The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On

Don't put away your deer-hunting gear just yet! Oklahoma still offers several ways for you to get your venison — and maybe even that trophy rack for your den wall.

By Thomas Hawk

There was a time when the modern firearms deer season ended on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and deer hunting was pretty much finished in Oklahoma.

A hundred thousand or more hunters turned out with their .30/30s and .30/06s for gun deer season, but you could just about count on your fingers the bowhunters that took part in the only deer hunting available afterward - the December bowhunt.

Not anymore, though. These days there are still a considerable amount of deer hunting opportunities available after the gun season ends. And even the gun season stretches on into December. Dec. 5 this year is the final day. Remember that our gun season was extended to 16 days instead of the traditional nine.

Once gun season closes, there is still the entire month of December in which hunters can search for a trophy buck, or for a fat doe, with their bows and arrows. And now archery deer season extends halfway through January, although only antlerless deer may be taken after New Year's Eve.

That extended bow season not only allows for additional harvest of does, but also allows serious buck hunters some time in the woods to scout for next year - to see what kind of bucks are still roaming the area after this year's hunts. It's one of the best times to see deer.

You can see deer gathered in large groups in January. I've seen as many as 80 in one little field of winter wheat that couldn't have been more than 10 acres. And because the trees and shrubs are as leafless as they're ever going to be at this time of year, it makes it easier to see anything moving in the woods, and to get a good look at the racks of any bucks that wander past.

I've got more to say about the January portion of the archery season later, but first I should mention that gun hunters still have two more shots at deer after the regular gun season. There are two special hunts for antlerless deer, open in portions but not all of the state. This year's antlerless gun hunts are Dec. 17-19 and Dec. 31 through January 2. You should consult the current Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklet, or check on line at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Web site (www.wildlifedepartment.com) to see if your hunting area is open during these two seasons. They are open in areas where deer populations are the highest and where deer depredation complaints have been highest.

The maps showing this year's antlerless hunt zones should be pretty much equivalent to last year's late antlerless gun hunts, but check the regulations before you hunt. Last year, the western three-fourths of the Panhandle and a good portion of Southeastern Oklahoma were not open to the late-season gun hunts. Large areas of Western, northwestern and north-central Oklahoma were open for both of the hunts. And a huge swath running from southwest to northeast, comprising more than a third of the state, was open on one or both of the late hunts.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The late antlerless deer seasons give Oklahoma deer hunters some options not formerly available. Trophy hunters can now spend the entire deer gun season hunting for just that big wall-hanger of a buck, knowing that they'll have opportunities later to put meat in the freezer during the late antlerless seasons. They no longer have to shoot a doe during the regular deer gun season, disturbing the woods with the noise of the shot and the commotion of dragging a doe out of the woods during a time that they would rather be in their stand watching for a big buck.

The late seasons also allow landowners and leaseholders to take youngsters or guests onto their properties to harvest an antlerless deer - as recommended on many of the properties enrolled in the Deer Management Assistance Program - without disturbing the deer during the regular season. Generally, those portions of the state open for the late antlerless gun hunts are the same areas where biologists are pushing for higher harvests of does.

Also, the late antlerless deer gun season is essentially a bonus hunt, but without the hassle of going through a lottery. That's because a deer taken in the late antlerless gun seasons doesn't count against the normal combined season bag limit. The combined annual limit is six deer total, including no more than three antlered deer.

The late antlerless seasons also indicate to me that the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, and the Wildlife Commission which oversees the department, listen to the sportsmen and make decisions based on biology. Some hunters have been clamoring for years for additional deer-hunting opportunities. Other states where deer herds continue to grow have lengthened seasons and increased limits to curb that growth.

Oklahoma's wildlife biologists have, for the past three or four years, recommended increasing harvests of antlerless deer.

"Right now about 38 percent of the harvest is antlerless deer, but we would like to see it around 45 percent," says Mike Shaw, the wildlife department's chief research biologist. "So it is important that hunters get out and participate" (in the late antlerless season. "These special antlerless deer gun seasons were established to better manage the state's deer population, and so far they have been a success. By increasing the antlerless deer harvest, hunters will be helping to balance the state's deer population with available habitat, improving buck-to-doe ratios for better herd health, reducing agricultural depredation and reducing deer/vehicle collisions."

Oklahoma hunters now have many more days of hunting than they had even as recently as the late 1990s. We now have a longer gun season, a longer bow season, plus the additional antlerless seasons. And the deer population is plenty large enough to take the pressure.

That doesn't mean that, sometime in the future, seasons and/or limits may have to be restricted again if populations decline. But for now, the opportunities are expanding along with the deer herd.

Let's talk about the archery season that lasts a couple of weeks after New Year's Day. The January portion of the archery season offers a great opportunity for a post-holidays hunting trip. The archery turkey season is also open concurrently with the archery deer season in January. And quail season, duck season and rabbit seasons are open as well.

The past two years, my son and I have joined friends Pat and Greg Hoggard at their hunting spot in far Western Oklahoma for a combination turkey bowhunt and quail-hunting trip. We rise in the morning and go attempt to ambush a deer or a turkey with a bow.

Then we unleash the dogs and hunt quail through the middle of the day with our shotguns. In late afternoon, those who aren't too worn out from quail hunting take a stand with a bow again, waiting for a shot at a turkey or perhaps a whitetail.

It's an enjoyable hunt throughout the day, usually followed by an enjoyable evening around a roaring campfire that keeps our fronts toasty warm, even while the winter wind chills our backsides.

