Oklahoma's 2008 Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Tagging a Sooner deer (or two) gets easier every year, it seems -- but some spots will still produce more venison than will others. Here's a closeup on our state's most promising locales for autumn action. (October 2008)

Coming off a record deer harvest in 2006, prognosticators wondered what the 2007 season would hold for deer hunters in the Sooner State. "Generally, after a big harvest total, the following year has a slight decline," observed Mike Shaw, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's deer expert. "When you take as many deer as we did during the 2006 season, you have to allow the overall herd to bounce back a bit."

Although last season's deer harvest did slump a bit, as predicted, the current season is shaping up to go down in the records as phenomenal.

Personally, I saw good numbers of deer during the 2007 archery season but failed to connect. However, I did redeem myself by taking a nice buck during blackpowder season. The highlight of my season came when I took my wife hunting during the gun season, and she saw the most deer she has ever seen. Although Donna didn't see a buck she wanted, she did pass up on 10 smaller bucks, all of which will be bigger this season.

Last season left Okies stoked for the next one. Several factors point to a tremendous 2008 hunting season. Before you take to the woods, read on to learn, and study, the areas with the highest deer densities. That should put the odds in your favor this season.

TOP COUNTIES FOR BUCKS
Many counties in our state produce a significant number of bucks for horn-hunters year after year. Interestingly, these counties offer much diversity in landscape, their scenery ranging from tallgrass prairies to heavily wooded forests. Though some of the top counties ritualistically remain the same, there are some surprises, with some counties recording their highest herd numbers on record.

For archers, the top buck-producing county is no surprise; it's Cherokee, in the northeast part of the state known as Green Country. Archers took 230 bucks last season in this heavily wooded county.

Ranking second with 180 bucks last season was Southeastern Oklahoma's Pittsburg County. As usual, arrow slingers harvested bow trophies in the hilly, forested region encompassing the McAlester Army Ammunition Depot and in the deer-rich areas surrounding the southern end of Lake Eufaula. Friends there tell me deer numbers are increasing and they hope hunters will take more does.

Ranking third was Rogers County with 158 bucks taken, andnarrowly edging out Osage County with 155 antlered deer. Both are sited in our northeastern region. Rounding out the list were Atoka and Mayes counties with 110 and 109 bucks, respectively.

The top county for bagging blackpowder bucks was again the ever-popular Cherokee with 729, followed closely by Pittsburg County with 721 bucks. Of note: Cherokee Wildlife Management Area hosts several hunters each season during draw hunts, and then reopens for general public use. Osage was the third top county for frontloaders with 620 bucks, while Pushmataha County reported 580 bucks. Sequoyah and Atoka counties followed with 554 and 533 bucks respectively.

The best bet for taking a buck during gun season is Osage County. Our largest county in size nearly doubled the kill of the next highest spot with 1,820 bucks. That's where I took my first buck, next to a place once owned by Hollywood actor and native Oklahoman, the late Ben Johnson.

This county has the proverbial good news/bad news scenario. First, the good news: Some tremendous bucks for both antler size and body weight live there. The bad news: Virtually the entire county is leased or held by large ranching operations. Hunting access can be difficult.

Other top counties for gun hunting last season were Cherokee, where 1,061 gun hunters scored, and Woodward with 855 bucks. Pittsburg followed closely with 854 bucks checked in. Rounding out the list was Green Country's Delaware County with 823 bucks, followed by Woods County, which came in with 771.

TOP COUNTIES FOR DOES
I once heard an old-timer quip, "When it comes to deer hunting, does are preferable; you can't eat the horns, anyway." True: Does normally offer tender meat, and taking one contributes to management of the state's herd. As the ODWC slogan goes, "Hunters in the know take a doe."

The top county for archery doe harvest last season is no surprise: Cherokee, with 261, was also tops for bow bucks. Deer are exceptionally dense in this county whose many good stands of hardwoods offer excellent mast production. I've seen throngs of deer -- and successful hunters -- in Cherokee County.

Two more great spots for taking a doe by bow are Pittsburg County, where archers bagged 163, narrowly edging Osage County, with 162 does taken. Both are in the eastern part of the state.

Mule deer were released at Sandy Sanders WMA years ago, but most of those animals seemto have disappeared.

