Many deer hunters rejoiced this past weekend over a break in a weather pattern that had been alternating between stifling heat and soaking rains.
A cool down coincided with the two-day gun season for youth deer hunters. It also excited archery and crossbow hunters getting into the woods, blinds and tree stands.
"It wasn't really fit to do much but go hunting," said Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "We saw good participation over the weekend."
On deck for deer hunters in Kentucky are the October muzzleloader (Oct. 20-21), modern gun (Nov. 10-25) and late muzzleloader seasons (Dec. 8-16) before the free youth weekend on Dec. 29-30, 2018.
Difficult hunting conditions defined the first six weeks since archery deer season arrived at the start of September, which also ushered in numerous changes to deer hunting regulations.
The changes are detailed in the updated version of the Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide, on the department's website at fw.ky.gov and in videos posted on the department's Facebook page and YouTube channel.
"What I've been telling people is, if you're a deer hunter in this state, read the hunting guide because something that affects you has changed," Jenkins said.
Major differences from last season:
· The statewide and youth deer permits allow for the harvest of up to four deer, either one antlered and three antlerless or four antlerless.
· The modern gun deer season is 16 days statewide.
· A total of 32 counties have been moved up into a different zone.
· 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.
· 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. Again, the statewide bag limit of one antlered deer applies.
Hunters are still allowed only one antlered deer statewide regardless of zone, method or season. In Zone 1, hunters can still harvest an unlimited number of antlerless deer with the statewide deer permit and additional deer permit.
The changes encourage greater harvest of does and increased deer harvest in areas where a reduction in herd numbers is sought. At the same time, they are designed to foster a bounce back in areas of east Kentucky hit hardest by last year's epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) outbreak.
"The new regulations are intended to help meet those objectives," Jenkins said.
Jenkins said this week there has been one confirmed case of EHD with test results pending on five others, most from north of Interstate 64 and east of Interstate 75.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we see an uptick in harvest with people wanting to try to fill their four-deer limit," Jenkins said. "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."
Hunters harvested 136,026 deer during the 2017-18 season, the fifth highest total on record, and the state's deer herd remains robust overall.
"Things are good," Jenkins said. "We had a very wet winter and there's plenty of forage for both adults and fawns, so we expect to see high survival. Traditionally, you have a stress period in July and August. That did not exist this year. They've had plenty of groceries on the landscape, so they should be in prime condition health-wise."
While September's harvest was down year-over-year, understandable considering the unkind heat and rain, it remained higher than the 10-year average.
Hunters reported taking 4,654 deer during this month's youth-only gun season weekend, second only to the 2015 season.
That year, the statewide mast survey noted poor white oak acorn production with red oaks rated average. Early returns from mast surveys conducted this year point toward uneven acorn production. Deer will frequent areas around white oaks littering the ground with acorns first before turning attention to red oaks.
"They're going be more active in weather like this than they are in 90-degree temperatures," Jenkins said. "They're going to do what they're going to do breeding wise when the season is right. However, if conditions are more conducive to eat and be up and moving, they're going to.
"Right now the key is acorns. Deer are just going to sit there and munch on acorns all day long."
A chill in the air gets hunters thinking about deer in Kentucky. The best part is its arrival this year comes with plenty of season still left.
Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.