The Wild, Wild West

2018 September/October

Western Kentucky has always been a hunter’s paradise, with abundant game and lots of public land to roam. Paducah, a venerable old river town, is the ideal home base for these journeys of discovery.

 

For decades Kentucky hunters have looked west for dream trips afield.

 

That’s because Kentucky’s Purchase Region and the bordering counties to the east, are rich in natural resources and scenic beauty, offering all the ingredients for memorable hunts.

 

Western Kentucky had huntable populations of wild turkeys and deer before the rest of the state, and has always been the state’s number one destination for waterfowl hunters. In the fall and winter the skies are filled with waves of migratory waterfowl—ducks and geese flying down the Mississippi Flyway through western Kentucky, to their wintering grounds to the south.

 

Opportunities abound in the region. There’s hundreds of thousands of acres of public hunting land, a network of river bottom wetlands, big rivers, and vast reservoirs.

 

Trips west always included visits to Paducah, the heart of the region, for great barbecue, and nights out on the town, filled with hunting stories recounted over adult beverages.

 

From a historical perspective, the region’s contribution to wildlife management in Kentucky is remarkable indeed. 

 

Through the decades, refuges and wildlife management areas were established that enabled wild turkeys, White-Tailed Deer, and waterfowl to thrive. Biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) helped wildlife populations expand beyond the region, and local hunters educated and mentored those new to the outdoor pursuits, passing on the region’s outdoor traditions.

 

Like many members of the baby boomer generation I ventured west to fulfill my hunting ambitions. 

 

It started with family roots in Christian County, hunting rabbits and quail during the holidays as a teenager. While still in college I bagged my first deer in Lyon County, in Land Between the Lakes (LBL), in 1971. Then later, in the winter of 1973, mentored by a new friend I met while working a summer job, I harvested my first mallard duck in Carlisle County and first Canada Goose in Ballard County. With most of Central Kentucky still closed to wild turkey hunting, I returned to LBL in the spring of 1988, to take my first gobbler in Trigg County.

 

Wild Turkey Restoration

Wild Turkey season is so anticipated, it’s hard to imagine a time when this native species was absent from our state. Wild Turkeys were numerous when the state was settled, but by the early 20th century they had all but disappeared. 

 

The restoration of Wild Turkeys in Kentucky traces back to a remnant flock on the Hillman Land and Iron Company property that became Kentucky Woodlands National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). By 1946, it was believed that Kentucky’s only known population of native wild turkeys was on this wooded property.

 

In 1963, Kentucky Woodlands NWR closed with the creation of the 170,000-acre Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL). The Wild Turkey flock surrounded by the lakes was the largest in the state, and the focus of many hunters new to the sport.

 

Harold Knight, of Cadiz, co-founder of Knight and Hale Game Calls, introduced generations of Kentuckians to turkey hunting through his innovative calls and instructional videos. Knight, who grew up “Tween the Rivers,” has hunted turkeys in Kentucky since 1960, the first season in the modern wildlife management era. 

 

He can remember a time when if he just heard a turkey gobble it made his hunt. “We’re spoiled with all the good turkey hunting we’ve experienced here in Kentucky in recent years,” said Knight. In 2017 hunters bagged a total of 34,970 gobblers and hens during Kentucky’s spring and fall seasons.

 

The late George Wright, a KDFWR biologist who was based in Princeton, is credited with being the architect of Kentucky’s Wild Turkey flock. The most significant, and successful Wild Turkey restoration work took place from 1978 through 1997, when 6,760 birds were released on 430 sites across Kentucky, establishing small flocks in every county.

 

White-Tailed Deer Restoration

In pre-settlement, White-Tailed Deer were abundant in Kentucky, but like the wild turkey, numbers declined drastically in the 19th century. By 1915 deer were absent from most of Kentucky, except for remnant herds in Caldwell, Christian, Lyon, and Trigg counties. State lawmakers prohibited deer hunting in 1916. Deer hunting in Kentucky would not resume until 1946.  

