Go East, Young Bowhunter!

Go East, Young Bowhunter!

That's sound advice for any Oklahoma bowhunter -- young or old! Here's why. (September 2009)

Which way should you go for good bowhunting in Oklahoma?

Well, from almost anywhere you sit in the Sooner State, going east would be a good idea.

I'll get into the details and numbers in a moment, but I want to point out simply that bowhunters kill more deer in Eastern Oklahoma, and especially northeastern Oklahoma, counties than in another part of the state.

Part of the reason for that is habitat and terrain.

The eastern third of Oklahoma is mostly rugged and forested. The middle third is mixed prairie and woodlands with rolling, gentle hills. The western third, for the most part, is flat and devoid of trees except for those that have been planted by landowners and for a few stately cottonwoods growing along the banks of streams.

Oh, of course you can find patches of densely tangled post oak and shinnery out in the western counties, but they're scattered. It's rare to find miles of continuous forests like you find in the east, where deer can travel from one side of a county to the other under the cover of dense forests, save for the occasional road or stream crossing.

In the last 40 years, the deer herds in central and Western Oklahoma counties have grown tremendously. When I was growing up in Enid and starting college in Alva, my friends and I got excited about seeing just a deer track in the river bottom sand. We only dreamed of seeing an actual deer some day.

For the past couple of decades, though, you've had to be careful driving at night in those same areas because there are so many deer prowling about.

So, it's not for lack of a healthy deer population that bowhunters kill significantly fewer deer in central and western counties. It's more because good places to ambush deer and get close enough for effective bowhunting are fewer and farther between out there -- at least in comparison to Eastern Oklahoma.

Let's take a look at a recent year's data and numbers for the archery deer harvest.

Since the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's state deer harvest statistics for 2008 aren't available at this writing, the 2007 totals will serve to illustrate my point, as every previous year's harvest totals in recent decades do.

There were nine counties where bowhunters harvested 200 or more deer in the fall and winter of 2007. All nine of those counties, shown in the accompanying chart, lie east of Interstate 35, which splits Oklahoma pretty much down the middle.

Those totals don't reflect the managed hunt harvests on wildlife management areas, which are tallied separately. Both Cherokee and Pittsburg counties have such lands.

The county with the highest archery harvest, as it usually is, was Cherokee County. It was the only county where more than 400 deer were harvested with a bow. The total private-land archery kill there was 490, and another 55 deer were taken on the Cookson Hills, Cherokee and Gruber WMAs

The second-highest harvest was in Pittsburg County, with 343 deer. And that does not count the 162 deer harvested on the McAlester Army Ammunition Post lands that lie within Pittsburg County.

Osage was third with 317. Granted, Osage County's harvests are always high in part because it is by far the largest county in Oklahoma. It's two and a half times the size of the average county. In Osage, the habitat changes from the eastern woodlands to the tallgrass prairies. Much of the county is more typical of central Oklahoma than Eastern Oklahoma.

But I won't dwell longer on the harvest numbers. If you're interested, you can view previous years' harvests on the wildlife department Web site, www.wildlifedepartment.com

You might assume that more archery deer are killed in the east because there are more bowhunters there. And that probably is a factor. Bowhunting is popular in Green Country. Just about any town with a few thousand residents has an archery pro shop.

But is it the chicken or the egg that came first? That is, are there more deer killed in the east because there are more bowhunters? Or are there more bowhunters because bowhunting is so much better there?

The answer, I think, is a little of both.

I have a friend who has a lease in far Western Oklahoma of between 300 and 400 acres. On that entire property there are only two small areas with trees tall enough to build a deer stand or hang a climber. One of those is a small stretch of cottonwoods along a creek. The other is a 200-yard-long stretch of shelterbelt trees planted north of the owner's home. Everywhere else on the ranch the trees are either chest-high shinnery or densely packed clumps of post oaks with branches growing close to the ground.

Deer hunting on that property is done almost entirely from tripod stands set in the edges of the post oaks, and most of the deer are killed at ranges of greater than 75 yards.

Contrast that to my other friend's place in Mayes County. It's 320 acres in size and it must have at least 20 permanent deer stands in trees, each overlooking deer trails or little quarter-acre food plot clearings. And there are literally hundreds more places where someone could hang other tree stands and be within 20 yards of deer trails. I've killed three deer there and none were taken at more than about 15 yards.

The Western Oklahoma lease is a superb place for rifle hunting. The Eastern Oklahoma place is ideal for bowhunting.

In the east, there are forested ridges covered with tall white oaks with straight trunks that make using a climbing stand easy. There are many other large hardwoods at all elevations where various types of tree stands can be erected. And the tree canopy is usually dense enough to provide a little cover to hide bowhunters from approaching deer, yet not so dense as to be impossible to shoot through.

And while I am not aware of any Oklahoma telemetry studies that verify this theory, I believe that many deer in the densely wooded Eastern Oklahoma hills have smaller home ranges than the deer living in the more open counties. They don't have to travel as far to find food and water and abundant cover, and so they spend more time in a smaller area on any given day, compared with those central and western Oklahoma deer. The western deer sometimes cover miles of open country in a day as they travel from bedding areas to feeding areas to water.

Land use patterns also are different in the eastern counties. There are fewer crop fields and more woods. So a small food plot of winter wheat or some other enticing crop may draw more deer than it would in a western county where there are many square miles of winter wheat, alfalfa or other crops already growing.

Another advantage in the east is that we have more public-hunting areas. Some are open to controlled hunts only, where a bowhunter must apply in the Wildlife Department's annual bonus hunt permit drawings, but many are open for bowhunting pretty much throughout the season. Eastern Oklahoma is checkered with large reservoirs, and around almost all of them are thousands of acres of public land open to archery hunting.

Some of the large WMAs in eastern counties also have PHA -- Public Hunting Area -- portions that are open like private lands. Spavinaw Hills, Cherokee and Okmulgee are three that come to mind, and there may be others.

You can look in the current hunting regulations booklet, or on the ODWC's Web site, to determine the open dates for all public land tracts in the state.

I bagged my first three archery deer on Eastern Oklahoma public lands that were open on the same schedule as private lands. I've also been lucky enough to take a couple of deer on draw-in hunts on public tracts. All of those were on heavily forested WMAs where tree stand sites were abundant and deer trails easy to find.

So, if you're looking for a place to place your stand and harvest a trophy, or just put a little venison in your freezer this fall, Eastern Oklahoma might be your best bet.

Grab a copy of the Oklahoma Public Hunting Lands Atlas or start searching for a lease in those counties where it's easier to get close enough to the deer for easy bow shooting.

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