What a Year for Deer!

What a Year for Deer!

Will Oklahoma's coming deer season be even better than the one just past? If it is, then it's sure to be a season to remember -- because 2003 was a humdinger!

By Mike Lambeth

When the fur stopped flying last season, Oklahoma deer hunters had another banner year. With an estimated harvest of 87,241 - up 3,500 from last season at this time - and miscellaneous check station books still to be tallied, it appears that we are on our way to another harvest of 100,000 deer.

Those yet-to-be-tallied books hold the totals of special hunts, late archery season harvests, and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Deer Management Assistance Program numbers. Indications point to the total harvest eclipsing last season's figures of 98,581, but falling short of the state's all-time record harvest of 102,100.

According to the ODWC's whitetail expert, Mike Shaw, "Those additional books should account for around 14,000 more deer."

Amid a newly imposed 16-day rifle season, deer check station books were full of entries, while deer processors' freezers bulged after a good acorn crop and nice temperatures afforded some hunters with their best seasons ever.

MIXED VIEWS ON THE

16-DAY SEASON

Talk among hunters and ODWC officials for years has revolved around extending deer hunting opportunities for Okie sportsmen. During the 2002 season, several additional doe days were added in hopes of thinning our exploding deer herd. Surplus does were harvested, but the deer numbers continued to grow.

With two previous years of 100,000-plus harvest totals, 2002's deer hunters encountered a warm season followed by inclement weather. That resulted in a slight decrease of harvest and ended up with hunters taking 98,581 deer.

Ronny Lambeth, the author's brother, was one of some 100,000 Oklahoma deer hunters who took home venison last season. He shot this impressive 10-point buck in Ellis County. Photo by Mike Lambeth

Still, landowners complained, and hunters asked for the ODWC's consideration on extending the traditional nine-day deer season. The ODWC proposed extending the season an additional week to allow for more hunting opportunities, and perhaps allow hunters to take more does, and maybe even time to take some of our more mature bucks.

Chris Box, who has a farm in Garfield County, had mixed feelings as he reflected about the longer season. "The longer season meant that I had to spend more time watching my property in an effort to run off trespassers," he said. "But on the other side of the coin, my son Jeremy took a nice buck the last hour of daylight, ironically on the 16th day."

Another hunter, Lyman Redgate from Woods County, felt the longer season would only benefit outfitters who were selling deer hunts, and possibly result in hunters over-harvesting young bucks.

The 16-day season was favored by many landowners and opposed by others. Some claimed there were not enough deer being harvested, and the ensuing numbers were depleting their wheat fields. Others contended that a longer season would only mean more problems, with more road hunters and trespassers hunting their properties without permission.

Buck Jones, a taxidermist from Comanche, felt the lengthened gun season could have a detrimental effect on the deer herd by allowing more 1 1/2-year-old bucks to be harvested. Jones was selected by the ODWC to be a part of the deer committee that met to discuss the viability of the longer season.

The ODWC also held hearings to garner public support for the longer season. Biologists and wildlife managers hoped the longer season would cause hunters to be more selective in their harvests and shoot older bucks. The referendum passed. Numerous doe days were also added statewide.

Personally, I do not have an ax to grind with the wildlife managers. I have a great deal of respect for the ODWC and the job it has done to bring deer from the incredibly low numbers in the 1940s to well over the half-million mark today. I feel my fellow Okies and I are blessed with an incredible deer herd, and the quality of Oklahoma bucks gets better each year.

To surmise, I am an advocate of letting small bucks walk and grow to maturity, while taking mature bucks and does instead. In essence, I feel we are mere steps away from having more phenomenal bucks than we already see right now.

I spent some time at a local deer processor this past season to see what the outcome would be of the longer season. Would hunters be patient and pass on smaller bucks as hoped?

To my dismay, the first few days my local processor was besieged with hunters bringing in small, spindly-racked bucks in the 1 1/2-year class. While there were a few trophies, most of the bucks brought in were small.

