Forget what the Chinese calendar says. Based on what we saw last season, this year may be the one Oklahoma deer hunters have been waiting for! (August 2006)
Brandon Danker used a snort-wheeze call to lure in this big Noble County 11-pointer last season. It scored 165 0/8 as a typical.
Photo courtesy of Brandon Danker.
In the Chinese calendar, every year in a cycle of 12 is identified with a creature carrying a great weight of symbolism for the ancient culture: pig, horse, dog, monkey, snake and so forth. Sooner State hunting enthusiasts, however, might want to substitute an animal not appearing in the traditional list -- because every last one of the last several years might very well have been tagged as the "Year of the Deer"!
Remarkably, Sooner whitetails are experiencing explosive growth, and management-conscious deer hunters are reaping the benefits of passing up small bucks. Our herd now stands at nearly 500,000 strong, with some observers reckoning an even higher number. White-tailed deer now thrive in all of our 77 counties, and deer hunters' prospects for success have never been brighter.
When the final results are posted to the books, the 2005 season harvest will surely prove to have increased considerably in comparison to 2004's. If you're an Oklahoma deer fanatic, you should be experiencing some of the best hunting Oklahoma has ever known.
PRELIMINARY NUMBERS FROM LAST SEASON
Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation deer research biologist Mike Shaw says that early numbers show an increase from the 2004 season. "We have an estimated 89,409 deer taken," said Shaw, "which is up 7 percent from last year at this time, and does not include the late archery season, special hunts, and Deer Management Assistance Program figures."
Shaw believes that the total should be around 100,000 -- substantially up from the 2004 total harvest of 94,689 deer. Last year's harvest should be our second-highest harvest ever.
So how did the individual seasons stack up? The comparisons are as follows: Archery season numbers were about the same from the previous year, while the youth hunt numbers were down. Primitive weapon harvest numbers were up, as were gun harvest numbers.
Shaw attributed the increases to perfect timing, indicating good weather and an obvious rut statewide, and said that, overall, it looks like the buck harvest was up 7.2 percent while the doe harvest numbers reflected an increase of 6.5 percent. Some areas of the state had marked increases; others remained about the same.
Most hunters and biologists that I spoke to about last deer season seemed to use the word "weird" quite often in describing it. That word probably best describes the dry, windy, warm weather that seemed to plague hunters statewide. That may be what affected the rut as well. Some landowners I spoke with reported rutting activity going on in late October, while others said it peaked the second week of gun season.
ODWC senior biologist Russ Horton noted that the deer did not seem to move as much, owing to an incredible acorn crop that appeared to spread statewide. "The deer could literally eat acorns while they were bedding," he said. "They just didn't have to travel much and were hard to pattern."
Early archery season was very hot and dry, with temperatures soaring and winds howling, creating fire dangers statewide. We actually received our last measurable precipitation in October. Nevertheless, there were still good numbers of deer taken statewide, with some nice bucks among those in the tally.
Chris DeLong took a nice buck in Payne County during early archery season. The narrow-racked buck sported a unique non-typical frame that scored nearly 176 points.
Blackpowder season opened to warm weather. I was able to share a camp with Chris and Jeremy Box on their farm in Logan County. The opener dawned to light winds and mild temperatures as I sat in a ground blind overlooking a well-used trail. At first light I watched a cow-horned spike that dared me to ventilate his ribs. After Chris's admonition not to shoot anything I wouldn't mount, I laid the gun back across my lap and enjoyed the morning experience. I came home empty-handed, but I enjoyed my outdoor experience. And I can't help but wonder what size that spike's rack will be this season.
I shared a few gun hunts with my brother Ronny near our homes in Edmond last fall and was amazed at how warm the weather was. I recall one afternoon when the temperature hovered at 80 degrees, unusual for late November. The day was further marred by extremely high winds.
My stand overlooked a well-used transition area where the local bucks travel from woodlot to bedding area, yet I failed to see a thing except the skunk I encountered on my walk back to the truck at dusk.
The northeast region had a 4 1/2 percent increase in its deer kill over last season, and according to all indications, this season should be as good or better. The 2005 roster of highest-yielding counties should largely replicate the 2004 list, on which appeared Sequoyah, Cherokee, Delaware, Craig, and Osage. Osage, the top deer-producing county statewide for several years, again led the state with 4,248 whitetails.
Keith Green works as a game warden in Craig County. After noticing a decrease in the number of deer checked in over the past few years, he believes this northeast county may have leveled off in terms deer harvest. Green acknowledges having once felt some skepticism about the 16-day gun season implemented three years ago, as he had questions about its possible long-term effects -- but he sees things differently now.
"I believe the 16-day gun season has turned out to be OK after all, but I must admit I was in opposition at first," Green said. "I worried that too many bucks would be killed, but the longer duration has actually produced more hunting opportunities, with about the same number of bucks being taken overall as were taken during the traditional nine-day season."
Though Green's county has possibly leveled out in harvest numbers, other northeast counties are doing well. The deer hunting in the northeast may have leveled out, but it's certainly nothing to sneeze at. Two seasons ago Carl Scott took the state's largest non-typical in Mayes County -- a palmated bruiser that sported 24 points, spanned 25 inches, and racked up a score of 215 2/8 points. And that was in a county not widely known for big bucks!
Several factors contribute to the remarkable numbers of deer in the northeast, where deer once were few: decreased poaching, improved managemen
t practices, and supplemental feeding programs. In the northeast, the poaching problem is better controlled than ever before. According to Green, the ODWC's game wardens have done really well to curb the poaching problem by using deer decoys and working undercover in areas in which poaching was rampant.
