Deer hunter in ground blind

Saturday typically will bring the largest outpouring of hunters into ground blinds, tree stands and various perching places across Kentucky for opening day of the firearms deer season.

Saturday we will see how well fluorescent orange accessorizes basic camouflage patterns.

The biggest event of the year on Kentucky’s outdoors sporting calendar is the modern firearms season for hunting deer, the gun season. The most impactful day of that season in terms of participation and, typically, deer harvest is the second Saturday of November.

That is opening day of the gun season. That is tomorrow.

Unless there is a weather event that makes it overwhelmingly icky outdoors, there is a true legion of hunters that are compelled into the woods and fields on day one of firearms deer hunting.

Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources bean counters estimate that there are about 300,000 deer hunters in the commonwealth. It is believed that most of that rounded number take part in the modern gun season. Some are archery or crossbow or muzzleloader hunters, sure, but most hunters that pursue whitetails during weapon-specific seasons with less efficient weapons also turn out for the big event, the modern firearms hunt.

Lots of folks who aren’t even into deer hunting know that the gun hunt is a massive occasion for many and a source of much hustle and bustle. When they ask, “When is deer season?” they aren’t asking about archery or muzzleloader season. They are asking about that time when everybody is headed out into the sticks.

When it happens, take note at those early-opening convenience stores an hour or two before first daylight on opening day. Much of the clientele will be dressed in camouflage with smatterings of blaze orange as they mobilize for an assault on the venison of the land.

As the time arises, it is remarkable how many trucks there are on the roads that haul four-wheelers on trailers or in the beds. And, yes, the sheer amount of traffic at unholy early hours of a Saturday morning is quite odd.

The reality is that almost a third of a million hunters will be slipping out into Kentucky’s pre-dawn darkness with intentions of getting out in front of traveling deer. Along with the residents, a significant number of out-of-state hunters will have traveled here to seek ballistic confrontations with our ungulate critters.

All this is astounding when one ponders that it was not too many decades ago that the state did not have a huntable deer population. A relative handful of whitetails survived in a very few places, otherwise there effectively were no deer in Kentucky.

Nowadays, we are going into the gun season with, oh, maybe about a million deer sprinkled across the state. Older Kentuckians remember when nobody ever saw a deer, but now they try to avoid running into them on the way to the grocery.

Those highway perils and crop damage by hungry whitetails are some of the social downsides of the re-blossomed native population, but the hunting of deer highlighted by the firearms season is the obvious upside. Along with the lifestyle quest and recreational value of hunting, it long since has become an industry.

The KDFWR reports that deer hunting in Kentucky generates more than $550 million in total economic benefit each year. That centers around Kentucky hunters spending more than $350 million a year in the process of their deer pursuits. An industry? Well, yeah. It is one that supports more than 13,000 jobs in Kentucky and returns nearly $90 million in tax revenues.

Hunters aren’t cooking the golden goose by taking deer, however. The deer population is a regenerating resource. Managers point out that their role nowadays is controlling Kentucky’s deer numbers much more than growing them. Our deer population is perpetuating itself and hunters are needed to hold that dynamic herd in check.

Kentucky hunters reported taking 148,395 deer during all the weapon-specific seasons of 2019-20. The modern firearms season, of course, produces by far the most harvest. (A typical 16-day gun season is good for better than 100,000 deer, while an archery season of about 4 1/2 months might account for 15,000 deer.)

The gun season produces dramatically better results because of the mass hunter turnout, the greater efficiency of modern firearms and the timing. The firearms season is scheduled to overlap with the deer rut, the breeding season, when whitetails are moving more in daylight hours, resulting in more encounters between deer and hunters.

Last year’s total harvest of 148,395 deer was only second best all-time. The record of 155,730 was recorded in the 2015-16 hunting year. But this year overall is looking especially productive.

Way back on the opening weekend of archery season, the first weekend of September, bowhunters took a record high 1,637 deer. The whole of September went on to yield a record for that month, 7,980. Managers suggest that the early flurry of archery proceeds could foretell a trend of high participation and success that carries through the firearms season toward a potential overall record harvest.

All the deer hunting to this point pales in the face of what is about to happen Saturday, however. The orange army’s field maneuvers launch early.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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