Hunting season isn’t over yet! Right now is the time to take advantage of these Sooner State outdoor opportunities.
Many years ago when I came home with a deer in my pickup on the final day of Oklahoma’s gun season, my wife said something to the effect of, “Now that hunting season is over with, you need to start . …”
I don’t really remember what it was she said I needed to start doing at that moment, but I recall objecting definitively that, no, “hunting season” was not over. Far from it.
It’s true that many of us are pretty obsessed with deer hunting in October and November when the “regular” bow, muzzleloader and rifle seasons are open, but when the sun goes down on the final day of deer gun season, that just marks the opening of a free-for-all period when quail, pheasants, ducks and geese, rabbits and squirrels are in season.
Fur hunters can shoot a variety of predators and furbearers during the following weeks.
December and January are both prime months for hunting a variety of upland and migratory game. And these days we have an antlerless “holiday” deer gun season at Christmastime, an archery deer and turkey season that continues through Jan. 15, and a second dove season that, this year, is open almost an entire month — from Dec. 1 to Dec. 29.
Hunters can mix it up at this time of year and fill their freezers with a variety of tasty game meats. Of course, it’s a good time to squeeze in a few days of crappie and catfish and striper fishing as well, but that’s a whole other story.
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For a couple of decades or more Oklahoma’s deer gun season lasted only nine days, from the Saturday before Thanksgiving through the Sunday after. But the season was extended to 16 days, meaning that hunting time now extends into December every year. The 2017 deer gun season is Nov. 18 through Dec. 3.
Archery deer season, and the “fall” turkey seasons for archers are among our longest hunting seasons, opening Oct. 1 and continuing through Jan. 15 annually.
And the holiday antlerless gun season straddles Christmas, this year Dec. 22-31.
So deer hunters still have plenty of chances to put venison in the freezer, and if they have a yet-unfilled buck tag available, they can take an antlered deer with an arrow or crossbow bolt.
Let’s talk first about wintertime deer hunting. During the first six weeks of archery season, and the late-October muzzleloader season, deer are living high on the hog. There are a lot of green and tasty forbs growing in early October and the various species of oaks are dropping acorns from late September right on up through gun season in late November. Except in the driest of drought years, food is plentiful up to around Thanksgiving.
But by the time we’ve had a few good frosts, the food sources get seriously depleted. The deer, turkeys and squirrels have gobbled up most of the acorns and the ones still on the ground are already getting moldy or have been buried by the squirrels.
By December, deer are searching for anything green and nourishing, and so may begin nibbling on honeysuckle or greenbrier vines and leaves and, if they’re in a wheat-growing area, scarfing up the tender shoots of winter wheat sprouting in seeded fields.
Identifying those late-season food supplies can help a December/January hunter find a productive place to position a stand or hang a climber on trails leading to wheat fields or clearings in the woods where a little greenery might still be available.
I’ve seen more than 100 deer gathered on one small wheat field in late December in northern Osage County. We sat one evening and watched as more and more deer poured from the woods as dark approached. By the time it was too dark to see clearly, we had counted nearly 120 deer.
When food gets scarce, the deer tend to gather in larger groups if a dependable food source is near.
The rut is waning by that time, and so using rubs and scrapes to locate deer traffic areas may not be as productive as it was a few weeks earlier. But I’ve seen rutting bucks with does as late as mid-December so just because the rut has peaked doesn’t mean that bucks are not distracted by searching for mates.
For the most part, though, bucks are returning to their pre-rut, cautious ways and are less likely to be out roaming during daylight hours.
Oklahoma hunters can take one wild turkey in open counties during the fall season.
In some western counties, they can take either a hen or a tom.
The firearms fall turkey season ended on Nov. 17, but archers can take their “fall” turkey up until Jan. 15 if they haven’t filled their tag yet.
It seemed that quail darned near disappeared in many parts of Oklahoma during the drought that plagued us for four or five years — up until 2015 or so. But bird hunters in many counties have rejoiced the past couple of seasons as quail numbers bounced back a little and provided huntable numbers of birds in much of our northern and western areas.
Pheasant numbers dwindled, too, in those northwestern counties where pheasant hunting is allowed, but now seem to have recovered since rainfall returned to close-to-normal levels.
Quail hunters have until Feb. 15 to chase bobwhites this winter. Pheasant hunters have until Jan. 31 in open counties.
A couple of landowners out in Ellis County have told me they’re seeing blue (aka scaled) quail coming to feeders and crossing roads in recent months. Blue quail normally are found farther west, but their native range includes the western edge of Oklahoma. Hunters can take up to 10 quail per day. Pheasant hunters can take two cocks daily.
