A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: For deer hunters across Kentucky ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’

The lyrics are from a Christmas song made famous by Andy Williams in 1963.

But, for Kentucky deer hunters, November is “the most wonderful time of the year.”

When the calendar flips, the interaction between does and bucks begins to heat up as the days get shorter, and the nights cooler.

The timing of the rut, the white-tailed deer’s annual mating season, is the question every deer hunter wants answered.

November in Kentucky is when the interaction between does and bucks begins to heat up as the days get shorter, and the nights cooler. (Photo courtesy of KDFWR)

Here in Kentucky, what some hunters call the late pre-rut, begins when bucks start actively searching for does going into estrus. This usually starts after Halloween, during the first week of November, and is a prime time for bow hunters.

The actual breeding phase of the rut begins closer to modern gun season, which opens each year on the second Saturday of the month.

Photoperiod is the main factor that determines the timing of the rut. Shorter days and longer nights trigger hormonal changes in does. Their pineal glands release melatonin, a substance that influences the release of sex hormones from the pituitary gland.

Hunt accordingly.

During the dark moon phase, the best hunting is often early mornings. During a full moon, hunt midday. Does that have been out all night, will get restless my midday and get up to feed, triggering buck movement. During the first and last quarter moon periods, afternoon hunting is usually best.

Rain or shine, hot or cold, the three weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving offer the best deer hunting of the season, every year.

Here’s some news and observations about the 2018-19 deer season:

• Kentucky’s deer herd is large, and populations in some counties are at an all-time high.

Eighty-five of the state’s 120 counties now have a Zone 1 or Zone 2 status. That’s nearly three-quarters of the state.

This season there are a record 51 Zone 1 counties. The Zone 1 status means the county is at or above the target density for deer.

Three-quarters of Kentucky’s total deer harvest comes during the modern gun season. Last season hunters harvested 136,026 deer, the fifth highest total on record. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

• Deer season regulations have been vastly liberalized, the most in almost 20 years. The changes include:

The statewide and youth deer permits allow for the harvest of up to four deer, either one antlered and three antlerless, or four antlerless.

Modern gun season is now 16 days long statewide.

A total of 32 counties have increased in zone status.

These counties range from Meade County in the north, Bath County in the east, Union County in the west, and Monroe County in the south.

This includes eight that were changed from Zone 2 to Zone 1: Union, Henderson, McLean, Muhlenberg, Todd, Mercer, Mason and Hart

Twenty that were changed from Zone 3 to Zone 2: Warren, Allen, Monroe, Barren, Metcalfe, Adair, Edmonson, Butler, Breckinridge, Meade, Hancock, Daviess, Taylor, Casey, Lincoln, Boyle, Madison, Clark, Montgomery and Bath.

Four that were changed from Zone 4 to Zone 3: Garrard, Pulaski, Wayne and Laurel.

• Hunters can take as many deer as allowed for each zone. In order to take more than four deer statewide, an additional deer permit must be purchased.

In Zone 1 an unlimited number of does may be taken.

Hunters in Zones 2 and 3 can harvest no more than four deer. In Zone 3, only one antlerless deer can be taken with a firearm.

The bag limit in Zone 4 is two deer but only one can be an antlerless deer. Antlerless deer can be harvested during the archery season, crossbow season, free youth weekend or the last three days of the December muzzleloader season.

• The statewide bag limit of one antlered deer per hunter remains in effect.

Kentucky’s one-buck limit was established and phased into the regulations over a three-year period, from 1989 to 1991. This regulation has increased the number of large antlered bucks in the herd, and gives hunters in every county a realistic chance at bagging a record-class buck.

Deer Harvest During Gun Season Affected by Weather

The late pre-rut, which begins when bucks start actively searching for does going into estrus, usually starts after Halloween, during the first week of November. It’s a prime time for bow hunters. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an uptick in harvest with people wanting to try to fill their four-deer limit,” said Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “But we also know that three-quarters of our total harvest comes during the modern gun season. That’s the key. If we get a bad weather weekend or two in there, that’s going to have an effect (impact harvest).”

Last season hunters harvested 136,026 deer, the fifth-highest total on record.

As of October 29, hunters had checked in 20,754 deer, 42.1 percent antlered, and 57.9 percent antlerless (does), including 9,199 bagged by archers.

This year’s unseasonable weather had good and bad impacts.

“We had a very wet winter and there’s plenty of forage for both adults and fawns, so we expect to see high survival,” said Jenkins. “Deer had plenty of groceries on the landscape, so they should be in prime condition health-wise.”

In some areas of Central Kentucky 2018 has been the 10th wettest on record.

Hot and wet weather resulted in a lower harvest in September (5,545), compared to last season (6,115), but was higher than the 10-year average, Jenkins said.

Hunters reported taking 4,654 deer during the October 13-14 youth-only gun season weekend, second only to the 2015 season.

The mast crop always affects deer movement, which impacts harvest.

Jenkins said early returns from mast surveys conducted this year point toward uneven acorn production. Deer prefer white oak acorns and will eat them first before turning attention to red oak acorns. Find a grove of white oaks where the ground is covered with dropped acorns and you’ve found a great place to hunt. When mast is scarce, deer have to move around more to find food.

Now is the time to hunt, and the weather is cooperating just in time.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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