Bigger bucks, bigger numbers; looks like Oklahoma has finally bounced back.
For the first time since 2012, our state’s deer harvest tally jumped back up over the 100,000 mark for the 2017 deer season. It also seems to have recovered in a big way, with more 200-plus-inch bucks on the ground than anyone can remember.
To be clear, a total of 107,914 isn’t a record-breaker like the 2006 harvest of 120,000, but the return to that 100,000-plus figure along with an impressive big-buck lineup qualifies this past season as a head-turner.
Will 2018 repeat or even be an improvement on 2017? That’s anyone’s guess in a state that has shown it can go plus or minus 5,000 to 10,000 a year depending primarily on the weather during the season.
However, it is apparent that most areas of the state now have the deer numbers and, despite whatever weather comes, much of what 2018 produces will depend on how well hunters are able to make adjustments. There is even a temptation to think Oklahoma deer hunting is not only experiencing a resurgence but a sort of rebirth, with bigger bucks along with the return to higher harvest.
“It’s looking good; it’s been fun to see this,” said Dallas Barber, big game biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “As far as an overall look at 2017 we’re back up to those average numbers we’d been used to seeing for 10, 12 years. I think a lot of this has just been recovering from those drought years.”
Most remember the heart-breaking season of 2013, when the harvest plunged from a five-year average of more than 105,000 down to about 88,000. After four years of drought, deer numbers in western Oklahoma were noticeably thin, and elsewhere production was spotty, with a herd that just generally was not as healthy or productive as it might be otherwise.
The irony of 2013 is that it was the year that marked the end of the drought for most of the state. While the drought was in progress it actually worked to the advantage of hunters who planted food plots and put out deer feeders.
When the rains finally came, the land was so thirsty it sprang back with unparalleled vigor. The grasses grew tall and the only thing thicker than the brush was the acorns and the persimmons. Hungry deer no longer relied on finding dinner at a food plot or a feeder. They didn’t have to go far for a meal at all. Combined with a hot October and snowstorms in November, the harvest plummeted.
“It’s all relative, too,” Barber said, adding a note of caution about thinking a season at less than 100,000 animals is bad. “Just 20 or 30 years ago if you told someone we’d harvest 88,000 deer in Oklahoma they’d have told you to get outta town.”
The 2017 season was simply pleasant, he said.
“We had really good weather throughout the season, never really too cold, not too awfully hot, so we had good participation statewide,” he said.
While harvest numbers took their time recovering since 2013, things changed for hunters as well.
With the percentage of does taken consistently in the 40-percent range, the Wildlife Department’s “hunters in the know take a doe” information campaign was replaced with “hunters in the know let young bucks grow.”
Call it coincidence, but now comes 2017 with an increased harvest, plus a passel of larger bucks.v“That’s a reflection of that age make-up,” Barber said. “When you let your deer get older, you’re going to be harvesting bigger deer.”
Barber said more and more hunters are passing up smaller bucks, and it has shown up in age data from jawbone collections.
Improved technology is another big factor, he said.
“Trail cameras have not only become a little less expensive, but they are more user friendly,” he said. “I won’t blame any hunter a bit if he gets one picture of a big buck on his property, and he decides that’s the one buck he is going to be hunting that season.”
Indeed, most of the hunters who took the biggest bucks in 2017 commented in news reports and Facebook posts they had been watching them for two, three or four years.
“And we saw bigger bucks pretty much across the state; it wasn’t just one or two counties that dominated,” Barber said.
When it comes to deer numbers, there is one county that annually posts the largest harvest. Osage County tallied 5,141 deer in 2017, and that is the first time the county saw 5,000-plus harvested since 5,800 were taken during the record-breaking season of 2006.
“Osage is the best county we have in terms of just size, raw acreage and native grasslands,” said Oklahoma’s central region supervisor Jeff Pennington. “It does have some monsters, too. We have some big ranches there, so you can have some older age structure where they don’t get as much hunting pressure. But for Osage, basically, the land size is much bigger than other counties, so you get more deer because there simply is so much more land.”