Deer decoys, which sometimes feature remote-controlled parts, have been very widely used to help curtail the illegal hunting problem that plagues most of the state, Green reports. He also believes that the 16-day season puts less pressure on hunters to take their buck in the first week of the season, which sometimes caused unethical hunters to shoot their deer from the road illegally.
Green encourages concerned outdoors people to make donations earmarked for deer decoys to the ODWC; call the department at (405) 521-3851 and ask for Law Enforcement. Green warns that the deer "fakes" will be out as usual, so if you're considering shooting from the road, remember: You're probably being watched!
According to Shaw, the southeast region had the largest increase in deer harvest statewide -- a whopping 23 percent. Remarking on the virtues of the 16-day season, Southeast Region supervisor Joe Hemphill said, "The longer season turned out like we thought it would. We noticed that the hunter distribution was spread out more and hunters seemed to be more selective in the bucks they harvested."
One interesting note is that the southeast counties of Hughes, Pittsburg, and Pushmataha are three of the top five counties in the state for the number of entries in Cy Curtis Trophy Deer Records. Though the deer in the southeast typically do not have tremendous body weights, some of them have awesome antlers. Last season, for instance, 15-year-old hunter Royce Morris took a gnarly-racked Pushmataha County 32-pointer that scored 225 7/8. (Watch for a story on that buck in an upcoming issue of Oklahoma Game & Fish magazine.)
Historically, the top-producing deer counties in this region are Le Flore, Pittsburg, Pushmataha, and Atoka.
Senior biologist Russ Horton says that though hunters in the central part of the state ended up killing a lot of deer last year, many of those deerslayers had to work hard to get the job done. Horton cited several variables, but primarily blamed a bumper mast crop, which provided nutty delicacies in plenty to every deer in the state. In a nutshell, Horton said, the season would be marked as an uncharacteristic season in terms both of unimpressive acorn production and of greatly restricted deer movement.
Horton is optimistic for this fall's season, provided the state gets some much-needed moisture. "There's plenty of deer in the central part of the state," he said, "and it would sure help to get some good rainfall so the whitetails would have good vegetation this fall."
Horton, a veteran deer hunter, was able to spend some quality time last fall with his daughters -- Alysse, 14, and Olivia, 11. Alysse took her third deer -- an 80-pound doe in Canadian County -- while Olivia missed a couple of opportunities at taking her first deer. Nevertheless, Russ said, time spent in the outdoors with his daughters was priceless.
Southwest Region supervisor Rod Smith had mixed emotions about our last deer season. "The season seemed extremely slow. It didn't seem like the rut really kicked off down here."
Smith also expressed his concerns over the lack of moisture in the state but added, "Typically Western Oklahoma is not affected as much by drought as the other parts of the state. The deer here seem to be doing really well, but I'm sure some good rains would be nice also."
Paradoxically, the extreme south-central part of the southwest region is home to the state-record non-typical -- a 248 6/8-inch giant taken last season by Michael Crossland of Grandfield, a small community near the Texas border. Crossland's buck became a topic for Internet bloggers and the national news when a dispute with a landowner led to his prized rack being confiscated by the state. After a lengthy trial, a judge found Crossland innocent of trespassing and the massive rack was promptly returned.
Historical top producers in this area are Beckham, Greer, Caddo, and Grady counties.
The northwest part of the state's harvest estimates are nearly the same as last season's, and actually reflect a nearly 1 percent increase. This region is noted for some real brutes, with several bucks annually tipping the scales at more than 200 pounds. This region features sand hills and tallgrass prairie interspersed with riparian waterways. It's home to some real wallhangers. Bobby Cole, a good friend of mine, took a high-scoring typical in Woodward County several years ago. Two seasons ago, Troy Thompson took a magnificent Beaver County typical by bow; that buck scored 184 4/8, which missed tying the state record by 1 inch.
At the Backwoods Hunting & Fishing Show in Oklahoma City I saw a matched pair of whitetail sheds found in the northwest region. Those antlers were unbelievable! That set, attached to a deer and legally harvested, would have set a new state record, and would rank in the top 10 of all time.
Typically, the top deer counties in the region are Beaver, Woodward, Woods, Major, Alfalfa, and Grant.
2006 SEASON FORECAST
The one wish expressed by ODWC biologists and hunters alike is that the state will receive an adequate amount of rainfall to sustain vegetation. Adequate vegetation is necessary for our browsing whitetails to forage on. The sad fact is that the Sooner State is in the midst of a long-term drought that has rendered many parts of the state highly susceptible to wildfires. We've seen plenty of evidence of that in the recent past.
If we can get ample rainfall before and during the fall, Oklahoma hunters should be in for another outstanding deer season. And with our current levels of management-conscious deer chasers, who knows what could happen? We might even break another state record or two!
When you finally hit the Oklahoma deer woods this fall, be conscious that the future of our hunting is in your hands. With the long generous seasons ahead, each one of us has an obligation to take a doe or two, where legal, to help manage our herd.
To take a high-quality buck, keep in mind that you may have to pass some smaller bucks to enable them to grow their best antlers later. The 16-day gun season is here to stay, so there's plenty of time to schedule days in the field and possibly take that buck of your dreams.
Shaw summed up his thoughts on Oklahoma whitetails by saying, "It has been a slow process, but obviously we are seeing a number of quality deer in the state. In order for the quality to get even better, I would like to see a reduction statewide on the number of bucks taken, and see hunters take more does." (Or, to repeat a relevant ODWC slogan: "Hunters in the know take a doe!")
Remember: The so-called "good ol' days
" of Oklahoma deer hunting are here now. Let's all make the most of them!