Best Big Buck States for 2014: Oklahoma
October 31, 2014
If you are a hunter who just wants to put a little venison in the freezer, there are hunting opportunities in every Oklahoma county. All you need is access to some likely habitat.
If you don't have access to a family farm or ranch, or a hunting lease, many public hunting areas throughout the Sooner State produce results for thousands of hunters each fall.
And, truthfully, even if a genuine trophy buck is your goal, there are public lands that regularly produce impressive bucks, including both the intensively managed areas with resident biologists and technicians and the more "uncontrolled" access areas such as those around our U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes.
But of course, the odds of finding a really high-scoring deer are almost always better on lands where the herd is managed and protected, either by the Wildlife Department or by the landowners or leaseholders.
Nature is pretty democratic. Sometimes a guy on public lands who barely knows a buck from a doe comes home with an eye-popping Boone and Crockett buck on opening morning, while the guy on the high-dollar lease next door sees nothing but does and yearlings through his $2,000 riflescope.
As Nick Gilmore, my editor at Oklahoma Game & Fish, has observed many times, "Trophy deer are where you find them."
Believe it or not, sometimes trophy bucks come along just by blind luck.
I have some friends who are from a large family and their Southeastern Oklahoma deer camp sometimes had a dozen or more hunters who hunted diligently. They invited a newcomer to the camp one year and loaned him a rifle. A few minutes after daylight on opening morning he killed a beautiful, wide-racked 10-pointer that later scored in the 150s.
As he packed up to go home after his 20-minute hunt on opening day, his parting words were: "I thought you guys said deer hunting was tough."
The others, mostly skilled and experienced hunters, spent several more days in the woods without anyone killing a buck that came close to rivaling the newcomer's trophy. That buck was taken from the "public" lands owned by one of the big timber companies that contract with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to manage the wildlife and the hunting.
No matter where you hunt and no matter how much hunting pressure is applied to your hunting spot and surrounding lands, you may see a high-scoring buck stroll by. But it is true that some areas tend to produce more trophies than others.
One way to see where trophy deer are being killed in Oklahoma is to look at the entries in our trophy deer record-keeping programs. There are the well-known programs like those of the Boone and Crockett Club, or those of Pope and Young, which are the most widely recognized programs for scoring trophy animals taken by hunters and bowhunters.
The ODWC has its own program, the Cy Curtis Awards, but only for deer harvested in Oklahoma. The trophy scoring programs each have minimum scores, one for typical-antlered deer, and a higher minimum for non-typicals. The Cy Curtis minimums are a little lower than those of the national programs. To qualify for a Cy Curtis Award listing, a typical whitetail must measure at least 135 points (inches) and a non-typical must measure at least 150.
The antlers and skull must be dried for a minimum of 60 days following the kill so that any shrinkage in the drying process is complete before the official score is taken.
Because of the drying requirement, and because many hunters take their trophy kills to taxidermists and leave them for periods of up to several months following the hunting seasons, the "official" scores of many deer entered in the state program aren't obtained for many months, sometimes even years, after the deer were actually killed.
At this writing, only 10 typical whitetails and five non-typicals killed in 2013 had been scored and accepted into the Cy Curtis rolls. By the time this article appears, a few more likely will have been added.
Anyone interested can see the qualifying entries by going to www.wildlifedepartment.com and looking for the Cy Curtis Program pages in the "hunting" section of the Web site.
A "typical" rack is one that is more or less symmetrical and is configured in the normal growth pattern for a whitetail. The more evenly matched the left and right antlers, the more likely it is that the deer will score well as a typical. That's because the differences between the separate measurements of each antler is subtracted from the total score.
When scoring a deer that is classified as a non-typical, often having odd tines or strange antler configurations, the differences are calculated differently. The inches of odd antler growth count toward the final score. Thus the higher minimum to qualify as a non-typical.
There are other antler-scoring systems, but the basic method used by Boone and Crockett, Pope and Young, and Cy Curtis is the generally accepted standard.
At this writing, the highest-scoring deer killed in Oklahoma last year is an impressive non-typical that scored 198 3/8, taken by hunter Preston Lynch in Seminole County during the gun season in late November.
Of the 15 deer from 2013 accepted on the Cy Curtis rolls thus far, eight were taken by gun hunters last fall.
The second-highest scoring non-typical was taken in Love County in southern Oklahoma by hunter Austin Bell who downed his buck in early December. Bell's buck measured 187 1/8 inches.
The next-highest non-typical came from Canadian County, just west of Oklahoma City, where hunter Randy Robinson downed a buck during the muzzleloader season that scored 182 2/8.
A buck from Pushmataha County, taken during gun season by hunter Steve Reeves, scored 175 7/8, and the fifth highest scorer on the list was a gun-season buck from Atoka County that measured 167 7/8. Mark Harris killed that one during muzzleloader season.
I won't list all of the typicals accepted into the Cy Curtis Awards from last fall. As noted earlier, more entries are likely to be scored and accepted as the months go by. But at this moment the best-scoring typical, by only a 1/8-inch margin, is a Harmon County buck taken by hunter James Norvell during gun season. It scored 152 5/8. Crowding that buck on the Cy Curtis list is an Okfuskee County buck, also from gun season, that scored 152 4/8. It was killed by hunter Leonard Lehman.
