Oklahoma Deer Hunting Forecast for 2014
October 01, 2014
It's that time of year again! Oklahoma deer seasons are here.
Break out the camouflage for bowhunting and the blaze orange for muzzleloader and rifle seasons, and put new batteries in the flashlights and rangefinders. Get set to make a little noise with those grunt calls and doe or fawn bleat calls — or practice a little with those rattlin' horns.
For many of us Oklahomans, the last three months of the year are what we wait through the other nine months for each year.
The prolonged drought has had some impact on deer herds across the state. Some wildlife biologists and game wardens believe deer numbers are down significantly over the past couple of years compared to what they were three or four years ago.
The reported harvest was down about 18 percent from the year before, which Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation biologists attribute to several factors, including the prolonged drought that likely affected production or survival of fawns in some areas. And there was seriously cold weather during last fall's 16-day rifle season. That alone may have kept some hunters home.
The official harvest total for 2013 was 88,009 deer, including both does and bucks. That compares to 107,848 animals harvested in the 2012 season. The 2012 season also was a slight decline from the year before when 112,863 animals were reported.
Statewide, rifle-season hunters accounted for 30,940 bucks and 20,648 does. That includes deer taken on private lands and public lands. Muzzleloader hunters bagged 9,920 bucks and 5,061 does. Bowhunters bagged 11,337 bucks and 10,103 does. Those numbers also combine private and public-land harvests.
As is usual, the harvest from private lands in the state's 77 counties made up the majority of the harvest. In all, some 82,945 deer were taken on private lands last fall and winter. That compares to 102,844 from private lands in 2012.
The harvest total for the wildlife management areas and other public tracts totaled 5,064 for 2013, up just a fraction from the 5,004 taken on public tracts in 2012.
The harvest also ran true to form in terms of which counties produced the most deer. As is almost always the case, the state's largest county in land area also yielded the biggest deer harvest. Osage County, with 2,246 square miles, produced 3,755 deer from private lands, including 2,247 bucks and 1,508 does, or a little less than two deer per square mile.
The Osage County harvest was down significantly from the 4,947 deer harvested the year before. Osage County Game Warden Larry Green, whose family hunts property adjacent to the ranch where I usually hunt, told me he thought the local deer herd was 30 to 40 percent smaller in western Osage County than it had been three or four years earlier. And he could have a good handle on it, for the harvest numbers show a drop of 26 percent between 2012 and 2013.
Some of the other high-harvest counties actually produced more deer per square mile than did Osage. Craig County, for example, gave up 2,380 deer from its 761 square miles, or almost three deer per square mile.
The Osage County harvest last fall included 398 bucks and 333 does for bowhunters, 1,545 bucks and 1,005 does for gun hunters, and 304 bucks and 170 does for muzzleloaders.
The Craig County harvest included 297 bucks and 268 does for archers, 861 bucks and 584 does for gun hunters and 258 bucks and 112 does for muzzleloader hunters.
If you divide the state into quadrants using I-40 and I-35 highways, which roughly bisect the state in both north-south and east-west directions, the two eastern quadrants, as usual, contained most of the high-harvest counties last fall. That's pretty much the norm.
However, there are a number of counties in the western half of the state that also gave up more than 1,000 deer apiece during 2013.
I've already mentioned Osage and Craig counties, which are in the northeastern quadrant. But at least eight other northeastern counties also produced more than 1,000 animals.
Cherokee County, in the Cookson Hills over near the Arkansas border, yielded 2,777 deer, including 1,601 bucks and 1,176 does. Of that total, archers accounted for 364 bucks and 371 does, rifle hunters bagged 782 bucks and 636 does and muzzleloader hunters took 455 bucks and 189 does. Cherokee County's harvest was the second highest, after Osage County, and it averaged about 3 1/2 deer per square mile in its 749 square miles.
Only eight counties in Oklahoma produced more than 2,000 deer last fall, with five of them in the northeast quadrant. In addition to the three listed, Delaware County produced 2,075 and Creek County 2,491.
Three counties in the southeast quadrant produced more than 2,000 animals. They were Atoka with 2,625, McCurtain with 2,135 and Pittsburg with 2,321.
It is worth noting that the southeast quadrant produced more than its share of trophy bucks. At this writing, there are 15 bucks certified for the Wildlife Department's Cy Curtis Awards program, which recognizes bucks that meet minimum antler scores. Of the 15, seven came from counties in the southeastern quadrant and three more from counties that lie partially in the southeast. In other words, two-thirds of the deer certified so far came from the southeastern quadrant or on the edge of it.
Only two counties, so far, produced more than a single Cy Curtis deer last fall. They are Atoka County in the southeast and McClain County, which is split by I-40. There may be more deer from last season yet to be certified for the Cy Curtis program or for Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young. Many deer aren't scored until the mounts come back from taxidermists and sometimes that doesn't happen for many months. My son, for example, killed a monster buck in early December, but it won't be ready for pickup until July.
Northwestern Oklahoma is far different country than that of Eastern Oklahoma. In some states the landform and vegetation don't change much from one side to the other. But in Oklahoma we have wooded, mountainous terrain in the east, and even a little bit of Louisiana-like swampy bottoms in the far southeast.
Northwestern Oklahoma, though, is mostly table-flat land where thousands of acres consist of fields of wheat or other row crops. Otherwise it is rolling short-grass prairie interspersed with small stands of scrub oak and shinnery, plus a few rocky outcroppings like the Gloss Mountains east of Woodward or the Antelope Hills north of Cheyenne.
