It's never too early to locate the Oklahoma bucks you'll be hunting next fall. Here are some tips to get you started now. (July 2007)
By knowing both his deer and those animals' likely routes of travel, Hawk Bledsoe was able to ambush this fine Osage County buck on opening morning of 2006's rifle season.
Photo by Bob Bledsoe
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation keeps records of trophy-quality deer killed in our state. It recognizes the deer and the hunter and publishes the information through its Cy Curtis Awards Program.
The Cy Curtis program, like the Boone and Crockett and Pope & Young trophy deer awards programs, keeps records based on a numerical scoring system for antlers.
Interestingly enough, the top five typicals and the top five non-typicals on the Cy Curtis list came from 10 different counties.
And that, patient readers, brings us to the point of this story: picking your place to hunt big bucks this fall. And, it tells us that it's hard to pick a hunting spot solely on the basis of prospects for killing a trophy buck.
Myriad factors, many controlled by humans, determine whether a buck with the genetic potential to produce a trophy rack will get the nutrition needed to do so -- or will even live long enough to produce big antlers! The condition of the range, the minerals in the soil, the amount of hunting pressure (legal and otherwise!) and additional factors contribute to the production of trophy bucks and healthy deer populations in Oklahoma.
Many Sooner State hunters are happy just to find any kind of a deer-hunting spot. They hunt public lands or lands that may or may not have lots of deer.
Others put a little more work into finding good spots. They may have free access to Uncle Jim Bob's 80 acres, but they'll gladly spend hundreds of dollars for a different spot they think has more deer or has more potential for producing a wallhanger.
And then there are those who buy the really expensive leases -- properties where deer are aggressively protected and managed. Some hunters purchase guided hunts, or just buy land and manage it to grow trophies for themselves.
For most of us, it's a crapshoot. Unless you have lots of cash to spend, you aren't likely to get a hunting spot that has lots of trophy bucks wandering around.
Fortunately for those of us in average tax brackets, a trophy buck can stroll through just about any property anywhere in the state nowadays -- at any rate, that's what the Cy Curtis list seems to indicate: As long as you're in a spot in Oklahoma where you're seeing deer, there's a chance you'll see a good one if you hold out long enough.
So how do you pick a good hunting spot? Well, here are a few tips.
LOOK AT HARVEST FIGURES
In some states the wildlife management agencies publish harvest figures within hours or days after the close of deer seasons. In Oklahoma, we always have to wait nearly a year: Official deer harvest totals aren't issued until nine or 10 months after gun season, with a specific year's county-by-county harvest totals usually being published online on the Wildlife Department's Web site, ordinarily sometime in October.
Those figures remain fairly stable, geographically, from year to year. The Top 10 Counties one year are usually about the same that appeared last year, not necessarily in the same order and sometimes with one or two exceptions. Looking at those harvest figures can help a hunter figure out if there are a lot of deer around where he hunts.
But the figures can distort the truth, too. My favorite example is Osage County, which, because its annual deer kill is Oklahoma's highest, is often touted as the state's best deer-hunting county. Not reflected in that statistic is Osage County's size: It's by far the state's largest county in land area. If you look at deer kill per square mile, Osage County barely makes the Top 10 in some years, and I don't believe it ever made the Top 5 by that standard. Deer-harvest density is usually greater than Osage County's in Cherokee, Craig, Nowata, Rogers and a few other counties north and east of Tulsa.
I used to do the math every year to figure out how many deer were killed per square mile in most counties. For example, the most recent harvest figures available, those from 2005, show 4,600 deer checked in from Osage County. The state's largest harvest, that includes archery, muzzleloader and blackpowder bucks and does. It works out to one deer killed for each 320 acres of land, or two deer per square mile. Cherokee County, by contrast, had a harvest of 3,108 deer, which works out to a deer for each 156 acres, or 4.1 deer per square mile.