Atoka County, at this point, was the only county to have both a typical and a non-typical among the Top 5 scorers in Cy Curtis.
Atoka County is among several counties in the southeast with lots of mountainous, densely forested habitat than frequently produce high-scoring racks. But they often grow on bucks that aren't overly large animals.
I've seen bucks from Southeastern Oklahoma that scored high in Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young because of their impressive racks, but dressed out to less than 100 pounds of body weight.
Sometimes those deer from our southeastern counties are almost strange looking, with small bodies sporting racks that look ridiculously big in contrast to their body size.
By contrast, in western Osage County where I often hunt, just an average 18-month-old buck that might carry only spikes or forks or an anemic-looking little 6-point rack, will dress out to 115 or 120 pounds.
I suspect that it is more a matter of nutrition than genetics that allows the deer in some parts of Oklahoma to grow much heavier and bigger at a younger age. I've seen several deer in Osage County, though, that bottomed out the check station's 200-pound deer scales.
I recall studying the harvest statistics from the Wildlife Department several years back. The check-station books were combed for information and the game biologists and technicians collected many jawbones from bucks so that they could compare ages, weights and other factors in order to assess the overall health of the deer herds.
I do not remember the exact numbers, but what impressed me the most in the data I examined was that in the densely forested counties of the southeast, hunters were killing more older bucks and fewer yearlings and 2 1/2-year-olds. That was especially startling when compared to Osage and Craig and other high-harvest counties where deer are often hunted in more open terrain and hunters can see more deer at greater distances.
In the year for which I was looking at the data, it appeared that our open-country counties were producing lots of bucks, but that the great majority of them were 2 1/2 years or younger. In the southeast, there were more 5- and 6-year-old bucks being taken.
Of course, with other factors being equal, the older a deer gets, up to 6 or 7 years anyway, the more likely it is to grow trophy antlers.
Most of the southeastern counties are densely forested compared to the counties of the Cross Timbers region in central Oklahoma, and especially in comparison to the western counties where you can see entire sections of land with only a handful of trees.
One of the "public-hunting" areas that has entered numerous Oklahoma entries into the Pope and Young record books is the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, or the MCAAP as it is often called. The military post is heavily timbered and bowhunters using recurves or longbows can apply for a permit to hunt there on certain weekends each fall. This year, for example, up to 275 permits per weekend were up for grabs in the annual Controlled Hunts lottery conducted by the ODWC.
Even with that relatively heavy hunting pressure, many deer grow older in the dense thickets that make up a large part of the installation. In years past, when I was lucky enough to draw a permit to hunt there, I saw at least three deer that were definite P&Y qualifiers. Unfortunately I could not get a good shot at any of them.
I helped another hunter drag a really good buck out of the woods there one night. It later scored in the low 160s.
Among the public tracts offering deer hunting in the Controlled Hunts, I would definitely put the MCAAP near the top of the list in terms of producing trophy bucks.
Another public area that has yielded numerous high-scoring bucks over the years is the Black Kettle National Grasslands out in Roger Mills County near the western border of Oklahoma. Black Kettle is a 30,742-acre collection of individual tracts scattered out over several square miles near Cheyenne. There are a few entire sections of land, and lots of half-sections and quarter-sections, interspersed with private tracts that may be farmed or have grazing cattle. Black Kettle produces trophy animals pretty much every year. Hunters tell me they see an occasional mule deer there too.
Mulies are pretty rare in Oklahoma, but a few are found out near the Texas Panhandle and in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
I've seen a few out in Cimarron County, the westernmost county in the Panhandle. A rancher once told me, "If you want whitetails, hunt in the river bottoms. If you want a mulie, hunt on the higher ground where you see the antelope."
In Eastern Oklahoma, both the Spavinaw Hills WMA and the Cookson WMA have produced excellent bucks through the years, as have private lands nearby.
In the southeast, the Ouachita National Forest and the Three Rivers area offer good chances of bagging a wallhanger. Both have a lot of rugged, thickly wooded mountains, hills and canyons where deer can grow old without seeing many hunters, even though both areas get considerable hunting pressure.
The Ouachita Mountains foothills area, which extends west toward Clayton and Antlers, also is an excellent prospect, although most of the land in that area is privately owned, except for the Corps of Engineers lands around Hugo and Pine Creek lakes.
Even in urban areas it is possible to bag trophy whitetails. I've seen really impressive bucks taken from the river bottoms near Oklahoma City.
I live in a Tulsa suburb and when my son purchased his first trail cameras years back he got dozens of photos of big, heavy-beamed bucks in small, wooded tracts bordering a busy highway and surrounded by neighborhoods full of homes.
I have a neighbor whose son killed a couple of trophies on lands less than a mile from my house, even though most of the people who drive the local streets have no idea there are such animals within the city limits.
Trophy bucks are, indeed, where you find them. Oklahoma's archers, muzzleloaders and riflemen will have their chances to find one in the coming weeks.