 

Deer live-trapped at Kentucky Woodlands NWR were released on the newly created Ballard WMA beginning in the late 1950s. By the early 1970s, LBL had become one of the state’s top deer hunting destinations. Archery season was particularly popular because it was an open hunt, and archers from all over Kentucky crowded the area’s many campgrounds. Many a camp-weary bow hunter headed to Paducah after a day’s hunt, for a sit down meal, night on the town, or quick trip to a grocery story.

 

In 1999, deer restoration ended. After 52 years, 10,096 White-Tailed Deer have been trapped and re-located around the state. That fall, for the first time, all 120 counties were open to deer hunting. While some of the deer released in Kentucky came from out-of-state sources, most were translocated from Ballard WMA and other in-state trap sites. Their lineage ultimately traced back to early 20th century remnant deer herds in four western Kentucky counties.

 

Waterfowl Management

The acquisition of 8,373 acres west of Paducah, in Ballard County, ushered in an unprecedented era of wetland habitat preservation and waterfowl management in the region. In the decades that followed the establishment of Ballard WMA, land holdings expanded, creating a series of wildlife management areas on the region’s western border that protected the ecologically important wetlands that migrating waterfowl needed. 

 

Management was geared to attracting and holding migratory Canada Geese from the Mississippi Valley and South James Bay populations. At one time as many as 100,000 geese wintered there, but by the 1990s it was apparent that the wintering habits of these flocks of migratory geese were changing.

 

“By 2000 the geese stopped coming to Ballard,” said John Brunjes, migratory bird program coordinator for KDFWR. “And our management focus shifted from geese to ducks.” 

 

Brunjes said a variety of reasons were responsible for the shift in migration, the most significant being a change in agricultural practices in grain production. “In the past, fields were plowed under as soon as corn was picked, but when no-till farming was adopted, there was food all around on the ground. Birds did not have to leave (migrate southward) to find food.”

 

But through the years duck numbers remained high at Ballard WMA, offering excellent hunting opportunities. Winter duck numbers peak at about 60,000, sometimes more, depending on the weather and water conditions. “There’s a lot more available habitat for ducks around Ballard WMA than their used to be,” said Brunjes. “That’s good, because it holds a lot of ducks in the area.” Post-season, duck numbers can even be higher, as birds stage for their return flight to their breeding grounds.

 

Waterfowl hunts on Ballard WMA are quota hunts, with 14 blind sites (four hunters per blind) hunted daily during the season. Hunters apply for hunts in September, and a lottery system is used to determine blind sites when successful applicants show up to hunt.

 

Western Kentucky has always been a hunter’s paradise, with abundant game and lots of public land to roam. Paducah, a venerable old river town, is the ideal home base for these journeys of discovery. 

 

Art Lander Jr. has been writing about the outdoors in Kentucky since the early 1970s. He is outdoors editor of www.KyForward.Com and a contributor to www.NKYTribune.Com.

 

Here are the season dates for White-tailed deer, Wild Turkey, ducks, and Canada geese, as proposed by the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission. These dates are pending legislative approval. For the approved season dates, and details on bag limits, related hunting regulations, and the quota hunt application process consult the KDFWR website at: www.fw.ky.gov

 

Deer

Archery: Sept. 1, 2018 – Jan. 21, 2019

Crossbow: Oct. 1-21 and Nov. 10 - Dec. 31, 2018

Youth-only Gun: Oct. 13-14, 2018

Muzzleloader: Oct. 20-21 and Dec. 8-16, 2018

Modern Gun: Nov. 10 – To Be Determined, 2018

Free Youth Weekend: Dec. 29-30, 2018  

 

Fall Turkey

Shotgun: Oct. 27 - Nov. 2 and Dec. 1-7, 2018

Archery: Sept. 1, 2018 - Jan. 21, 2019

Crossbow: Oct. 1-21 and Nov. 10 - Dec. 31, 2018

 

Ducks (Early) Teal/Wood Duck: September 15- September 19, 2018 T

eal: September 20 – September 23, 2018

 

Ducks (Regular Season) November 22 – November 25 December 3, 2018  – January 27, 2019

 

Canada Geese November 22, 2018 – February 15, 2019

 

Waterfowl (Youth) Western Zone February 2 – February 3, 2019

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