Deer Year In Review

Deer Year In Review

How Oklahoma hunters fared during last year's deer seasons can tell us a lot about the hunting this fall.

Oklahoma hunters took two truly gigantic typical whitetails last fall. John Ehmer (right) and taxidermist Terry Mayberry pose with the rack from the former's potential state-record buck, shot in Pushmataha County.
Photo by Mike Lambeth.

We took 20 percent fewer deer in 2007 than we did in 2006," said Alan Peoples, chief of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Wildlife Division. "Although this statement indicates a decline in the number of deer harvested from 2006 to 2007, and may indicate that the 2008 season expectations also may reflect a decline, remember that often statistics lie -- if you don't know the history of the numbers.

"And in projecting what kind of deer season we can expect in 2008, we have to go all the way back to 2006 and find out why deer hunters in Oklahoma took an all-time high number of deer in the state that year."

Thus began our conversation about the previous year's deer season in Oklahoma. What Peoples had to say about it was enlightening. Part of what I learned from him follows.

WHY THE 2006 GLORY SEASON HAPPENED
Several significant factors contributed to the record deer harvest -- 119,000-plus animals -- reported in the Sooner State in 2006. "We had favorable weather conditions to get the deer up and moving, and our gun season coincided with the rut perfectly," Peoples said.

To understand both Peoples' definition of "favorable weather conditions" and his remark about the coincidence of gun season and rut, we have to dig a bit deeper. "In 2006, Oklahoma had a severe drought pretty much statewide," he explained. "The deer had to travel a lot during daylight hours to find enough food to eat, so they were exposing themselves to hunters more than they would normally."

All the stars lined up, and the weather gods smiled in 2006 to produce optimum conditions for the does to enter estrus exactly during the time of the 16-day gun season. The bucks chased the does in the state heavily during the 2006 gun deer season. That two-week period at the peak of the rut meant that hunters saw bucks traveling for food and searching for sweethearts day and night.

Jerry Shaw, the big-game biologist for Oklahoma, agrees with Peoples. "I believe that the record drought -- where we saw almost all of the state's grass burn up, causing the bucks to really have to search for food -- was the primary reason we had such a phenomenal deer-hunting season in 2006," he said. "But I also believe that what we gained in numbers of deer taken we may have lost in quality. Without much to eat, the body weights couldn't be as high as they should be, and the antler development might not have been what it could have been if the deer had had more food."

The better the weather patterns, the more food the deer will have available, and the less the deer have to travel to eat; they can build up body weight, and are less apt to be taken by hunters. Although Oklahoma hunters had a great year in 2006, the drought created a terrible one for Oklahoma deer. And however much outdoorsmen may have enjoyed the better deer hunting brought about '06's drought, farmers and ranchers certainly wouldn't welcome another dry spell like it. In any case, most biologists and land managers believe that many years will pass before the Sooner State of Oklahoma breaks the deer-harvest number records set in 2006.

WHY 20 PERCENT FEWER DEER LAST YEAR
"We had the opposite weather pattern in 2007 from what we had during the drought of 2006," Peoples noted. "The state had record rainfall, and some 100-year records in the amount of rainfall the state had in a single year were broken."

The deer had so much food and cover available last year that many people couldn't see a deer walking across a pasture because of the high foliage. Not only did the state have thick cover conditions, but the deer also had plenty of natural food deep in the woods to eat. Result: They didn't have to travel during daylight hours to search for food. They didn't have to travel much at all to find all the food they wanted. Too, Oklahoma's gun deer season missed the peak of the rut.

"The rut didn't occur at the same time in 2007 as it did in 2006, even though the hunting dates were relatively the same," Peoples said, "so the 20 percent reduction in the harvest last season could be attributed to the weather patterns and the timing of the rut, not the condition of the state's deer herd."

Owing to the length of the split archery season, these two factors affected bowhunters the least. Also, bowhunters know how to hunt deer in close quarters. Archers need to see a deer at 30 yards to take their shots, whereas rifle hunters can shoot out to 200 yards or more. Therefore, the timing of the rut and the record rainfall didn't affect the number of deer taken by bowhunters as much as it did blackpowder and rifle hunters.

"Percentage-wise, our nine-day muzzleloader season produced fewer deer taken than were harvested in 2006, probably for the same reasons that the number of deer harvested by rifle hunters was down in 2007," Peoples explained.

If you're wondering how the state could have missed lining up deer season with the rut, consider this observation made by Peoples: "The rut occurs when the does come into estrus. The phenomenon is primarily regulated by the amount of daylight hours that occurs during the does' estrous cycle. However, there are also other factors that affect the rut, including the nutritional condition of the does, ambient air conditions, and weather conditions at the time the rut generally occurs.

"If females are supposed to be cycling but the weather's hot and windy, they may not cycle at the precise time they are supposed to cycle during the rut. If the weather's cold and still, the does will cycle at about the same time every year."

However, the same day in different years isn't really the same day, of course: Calendar dates move around with respect to days of the week because of leap years and other factors, some arbitrary, some not.

"Our deer season always starts the Saturday before Thanksgiving," Peoples stated. "The date that Thanksgiving falls on has many variables, depending on leap year and other calendar influences. Each day of the year, from year to year, occurs at a slightly different time than it has the previous year. Although this isn't a big deal, it does have an effect on the rut. Then, when you factor in the environmental conditions and the area of the state where you're hunting, no one can accurately predict the exact date the does will come into estrus."