LOOK AT THE HABITAT
Deer harvest figures can give you valuable data, but they can't tell you everything you need to know. For example, if you're a bowhunter you may need a different kind of place than if you hunt with a scoped 7mm Magnum. With the rifle you might easily kill a deer at 300 yards over open prairie, while with the bow you need a spot where the deer are going to come within spitting distance. (Well, maybe you can't actually spit 25 yards -- but you get the picture.)
If you hunt in Western Oklahoma, you might have access to a ranch with 3,000 acres, but it's all shortgrass prairie and a couple of wheat fields and has virtually no trees and only one small creek along the border. It may sound impressive to say you've got a 3,000-acre lease, but your good bowhunting area may only be the five acres or so of "timber" strung along the creek with its sheltering band of cottonwoods and small trees.
On the other side of the creek is a property that contains only 10 acres, but it has just as many good bowhunting spots as its giant neighbor. Now, in late November or early December, during gun season, those open-land wheat fields on the big property might be a good choice for a rifleman. But when archery season opens in October, a bowhunter might have just as good, maybe better, prospects hunting the little 10-acre tract.
If you know what to look for, you also can evaluate food sources and range quality, but many hunters have no pasture and range judging skills or have limited knowledge of range quality indicators. Plus there is the question of interpreting the data.
I'll use the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant as an example here. "The McAAP," as it's referred to in the controlled hunt applications each year, is a highly sought-after deer hunting spot in our state. Patrolled by guards day and night throughout the year, it
has a few thousand acres within a high fence -- security that not only protects the plant from vandals and terrorists but shields the resident deer as well.
The deer herd there is dense. Hordes of deer come out of the woods in the evenings to graze on lawns in the developed areas. There are many places in the woods where, even early in the season, distinct browse lines can be seen on the trees -- an indication that the herds are crowding the capacity of the habitat.
Someone might look at those browse lines and think: I don't want to hunt here -- too many deer and an unsatisfactory food supply. But lots of big-antlered bucks have been taken from McAAP lands during controlled hunts over the past several decades. Even though bowhunters are restricted to using only longbows or recurve bows, they still manage to kill several darned good bucks there every fall. The last time I drew in for a bowhunt at the McAAP I saw a small-bodied buck carrying a rack that looked like it belonged on an elk. It was so massive on the deer's head that I wondered if the animal didn't get weary just carrying it!
Unfortunately that buck never came close enough for me to take a shot at him. But I watched him eagerly through my binoculars as he browsed in a firebreak.
My point: At a glance, you might form the opinion that the McAlester plant is overcrowded with deer, yet it still produces many excellent racks and the deer there still seem to be in relatively good health. Though not usually as big-bodied as are deer in northern, central and western Oklahoma, quite a few of them grow trophy antlers.
I don't know that anyone has ever analyzed data on the sites producing the biggest, heaviest racks, but I can tell you my opinion based on 15 years of hanging around check stations in counties all over Oklahoma waiting to shoot photos during muzzleloader and gun seasons. Here's what I've found to be true: Big-bodied deer tend to come from areas with at least some open pasture. Deer tend to run slightly smaller than average in areas where the habitat is mostly dense forests.
But then, I've seen trophy racks in both kinds of places. I've seen 150-class racks on small woodland bucks that dressed out at 90 pounds or less. And I've seen 200-pound bucks in western Osage County that carried just so-so racks.
This isn't proven biology, but it indicates to me that bucks feeding more on forbs and grasses and open-ground plants tend to have better nutrition than those depending more on forest mast crops.
Our perceptions of what makes good deer habitat is probably distorted by the fact that we are in the woods mostly during a short time of year -- October and November. During that brief window, we see deer eating fruits and acorns and we tend to think that an area with lots of oak trees is great habitat. But the deer live there 12 months a year. They have to eat well during the other 10 months in order to be fat and healthy during the fall. So an area that has a mixture of open pastures and dense woods may have greater potential to grow bigger, fatter deer.