There are entire sections of land where you can count the number of trees on your fingers, and the deer often tend to hug the timbered creek and river bottoms, hiding in the canyons eroded from our prairie landscape.
The drought has been far worse in our western counties than in the east. Out in the Panhandle it is rare to see any water in the streambeds these days, and even windmills fail to pump water in some areas because the ground water tables have dropped below their traditional levels.
So the deer harvest numbers in the west are considerably smaller than in the east. That doesn't mean, though, there isn't some good hunting to be found out there.
Grant County produced 1,296 deer last season, including 739 bucks and 557 does. As one might expect when hunting more open country, rifle hunters accounted for by far the biggest share of the harvest. Grant county yielded 538 bucks and 361 does during the rifle season, 108 bucks and 118 does for archers and 93 bucks and 78 does for muzzleloader hunters.
Alfalfa County had the biggest harvest in the northwest quadrant. It produced 1,427 deer, including 149 bucks and 123 does for archers, 541 bucks and 457 does for gun hunters and 86 bucks and 71 does for muzzleloaders.
As you go south and west in Oklahoma, the deer harvest tends to get smaller. But there are some southwestern counties that produce respectable harvests each fall.
Caddo County, for example, produced 1,520 deer last year, including 852 bucks and 668 does. Gun-season hunters took the bulk, including 612 bucks and 458 does.
Carter County gave up 1,608 deer, including 940 bucks and 668 does. Beckham County produced 920 deer and Stepehens County produced 984. Grady County gave up 823 animals.
In the southwest, as in the northwest, the deer tend to stay relatively close to the bottomlands where cottonwoods, willow and tamarisk grow along the streams and provide a little cover.
While the deer kill dropped significantly on private lands last year, the public-land numbers stayed consistent. As noted previously, they actually showed a tiny increase.
The Wildlife Department lists 93 wildlife management areas in its annual deer harvest report. Those include both intensively managed "refuges" where hunting is only available to those who draw permits in the annual controlled hunt lotteries, as well as those public tracts around U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs, the lands owned by timber companies in Southeastern Oklahoma, a few federal holdings like National Grasslands and National Wildlife Refuges, and a couple of military installations.
Comparing the harvests among the WMAs could be misleading, like comparing apples to grapes, because some of the WMAs have tens of thousands of acres while others have a few hundred. And some are open for the entire season, while others are only accessible during a weekend hunt in the controlled hunt program.
I'll mention a few of them, but anyone interested in seeing how many deer were killed on each of the 93 areas can go online to the Wildlife Department's Web site, www.wildlifedepartment.com and see exactly how many does and bucks were killed during each season on each individual public tract.
The biggest number of deer came from the Three Rivers WMA in McCurtain County where some 203,215 acres of Ouachita Mountains foothills owned by timber companies are managed for hunting by the ODWC. That area produced a grand total of 396 reported deer, including 220 bucks and 176 does. The adjacent Ouachita WMAs in LeFlore and McCurtain counties produced another 141 and 217 deer, respectively.
In Western Oklahoma, the Black Kettle (National Grasslands) WMA produced 302 deer, including 167 bucks and 135 does. Black Kettle is slightly more than 30,000 acres of scattered tracts interspersed with private holdings.
Only one of the WMAs located adjacent to big Corps of Engineers lakes produced more than 200 deer. That was Kaw WMA in Kay County where hunters bagged 228 deer, including 117 bucks and 111 does.
WHERE TO HUNT?
Of course, last year's harvest isn't a sure-fire indication of where the best hunting spots will be this fall. But even though the overall deer harvest declined by quite a bit last fall, the numbers were pretty consistent, in terms of harvest distribution, within recent years. So a hunter in search of a new spot may want to study the 2013 harvest before plunking down cash for a lease, or planning the hunting trips in the coming months.
Jerry Shaw, a program manager and biologist in the Wildlife Division of the ODWC, the division that both manages public lands and works with private landowners to help manage deer, turkey and other game animals there, says hunters would do well to consider the drought conditions when planning their 2014 hunts.
When conditions are as dry as they have been in recent years, especially in the western half of the state, many of the natural forbs and mast-producing vegetation that deer eat when rainfall is normal are in very short supply. Planted crops such as wheat, milo and alfalfa may be even more of an attraction than normal, and in those extremely dry areas like the Panhandle and other far western counties, water sources may also be important and may keep deer reasonably close.
Deer seasons get rolling this year on Oct. 1 when the archery season opens its 3 1/2-month run through January 15, 2015. There is a youth deer gun season Oct. 17-19, and then muzzleloader season is open for nine days from Oct. 25 through Nov. 2.
Deer rifle season is Nov. 22 through Dec. 7, and spans the long Thanksgiving weekend.
For both the rifle and muzzleloader seasons, regulations vary by county on when or if antlerless deer may be taken legally, so it is always a good idea to either go to the Wildlife Department's Web site or get a copy of the current hunting regulations booklet and study the area-specific rules for the place you plan to hunt.
Likewise, for those who plan to hunt public lands, the season dates and harvest rules can vary from one WMA to the next. Some have restrictions on what kinds of equipment can be used to hunt deer. Many of the areas around big lakes, and especially near campgrounds or other facilities, for example, are restricted to bowhunting only.