The top spot for taking a doe by blackpowder was Cherokee again, with 729. Pittsburg County came in a close second with 721. The top gun county was Osage, with 1,059 does.

TOP PUBLIC-LAND AREAS
Deer hunters dealing with the ever-increasing costs of leases have several options offered by the state, as ODWC-operated lands offer good numbers of deer. It's a fact, however, that throngs of hunters besiege many of our top public areas already.

Two very affordable southeast Oklahoma "leases" -- Three Rivers WMA and Honobia Creek WMA -- hold a substantial number of deer. A yearly access fee of only $40 lets you in on more than 325,000 acres of prime habitat in these two heavily timbered wilderness areas.

In the northwest part of the state, the top public area was Black Kettle WMA, with 358 deer killed last year. That total included 190 bucks and 168 does. This spacious WMA spreads over 31,710 acres that offer great hunting opportunities. I've hunted it numerous times and have never failed to see whitetails. I once saw a huge buck taken there that was estimated to weigh 300 pounds!

Another great choice is Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, where 153 deer were taken last season -- 68 bucks, 85 does. Canton WMA is an excellent spot where 148 deer were harvested, 79 bucks and 69 does. Both of those refuges boast big deer, some weighing 200 pounds or more.

In the north-central part of the state, the best bet for public hunting is Kaw WMA, near Ponca City. At this WMA, situated around Kaw Lake, hunters took 219 bucks and 164 does.

In the northeast, the best ODWC-owned lands are Cherokee Game Management Area and Cherokee Public Hunting Area. These neighboring areas boasted 132 bucks and 50 does taken. Other good choices are Fort Gibson WMA, Gruber WMA, Spavinaw GMA and Spavinaw PHA. Those Green Country areas produced. Hunters at Fort Gibson took 79 bucks and 50 does; Gruber yielded 77 bucks and 33 does. Gruber is a military training facility at which deer hunting is offered on a limited basis. For hunt information call (918) 487-6240, or check www.omd.state.ok.us/cgts. Both Spavinaw units tallied 93 deer -- 53 bucks and 40 does.

Another promising spot is Hulah WMA, which yielded 80 bucks and 51 does. A few years ago, good friend Roger Raglin took a huge non-typical there that scored near 180 B&C.

As mentioned, the Three Rivers and Honobia Creek WMAs are two excellent spots in the southeast, yielding a combined total of 1,515 deer. At Three Rivers, the larger of the two fee areas, hunters took 799 bucks and 314 does for a total of 1,113 deer. Honobia Creek hunters took 402 deer -- 289 bucks and 113 does.

Other good public areas in the southeast's pine-studded hills are Ouachita WMA and its McCurtain County Unit; those units combined for a kill of 293 bucks and 105 does. Another bet is Hugo WMA, where hunters killed 58 bucks and 43 does. McAlester AAP accounted for 185 deer -- 91 bucks and 94 does.

Hunters in the south-central region will find the best public-land opportunity 45 minutes south of Oklahoma City at Lexington WMA. This WMA is open to draw-in hunting only. Last year "Lex" accounted for 55 bucks and 18 does. I've drawn in at Lex, and always seen good numbers of deer, plus on my first hunt there I missed a shot at a monster buck!

OKLAHOMA'S 2007 TOP PUBLIC AREASOKLAHOMA'S 2007 TOP 10 DEER COUNTIES
Hunt AreaHarvestCountyHarvest
Three Rivers WMA1,113Osage4,122
Honobia WMA402Cherokee3,471
Ouachita WMA398Pittsburg 2,531
Kaw WMA383Sequoyah2,347
Black Kettle WMA358Deleware2,297
Fort Sill WMA219Creek2,044
Cherokee WMA/PHA182Atoka1,943
Salt Plains NWR153Adair1,935
Canton WMA148Woodward1,932
Hulah WMA131Mayes1,916

The southwestern region of the state, according to ODWC biologists, is showing tremendous growth in its deer population. Some of those counties that were nearly devoid of whitetails 20 years ago now boast healthy deer herds. In fact, one of the state's largest typical bucks ever taken -- it held the top spot in the state for two years -- came from Jackson County.

