Ground Zero: Oklahoma's Record Bucks
February 12, 2019
Remote, wild, richly productive, inaccessible — the south-central portion of Oklahoma’s Cross Timbers region has everything a growing white-tailed buck might need, and it has manifested itself in a lineup of Boone & Crockett bucks of late.
Game & Fish editors worked with Boone & Crockett to research the top locations in Oklahoma where hunters should look if they want to kill a record-book buck, and the counties of Pontotoc — which leads the charge in terms of B&C record-book bucks — Hughes, Seminole and Coal topped the list. Canadian, Oklahoma and Logan counties made a showing as well.
It’s not what everyone would expect. Historically, Oklahoma’s far Northwest has been the go-to for anyone interested in finding a 200-pound buck and a big rack.
“Everyone always asks, ‘If you go to one part of the state to get a trophy buck, where would you go?’ Generally, you’d say Northwest, but over the last five years things have been shaking up, and there are big deer all over the place,” said Dallas Barber, big game biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Age, genetics and nutrition are the three ingredients for a monster buck, he said. The record books show the genetics are there in the South-Central region, including those areas like highly populated Oklahoma County.
“A lot of that is just going to be from a sheer lack of pressure,” he said. “You’re talking about areas with low hunter density along with a lot of people who like to see and feed deer.”
SCORING PRIVATE LAND ACCESS
Of all who have sent in paperwork on Boone & Crockett bucks of late, Larry Wheeler draws the blue ribbon for taking two that grossed over 200 inches in the space of eight days, Oct. 8 and 16, 2017.
He lives in Pontotoc County, just a little over a mile as the crow flies from where he took those bucks on a friend’s property along the Canadian River, and that’s the real catch in Pontotoc and surrounding counties where public access is nil, and many landowners have large sweeping properties — not that there aren’t smaller parcels where a person might land permission.
Wheeler said he lived in the area several years before he first got permission to hunt.
“The landowner has to know you pretty good to get permission,” he said. “If you get to know people and work with them, and they understand that you will respect the land and take care of the area — you know, fix fences, don’t be driving in the fields when it’s wet and muddy — over time you, well, you make friends, really.”
Ada guide Jeb Bailey, owner of Suspect Outfitting — with properties in Pontotoc, Hughes and Coal counties, drew a mental map around the private access challenge.
“It’s vast, with landowners with large holdings, and it’s hard to get access,” he said. “In the middle of my ground in Coal County, there are three landowners that together have about 55,000 acres. That’s a big area and I can tell you, you’re just not getting’ in there.”
The lifelong resident did allow for “a coffee shop” approach, however.
“It wouldn’t hurt to get a breakfast,” he said. “The place I would go is the coffee shop. It’s small-town Oklahoma, it’s tight-knit ranchers and farmers. If you want to find them, you want to hang, go to the local diner in the mornings. Knocking on doors don’t work.”
He added that, “if you can get in, you better get a checkbook out.”
The going rate for a lease in deer central will be around $15 to $20 an acre, he said.
“And even then,” he said. “you better know that if he’s got a grandson coming up and that kid likes to hunt deer, you’re gonna be out.”
GETTING GUIDED ACCESS
Guided hunts also come at a premium in this newly christened Deer Central, not necessarily in price but in availability.Robby Bailey, owner of Bailey’s Outdoor Shop in Ada, has been guiding turkey hunters and a few — six or eight — deer hunters each year for the past 18 years.
With publicity around the Larry Wheeler bucks, he acknowledges interest has certainly increased, but he’s still happy with inviting those few hunters annually for semi-guided hunts.
Hunters can come with bow, rifle or muzzleloader, he said, but rifle and muzzleloader have been the most popular.
“We don’t advertise,” he said. “We have a Facebook page, but mostly it’s word-of-mouth.”
The cost is $1,500 for a three-day hunt, and he shares scouting information like trail camera photos, timing and activity around feeders and food plots with the hunters ahead of time. Blinds are in established locations. Hunters find lodging at a local hotel. He said he will work with hunters who hit bad weather or other circumstances beyond their control during their three days.
“If they want me to, I’ll tell them what I would do or how I would set up, but it’s up to them,” he said.
Ada guide Jeb Bailey (no relation) and his Suspect Outfitting has had plenty of publicity. It sure didn’t hurt when Drury Outdoors filmed on his property in 2016 and Steve “Coon Dog” Coon shot a 200-inch plus buck. The episode aired the summer of 2017 on Outdoor Channel.
The Drury crew members are seasonal regulars now, as are the 25 or 30 he hosts annually. “They’ve got two on camera that went over 200 now,” he said.
Just three years in the guiding game after retiring from the Coal County Sheriffs, and he can claim several bucks grossing over 180 inches every year, he said. Bailey shot a 200-plus-inch buck on the properties way back in 2011.
“I had it officially measured, but I didn’t put it in the book,” he said. “That stuff just doesn’t mean that much to me.”
He said he has no doubt many other book-worthy bucks from the area have not been recorded. His hunts go for $3,000 for five days, with food and lodging.
“I’ve got a waiting list of about 300,” Bailey said.
Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.
PUBLIC LAND OPTIONS
The nearest public access to “Deer Central” falls in counties around the edges.
One option is a relatively small Wildlife Management Area (WMA) operated by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation that first opened to hunting in the 2017 season. The 3,869-acre Arbuckle Springs WMA is in the extreme northeast corner of Johnston County on the southern Pontotoc and western Coal county lines. Because it is just-opened, not much habitat management work has been done.
It is a walk-in and bowhunting-only area, which does offer primitive camping. “But it does have a good population of white-tailed deer,” Barber said.He emphasized the big-bucks-are-where-you-find-them philosophy and said in the past two years big bucks seem to be coming from all parts of the state.
“Like I tell everyone who wants to know where a big buck is hiding,” he said, “every year a buck gets killed that is impressive, and the location might surprise you. One of the biggest ever killed was in Oklahoma County, the most populated county in the state.”
Some of those outlying Boone & Crockett counties, such as Canadian, Oklahoma and Logan, also offer up scant public land opportunities, although Arcadia Conservation Education Area north of Oklahoma City is open to limited controlled-drawing archery hunts administered by the City of Edmond.Another one of the nearest public opportunities also is managed on a limited-draw archery basis, and thousands apply annually for the roughly 1,600 drawing permits issued. While the post allows a lot of hunting, those hunters are limited to traditional archery equipment, so wary bucks live a long time and grow large.
The McAlester Army Ammunition Plant lands are in Pittsburgh County, but the land borders Hughes County, actually just about 28 miles as the crow flies from where Larry Wheeler took his two Canadian River bucks in Pontotoc.
The McAAP hunt is famed for its “10 Most Wanted” bucks captured on camera each year and posted at the hunt headquarters. Boone & Crockett bucks may be rare on the post, but Pope & Young bucks are a regular feature with 197 measured between 2002 and 2017.
McAAP Wildlife Manager Ryan Toby said the post is just coming off a record-setting fawn recruitment year in 2017 and notes that harvests of big deer tend to follow five to six years after big fawn survival years. The lands naturally produce big deer, he said.
“I’ve always said this cross-timbers area between about McAlester and Ada is some of the best deer country in the state,” he said. “It has that mix of timber and agriculture and hidey-holes where deer can grow, and it’s diverse habitat, so no matter what the weather does they have food sources. It’s just ideal for growing healthy deer.”