Oklahoma's Deer Factory

Oklahoma's Deer Factory

Scheduling a hunt in this region of the state can increase your chances of taking home the venison this season. If you don't believe it, check out these facts.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

When it comes to Oklahoma deer hunting, the northeast part of the state is the place to be.

Oh, they kill a few deer in the other three quadrants of the state. But over here where I live, in Green Country, the deer sometimes seem to grow on trees.

At this writing, the most recent county-by-county deer harvest statistics from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation are for the 2003 seasons. The department often takes about 10 months to publish their harvest information, even though other states do so within days, even hours, of the seasons' close.

If you divide the state into four quarters, using I-35 and I-40 as the dividers, then the northeast has by far the largest harvest. Just for counting purposes, I put counties like Sequoyah, which is split by I-40, in the northeast quadrant where most of the county's land lies. Counties like McIntosh, which has most of its land south of I-40, I count in the southeast quadrant.

As is nearly always the case, Osage County had the largest deer harvest of any county in the state. Some 4,981 deer were reported killed there in 2003. Now, that number alone could be misleading. To view the harvest in context, remember that Osage County is the state's largest county, about 2 1/2 times larger than the average county in Oklahoma. If you look at the harvest in terms of deer killed per square mile, Osage falls behind several other counties and is often not even in the top 10.

Osage County has about 2,304 square miles of land, giving it a harvest of 2.16 deer per square mile. Cherokee County, by comparison, has about 756 square miles and a reported harvest of 3,574 deer, or 4.72 deer per square mile -- more than twice as much as in Osage County.

If you're a bowhunter, northeast Oklahoma is definitely the place to be. Eight of our top 10 archery-harvest counties are in the northeast. Pittsburg and Caddo counties are the only non-northeast counties in that top 10. Cherokee had the largest archery harvest with 616 deer, including 336 bucks and 280 does.

Pittsburg County, in the southeast quadrant, came in second with 451 archery deer harvested. Other counties in the top 10 of archery harvest in 2003 include: Osage, 425; Delaware, 406; Sequoyah, 365; Rogers, 344; Craig, 339; Mayes, 279; Muskogee, 278 and Caddo, 244.

Enough about numbers, though. Let's talk about why northeast Oklahoma seems to hold more deer than other parts of the state. The one-sentence explanation is simply this: Northeast Oklahoma has a good mixture of forests, open fields and prairies. Southeastern Oklahoma is more densely forested. All of western Oklahoma is definitely more open and grassy. But in the northeast, there is a good mixture of both, arranged in comparatively small tracts all managed the same way.

Down in Le Flore and McCurtain and adjacent counties are plenty of deer, and there are huge tracts of land accessible to the public in the Ouachita National Forest, the Three Rivers and Honobia wildlife management areas. But there are also many places in which deer can hide in that area. Five- or 6-year-old clearcuts in the managed forests that occupy most of the Ouachita Mountains give deer excellent hiding places. The cover in some of those moderately young clearcuts is so dense that you need a machete to hack your way through; you can be within 20 yards of a deer there and never know it.

During deer gun season, so many orange-clad people roam the mountains of McCurtain County that they resemble a crowd decked out in home-team colors at an Oklahoma State University football game. Yet the success rate is far lower there than in most northeastern Oklahoma hunting areas.

My son and I have been fortunate enough to have access to a northeastern Oklahoma ranch at which we could kill a deer nearly every day if we chose to. There are often days when one or both of us may see a dozen or more bucks, and maybe as many or more antlerless deer as well. But the last couple of times I hunted in Southeastern Oklahoma on national forest or WMA lands, I hunted in camps where 12 to 15 hunters killed either no deer or maybe a single deer in the first few days of the season. I've hunted in the Ouachita Mountains without seeing a deer for days at a time.

That's not to say you can't kill deer in the southeast. There are healthy herds of deer there, and a couple of the counties -- Pittsburg, for example -- have very large deer harvests nearly every year. It's just that the habitat in those densely wooded mountains covered with overgrown clearcuts provides places where deer can hide with very little chance of being spotted by hunters.

Another factor that, no doubt, contributes to higher deer kills in northeast counties, at least when compared to most western counties, is that more people have access to hunting lands in the northeast.

