A newly published plan developed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources offers a long-range strategy to help ruffed grouse populations rebound in eastern Kentucky after years of decline.
The Ruffed Grouse and Young Forest Strategic Plan looks 10 years out and its success hinges on an array of partners working together to create the young forest habitat on which grouse and other woodland species can thrive.
“This will be an ambitious effort, aimed at turning the tide for the ruffed grouse,” Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Gregory K. Johnson said. “There is no doubt this is a challenge that can become a real opportunity. We are accepting this challenge with every intent to be successful. We will need your help – our sportsmen, our partners, our colleges and universities, and our forest products industry. Only together can we be successful restoring this magnificent game bird to our landscape.”
The strategic plan, more than two years in the making, incorporates input received from the public and other stakeholders. It is available on Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s website at fw.ky.gov.
Grouse are upland birds that spend much of their time on the ground. Prized by hunters for the challenge it presents, and renowned for its explosive take-offs when flushed, the species needs a mosaic of habitat.
Hunters in Kentucky enjoyed decades of high grouse densities last century; a direct result of the timber harvest, farm abandonment and surface mine reclamation that took place in preceding years.
Much of eastern Kentucky’s forests have matured since then into more open stands that do not provide the dense protective cover or food sources grouse need to survive and reproduce. At the same time, in many forests a lack of management has favored red maples in the understory. Maples do not produce the protein-rich nuts like the acorns that mature oak trees do. The hard mast helps grouse survive winter in better condition, leading to better reproduction in spring.
“The ideal recipe for grouse is a landscape that is at least 75 percent forested, at least 5,000 to 10,000 acres, and at least 20 to 30 percent young forests. The bigger and more diverse in terms of forest stand ages and species diversity, the better,” said Zak Danks, ruffed grouse and wild turkey program coordinator with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “A large clear-cut that is 10 years old is prime for grouse, but only for another 10-15 years. They also use older forest for nesting and foraging. You need that mix of young and old forest together. Patches of cutting don’t have to be that big – 20 to 40 acres is ideal – but you need a lot of those patches clustered within an area and across the surrounding landscape.”
The strategic plan covers the next 10 years and lays the groundwork for success far beyond that timeframe.
“The department is committed to working on grouse,” Danks said. “Over the next 10 years, we need to take a targeted approach for grouse. The objectives outlined in this plan will not be easy to accomplish, but provide the only real way to get grouse back.”
A collaborative, science-guided approach to habitat management is at the heart of the new strategic plan.
It calls for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife working with federal, state and local agencies, as well as corporations and private landowners to manage forests on focus areas by creating habitat beneficial to grouse and other wildlife. Focus areas may include wildlife management areas, state forests, the Daniel Boone National forest and private lands.
A successful outcome will require a commitment to sustainable forest management. This includes commercial timber harvests and noncommercial habitat treatments designed to stimulate plant growth for grouse broods, high stem densities for year-round cover and oak regeneration for the future forests, while maintaining select mature, acorn-producing trees to help boost oak stands in the forest. Public outreach to promote the importance of young forest habitat for woodland species will be key.
“In the grouse woods, a hunter often gets only a fleeting glimpse of his flushing quarry, and shots are often taken on faith,” Danks said. “We must embrace the challenge of grouse restoration now, and on behalf of grouse, blue-winged warblers, oaks and the suite of other species that cannot lobby for their own existence.”
It’s often said these are the good old days for deer hunting in Kentucky, but for those of a certain age, or new to hunting, it’s all they have ever known.
The world was tip-toeing into a new millennium the last time Kentucky’s deer harvest did not break 100,000 for a season. The 2016-17 season cleared that mark and surpassed 130,000 for the fifth consecutive season.
Hunters combined to take more than 139,000 deer before the book closed Jan. 16 on one of the three best seasons on record in Kentucky. The only seasons with higher harvest totals were the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons.
“We’ve been harvesting a lot of deer and that’s a reflection of how many deer we have on the landscape,” said Gabe Jenkins, big game program coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “The good thing is our quality is still up. I’ve talked to a lot of folks who saw a lot of nice deer harvested this season.”
The 2015-16 season produced new records at nearly every turn, including the overall harvest record. Archery hunters kept the trend going this past September by starting the 2016-17 season with a record opening weekend.
