Between 1997 and 2002, 1,550 wild elk were restored to their historic range among the rolling hills and deep hollows of 16 counties in eastern Kentucky. It didn’t take them long to once again thrive in Appalachia. Today, the Bluegrass State is home to around 11,000 wapiti, the highest population of any state east of the Mississippi River.
The burgeoning elk herd has offered superb opportunities for hunters. During the 2016-2017 season, almost 600 tags were filled out of the 910 that were issued. Success rates for rifle hunters with bull tags were close to 85 percent while archery hunters weren’t far behind at 70 percent. The numbers don’t lie: quality elk hunting abounds in Kentucky.
Get Your Tag
The period to purchase elk permits opens on January 1 each year and closes on April 30. While many states employ a points-based system or issue over-the-counter tags that are easily accessible to non-resident hunters, Kentucky uses a lottery system for most permits with a randomized computer drawing. No matter if you get picked one year or not, your odds are the same as everyone else. Successful applicants are randomly assigned a permit type (bull archery/crossbow, bull firearm, antlerless archery/crossbow, or antlerless firearm) based on their preferences. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources will issue 710 elk permits for the 2017-2018 season.
One of the downsides to Kentucky elk hunting is the odds of actually drawing a tag. For instance, in 2015, over 70,000 hunters applied for tags, when only 910 were available. Ninety percent of tags are distributed to residents. The good news is that the fees are low, only $10 per application, and you can apply as many times as you’d like.
Pick Your Spot
If you beat the odds and do land a permit, you have 16 counties available to hunt. Of the top 10 trophy bulls harvested in Kentucky, five were taken in Knott County. It’s home to part of the Hazard Limited Entry Area (LEA) and locals have dubbed the county the “Elk Capital of the East.” Much of the land is reclaimed surface mining property. Hunters can expect seemingly endless deep hollows, mountains and hills. Almost 80,000 acres of public land in Knott County and overlapping to adjoining counties are available to hunters.
During the 2016 season, a hunter in Pike County smashed the state record with a non-typical bull that scored 392. The area features the Tug Fork and Levisa Fork LEAs, with rugged terrain bordering West Virginia. Several trophy elk have been harvested in Bell County as well. In the Corrigan Wildlife Management Area (WMA), hunters have 54,000 acres at their disposal. Boone Forestlands WMA boasts another 30,000 acres of reclaimed strip mining land, with open terrain that at times resembles Montana more than it does Kentucky.
Veteran elk hunter Trevon Stoltzfus harvested his first Kentucky bull in 2016. It was his first time hunting elk in the east. “It’s not like archery hunting out west - the elk react a bit differently,” said Stoltzfus, who hosts Outback Outdoors on the Sportsman Channel. “If you bump an elk out west, they’ll be miles away in no time. But in Kentucky they weren’t as skittish. They may run a ridge or two over and stop.” Stoltzfus said the difference is due to a lack of natural predators that western elk have to deal with, such as mountain lions and wolves.
Although the herd might not stray far, Stoltzfus said the thick terrain and endless maze of hollows allowed them to disappear within seconds. This led to his biggest challenge of the trip, which was dealing with what he described as “some the thickest country I’ve been in.” He stressed the importance of learning the terrain before the hunt to familiarize yourself with as much of the local topography as possible.
“If there are old mining roads on the property, use those as much as you can,” he said. “The elk will take the path of least resistance and often use them. It’s also advantageous for a hunter to get around the property quickly through that dense country.” Not to mention adapting to wind and weather.
“Being aware of the wind out west is tougher because of the depth of some of the draws those elk live in,” he said. “The wind can swirl just as bad in some of those draws out east. That makes understanding the lay of land and what is over next rise and the location of roads so important.”
Stoltzfus use the RMEF Cow Elk for both drawing in bulls and cover. While western hunting, decoys are visible in the open country. Again, Stoltzfus had to adapt to the thicker woods of the east. “A decoy will work only if the elk can see it,” he said. “I set the decoys up near the roads, with just the rump sticking out. That was enough to entice a bull closer.”
For more information on elk hunting in Kentucky, including maps and regulations, visit the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources website.