Rabbit numbers also seem to have improved since the drought eased up in Oklahoma and hunters have until the end of January to bag cottontails, swamp rabbits and jack rabbits.
The bag limit for cottontails is 10 per day. Swampers, which are found mostly in the bottomlands along streams in Eastern Oklahoma, have a limit of three per day.
Jack rabbits, which have become rare in most of Oklahoma in recent decades, can still be hunted in areas west of I-35. The limit is three per day, except in the three Panhandle counties — Cimarron, Texas and Beaver — where the limit is 10 per day.
The black-tailed jack rabbits were once so numerous in our state that bounties were paid and rabbit-shooting drives were organized to help thin out the populations in farming areas.
When I was in college in the late 1960s a Woods County farmer/rancher for whom I worked after school and on weekends repeatedly encouraged me to bring other students out to his place to “shoot as many as you can of those dad-gummed things.”
Then it was common to see several dozen pairs of jack rabbit ears sticking up out of the grass as we drove a single mile down a section line road. A couple of guys with .22 rifles could quickly bag more jack rabbits than they could carry.
I don’t know of any place that has a jack rabbit population like we had then, but there are still fair numbers of jack rabbits out in the Panhandle.
Rabbit season continues through March 15.
A simmering pot of squirrel dumplings makes for a tasty winter meal.
Sooner State hunters have until Jan. 31, when the state’s longest hunting season closes, to bring home a bag of fox or gray squirrels.
Squirrel season opens in mid-May and continues through the end of the following January, giving hunters ample opportunity to harvest bushytails.
Hunters can take 10 squirrels per day and the bag can include either or both fox and gray squirrels. Wintertime, when the leaves are off hardwood trees, can be one of the easiest times to hunt squirrels.
As this story is being written, the 2017-18 season dates for ducks and geese have not been announced, but are not expected to vary significantly from those of recent seasons.
Waterfowl hunting dates for each of the state’s three zones can be seen at wildlifedepartment.com or in the 2017-18 waterfowl hunting regulations handbook available from license vendors.
Duck hunting usually ends in late January in much of the state and goose hunting ends in early February.
There likely will be a Conservation Order Light Goose season, continuing through March, for snow geese.
To many Oklahoma wingshooters dove hunting means sitting and sweating in 98-degree heat on the edge of a hay meadow or recently mowed crop field. And if you hunted opening weekend of dove season in September, there’s a good chance that’s how you found it.
But the December dove season is a bit different.
The grain fields were harvested long ago so there’s not much food there. Even the sunflower patches have been picked over by seed-eating birds.
So doves at this time of year tend to act more like quail. They spend more time walking around on the ground, looking for seeds from grasses, wild peas, and other foods.
Quail hunters often flush small flocks of doves off the ground in midwinter as the birds search for food.
It may be possible to sit somewhere and wait for doves to pass, but hunters are likely to see more doves by walking during the late dove hunt that is open Dec. 1-29. The late season is considerably longer this year. For the previous couple of years, from when the late season was first created, it lasted only nine days. This year hunters have 20 more days for pursuing winter doves.
Wild hog numbers continue to grow and hogs to expand throughout the state. Our state agriculture department has stepped up efforts to reduce hog populations. Some say that sport hunting isn’t an effective control mechanism for wild hogs, but whether it does or doesn’t thin out hog numbers, hog hunting is fun and can put some tasty pork on the grill or in the skillet.
Hunting hogs on private land is relatively easy in Oklahoma, as long as you have permission. Hunting them on public land is a bit more problematic and hunters should read the regulations governing public-land hog hunting very carefully.
No matter whether you pursue wild hogs with dogs, attract them with feeders, or just stalk or ambush them in the woods and fields, wintertime is a good time to do it.
Feral hogs are nocturnal, so hunting early and late is usually the best option for finding hogs on the move.
You may find feral hogs on property you hunt for other game in Oklahoma. There are also numerous guides, outfitters and ranchers that offer hog hunts at reasonable prices. An online search for “Oklahoma hog hunts” can provide information on several such operations.
Winter is a good time to be a hunter in Oklahoma. There are many options for hunting both big and small game. Besides the kinds of hunting mentioned here, Dec. 1 also marks the opening of the three-month furbearer season, both for trappers and hunters, when several more species are fair game. That season remains open through Feb. 28.
The holiday season, with many kids out of school for a couple of weeks, also offers a good opportunity to introduce youngsters to a variety of hunting methods.
Oklahoma winter weather can be intimidating, but there are almost always a few mild days when time spent in the woods or fields is a good cure for cabin fever.