That doesn't mean that acorns aren't important. They definitely can guide early-season bowhunters to a good spot to hang a tree stand.
If you hunt during the earliest weeks of archery season, finding a place where white oaks, bur oaks or other white-oak family trees are dropping acorns can be your ticket to success. Most members of the white-oak family of trees drop their acorns a few weeks earlier than do those in the red-oak family. White oak acorns tend to be bigger and sweeter as well. Deer often flock to spots in which such acorns are falling in late September or early October to get their share of a highly favored food source.
The fact that there are some white oaks on your hunting property doesn't necessarily indicate that the property supports or attracts large numbers of deer, but it can tell you where those deer might be on opening day of archery season.
This may be the most overrated factor in judging habitat. In some areas deer sign is easy to see. In others it's much tougher. I've hunted places that were crisscrossed with deer trails as big as cattle trails. They had lots of soft soils where trails are easily made. I've hunted others where the soil is all rocky and gravelly and where trails and deer tracks are far harder to see, even though there are lots of deer around.
To find scrapes and rubs, some hunters believe, is to hit the mother lode. And I'll grant you that finding a line of active scrapes can help you choose a good spot for hanging your tree stand. But just because you don't see scrapes or rubs doesn't mean there are no bucks around.
I've been very fortunate to hunt one 1,100-acre ranch in Osage County for more than 20 years now. I rarely hunt it that I don't see several deer each day. Some years the ranch seems to be covered with rubs and scrapes. Other years I'm hard pressed to find more than a few scrapes on the whole ranch. But the deer population seems to be about the same either way.
Sign can show you there are deer around, but it may not be the best tool for evaluating habitat or hunting potential.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
Looking at the availability food and cover and water in order to evaluate deer habitat can help you pick a good hunting spot, but as most wildlife biologists will confirm, managing deer populations is largely a matter of managing people.
That is, people who use the land for hunting, for farming, for ranching or for other purposes play just as big a factor as the "natural" components of the property. If a property is hunted aggressively by lots of hunters who shoot lots of deer, or if the neighboring properties are hunted that way, then the potential for seeing lots of mature bucks is probably pretty slim.
If a landowner dumps too many cattle, sheep, goats, horses and/or other livestock on the property, then it won't be long until the quality of the deer habitat is seriously degraded.
If a landowner kills all the trees on his property to improve his pastures for grazing, the deer that once inhabited the property may move elsewhere. Having some open ground is desirable; it makes for quality deer habitat. But deer need cover and browse plants as well, so at least some wooded areas are necessary.
At the risk of repeating clichés, I must echo what biologists often tell us -- that deer prosper where there are lots of edges. Many species of wildlife are like that. They do best in habitat that includes a little woods, a little grass, a little water and a lot of edges between those things.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So what's the point of all this information on deer habitat? It's that choosing a place to hunt deer should probably be based on the property's potential to attract, hold and nurture deer, not just to produce a trophy. If you have deer around, trophy bucks will be produced by a combination of food, genetics and hunters allowing the deer to grow old enou
gh to sprout mature racks. No, not every buck will grow an impressive set of antlers, even if it lives to old age. But the more bucks you have around -- until you overtax the habitat -- the more likely you are to grow a genuine wall-hanger for the den.
The Wildlife Department last winter proposed creating a trophy-management zone in a substantial portion of southwestern Oklahoma, but hunters who attended the public meetings where new hunting rules were discussed largely rejected that proposal because it would have included more restrictive harvest regulations in that area.
What's a trophy anyway? I still look back at the first deer I killed with a bow and arrow in the 1970s. I consider it a trophy, even though its puny little 6-point, basket-shaped rack probably wouldn't come close to meeting the minimums for any trophy-scoring system. I've killed several high-scoring bucks since then, but none of those have been as satisfying or as exciting for me as that first archery kill.
After all: A trophy is more than just a set of big antlers.