To hear many serious trophy bowhunters tell it, Kentucky must be a figment of someone's fertile imagination. It's a state with a great reputation for big deer, but in producing them, it appears to violate many of the rules of how to manage deer with that in mind.
For one thing, the state doesn't limit buck tags in any way. For another, gun season falls right in the heart of the November rut. And get this: Nearly all of the hunters heading afield then are carrying scoped centerfire rifles. They're well equipped to fill buck tags at the time of year when antlered deer are most vulnerable.
So how can Kentucky keep cranking out Pope & Young bucks? It's a question a lot of wildlife biologists and trophy hunters in other states probably have asked themselves.
According to veteran biologist David Yancy, deer project leader for the Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, there are reasons for the state's continued productivity on trophy bucks. And the first of those reasons is the number of hunters.
"At 5-8 per square mile, Kentucky's deer hunter density doesn't place it among the top 12 densest states in whitetail range," Yancy notes.
"Also, deer population density averages about 20 animals per square mile. But while there are approximately 1.8 hunters for each antlered buck, only around 35 percent of our hunters take a deer each year — and nearly 50 percent of those are antlerless. The end result is that we only harvest about 49 percent of the available antlered deer each year."
More than a quarter-century ago, Kentucky followed neighboring Ohio's lead and implemented a single-buck-per-year bag limit. The Bluegrass State's production of older bucks quickly began to rise. Now Kentucky taxidermists stay plenty busy mounting big bucks.
While it's tempting to say the one-buck limit simply forced hunters to become more selective in buck harvest, that might not be the full answer.
"We have a lot of veteran hunters who aren't necessarily eager to shoot the first buck they see anyway," Yancy points out. "There's a selective mindset among many hunters and landowners, which results in most small bucks getting a free pass."
"To hear many serious trophy bowhunters tell it, Kentucky must be a figment of someone's fertile imagination. It's a state with a great reputation for big deer, but in producing them, it appears to violate many of the rules of how to manage deer with that in mind."
According to the biologist, some biologists in the agency also believe the advent of affordable digital trail cameras has played a big role.
"Camera use facilitates trophy whitetail production in two ways," he points out. "First, by capturing images of older and/or larger-antlered bucks in an area, they encourage local hunters to pass up younger/lesser animals. Then, once it's known a big buck frequents an area, cameras can assist hunters in patterning the deer. With only one buck tag per season, and the knowledge big bucks are out there, it's possibly led to even more selective harvest. Hunters are willing to pass up younger deer because they know older ones are around."
Of course, trail cameras now are in wide use in many states and provinces that lack Kentucky's reputation for huge bucks. So perhaps it really is the combination of scouting technology and having just one buck tag that results in a far more selective hunting public.
Whatever the reason, Kentucky has indeed managed to find the "sweet spot" of hunting opportunity for trophy deer.
Where's the best place to go looking for one of these big guys in bow season? As the accompanying map illustrates, no single county has them to itself. But a clearly defined chunk of Kentucky is a great place to start your search.
"In much of western and central Kentucky we have fertile land with a good balance of cover and crops," the biologist says. "So it's productive habitat. While over the last 20 years we've seen our trophy whitetail production become more evenly distributed across the state, the west-central portion — east of Land Between The Lakes and west of I-65 — remains our most consistent yielder of trophy contenders. That's probably because in this region moderate deer numbers live among the state's most optimum juxtaposition of row-crop agriculture and oak-hickory woodlands."
To the west of this area, farm fields are larger and cover more restricted, making bucks more vulnerable to harvest by gun. In the eastern half of Kentucky deer numbers tend to be much lower, with far less acreage devoted to row crops. That makes the hunting tougher for with bow or gun.
Since 2010, the hottest counties for P&Y entries (white stars on map) have continued to reflect that broad pattern. Still, it's worth asking: Does the biologist feel the top areas for bowhunting trophy bucks are likely to change any time soon?
"No, not really," he says. "While continued slow growth in deer numbers in Appalachian Kentucky should lead to even more trophy entries being taken from the poor deer habitat in the eastern third of the state, our west-central counties should continue to be tried-and-true producers of trophy bucks into the foreseeable future."
For more on record-class bow bucks from Kentucky and across North America, visit Pope and Young Club.