Kentucky abounds with deer-hunting opportunities, and many would consider it a sleeper state for the DIY hunter. For the past decade it's been a consistent producer of quality bucks on both public and private land. And that public land is found throughout the state, in areas big and small. Some of this land even offers preferential opportunities for bowhunters.
Across Kentucky you'll find diverse habitats, from small farms broken up by wooded streams and woodlots to big forests. Many areas surrounding the numerous public reservoirs are wooded and offer excellent deer habitat: mast-producing trees and thick areas where bucks can reach maturity with little human interference.
Eleven wildlife management areas (WMAs) totaling a whopping 143,000 acres are set aside just for bowhunters. Archery season opens the first Saturday in September each year, which offers an excellent opportunity for anyone looking to wrap a tag around a velvet antler. (Crossbows are legal to use on these areas only during the crossbow season, which runs from Oct. 1 to the third weekend in October before closing for three weeks. It reopens in mid-November, during firearms season, and runs through Dec. 31.)
A few of these areas have short youth hunts and a couple have a two-day firearm season, so the nonresident hunter would be smart to time any trip around these dates. But four areas are fully reserved for bowhunting.
Nonresident tags are available over the counter and are still a bargain at $260. That total includes $140 for the annual license and $120 total for two statewide deer tags. Only one of the two deer can be an antlered buck. For a number of years Kentucky had a 15-inch spread minimum in place on the WMAs, but it's been dropped for the 2017 season.
Some of these WMAs are relatively small and are surrounded by farmland. Soybean and alfalfa fields attract a lot of the deer, but wheat, corn, barley and grain sorghum are what really draw the whitetails. These fields, when in the right places, can offer the deer excellent feed. Forest-farm edges make ideal places for a bowhunter to view deer activity in late summer, as deer tend to feed in the more open private land and bed on wooded public property.
The first weeks of September offer a great chance to pattern and shoot one of these summer-pattern bucks. The best hunting is usually in the evenings, as it can be very difficult to access such areas without spooking deer in early morning. The bucks tend to trickle back into the woods before daylight, which makes it hard to avoid alerting them. The last couple hours of daylight, however, offer an excellent chance to waylay a buck using a predictable and visible feeding pattern.
As September wears on, of course, the pattern changes; the bachelor groups break up, and bucks move to their fall areas.
Kentucky's larger public bowhunting areas get surprisingly little hunting pressure once you get back off the roads some distance. The majority of local hunters stay within a half-mile of roads, as they're primarily hunting evenings and weekends. That means the traveling DIY hunter who's willing to put on some miles can get away from the crowds.
One of the unique opportunities to avoid hunting pressure is to use a boat to access out-of-the-way hunting locations. Many of the state's reservoirs are surrounded by excellent deer habitat and rough country that's tough to access by land, but a boat makes it easy to get in and out. A secluded spot that might take a walk of several miles over rough ground can sometimes be accessed by boat in a matter of minutes.
Of course, hunting by boat brings its own challenges. Along with all of the usual safety gear, be sure to have a GPS for marking access points along the shoreline where you plan to tie up the boat. It can all look much the same in the predawn darkness. A bright flashlight and a reflective tack on a tree can be helpful. Likewise, getting back to the boat ramp in the dark is made easier with a GPS trail to follow. And remember to throw a tarpaulin into the boat, so you don't get it all bloody when hauling out your trophy.
Hunting these hollers and ridges is a matter of finding fresh sign and food. A productive oak ridge is sure to have deer using it, and some of the creek bottoms offer thick cover for bedding and browsing. Bucks often like to bed just over the crest of these hilltops with the wind at their back so they can scent anything behind them and view areas in front and below. Trails leading to the food from these bedding areas are prime spots in early season.
Two examples of top areas that surround manmade lakes are Grayson Lake and Cedar Creek Lake. Additionally, some WMAs have areas that are totally off-limits, which can be bad or good for the hunter, depending on how you look at it. I say it's a positive, because you don't see many public areas with inviolate deer sanctuaries. One example of a WMA with three off-limits areas is 2,293-acre Paul Van Booven WMA in Breathitt County.
In addition to the 11 bow-only WMAs, three expansive military properties allow archery hunting only on a draw basis. Bluegrass Army Depot (14,596 acres, 859/779-6328); Fort Campbell Military Reservation (85,000 acres, 270/798-9824); and Fort Knox Military Reservation (109,068 acres, 502/624-7311) all are good. Each has its own regulations and is operated by the federal government rather than the state, so be sure to research their specific rules, licensing and drawing opportunities.
For more on public bowhunting and other DIY whitetail opportunities in Kentucky, visit here.