In most of the western half of the state there are lots of large landholdings. Ranches encompassing several hundred or even several thousand acres are the norm out west. Some big ranches aren't open for hunting at all. Some are open to only a limited few. In a given section of Western Oklahoma land, the land may be accessible to only one or two hunters if any. The same thing is true in parts of Osage County, but in virtually all other counties in the northeast, most landowners own smaller tracts.

If a deer roams over a couple of hundred acres during a day, it's more likely to encounter a hunter in those areas where landholdings are small rather than in those areas where the private tracts are large. There are exceptions, of course, but it's generally true that more deer are killed per square mile in those areas where the land is broken up into 160-acre and smaller holdings.

Out west, where many ranches hold thousands of acres, it isn't unusual for only one or two hunters to have access to vast tracts of private land. Public land in Western Oklahoma gets hunted hard. Sometimes it's so overrun with deer hunters that the animals head over the fences to hide on neighboring private lands.

Portions of Western Oklahoma have fairly extensive tracts of blackjacks, post oaks or other trees, but in even larger areas, there are great expanses of land where "timber" is only a narrow belt along a creek or river. Other trees are those that have been planted around homesteads or in shelterbelts along field edges. In areas whose timber coverage is limited, the deer often use the timber belts for movement routes and for daytime cover. So it's sometimes easier to find deer -- to see them, at least -- out west than

it is in the more timbered eastern counties. All you have to do is search in those narrow timber belts along streams or in those shelterbelts that are made up of multiple rows of trees.

Over in northeast Oklahoma, deer are abundant, and then some. I saw four deer on my way to work this morning. I live in Tulsa County, and my route to work is all on busy arterial streets and expressways. If I really want to see deer, I can think of dozens of rural places in which I'm almost guaranteed to see multiple deer at certain times of day. We have many thousands of deer roaming every county in this part of the state. Even urban areas hold deer.

In some areas around lakes and in state parks the deer are so abundant that they become pests. They eat ornamental plantings and vegetable gardens in those communities that have grown up around the lakes. They make driving at night in the residential streets of those communities downright dangerous.

As a hunter, I love it. I'm old enough to remember when there were few deer in Oklahoma. I grew up in northwestern Oklahoma, and I can remember when we got excited just seeing a deer track in the sand, much less seeing an actual deer. In my hometown, if anyone killed a deer in the fall, he was bound to get his picture in the newspaper. You could count on your fingers the number of people there that actually killed a deer in any given year.

That started to change in the 1970s. By the 1980s, deer were amazingly commonplace. By the 1990s they were downright plentiful!

Even after I was an adult and was writing about hunting and fishing for a Tulsa newspaper, we talked about how "someday" we'd kill as many as 10,000 deer a year in Oklahoma. Of course, now we do kill that many or more in a year. But it wasn't all that long ago that the harvest was much, much smaller.

Following are excerpts from a timeline created by the state wildlife department. They show some of the changes in the state's deer herd and deer harvest over the years.

  • 1917 -- Total statewide deer population estimated at 500 animals. Legislature bans deer harvest.

  • 1933 -- First regulated deer season of five days held in seven Southeast counties, taking 235 bucks.

  • 1943 -- Deer restoration program started with the trap-and-transplant of 22 deer.

  • 1946 -- First archery season of one day's duration held. No deer harvested.

  • 1949 -- Fourth archery season, now five days long, results in the state's first buck taken by bow and arrow.

  • 1954 -- First statewide gun deer season, five days in length, results in harvest of 1,487 bucks.

  • 1970 -- Statewide nine-day deer gun season. Total harvest of 6,882 bucks.

  • 1972 -- Nine-day deer gun season with all open counties and two-day antlerless season. Total harvest, 7,670 deer.

  • 1976 -- Department begins broad-scale antlerless harvest in 19 counties by issuing antlerless permits by special drawing. Total harvest, 11,548.

  • 1982 -- Antlerless permit system replaced by antlerless deer days available to all hunters. Total harvest, 19, 255.

  • 1990 -- Statewide deer population estimated at 250,000 deer. Total harvest, 44,070.

  • 1999 -- Statewide deer population estimated at 425,000 deer. Total harvest, 82,500.