Okl

ahoma Game & Fish asked Peoples to give a specific date on which the rut occurs in Oklahoma. "I just can't do that," he replied. "What I can say is the rut usually occurs in the second or third week in November. But that prediction has a plus or minus two-week period on either side of the second or third week in November. Then you can shift when the rut normally occurs by another week, depending on whether you live in the northern, southern, eastern or western section of the state."

OK -- Figure this one out if you can: Even though hunters took 20 percent fewer deer in 2007 than in 2006, two state hunters bagged bucks with racks that potentially will break the current state record for typical bucks. "Even though we harvested fewer deer in 2007," Peoples emphasized, "I believe we harvested bigger deer with better racks than we took in 2006."

Since no new state record was set in the 10 years prior to the 2007 season, why did hunters harvest more big bucks in 2007 than in 2006? Simple enough: The deer that survived the 2006 hunting season had more food, put on more body weight and grew bigger antlers.

Larry Luman, of Bryan County, took the previous state record, a buck that scored 185 6/8 on the Boone and Crockett scale. Hunters in 2007 took two bucks in Pushmataha County that would surpass that score and potentially break that record. Since Oklahoma is divided into 77 counties, who would have believed that one county would have produced in one season two giant bucks that score better than the state record? Both scored 190-plus, which would beat the previous state record by 5 inches or more.

Said biologist Jerry Shaw, "The buck taken by Jason Boyett had an official B&C score of 191 4/8. The second buck, taken by John Ehmer, rough-scored 192 3/8." However, at this writing, no one officially has scored the Ehmer buck, which a biologist officially aged at 5 1/2 years. The Boyett buck has been scored and submitted to Boone and Crockett.

Shaw believes that the combination of the lack of hunting pressure with the abundance of highly nutritious food in this county probably factored into the two huge bucks taken from this one county.

"We don't see a large number of bucks in Oklahoma that make it to that 5 1/2-year-old age-class," he explained. "By the time a buck reaches 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 years old, his body appears to stop growing. So any extra nutrition that the buck takes in at that age usually goes to antler growth. The Ehmer buck was a good, mature deer that had a high level of nutrition and the age to produce big antlers."

(Editor's Note: Watch for a full story on these two giants in a future issue of Oklahoma Game & Fish.)

Shaw once again agreed with Peoples that, overall, bucks' weights seemed better in 2007 than in 2006. Although he hasn't statically compared the antler growth analysis for the period from 2006 to 2007, he's pretty sure that the state saw better antler growth last season than it did in 2006.

WHAT WE CAN EXPECT THIS YEAR
At this writing, Oklahomans can expect a really good deer season during the 2008 hunt period.

"Our deer have had plenty of food through the winter and spring, Peoples noted. "The does went into lactation in excellent condition. But to make a positive prediction on how good or bad our season will be, you have to take a look at the weather conditions we've had this past summer and the weather conditions just prior to the opening of deer season.

"The amount of rainfall we get and the timing of the rut with gun deer season are two of the most critical factors to predicting what type of season we'll have this year. However, all conditions being equal, our deer herd is in good shape, and we can look for another great deer season in 2008."

With 20 percent fewer deer harvested in 2007, we can assume that 2008 will have a bumper fawn crop, and that the state will have carried over more bucks from the 2007 season than it did from that record harvest year in 2006. If hunters ignore all other factors except the carryover of more deer this year than last year, I feel quite sure that Oklahoma hunters can look forward to a season as good as if not better than last year's.

In 2007 and into the spring of 2008, favorable weather conditions and an abundance of food have very probably resulted, according to both Shaw and Peoples, in bucks storing up plenty of fat reserves. The does and fawns also should be very healthy, which should result in an excellent deer season again this fall.

"In the spring of 2007, the does didn't have to get out of their beds to eat," Shaw observed. "All they had to do was roll over to find plenty of food, which means they'll be in really good condition when the rut arrives in 2008. When deer go into the winter in good condition, they'll usually come out of the winter in good condition, too.

"I imagine our fawn weights this year will be up a little bit. So I'm looking forward to a good deer season in 2008. But I don't think I can say that we'll have another record year like we had in 2006. That was just an unusually phenomenal year because of the drought."

Two other influences that'll weigh heavily on hunters' success rates for this season include the overall economy of the country and the price of gas. Even last year, Shaw believes that high gas prices had a detrimental impact on the number of hunters taking to the woods, and in turn taking deer.

"I definitely think that the price of gas kept a large number of hunters from going hunting as much as they have in the past," Shaw speculated. "When you have fewer hunters hunting because of gas prices, then you naturally expect to take fewer deer. Therefore, depending on the price of gas at the beginning of this hunting season, we may see even more hunters going less often than they have in years past."

If Oklahomans only hunt one weekend of deer season -- instead of two weekends, as they usually do -- we'll definitely see a decrease in the number of deer taken for no other reason than that fewer hunters went afield. The 20 percent reduction from 2006 in deer harvested in 2007 also shows that harvest numbers can be misleading.

Rather than reflecting a poor season in 2007, the numbers indicate that Oklahoma hunters had plenty of healthy deer. However, those hunters had a harder time finding and seeing the deer in the dense cover -- because deer that are hard to see are hard to shoot.

Also, the state had fewer people hunting fewer days in 2007 than in 2006. If the price of gas creates a problem with your hunting schedule during the 2008 deer season, plan to share a ride so you can keep on hunting.

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