A slowdown ensued as unseasonably warm temperatures set in. High winds, an ample acorn crop and a full moon added to the challenge for early muzzleloader season in mid-October and the two-day take was down sharply from the previous year.
Cooler temperatures arrived for modern gun season in November and coincided with the peak of breeding activity across the state.
Hunters responded by checking 41,796 deer the first weekend of modern gun season and 102,848 for the modern gun season overall. Both figures were the second highest on record behind the 2015-16 season.
“I think the warm weather possibly shifted some early season hunters to later,” Jenkins said. “I’ll have to look at that when I start digging into the numbers. I would venture to say that a lot of folks who normally take deer in September and October didn’t and waited until November.”
For the first time in 18 seasons, Owen County did not lead the state in the number of deer taken. Pendleton County finished ahead of it.
Harvest totals in the northern Kentucky county have been on the upswing for several seasons, and the recent results bring added attention to the fact. Hunters there reported taking more than 3,200 deer this past season. Owen, Crittenden, Graves and Christian counties completed the top-five.
Hunters took more than 5,500 deer on public lands across the state, according to telecheck harvest results. Two areas of interest entering this past season were Big Rivers WMA and State Forest in Crittenden and Union counties and the new Rolling Fork WMA in Nelson and LaRue counties.
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife debuted a first-of-its-kind quota hunt for archery and crossbow deer hunting this past season at Big Rivers, which expanded in 2016 with the addition of the 841-acre Jenkins-Rich tract in Crittenden County.
“It was a pretty big move for us,” Jenkins said. “When we looked at this one, it wasn’t people shooting five or six deer. It was one person coming and shooting one deer, and it was a lot of people doing that. So it was strictly a numbers game.”
The action achieved the intended result: the deer harvest on Big Rivers was reduced by 38 percent this season.
Rolling Fork WMA came online this past September and allows modern gun hunting for deer. Of the 27 deer taken with a modern gun on the area, 19 were bagged on the more rugged LaRue County side of the property. A total of 32 deer – 15 male, 17 female – were taken on the WMA across all seasons.
Hunters reporting their harvest to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife through the telecheck process this past season were asked for additional information if they were checking male deer with or without antlers. Their answers will help biologists.
“We will be able to get a better feel for age-at-harvest more than we ever have,” Jenkins said. “It will allow us to analyze how we’ve been estimating in the past through our collections in the field compared to what our hunters are reporting. It will be beneficial to make those comparisons.”
Hunters who took a trophy deer this past season are encouraged to submit the necessary information for recognition in the trophy deer list that will appear in the next Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide. The deadline for submissions is May 1.
To be eligible, a hunter must have taken a white-tailed deer in Kentucky this past season that net scored 160 or higher typical or net scored 185 or higher non-typical going by the Boone and Crockett scoring system. The completed and signed score sheet along with a photo should be sent to Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide, #1 Sportsman’s Lane, Frankfort, KY 40601. Include the county in which the deer was taken and the equipment used to harvest the deer. Emailed submissions to email@example.com also are accepted.
The Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission took another step toward its goal of increasing Kentucky’s elk population at a faster rate by proposing hunting season modifications and setting season dates at its Jan. 6 special-called meeting.
The commission recommends all hunting, fishing and boating regulations for approval by the General Assembly and approves all expenditures by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. All recommendations must be approved by legislators before they become law.
Kentucky’s free-ranging elk population is the nation’s largest east of the Rocky Mountains, but the commission is taking strides to grow it faster as a way to create more recreational opportunity.
The commission moved to compress the state’s hunting season by ending the season December 31. In doing so, it proposed moving Cow Firearms Hunt 2 (second week) from January to December immediately after Cow Firearms Hunt 1.
The commission also proposed the 2017 elk season dates:
Sept. 16 – 29; Oct. 14 – Dec. 8; Dec. 23 – 31
Sept. 23 – 29; Oct. 14 – Dec. 8; Dec. 23 – 31
Bull Firearms 1:
Sept. 30 – Oct. 6
Bull Firearms 2:
Oct. 7 – 13
Cow Archery and Crossbow:
Oct. 14 – Dec. 8; Dec. 23 – 31
Cow Firearms 1:
Dec. 9 – 15
Cow Firearms 2:
Dec. 16 – 22
The next regular Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting will be 8:30 a.m. (Eastern time), Friday, March 17, 2017. Meetings are held at Kentucky Fish and Wildlife headquarters, located at 1 Sportsman’s Lane off U.S. 60 in Frankfort.
