FRANKFORT, Ky. – Hunters do not have to wait until next fall to harvest a deer with a firearm in Kentucky.
The late muzzleloader season opens statewide on Saturday, Dec. 13. Even before this opening day, the ongoing deer season already rates as one of the state’s top three on record based on overall harvest numbers.
Wildlife biologists were bracing for a potential decrease in the harvest this season after consecutive record harvests and with oak trees so laden with acorns this fall. However, the combination of favorable weather during key timeframes and an uptick in hunter participation turned tempered expectations bullish as the season has worn on.
"We've had a great season," said Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "It's surprised me, but I think it's also indicative of the effectiveness of our deer management zone structure.”
The modern gun deer season drove a November harvest of 104,679 that fell just shy of last year's record for the month. December offers the possibility of more quality hunting. Hunters took nearly 13,000 deer last December.
The abundance of acorns on the landscape this fall could translate into increased breeding activity this month as does (female deer) and half-year old fawns that weren’t ready to be bred last month come into estrus, Jenkins said.
“Chances are good that we could see a really nice peak in breeding and some more activity in December and January,” he said.
Black powder firearm hunters took more than 6,100 deer during the early muzzleloader weekend this past October.
The late muzzleloader season opening Saturday closes on Sunday, Dec. 21. Hunters in Zones 1, 2 and 3 counties may take either sex deer throughout the season. Counties classified as Zone 1 offer hunters a good opportunity to harvest an unlimited number of female deer. Those are counties where the department is trying to get a reduction in the deer herd. Hunters must have the appropriate additional deer permits to take advantage of that opportunity. In a Zone 4 county, black powder firearm hunters may only take antlered deer from Dec. 13-18 and then either sex from Dec. 19-21.
Locating high-carb food sources is critical late in the season.
"Find the food. Find the deer," said Derek Beard, Bluegrass Region wildlife coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.
Beard and Jenkins suggest keying on the corners of agricultural fields, winter wheat fields or areas thick with red oak acorns. White oak acorns have either been consumed or have germinated by this point in the season, Jenkins said.
Set the alarm clock later and hunt the warmest part of the day. Seek out a sunny spot or one that provides deer some protection from the elements, like a briar thicket or a recently-logged area.
“If it’s good and cold, they’ll move throughout the day,” Jenkins said. “If it’s really cold, you might consider hunting close to a bedding area.”
Resist the urge to set up on top of that bedding area or food source in those instances. Instead, pick a spot between the two that allows deer to be intercepted en route to one spot or the other, Beard said.
“It’s a chess game,” he said. “There may only be a 10-minute window where they may be coming through.”
Driven by the strong November, the statewide deer harvest total stood at more than 126,000, as of Thursday, Dec. 11. With the late muzzleloader season on deck, and the crossbow and archery seasons ongoing, Jenkins expects the harvest number to climb past the 2012-13 season for second highest on record behind last season’s benchmark of 144,409.
“We’re not overharvesting,” Jenkins said. “Our age structure is still good. If we were overharvesting, we would see an increased number of fawns and yearlings in our harvest and we wouldn’t shoot as many quality deer. We’re still shooting those and our numbers are holding tight and even increasing some.”
Black powder hunters are reminded to wear hunter orange and to always obtain landowner permission before hunting private property. For additional information about the upcoming late muzzleloader deer season and other hunting opportunities available across the state, visit Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s website at fw.ky.gov.