Where are our deer herds and deer hunting headed in the near future? Here are some answers, straight from the Sooner State's No. 1 deer man. (August 2007)
Photo by Mike Biggs.
With Sept. 1 looming on the calendar, there can be little doubt that conversations around the Sooner State are turning to the approach of the fall hunting seasons.
And while a good number of those conversations will center on mourning doves, waterfowl, and bobwhite quail, the guess here is that the lion's share of these blue-plate-café coffee-cup conversations will center on Oklahoma's No. 1 big-game animal, the white-tailed deer.
With the archery, muzzleloader, and firearm seasons on the not-so-distant horizon, what is the state of Oklahoma whitetails in 2007?
For that heads-up, allow me to turn to Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation wildlife research supervisor Mike Shaw. In conversation earlier this year, I asked him about the two considerations nearest and dearest to the hearts of most Sooner State deer hunters -- overall numbers and overall quality of the herd.
"We've got about 600,000 whitetails as of our latest counts," he said. "And that number is generally increasing."
That's particularly true in a part of the state that might not seem to be the most deer-hospitable part of Oklahoma at first glance. "The southwestern part of our state is probably the fastest-growing in terms of deer population growth, although the deer haven't been there as long as in other parts of the state," Shaw said. "Probably 10 to 15 years ago you could count the harvest in those southwestern counties on one hand -- but now they're significantly higher. The southwest is equal to or has surpassed the northwest in terms of total deer kill."
Not only is the region's deer kill on the increase, but so too is the quality of bucks that are coming from that region. "People always thought that region didn't represent much in terms of deer habitat, but deer are adaptable critters and I think they're proving them wrong," Shaw said. "In fact, the last Cy Curtis non-typical record buck came from there. They are growing some good deer down there."
Southwestern Oklahoma isn't the only place that sees good deer being grown. Two other areas readily come to Shaw's mind, although both are about as different as daylight and dark. "When you look at the distribution for record bucks in Cy Curtis, Pope & Young, and Boone and Crockett, two areas of the state stand out," he said. "The northwest is one, the southeast is the other."
The ODWC deer man said that the south and southeastern part of the state is more forested and in some cases even mountainous and the region's deer are able to use such cover effectively. "That means that the deer there attain an older age structure, and that contributes to more deer down there," he said.
In the northwest, Shaw reported, the region's deer benefit from an abundance of agricultural lands and leased land that leads to fairly light hunting pressure. With plenty of food in place, the northwest has had and continues to have the potential to produce an eye-popping buck or two each fall.
"When people ask me what part of the state is the best, the northwest and the southeast stand out, but really, in terms of good-quality deer, a trophy can come from just about anywhere," he said.
That even includes urban areas around Oklahoma City and Tulsa -- which over the past decade or so have produced monster bucks within the very shadow of suburbia -- and areas like south-central Oklahoma's Bryan County -- which, though it's hardly known for its record-book dominance, yielded the current state-record typical buck, a whopping 16-point brute netting 185 6/8 on the Boone and Crockett scoring system, to Larry Luman in 1997.
Which strongly supports Shaw's contention: A bruiser buck is liable to pop up just about anywhere this fall.
That's undoubtedly in part true because of Oklahoma's robust whitetail herd, and is well illustrated by recent trends in the Sooner State's overall deer harvest. "As for last year's season, I don't have the totals yet (as of press time), but I believe that when everything is in, we'll be in the 110,000 neighborhood," Shaw said. "If that's the case, then we will have surpassed our previous high in 2000 of 102,200 deer."
For the record, that will also be well above the overall total harvest figure of 101,111 deer taken during the 2005 deer season.
Last year's high harvest may have resulted in large measure from drought conditions having made food resources scarcer, causing deer to have to search a little harder for their next meal. And, Shaw observed, last year's early start date for gun season -- an accommodation to the Thanksgiving Day cycle -- had the effect of enabling the Sooner State's gun deer hunters to catch the rut just right.
