LBL deer

The Land Between the Lakes long has grown big bucks, but with more older bucks there now, prospects are increased.

The start of archery hunting for deer at the Land Between the Lakes still trails that of statewide hunting, but otherwise things are looking up for whitetail pursuits at the federal recreation area.

The past three years have seen abbreviated archery seasons and more restrictive harvest limits in the LBL’s Kentucky section after observations of declining deer numbers. The regulations for 2020-21 hunting are somewhat more generous after apparent gains in the deer numbers in the northern end in the federal land and an encouraging average size shown among bucks that have been harvested in the past couple of years.

John Westbrook, environmental stewardship chief for the LBL, said hunting regulations are only slightly liberalized for the archery season this year. The critical change of eliminating the “bonus buck” phenomenon by making LBL deer count toward statewide limits continues, and this is paying off just as had been hoped, he said.

The Kentucky section’s archery season this year also will include crossbow hunting for its entire duration. In contrast to Kentucky’s statewide season (opening today), the LBL season for its Kentucky portion opens Sept. 26 and runs through Oct. 22 initially. Subsequent segments will be Oct. 26-Nov. 19 and Nov. 23-Jan. 18, the late segment again running as deeply into winter as the statewide Kentucky archery/crossbow season.

The breaks in archery pursuits facilitate the limited quota firearms hunts, those open to hunters who applied and were drawn for permits back in the summer. In the Kentucky portion of the LBL, a youth quota hunt for those under age 16 will be Oct. 24-25, while a single regular quota gun hunt is set for No. 20-23, a Friday-Sunday stretch.

For harvest limits, archery and crossbow hunters this year are restored to the possibility of taking two deer, only one of them possibly an antlered buck. The move back to possible two-deer harvests by archery hunters illustrates that LBL managers are buoyed by indications of stronger overall deer numbers.

Still, no hunter can take more than one antlered buck in the LBL, and all deer taken must count toward a hunter’s statewide limit. The only exception there is that whitetails taken by young hunters during the single youth quota hunt are viewed as “bonus deer” and are not included in the statewide bag limit.

Westbrook said doing away with the possibility of a hunter taking an additional antlered buck by not counting LBL deer toward statewide limits has had a significant effect on the quality of the public area’s deer herd in just three seasons.

“The one-buck limit has brought about a higher level of selectivity among our hunters,” he said. “That, in turn, is causing an improved age class structure among our bucks.”

It is simple enough. Any hunter who knows he gets to take only a single buck often becomes reluctant to use his option on the most typically encountered antlered target, a 16- to 18-month-old yearling buck wearing its first set of antlers.

Passed over, that yearling very well may show up the following season as a 2 1/2-year-old buck. The quality of that deer is infinitely better than one just a year younger. But 2 1/2-year-olds are notably more wary, and a larger class of these provide a base that inevitably produce more 3 1/2-year-olds.

Big deer are chiefly older deer. When you get into more bucks of this class, which produce antlered deer that most hunters regard as high quality, both the pursuers and the managers begin to get a warm, fuzzy feeling about the status of the wild resources.

Westbrook said the goal of LBL managers is not just to lift the area’s deer herd out of a downturn that was disappointing to area hunters. He said the intention is to restore deer hunting in the LBL to a position of acclaim with both plenty of animals and a high percentage of older bucks of exceptional quality.

The LBL in years long past was nationally known as one of the first deer hunting hot spots, especially for bowhunting, and a reputation for quality bucks grew then. In more recent years, considerable hunting pressure and a woodland habitat mostly dependent on the annual acorn crop kept the hunters’ harvest rife with yearling bucks and smaller-bodied deer.

Anecdotal information from hunters, however, is revealing secondhand a growing resource of older, larger bucks. The genetics are there, and the new selectivity among more hunters nowadays is adding to those ranks each season.

Westbrook points to the taking of a Boone & Crockett record book buck from the LBL in 2018, during the second year of the no-bonus-buck regulation. The whopper buck, 5 1/2 years old at the time, was an indication of what more older LBL whitetails could produce, he said.

The archery season in the Tennessee sector of the federal area will be Sept. 26-Oct. 15, Oct. 19-Nov. 12, Nov. 16-26 and Nov. 30-Jan. 3. There, a youth firearms hunt will be Oct. 17-18, and two regular quota hunts will be Nov. 13-14 and Nov. 28-29.

Along with proper state hunting license and deer permit, hunters within the federal area must have an LBL Hunter Use permit. Quota hunt participants must have a special drawn permit from the July application period.

Today and Sunday could produce a major ripple of dove hunting across the state as the first weekend of Kentucky’s mourning dove season following a mostly rainy week since the Sept. 1 opening day Tuesday.

Many hunters have not had the opportunities to go before today, and even some that tried to usher in the season on Tuesday’s opener were frustrated by weather. Inclement conditions early in the week could help weekend hunters by preventing the “shooting out” of prime dove feeding fields earlier.

Plenty of hunting opportunities remain, of course. This year’s 90-day, three-segment season will run Sept. 1-Oct. 26, Nov. 26-Dec. 6 and Dec. 19-Jan. 10. By far the most hunter participation comes during the first couple of weeks of first season segment.

There are no regulation changes for 2020-21 dove hunting in Kentucky. The daily harvest limit remains 15 doves.

Shooting hours, too, are a repeat of recent seasons. After opening day on private land, shooting hours begin 30 minutes before sunrise for all the rest of the season, all segments. Shooting hours for doves end at official sunset in all circumstances.

For hunting on public land, shooting hours are 11 a.m. to sunset during first season segment. Public land hunting is allowed 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset during the two later season segments.

Steve Vantreese is a freelance outdoors writer. Outdoors news items can be emailed to outdoors@paducahsun.com or phoned to 270-575-8650.