Lots of hunters receive a new rifle over the holidays or take advantage of the subsequent sales to add to their collection.
The impulse is to immediately dash off to the shooting range. Fighting back that urge and instead taking time to familiarize yourself with your new rifle is a good first step toward safe and responsible ownership.
Because the mechanics and features of rifles can vary by model and manufacturer, it’s best to approach this getting-to-know-you phase without any preconceived notions. The safety mechanisms on three popular hunting rifles illustrate the sometimes small, but not insignificant, differences between models.
“The Remington 700 has a two-position safety lever on the side of the action. The Model 70 has a three-position lever that is attached to the rear of the bolt. The Ruger bolt guns have a tang safety that is behind the bolt and on the top of the pistol grip,” said Bill Balda, hunter education supervisor with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “These are all good places to put safeties, but this is an example of how manufacturers produce little differences in their rifles.”
The owner’s manual is a logical starting point. It will detail the main parts of the rifle and offer step-by-step instructions for safely operating and maintaining the rifle. If the booklet is missing, contact the manufacturer or check the company’s website for a downloadable copy.
Balda suggests tightening the action screws, sling studs, scope mount and scope rings and giving a newly acquired rifle a thorough first cleaning.
“When you clean it, you should strip it down to basic components,” he said. “I would use the manual when disassembling it for the first time. I would not take the bolt apart unless I absolutely had to. You should not take the firearm out of the stock unless it’s fallen into a big puddle or been in a heavy downpour and you need to get moisture out of it. Ninety-nine times out of 100 you do not need to take the rifle out of the stock.”
At home, practice handling your unloaded gun. A firm grip with your shooting hand will help better control the rifle and makes the trigger pull feel lighter, Balda said. Work the action, focusing on a fluid motion. Dummy rounds can be excellent training aids. Most common modern centerfire rifles can be dry-fired without harming the rifle but check the manual. Pulling the trigger should be a smooth, straight-back motion.
These movements become second nature through repetition.
“This is a very safe and economical way to learn the basics of shooting a good shot, which are sight alignment, trigger control and follow through,” Balda said.
For scoped rifles, boresighting is an excellent way to get “on paper” and expedite the sighting-in process at the range. This can be accomplished with the aid of a laser boresighter. Another method for a bolt action rifle with a scope starts with securing the unloaded rifle in a gun vise and removing the bolt. Place a dot on the wall or pick out an object like a light switch. Look through the receiver end toward the muzzle and move the gun until you can see your aiming point through the barrel. Then, look through the scope and adjust until the aiming point is aligned in the crosshairs.
“This is not a zero,” Balda said. “But it helps you get closer to a zero with less ammo.”
When you’re confident with your knowledge base and are ready to visit the shooting range, consider investing in ammunition from a few different manufacturers that match your rifle’s caliber. Don’t be shy about asking the sales associate or a mentor for recommendations.
If you plan to utilize a tube range maintained by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, bring along eye and hearing protection, targets and either tape or a staple gun to affix targets to the backdrops down range. Invite an experienced shooter to join you. Their feedback can be invaluable.
Balda recommends starting the sighting-in process at 25 yards and focusing on technique. Shoot groups of three to determine the type of ammunition that your rifle shoots best. This is the time to zero-in your scope.
“When you’re shooting, and you should use a rest, what’s really important is that you hold the rifle the same way,” Balda said. “A lot of people like to just lay the rifle across the top of a sandbag and let it recoil freely. Any change of pressure in your shooting hand will change the recoil pattern.
“The rifle starts to move before the bullet clears the muzzle. So if you’re not holding it down the same way, there’s no guarantee that it will be in the same place for each shot. This frustrates a lot of people. They have this big group and they say, ‘This rifle doesn’t shoot.’ Maybe it doesn’t but it probably does. It’s just a technique problem.”
Be a deliberate and safe shooter and follow all the guidelines for the range. Should any mechanical problems crop up with your new rifle, call it a day and contact a gunsmith or the manufacturer.