"I can't remember a time in the last four or five years where hunters were seeing as much rutting activity as we did last year," he said. "Everybody reported seeing bucks during the gun season."
While the absolute final firearm harvest totals weren't yet tallied at press time, Shaw expected the figure to be above the 61,740 deer taken by gun hunters in 2005.
Gun hunters weren't the only deer hunters to do well last year. According to Shaw, the state's increasingly popular muzzleloader deer season also shined in 2006. Again, the ODWC biologist looked for the final figures for the muzzleloader harvest in 2006 to be comparable to the 24,747 deer taken by smokepole enthusiasts in 2005.
"I can't remember a time in the last four or five years where hunters were seeing as much rutting activity as we did last year. Everybody reported seeing bucks during the gun season." -Mike Shaw, ODWC
"Muzzleloader season has become almost as popular as rifle season," Shaw said. "It is a great time to be out in the woods. You can be out there and start to see an increase in deer movement. People are starting to go out during the season to hunt and pattern deer for the gun season. There are really no negatives about it."
Especially when you consider that the state's muzzleloader season -- sandwiched in with an already lengthy archery season, which runs from Oct. 1 through Jan. 15, and the state's 16-day long firearm season -- gives Oklahoma deer hunters ample time to be in the field.
All that's left for Sooner hunters to do then is to "git 'er done" and fill a tag.
ing of archery season: The state's stable army of bowhunters should approach and perhaps even exceed the mark of 14,624 deer taken by bow-and-arrow-toters in 2005.
"Our archery season harvest total could possibly top last year's numbers since our preliminary numbers are up," Shaw said. "It will depend on what happened during the second half of archery season after gun season ended. That part of the season usually doesn't contribute that much to the overall percentage, but I think the overall harvest is up."
In terms of which counties stood out a year ago for overall deer harvest, Shaw doesn't anticipate much change from the previous years. "Generally, our top five haven't shifted at all," he said. "Osage is going to be the top county -- it always is and is one of our largest counties. Pittsburgh County moved up into second (in 2005), while Cherokee County dropped to No. 3. That was followed by Atoka and Sequoia counties.
"Those were the top five in 2005 and I don't think there will be much of a change in 2006. The order may shift, but the top five counties will still be the top counties."
OK -- that's a look at where the state's deer herd has been and currently is. But what will that mean for Oklahoma deer hunters this coming fall?
Unless severe, crippling drought reappears late this summer, hunters can probably look for more of the same in terms of good hunting for both quantity and quality.
For starters, thanks to snowy weather last winter and wet weather during portions of the first quarter of 2007, it appears as if the drought is at least easing up. And should that trend prevail, that should mean plenty of food available for Oklahoma whitetails this fall.
Food abundance, of course, is the primary driving force behind the state's deer herd anyway. That's what leads to good overall numbers, solid fawn recruitment, good antler growth, and the expansion of deer into suitable habitat.
"The major food sources for deer in Oklahoma are pretty varied depending on what part of the state you're in," Shaw said. "We have not had detailed food studies for all over the state, so I'd hesitate to answer which foods are most important. But obviously, wherever there are agricultural crops, deer will be there. In the east, soybeans are important, while in the west, wheat is important."
What about the state's abundant supply of oak trees and the various acorns that fall from them each fall?
"Acorns and really any hard mast are important, but it's all gravy," Shaw said. "You can't ever count on it. For instance, a couple of years ago, we had a really good acorn crop. But last year, it was really poor all over the state."
If the short-term deer-hunting picture in Oklahoma looks at least somewhat rosy, what about the long-term outlook? "Since we're an agricultural-based economy, we're losing habitat like everyone else," Shaw said. "But I don't think the pace is nearly as fast as it is in other places. So I think that the future is bright."
Part of the reason for Shaw's long-term optimism is also due to the state's continued fine-tuning of deer hunting regulations, including some new measures that will impact hunters this fall.
