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Art Lander’s Outdoors: 2020-21 Kentucky Deer Season set to open on rescheduled Derby Day

In what must be characterized as the most unlikely juxtaposition of sport, Kentucky’s spring horseracing classic, the Kentucky Derby, will be run on the opening day of white-tailed deer season.

The 146th running of America’s most famous horse race, rescheduled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, will be Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs. By regulation, the first Saturday in September is opening day of Kentucky’s archery season, the first and the longest (136 days) of six deer seasons on Kentucky’s fall and winter hunting calendar.

Kentucky’s archery season for deer opens Sept. 5 (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

Kentuckians will have an extra incentive to celebrate on September 5th. Who could have ever imagined being able to bow hunt for deer in the morning and then spend the afternoon watching the Derby card of races on TV while cooking out, hopefully grilling some fresh venison.

Season Outlook

“Overall our deer herd is looking good for the upcoming season,” said Kyle Sams, Deer Program Biologist and acting Deer and Elk Program Coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “Our population models are showing an upward trend. It’s a good time to be a deer hunter.”

The estimated one million deer in Kentucky’s herd is healthy, with a favorable growth rate.

“Our hunters do a fantastic job of letting the younger bucks walk, and because we are a one buck (limit) state, our age class among bucks is really good,” said Sams. “Most folks who hunt Kentucky and put the time in can usually come out of the woods with a really good buck.”

Kentucky is a perennial top-five state in the number of antlered white-tailed deer that score high enough to be entered into the Boone and Crockett Club record book.

Deer Herd and Harvest on Upward Trend

Kentucky’s deer herd is large and continues to expand.

“Deer herds are coming back in eastern Kentucky,” said Sams. “Doing well (recovering) from the Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) outbreak in 2017.

The epicenter of the outbreak was in Magoffin, Floyd and Pike counties, and expanded north and westward.

Population models for Kentucky’s deer show and upward trend in 2020 (Photo from KDFWR)

As of August 14, 2017 KDFWR had received reports of dead deer being found in 21 Kentucky counties. The infectious viral disease, that kills wild ruminants periodically throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and southern Canada, is spread by several species of flying insects in the genus Culicoides. A 1/10-inch midge, Culicoides sonorensis, is the primary vector in Kentucky.

Deer populations in some Zone 1 counties are at an all-time high.

Sams said the block of 30 Zone 1 counties in north-central Kentucky have the highest deer densities in the state, an estimated 50 to 90 deer per square mile, based on deer population models.

“The Zone 1 counties in western Kentucky have reached their social carrying capacity,” said Sams. “Herd densities are lower, but crop damage is high.”

This season there are 51 counties with a Zone 1 status, 34 counties with a Zone 2 status, 13 counties with a Zone 3 status, and 22 counties with a Zone 4 status.

Kentucky’s record deer harvest of 155,734 occurred during the 2015-16 season, and since the 2017-18 season, the harvest has inched up closer to another all-time record.

The 2019-20 deer kill was the second-highest ever. Hunters reported taking 148,395 deer, 53 percent antlered and 47 percent antlerless, according to harvest data posted on the KDFWR website.

Is another record harvest likely this season? “I could see that happening,” said Sams.

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.

A number of factors influence the deer harvest every season, most notably the timing of the rut, the weather during the 16-day modern gun season in November, and hunter participation. “People are wanting to get outside because of COVID-19, but (hunter participation) is an unknown factor at this time,” said Sams.

One of the most encouraging statistics from last deer season was the increase in the antlerless (doe) deer harvest.

Hunters bagged 69,762 female deer, 47 percent of the total deer harvest, the highest percentage in the last 11 deer seasons.

The continued, aggressive harvest of antlerless deer is needed to slow herd growth in the Zone 1 and Zone 2 counties, where deer densities are at or above management goals.

2020-21 Deer Season Dates

Here are the dates for all of Kentucky’s deer seasons:

• Archery season is September 5 through January 18, 2021.
• Crossbow season is September 19 through January 18, 2021.
• The youth-only modern gun season is the weekend of October 10-11.
• Early muzzleloader season is the weekend of October 17-18.
• Modern gun season is November 14-29.
• Late muzzleloader season is December 12-20.
• Free youth weekend is December 26-27

All the details on deer season and other fall and winter hunting and trapping season are available online at fw.ky.gov.

The outlook for deer season in Kentucky is excellent. We have a quality deer herd, the envy of many states in the region. Our season opens soon with archery hunting. What better day to start the fun — Kentucky Derby Day — a statewide celebration.

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