“Most of the problems with accuracy that people encounter when sighting-in a rifle are due to technique,” Balda said. “It’s not that the barrel doesn’t shoot or the ammo is bad or the sights weren’t tight. It’s usually technique. You need to hold the rifle securely each and every time. Put your head on the same place on the stock in order to get the right sight alignment and pull that trigger smooth and straight to the rear.”
Spending time getting to know your new rifle builds familiarity and trust. But it’s only part of becoming a safe, responsible hunter.
Hunter education courses are offered online and in-person throughout the state. Licensed hunters born on or after Jan. 1, 1975 are required to successfully complete the course. A one-year, one-time only exemption card is available for hunters unable to complete coursework by the start of a season.
Consult Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s website at fw.ky.gov for more information and to enroll in a hunter education course.
In Kentucky, the coldest weather of the year often coincides with the best waterfowl hunting. This should prove especially true this year with the unusually warm start to the waterfowl hunting season that opened Thanksgiving Day.
“Late winter seems to be our best duck and goose hunting due to the lower temperatures,” said Wes Little, migratory bird biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “We should have birds moving south now with the bitter cold and snow to the north of us.”
Hunters have an extra luxury this year of concentrating on ducks in January and geese in February as there are now two extra weeks to pursue geese. Duck season closes statewide on Jan. 29 while goose season doesn’t close until Feb. 15.
“You used to wonder in January, ‘Do I hunt ducks or do I hunt geese?’, but now you can hold off the hunting pressure on geese until February,” Little said.
Ducks and geese both locate in predictable places in the late season. Food resources and open water draw birds during the stressful times of January and February.
“Find a harvested crop field that is holding birds,” Little said. “You can find both ducks and geese in corn fields when the ground is frozen.”
Little related a January goose hunt last year in a harvested corn field. “Mallard ducks were using it and we didn’t even know,” he said. “Five of us had our mallard limit in 45 minutes along with some black ducks. Some geese wanted to be about 100 yards from us, but we still harvested several of them. It was an awesome hunt.”
Hunters may take up to four mallard ducks as part of their six duck daily bag limit.
“My favorite thing in the late season is using a small number of decoys. You don’t need a mega spread,” Little said. “If you find birds while scouting, try and mimic what you saw. Are they spread out? Are they grouped together? Then, set out your decoys accordingly.”
The Ohio River also draws many ducks and geese in winter. “The Ohio River is awesome for goose hunting and ducks as well,” Little said. “If everything is frozen up, the Ohio really shines.”
The many crop fields near the river provide food for waterfowl and the river itself provides rest and loafing areas during the cold months. This draws many diving duck species not often seen by hunters in other parts of Kentucky. Hunters may harvest canvasbacks, scaup, redheads, ring-necks and occasionally a rare goldeneye.
With a hard freeze to the north and a snow line, geese also flock to the Ohio, setting up potentially fantastic goose hunting. “You have to have the right equipment,” Little said. “Hunting the Ohio River is no cake walk.”
The Ohio River is not a place for a 12-foot johnboat with a narrow beam. Wakes from barges combined with strong winds can swamp a small johnboat. Hunters pursuing waterfowl from shore must scout to find a hard bottom in the area they plan to hunt. The Ohio River drops off into deep water quickly in many places. The shoreline is often saturated with deep muck.
Zac Campbell, boating education coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, cautions waterfowl hunters in boats to keep in mind some common sense principles while on the water.
“Don’t overload your boat with gear and people,” he said. “Plan your hunt, then hunt your plan and tell someone where you are going and how long you plan to hunt. If possible, stay near shore and don’t cross large expanses of water. Most importantly, always wear your lifejacket, the water is freezing.”
Spring-fed farm ponds that don’t freeze also provide excellent late season hunting. A couple of decoys and a homemade ground blind near the pond provide all the elements for a successful hunt.
“It is critical to use a jerk string from a decoy or an electric shaker to provide a ripple on the water if there is no wind,” Little said. “You must have some movement or the birds won’t come to your decoys.”
The weather outside may be frightful, but the waterfowl hunting is delightful in the late season. Get out and shake off the winter blues by putting some birds in the bag.