"No. 1, we reduced the bag limit of antlered deer from three to two," Shaw said. "I think that will help."
"And in some areas, there is an increased number of antlerless deer that you can take during the muzzleloader and gun season from one to two. That's in Zone 2, which encompasses all of the northwestern and the north-central part of the state."
These measures, Shaw believes, will help improve the buck-to-doe ratio in some areas of the state that are below par in that respect right now, and should "save some of our younger bucks and allow them to get into older age-classes and become better-quality bucks."
All of this isn't to say that certain concerns about the future of deer hunting in Oklahoma don't persist: Take, for instance, hunter recruitment and hunting access, which -- just as in any state where deer hunting is practiced -- will become increasingly important issues here in years to come.
When asked if the days of knocking on doors and obtaining permission to deer hunt were over, Shaw said that he didn't necessarily think so, especially since driving 15 to 30 minutes -- and beyond -- from the state's urban areas will put a hunter in good deer-hunting territory.
"I wouldn't say they're over with, but such endeavors are becoming more and more difficult with the amount of leasing that is going on now," Shaw said. "Hunters and landowners are leasing in most parts of the state, although I really don't have a handle on that." However, he went on to suggest that the abundance of public hunting land opportunities that Oklahoma is blessed with serve as a counterweight to that leasing trend, pointing out, for starters, the numerous wildlife management areas that exist across the state, some of which offer walk-up hunting opportunities.
"Since we're an agricultural-based economy, we're losing habitat like everyone else. But I don't think the pace is nearly as fast as it is in other places." -Mike Shaw, ODWC
A part of the state's public hunting opportunities are the famed Honobia Creek and Three Rivers areas that are comanaged by ODWC and the landowning timber companies. There is also the voluminous Ouachita National Forest, which is comanaged by the ODWC and the U.S. Forest Service.
To take full advantage of these opportunities, Shaw suggests that hunters get a copy of the state's hunting regulations, which details hunting opportunities found on the state's WMAs, along with a copy of the state's most recent Big Game Report.
"That report lists all of our WMAs and the deer harvest totals for all seasons," Shaw said. "Hunters can use that report to do some comparing, to research different parts of the state, and to have a good resource to use for planning in future years."
For the record, we're not talking about a shabby amount of land open to public hunting either. According to Shaw, these lands represent up to 1.6 million acres of property, much of it open to some form of deer hunting -- and that's not even mentioning the state's popular hunt permit drawings held every spring.
"Don't overlook our controlled hunts," Shaw said. "While it will be too late to get in line for this year, keep these hunts in mind for future years. All of our controlled hunts are offered online, so all a hunter has to do is get online, go to our Web site, go to the controlled hunts section, and select and apply for the hunts they want."
So what's the bottom line for Oklahoma deer hunters, both now and in the future? Plenty of reasons to smile, to keep the camo handy, and to have the taxidermist's phone number on speed dial.
While Shaw admitted that
the Sooner State may never produce a world-record-caliber whitetail, he that it isn't impossible and that the state should certainly continue to crank out its share of record-book quality deer in the years to come.
With the mentality of many of the state's deer hunters beginning to shift somewhat, the future is only that much brighter. According to Shaw, the rise of organizations such as the Quality Deer Management Association and the changing wants of hunters in the state are helping shift hunters' desires from harvesting the first buck they see to something more substantial.
"People will want to kill better bucks and with the regulation changes we've made this year and probably will make in the years to come, it will bode well for deer and deer hunters in Oklahoma."
And that should mean that the Sooner State's deer hunters had better start saving their pennies to pay not only for meat processing but also for rising taxidermy bills. Not to mention picking out a spot on the wall for an Oklahoma trophy.
Because in Oklahoma, the deer-hunting picture is bright enough now and for the future that it should only be a matter of time before the buck of a hunter's dreams appears in front of his deer stand.
Find more about Oklahoma fishing and hunting at: OklahomaGameandFish.com