Would this trend undo the tremendous strides we have taken in deer management? I talked to the experts for the lowdown.

BIOLOGICAL VIEW OF

THE 16-DAY SEASON

Mike Shaw said numerous people expressed concern that we were allowing too many bucks to be harvested.

Shaw stated the ODWC's position on the extended gun season: "Our objective was to provide additional hunting opportunities because we felt we had the resource to do so. In the process, we thought the longer season could possibly help by limiting the taking of younger bucks by allowing additional days afield. The main thing, though, was to spread hunting opportunities out. We also found that most hunters only have a limited time to spend afield, and that we really harvested about the same amount as we typically do during the nine-day season."

Shaw gave me the statistical breakdown of the harvest age structure. "The majority of the deer harvested," he said, "are taken on opening day of gun season, and the trend shows that almost half of all deer taken are 1 1/2 years old, and that 75 percent of the deer taken are 2 1/2 years of age or younger. We harvest almost an equal amount of bucks to does."

Shaw said it will take biologists three years to fully evaluate the effects of the extended season but added, "We accomplished our objective this year. The outlook is very promising."

Shaw also noted there is more of an awareness about managing private lands for trophy bucks. More hunters are seeing the "big picture" on the type of deer Oklahoma lands are capable of producing, simply by allowing smaller bucks to live to maturity.

"

We want to make sure that some of the yearlings with potential are allowed to advance to the next age class," Shaw said.

He explained that when does are bred during their second estrous cycle, the resulting fawns are born later and are actually deficient in both body weights and horn growth their first year. Most of the real nutrition gained by deer comes from eating the higher-protein browses and grains that late-born fawns are deprived of. For that reason, many of these late-born deer will not produce the type of first rack that most sportsmen desire.

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

Hunters were not the only ones to benefit from our 16-day gun season last year. In fact, the extended hunting opportunities fattened the wallets of numerous businesses that cater to the needs of Sooner sportsmen.

Hunting shops, convenience stores, motels, restaurants, gas stations, taxidermists and meat processors all received monetary dividends because of the longer season.

Lisa Mayberry and her husband Terry operate a taxidermy studio and game-processing facility in Oklahoma City. The 2003 season brought them a slight increase in business.

"Our deer processing was up about 10 percent from last season," Lisa said. "We took in a lot of deer heads also, but most of them came in during the first week of gun season."

She attributed the increase in business to the rut being in full swing during opening weekend.

Davis Meat Processing in Guthrie received an estimated 200 more deer during the 2003 deer season than the 2002 season. According to a meat cutter who works for Davis, "We filled up our freezer faster than last season and ended up turning away some customers early in gun season due to running out of space."

Jeff Tebow, owner of Outdoor Outfitters, an upscale sporting goods store in Oklahoma City, said he saw another benefit because of the longer season. "One of the main benefits I saw was that it allowed more hunters to be home on Thanksgiving instead of hunting."

Some landowners were able to charge more for their hunting lands. Some charged a higher rate per acre for their parcels because, they reasoned, hunters would be using them for a longer period of time because of the extended season.

Out-of-staters buy land for deer hunting in Oklahoma that many times have payments cheaper than yearly leases in their home states. The longer season also made it profitable for new guide services to spring up.

Ultimately, the 2003 season will be recorded as a turning point in herd management, the additional revenues raised via license and tag sales going to fund further Wildlife Department endeavors.

THE RUT FACTOR

Predicting the rut in Oklahoma can be an iffy proposition - almost like trying to predict Oklahoma weather. Deer experts insist that traditionally, the peak of the rut coincides with the opening of our deer gun season. Others believe the rut actually starts before gun season and is usually over by our firearms opener.

The 2003 season opened with most people observing serious rut activity. I polled several hunters while researching this article, and most thought they had hit the lottery when it came to hunting during a "legitimate" rut.

