FRANKFORT – Rural mail carriers who volunteer to help the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources reported seeing fewer rabbits along their routes this year, but hunters can still expect to encounter plenty of rabbits this season.
“If you look back at the data, we’ve had really high numbers of rabbits, some of the highest in several years,” said Ben Robinson, small game biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “There should be good numbers of rabbits on the ground, which should translate into good rabbit hunting.”
Kentucky’s rabbit and quail season dates vary by zone.
The Eastern Zone is made up of 91 central and eastern Kentucky counties. In this zone, the season opened Nov. 1 and continued through Nov. 13. It closed for the opening weekend of modern gun deer season (Nov. 14-15), then reopened Nov. 16 and continues through Jan. 31, 2016.
The Western Zone includes Fulton, Hickman, Carlisle, Ballard, McCracken, Graves, Calloway, Marshall, Livingston, Lyon, Trigg, Caldwell, Crittenden, Christian, Hopkins, Webster, Union, Henderson, McLean, Muhlenberg, Todd, Logan, Simpson, Allen, Warren, Butler, Ohio, Daviess and Hancock counties. In those counties, the rabbit and quail season opened Nov. 16 and runs through Feb. 10, 2016.
The statewide daily bag limit is four rabbits and eight quail.
“Rabbits do well in areas that are overgrown, grown up fields, shrubby fence rows,” Robinson said. “And just because an area is grown up doesn’t mean that’s the first place you want to look for quail. They require more intensive management, which hopefully you’ll find on our public areas. One of the hot spots continues to be the multi-county Green River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) down around Mammoth Cave. We’re still getting good reports from there. It’s just a matter of figuring out ways to obtain landowner permission to hunt those properties.”
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife tracks hunter success and population trends on an annual basis with assistance from rural mail carriers and hunters. Hunters can help by keeping a daily hunting diary during the fall hunting seasons.
Printable logs are available online at fw.ky.gov or by contacting Kentucky Fish and Wildlife by phone at 1-800-858-1549 or mail at #1 Sportsman’s Lane, Frankfort, KY 40601. Completed logs should be submitted at the end of the season. Hunter cooperators receive a small gift for their participation.
“It’s one of our primary surveys for monitoring population trends from year to year,” Robinson said. “In recent years, we’ve seen participation decline. We would love to have more hunters participate.”
Rabbit hunters who submitted hunter log surveys last season went on a combined 1,413 hunts in 93 counties, jumped an averaged of 6.5 rabbits per hunt and harvested an average of 2.7 rabbits per hunt. Quail hunters who completed hunting logs went on 365 hunts and reported flush and harvest rates almost double that of the previous season.
The mail carrier survey offers a peek into what can be expected for the upcoming hunting season. This year, the survey was conducted the last full week of July and indicated population declines in both species.
The weather and the timing of major weather events can impact small game populations, and Kentucky has experienced its share of extreme weather this year. In February and March, record cold, snow and flooding affected parts of the state. Then a hot and dry June was followed by a soggy July.
Biologists point to the cold and late snowfall as culprits contributing to the drop in the number of rabbits and quail observed by the mail carriers. Rabbits begin nesting in late February and their breeding season can continue into late summer. The peak hatch for quail occurred in July, so the heavy rain that month likely hurt chick survival in spots.
“I’m afraid I can’t give one statewide prediction for quail this year,” Robinson said. “From the anecdotal reports that I’m getting, it’s going to depend on where you are in the state. The fall covey counts conducted out west on Peabody Wildlife Management Area (WMA) this year were some of the best in recent years. You move into parts of central Kentucky and the numbers seem to be down. You keep going farther east and up to Clay WMA (in Nicholas, Fleming and Bath counties) and throughout the summer they were seeing broods all over the ground. It seems like kind of an odd year. It’s going to be hit or miss.”
The East Region from Lewis County down to Wayne County and points east led the state in the number of rabbits observed by the mail carriers. The region also produced a year-over-year increase in the number of quail observed along the delivery routes.
“We’ve always had good reports of rabbits and quail in that area,” Robinson said. “Some of the reclaimed mine areas are growing up. For the next couple of years, it may be an area that folks want to target if they can get access to some of these properties. If hunters are targeting those areas and can find food sources on those mine areas, there’s a good chance they’re going to find quail.”
More information about the rabbit, quail and other small game seasons appears in the Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide, available online at fw.ky.gov and wherever hunting licenses are sold.
Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.