Even though it's mid-winter, there are often some pretty mild days in early January. It may be a little brisk sitting in a tree stand at daybreak, but by mid-morning it can sometimes be pretty mild, especially if the sun is shining and the wind is light.

On one of my January hunts last year, the temperature was in the teens with a gusting, bitterly cold north wind the first morning. By mid-morning the next day it was "shirtsleeves weather." The wind had died and the sun was out. It was comfortable to sit in a stand, and downright hot for the guys who were walking behind bird dogs.

This is the time of the year when dressing in layers of clothing is important. Wearing layers, instead of just one big bulky outer garment, to keep you warm, gives you the flexibility to peel off layers as the weather warms in mid-day. Then you can add them back for the evening hunt, or if a sudden cold front blows in.

I mentioned earlier that it's easier to see deer in late winter than it is during the earlier portions of archery season because the leaves are pretty much all gone from the trees. Lots of the lower ground cover in which deer can crawl, lay or hide is also thinned.

That lack of vegetation not only makes it easier to see deer, it also makes it much easier to shoot deer with a bow and arrow. Most bowhunters who have spent any time in a tree stand have had deer close, within easy shooting ranges, but couldn't take a shot because of leafy branches hanging down from trees or leafy bushes growing at deer body height on the ground.

There is still some woody cover around that can block shots, but there are many places where shots can now be taken, even though the cover would have been prohibitive in October or November.

I don't usually hunt around feeders, but if you're on a lease where corn feeders or winter wheat food plots are used, this is the best time of the year to take advantage of them. Natural deer foods are pretty darn scarce in the wild at this time of year. Deer flock to artificial food sources - and I include winter wheat in that category - from Late December through March when the natural foods start greening up and growing again.

Many hunters tend to overestimate the importance of acorns and other mast crops in a deer's diet. That's probably partially the fault of outdoor writers, who throw in references to acorns in most of the deer-hunting stories we write. But the truth is, acorns are not an important food source everywhere.

Even in places where they are important, they are usually only available for eight or nine weeks out of the year. White oak acorns ripen and fall beginning in late September and October. By white oak, I mean not just the actual white oak species, but the related species - burr oaks, chinquapin oaks, et al. Red oaks (and their relatives) start dropping their acorns before the white oaks quit, and the red oak crop may continue to fall through early to mid-December. After that, most of the acorns left are either wormy or rotten.

It just so happens that the acorn-falling season coincides with the fall hunting seasons, so hunters tend to view acorns as the most important deer food. In actuality, deer eat far more forbs that mast. Forbs are those hundreds of varieties of broadleaf plants that we generally call "weeds." Some have edible fruits or seeds, and many have edible and nutritious leaves and stems. They generally grow at ground level or within 2 or 3 feet of the ground, making them accessible to deer. In spring, summer and early fall, forbs are extremely important deer food.

But in late December and January, even forbs are hard to come by. Most are dry and brown, or have fallen to the ground and decayed.

So if the deer can find the occasional clump of honeysuckle or a field of tender, green wheat, they tend to hang around and feed in those places daily. Some species of honeysuckle remain green and tender throughout the Oklahoma winter. And wheat, which is actually an introduced grass, is an important food for deer in parts of Oklahoma every winter.

Deer don't eat a lot of grasses in spring, summer and fall. But in the winter, since the wheat is green and tender, they'll take advantage of it to help them through until the forbs begin growing again. Any spot of green vegetation that shows deer sign is a good place for a bowhunter to set up a stand late in the season.

Corn feeders, too, can help see deer through the lean months, if they're filled regularly. You can provide deer with a dependable food source in the first two to three months of the year, and you can easily pattern movements that are centered on those food sources.

Even if there are no feeders or wheat fields on the places you hunt, you may still use winter food sources to help you find the deer and where they are traveling. On the ranch where I've hunted much of the time in recent years, there are nearby properties with crop fields. The deer can be counted on to move toward those fields in the evening and at night, and away from them in the mornings. Even though the fields aren't actually on the property where I hunt, they still influence the movements of the deer there.

I've hunted public lands, too, where food plots on the WMA or crops on neighboring farms influenced the deer's movements.

Lots of Oklahoma hunters still have the mindset that deer seasons end right after Thanksgiving each year. But that is certainly not the case any more.

What with the additional seven days of regular gun season, the two late antlerless gun seasons, the whole month of December for archery hunting (including hunting for bucks), and now the additional 15 days of antlerless deer archery hunting in January, there are lots of opportunities to continue hunting after that week of Thanksgiving.

One note to bowhunters who kill a deer after Jan. 1: Any deer killed then applies to next fall's limit. That is, the annual limit of six deer in Oklahoma is a calendar-year limit. Any deer taken in January of 2005 counts against the autumn 2005 limits, not against the autumn 2004 limits.

That little tidbit in the regulations escaped many hunters in the first couple of years the archery season was extended into the new year. Even some Wildlife Department employees were confused about that provision.

If you kill a deer with a bow in January, your archery and combined limits for next fall are reduced by one antlerless deer.

So take a look at the hunting regulations to see if your favorite hunting area is o

pen, and see what kind of licenses and tags you need to participate in the late hunts in your area. If you go out on Jan. 1 or after, you'll need a 2005 hunting license. Also, if you hunt on an annual license, you'll need to purchase the appropriate deer permit. If you have a resident lifetime hunting or combination license, of course, you don't have to buy the permits.

Once you've got the rules figured out, go take advantage of the late seasons. It sure beats watching someone else hunt or fish on television.



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