  • 2000 -- Deer population levels spawn a multitude of stakeholder desires and management possibilities. For the first time deer harvest numbers tops 100,000.

  • 2003 -- Gun deer season extended to 16 days statewide. Total harvest is 100,602, 43 percent of it does.

    You can see how the harvests have climbed. And, year after year, harvests in the northeast counties have been at or near the top of the lists.

    There are many tracts of public lands available to hunters in the northeast. We don't have those huge areas like the Ouachita National Forest or the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area in the southeast, but we have lots of lands around U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes, plus a few state-owned WMAs.

    The Cherokee WMA east of Muskogee always produces deer. In 2003 the Game Management Area portion of Cherokee yielded 88 deer and the Public Hunting Area portion produced 144. The open lands at Camp Gruber, adjacent to Cherokee WMA, produced 183 deer. A few miles farther east, Cookson Hills WMA produced 41 deer.

    Just north of Muskogee, Fort Gibson WMA produced 101 deer. The Fort Gibson Waterfowl Refuge area, open for a draw hunt only, produced 41 deer.

    Copan WMA north of Bartlesville produced 41 deer. Hulah WMA up in Osage County northeast of Pawhuska produced 144. A few miles farther east, Kaw WMA produced 274 deer.

    Keystone WMA produced 60. Oologah WMA produced 40, and the two Osage County WMA units -- Rock Creek and Western Wall -- produced 45, while the Spavinaw refuge portion produced 76 deer, and the adjacent PHA land, 10.

    Some WMAs are open only to hunters who draw a permit in the annual "bonus" hunt drawings. Others are open first to draw-in hunters, then later to everyone. Some tracts are open to anyone and at any time that statewide seasons are open.

    There are still more public tracts, other than the ones listed, open to hunting. Most are around U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes. Some public tracts have restrictions on the kinds of firearms that can be used for hunting, so it's a good idea to check the current Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklet or go to the ODWC's Web site, www.wildlifedepartment. com, to check the area-specific regulations.

    Bow season opens Oct. 1. If you plan to hunt early in the archery season in northeast Oklahoma, it might be helpful to do a little scouting beforehand. If you're fortunate enough to have any oaks in the white oak family on your hunting ground, focus your hunt around those trees. White oaks tend to drop their acorns much earlier than red oaks, and common white oak family trees like chinquapins, bur oaks and the actual white oaks, are often dropping acorns by the end of September in Green Country.

    If you're a meat hunter, this definitely is the part of the state where you're most likely to fill your freezer.

    Lots of creatures, including deer, like to dine on white oak acorns, which are often bigger and less bitter than the red oak nuts that fall later. Both my son and I have killed deer early in the fall by putting our bow stands on ridges where white oaks were dropping acorns.

    When you get west of the Neos

    ho River, white oaks get scarce, but between that river and the Arkansas border there are many wooded areas where white oaks are common.

    By muzzleloader season (Oct. 22-30 this year), white oak acorns are usually starting to disappear from the forest floor. And before modern gun season (Nov. 19 to Dec. 4), red oaks are dropping their acorns -- if they have any to drop.

    I started this article by bragging about how many deer we kill in northeast Oklahoma. I would like to point out, though, that we don't have nearly as strong a hold on the trophy buck market. In any given year, there are higher-scoring trophies killed in the other quadrants. Most of the highest-scoring entries in the trophy record books come from Western Oklahoma. And some darned good ones come from the southeast.

    That's probably because we kill so many bucks at younger ages in the northeast. I recall one year when check station data indicated that about 85 percent of the bucks killed in northeastern Oklahoma were 2 1/2 years old or less. In that same year, there were a much higher percentage of 4-1/2- and 5 1/2-year-old bucks killed in the southeast.

    I don't mean to imply there are no trophy bucks around here. If you'll go stand at a busy check station in Osage or Craig or Cherokee County on opening day, you're likely to see several outstanding bucks hoisted on the scales. But there are a lot more young bucks with small racks in the harvest in Green Country.

    If you're a meat hunter, this definitely is the part of the state where you're most likely to fill your freezer. It's not uncommon for serious hunters to fill their season limit of deer in this neck of the woods.

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