Southwest deer chasers without private land to hunt will find their best public-land choices at Fort Cobb WMA, near Binger, and Sandy Sanders WMA, near Vinson. Oddly, those two are set in the region of the state experiencing the fastest whitetail growth. Unfortunately, their harvest numbers do not reflect that boom. Fort Cobb's hunters took a total of 34 deer -- eight bucks and 26 does -- while Sandy Sanders yielded nine bucks and 10 does.

Mule deer were released on Sandy Sanders WMA years ago, but most of those animals seem to have disappeared. Whether they'll ever establish a huntable population is questionable.

The top refuge-type hunt in the southwest is the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. Hunters lucky enough to draw a hunt there in 2007 took 31 bucks and 11 does.

Consult the 2008-09 deer hunting regulations before planning to hunt public lands. Some are open during select seasons, closed for others; some open only for select days of our current 16-day gun season, the number of days varying from tract to tract.

For a complete listing of public hunting areas, contact the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation at (405) 521-3851, or check the Web site at www.wildlifedepartment.com. Current hunting regulations also can be picked up at sporting goods stores.

EXPERTS FORECAST A GREAT SEASON
Jeff Danker, one of the best deer hunters I know, expects this deer season to be exceptional. Danker concentrates his hunting efforts in the northwest where, he believes, the state's biggest bucks reside.

"The number of deer is exploding in the northwest and Panhandle," he said. "I see more deer on my farms

now than I ever have before. However, the number of does is really getting out of whack there, and I am concerned. I hope hunters will take advantage of the opportunities provided, and harvest some does. It will certainly benefit the herd's health."

Jay Jack of Double J Outfitters in Roosevelt expects this season to be better than last. "From what I've seen, the deer appear to be in the best shape ever," opined the southwest deer expert. "Early antler growth looked very impressive and I expect some of my hunters to take some potential record-book animals this fall. In fact, I believe there are some Booners running around my areas that have escaped from the Wichita Mountains NWR."

Jack Waymire, the ODWC's deer expert in the southeast, believes hunters will see a healthy deer herd. "The area down here is recovering from a severe drought during 2004-2007," he said. "However, I'm seeing good antler development with the deer population here on the rebound. Hunters should expect a good season."

OKLAHOMA'S 2007 STATEWIDE DEER HARVEST BY SEASON AND SEX
SeasonBucksDoesTotalPercent
Archery5,0955,07210,16711.3
Primitive14,9227,15822,08024.4
Gun34,51723,54858,06564.3
Total54,53435,77890,312100

Big-game biologist Jerry Shaw believes the ample moisture the state has received has produced sufficient browse for the deer. "Coming off a mild winter has produced some healthy, well-fed fawns," said Shaw. "Most deer should head into fall with fair fat reserves, and be in good shape for deer season."

Southwest deer expert Rod Smith expects this season to be about like previous ones. "Deer populations are in great shape and increasing in many areas," he said. "It's hard to foresee anything but more of the same."

Russ Horton, ODWC Lands and Wildlife Diversity supervisor, says that early-summer rains may actually have created a problem for some hunters. "I'm afraid the deer may be hard to see this fall because of all the thick vegetation," he observed. "There definitely are plenty of deer around."

CLOSING
With exponential growth occurring statewide, our total deer numbers are pushing toward the 1 million mark quickly! Truly, these are great days to be a deer hunter in Oklahoma. Though the cost of leased hunting land is rising, the ODWC offers several public areas where hunters can hunt at no charge. Though such hunting is getting harder to come by, I know of deer hunters who still can gain access to private properties by knocking on a few doors and portraying themselves as decent sportsmen.

With the rising cost of food and fuel, some hunters' only interest is in venison to feed their families. A possible option for them: Contact an outfitter in December and consider a doe hunt. The ODWC annually gives qualified landowners Deer Management Assistance Program tags; most outfitters offer these to their clients at drastically reduced rates. Instituted to help landowners better control doe populations, these surplus tags don't count against your bag limit.

I know of some outfitters that will let hunters come nearly free of charge, to help reach their doe harvest quota. Contact the ODWC for a list of the outfitters and landowners participating in this program.

As for this season, it should be what we've come to expect: fantastic! So study these harvest numbers and you might take a fine buck -- or better yet, a pair of fat does -- that will make excellent table fare. Just remember to hunt safely!

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