Martin and Pike counties. Levisa Fork LEA encompasses Fishtrap Lake WMA in Pike County but is closed to elk hunting due to ongoing elk-restoration efforts. Maps detailing the boundaries of these new LEAs are available online at http://www.fw.ky.gov.