Kentucky considered nation’s top trophy producing state

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By Ben Carlson

Landmark News Service

For hunters, it’s a day to rejoice.

For the deer they’re trying to shoot? Not so much.

Saturday, Sept. 7 marked the opening of the archery deer season in Kentucky, a day when thousands of eager hunters wielding bows and wearing camouflage will climb tree stands or hunker down in ground blinds hoping to harvest a “shooter” buck — or at least fill their freezers with quality red meat.

“I get real excited about it,” said Jeff Lilly, an avid outdoorsman and columnist for The Anderson News. “I really enjoy getting back out in the woods after a long summer.”

Lilly is far from alone in his enthusiasm, particularly since this area has been transformed from a sparsely populated location for deer to one of the best not only in Kentucky, but the United States.

Last year, “Outdoor Life” magazine named Kentucky as the nation’s top destination for trophy deer hunting, based on a variety of factors that include trophy deer production, hunter density, available food sources and hunter friendly regulations, according to the state’s office of Fish and Wildlife.

“The trophy deer hunting possibilities in Kentucky aren’t a secret anymore,” said Jon Gassett, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Last year, we sold deer permits to residents from every state in the country. The word is out that hunting in Kentucky is just that good.”

Anderson County is one of the major reasons why, and has become one of the state’s biggest producers of harvested whitetail deer.

In 2012, Anderson ranked 14th among the state’s 120 counties. Hunters here reported 2,008 harvested deer and were narrowly edged out by Henry County, which reported 2010.

Topping the list was Owen County, which posted a whopping 3,751 deer. Shelby County also ranked in the top 10, posting 2,471.

Statewide, wildlife officials estimated the whitetail population to be about 750,000 before fawning, and that 131,395 were harvested in 2012, a 9.8 percent increase from the previous year.

Last year’s harvest included 42 reported entries — 31 typical and 11 non-typical — into the Boone & Crockett Club record book. These record deer came from 35 of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

Even with temperatures still warm during September, hunters can expect success. For the past three seasons, record harvests posted for the month have 5,577 deer in 2012, 4,945 in 2011, and 4,407 in 2010.

“Even though weather conditions aren’t always ideal in September, there are some advantages to early season hunting,” said Tina Brunjes, deer program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Most deer, even mature bucks, are still in their summer pattern when bow season opens. They are more visible during daylight hours than later in the season and their daily movements are more predictable.

Deer frequent crop fields and weedy pastures in the late afternoons, especially when the rising moon is high in the sky at dusk. In September, these quarter moon periods fall on the 12th and 26th of the month.

Anderson’s total harvest is quite an accomplishment considering that just a couple of decades ago deer here were fairly scarce.

“I remember when growing up in Anderson County, about the only place you would possibly see deer was around the Avenstoke area,” Lilly said, referring to the county’s northwest corner near what is now the landfill.

Lilly said deer were also around the Birdie area of western Anderson County, “but you had to look real hard for pockets that had deer.”

Lilly credits Fish and Wildlife’s efforts in stocking deer in the area, along with changes in regulations that allow hunters to harvest only one buck each year.

“When they went to a one buck I remember a lot of us thinking that was crazy,” Lilly said. “You could only get one buck then you’d be tagged out and done.

“Now, a lot of hunters won’t just pop the first buck they see, and that has helped.”

That regulation is credited as one of the major factors in building not only Kentucky’s deer herd, but also the quality of bucks available.

Before the limit, 80 percent of the bucks taken in Kentucky were just 1.5 years old — too young to grow into trophy class. However, since the state phased in its one-buck limit from 1989-1991, the number of young bucks being taken by hunters in Kentucky dropped to nearly 40 percent, according to Fish and Wildlife statistics.

With age comes larger antler size.

“If you look at the numbers, you’ll see that hunters have taken trophy bucks in 116 of Kentucky’s 120 counties,” Gassett said. “If you do your homework and hunt hard, you just might take a trophy buck anywhere in the state.”

Lilly, along with Wildlife officials, anticipate the coming season to be a strong one.

“Hunters who are monitoring trail cameras or spending time observing deer in the afternoons realize it has been a good year for deer reproduction and survival,” said Brunjes.

Brunjes said heavy rains in the spring and early summer created lots of food and escape cover for deer.

The outlook for deer season is excellent, but ultimately the weather during modern gun season in November has the biggest impact on overall harvest.

“From the deer I’ve been seeing on my trail cameras, I’ve got some pretty nice pictures of bucks and the does seem fat and healthy,” Lilly said. “I’ve seen some twins and triplets running around. That shows they’re good, healthy and sustainable.”