Big bucks came from all over the state, although the biggest headline makers were from the central part of the state. Larry Wheeler’s two 200-inch plus bucks came out of Pontotoc County, and Steven Everett’s new No. 2 all-time non-typical came out of Logan County. But Kyle Evans popped a 17-point 200-incher up in Noble County, and the buck that could have been this state’s new No. 1 was found dead tangled in barbed wire in LeFlore County to the southeast.
Of the state’s Top 10 counties, it’s No. 8 that is the standout in terms of density of harvest. A side-by-side comparison of total square miles in Cherokee County compared to Osage County shows a harvest of 2.3 to 2.5 deer per square mile in recent years in Osage to 3.3 to 3.5 in Cherokee.
In public hunting area terms, that should put these two counties on anyone’s list.
“Deer density across Cherokee County is as high as anyplace else in the northeast part of the state. It has fertile soil and a lot of different soil types,” said Wildlife Department Northeast Region Supervisor Bruce Burton. “We’ve got a lot of big river bottom land and a lot of little dissected western Ozarks type stuff. If you’re looking for a trophy, though, it’s not always the place because we do have that higher harvest. If you want a trophy in this part of the state, you need to be the one with patience, who goes a little farther than the next guy.”
Effort rewards the hunter no matter the place, time, conditions or density of deer — even when things look dire.
Scott Parry saw scorched earth as the Northwest Region Biologist for the Wildlife Department watched wildfire rip through parts of his region in April, but he still has hope for the 2018 deer season.
Fire can improve deer habitat in the long run, but a year of drought followed by burning 350,000 acres just a month before fawns start to drop is not in anyone’s strategic management plan.
“The Dewey County fire, at 5 p.m. on that Thursday, the humidity was 3 percent and wind 45 miles per hour; at that point in time it is just a blanket of fire; everything burns; even the posts holding up guard rails along the road by the creek are burning, several thousand acres,” he said.
That fire burned about 250,000 acres, and another near Woodward burned roughly 100,000. Other fires hit the West, but none reached that scale of destruction.
“We didn’t appear to lose a lot of individual deer — some but not many — and most of the surviving population on the ground are fine,” he said a month after the fires were out. “The real question now is how much of that dominant woody cover that’s left is going to impact where they are living.”
Parry said when he hunts this coming season he’s just going to have to change things up and go where the habitat is holding the deer.
“These deer will find those nooks and crannies, a half-acre here, a half-acre there; you just have to adjust along with them,” he said.
OLAP Opens New Archery Hunting Areas
Oklahoma deer hunters did something in the 2017-18 season they never had done before.
They took deer on private lands managed under the new Oklahoma Lands Access Program (OLAP), which launched Sept. 1, 2017.
Numbers taken on the OLAP properties the first year are not available because the program was so new, and lands were not secured in time to enter them into the E-Check system, but that will be remedied for 2018, said Jeff Tibbits, OLAP coordinator.
“I know just anecdotally we had a lot of happy deer hunters,” he said. “Next year, hunters will have the option to check in online for OLAP specifically. This year they just came in as private property hunts.”
A $2.26 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as part of the 2014 Farm Bill, was used to launch OLAP under the Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program. Oklahoma’s program is modeled largely after the Kansas Walk-In Hunting Access program (WIHA) and opened with 40,000 acres available for walk-in hunting across the state.
For 2018-19, managers plan to add more walk-in areas, particularly in southeast Oklahoma, with improved access to the Honobia Creek Wildlife Management Area and Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area, Tibbits said.
The program is a broad-use opportunity and focuses more on small game opportunities and fishing.
“Oklahoma just has so many deer that’s kind of an added bonus for us,” Tibbits said. “The areas are archery-only just for safety reasons, but it does open a lot of new land for bowhunters.”