Most of the hunters I polled saw bucks chasing does for the first 10 days of the season.

In recent years, the rut seems to have been sporadic and occurring in different parts of the state at different intervals. But for the 2003 season, the rut seemed to be going on statewide the first several days of gun season as if it had been scripted.

INTERESTING FACTS

The heaviest deer taken in the state traditionally come from the Panhandle where deer densities are low. In the Panhandle counties of Cimarron, Texas and Beaver the average weight of an adult buck last season was 131 pounds. Strangely, that figure was the same for the southwest part of the state, which is the "Johnny-come-lately" for deer numbers.

Coming in second with an average weight of 127 pounds were our northwest counties, where some real bruisers are taken each season.

According to Shaw, the southwest part of the state is turning some heads. This area was sparsely populated with deer in the past, but last season it actually accounted for a higher harvest than our northwest counties.

Shaw attributed the population boom directly to the fact that the southwest part of the state was the last area to be restocked, and it is currently experiencing the same explosive growth that the rest of Oklahoma has known.

For bucks to reach their top trophy potential, many hunters and biologists feel they need to live to at least 6 1/2 years of age, but statistics show that in Oklahoma less than 1 percent is harvested in that age category.

The region of the state that is home to the oldest deer is southeast Oklahoma where, according to Shaw, the terrain is rougher and hunter access is more limited.

The only region in the state that did not show an increase in deer harvest was northeast Oklahoma.

THE CWD FACTOR

Almost every magazine I see concerning deer hunting is filled with the potential horrors of Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD. This catastrophic disease has made its presence known in many areas of the United States.

The disease, which has been described as a whitetail version of mad cow disease, was found a few years ago in a private elk herd in central Oklahoma. The disease ravaged the herd, and eventually the USDA destroyed the remaining elk to curtail the spread.

Could CWD ever show up in Oklahoma's wild deer herd?

I posed that question to Shaw and was impressed with his candor. "We have checked approximately 1,500 deer a season for the past five years and found nothing. We have sampled deer in virtually every region of Oklahoma and have yet to find one case."

The conclusion is that Oklahoma venison is safe, but for the safety of Oklahomans, the deer herd will continue to be monitored.

2004 DEER SEASON OUTLOOK

Shaw says barring any unforeseen weather conditions, this fall's outlook is very promising. He says hunters are realizing the potential they can achieve by practicing selective harvest, and the results are staggering.

When asked if a point restriction would ever be mandated in Oklahoma like it has in some other states, Shaw was firm. "We are really not going to achieve the results we are after by doing that," he said.

Shaw demonstrated his theo

ry by showing me two 8-point bucks in his office. One of the bucks had a 7-inch spread while the other buck was massive with a 22-inch spread.

"For this obvious reason," he said, "a point restriction wouldn't work. Clearly only one of these 8-point bucks is a trophy."

POTENTIAL RECORDS

When this issue went to press, Oklahoma record books were being rewritten. There will most likely be a new non-typical record buck for Oklahoma. David Lambert took a 32-point, massive-antlered brute that will be panel-scored after this issue goes to print. Preliminary figures place the awesome buck in the 240- to 250-point range.

On opening day of archery season, Chad Hane of Stillwater took a wide-racked monster that bested the top archery non-typical in the book, scoring a whopping 214 0/8.

Hane's buck, which sports a 31-inch spread, will be featured in a later article, as will the Lambert buck. Check future issues of Oklahoma Game & Fish as well as sister publication North American Whitetail to read about these awesome bucks.

FINALLY

Oklahoma deer continue to thrive and continue to astound us with their rack and body sizes. Sooner hunters are learning that they are an integral part in the failure or successes of our whitetail deer management program.

This fall, patient hunters, who in the past have let smaller bucks walk, may be rewarded by taking one of those same deer with a heavier rack and more points.

In the meantime, remember the saying, "Let the smaller bucks grow and take a doe." The future of our deer hunting is in your hands.



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