FRANKFORT, Ky. — The morning air is crisp and comfortable. Dew blankets the grass and clings to spider webs that glisten as the sun’s rays find them.
A late August taste of fall is enough to get any deer hunter excited with anticipation about what is around the corner.
The 2017-18 deer season opens on Saturday, Sept. 2 in Kentucky with the start of the 136-day archery season. The crossbow, youth gun, muzzleloader and modern gun seasons follow later this fall.
As bowhunters prepare to return to their tree stands, and others eagerly await their opportunities, there is plenty to feel good about. Last deer season, hunters reported taking more than 139,000 deer across Kentucky. It was the third highest harvest total on record and in line with the recent trend of record or near-record harvests. The overall harvest has averaged about 142,000 deer over the past five seasons in Kentucky.
“These are the good old days for Kentucky deer hunters,” said Gabe Jenkins, deer program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “We have plenty of deer and many quality deer on the landscape. Hunters should expect hunting conditions similar to what they’ve experienced the past few years.”
The herd estimate after the 2016-17 season showed a stable to slightly increasing trend across the state. This year, hunters will have more options available to them as they work to fill their tags.
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife opened new wildlife management areas (WMAs) in Pulaski, Gallatin and Wayne counties in time for the fall hunting seasons. It also opened the December muzzleloader season on 17 WMAs and the youth gun seasons on eight WMAs.
“The bottom line is that we’ve got the deer to do that now,” said David Yancy, deer biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “We couldn’t have done it in 1985 or 1995 or maybe even in 2005 but we can now. Deer numbers are up in virtually all portions of the state.”
The expanded muzzleloader and youth gun opportunities are noted in the Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide, which is available on the department’s website at fw.ky.gov and where licenses and permits are sold.
The department’s website also is good source of information about the newly opened Rockcastle River, Stephens Creek and Meadow Creek WMAs. Find these and all public hunting listed on the WMA and Public Lands Search page. Type “WMA/Public Lands Search” into the search box on the homepage. Each area’s listing includes useful maps and information about hunting regulations for that area.
Hunters also may want to look into the ArcGIS Explorer app for mobile devices. With the app, hunters can view GPS location directly on boundary maps for public lands in Kentucky. The app is available for iOS and Android devices. Data usage rates may apply.
A mild winter and favorable conditions during the fawning season were encouraging signs for the season ahead.
“We had a good acorn crop last fall and a mild winter followed by a wet spring and summer,” Jenkins said. “Everything went right this year for very high survival and reproduction.”
Biologists look at various data sets and consider other factors when considering what to expect from a coming season.
The fall mast crop is a major consideration. Each year, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife analyzes red oak, white oak, hickory and beech trees at more than two dozen locations across Kentucky. The hard mast produced by these types of trees serves as an important food source for many animals over the fall and winter.
Early returns for this year’s mast survey suggest it could be a decent year for hickory and beech nut production, about average for red oaks and poor for white oaks. A spotty acorn crop could put deer on the move in search of food and help hunters’ efforts.
“If we don’t have many acorns, food plots should be great places to deer hunt,” Jenkins said. “Folks who planted food plots should have excellent food plots this year. If you got it in, you got the rainfall, and it should be green.”
Bowhunters established a new opening weekend record last year and helped set the tone for season. The modern gun season accounts for about 70 percent of the overall harvest each year. It opens statewide on the second Saturday in November and runs for 16 consecutive days in Zones 1 and 2 and for 10 consecutive days in Zones 3 and 4.
One wild card this year is the outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). EHD is transmitted to deer through the bite of a midge that carries the virus. The threat to deer ends when the first hard frost kills the biting gnats.
Through Aug. 29, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife had documented more than 1,400 cases of deer suspected of having contracted EHD.
While that is a drop in the bucket on a statewide scale, it is understandably concerning for hunters in those localized areas, considering some of the hardest hit counties have some of the lowest deer densities. Most of the reports have originated from counties east of Interstate 75. Five of the six counties with the greatest number of reported cases through Aug. 29 (Floyd, Magoffin, Breathitt, Pike and Bell) are assigned Zone 4 status, the most restrictive for deer hunting.
The virus does not pose a threat to people or pets, and it cannot be contracted by eating meat from infected deer, according to biologists. The department recommends harvesting and eating only healthy deer and using disposable gloves to field dress game and process raw meat.
Hunters are reminded that they must check the animals they harvest and can do that by phone at 1-800-245-4263 or online at fw.ky.gov.
Also, always ask and obtain permission before hunting on private property and report game violations by calling 800-25-ALERT. Callers are asked for the county that they are calling about and forwarded to the nearest Kentucky State Police post, which dispatches a Kentucky Fish and Wildlife conservation officer.