If you measure a successful deer season by the number of tags you fill and the amount of venison in your freezer, then you should concentrate your hunting efforts in these areas this fall. (October 2007)
Photo by D. Robert Franz.
Oklahoma's deer hunters have done it again! By bagging 119,349 deer during the 2006-07 season, they surpassed the former top harvest by an amazing 18,238 deer, setting yet another record for total kill.
Last season started off slow, with both the archery and blackpowder segments kicking off amid unseasonably warm temperatures, but finished strong, thanks to a well-established rut and good weather that translated into 16 prime days of gun hunting for our deer enthusiasts.
Sooner deerslayers have on average taken nearly 100,000 deer a year for the last several seasons, but the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation continues to look for ways to harvest even more deer to help manage the explosive growth of this prolific animal. And we've got the time for it: Combine archery, blackpowder, and gun seasons, and it's inarguable that we're afforded a lengthy season -- one spanning 107 days.
Wildlife experts put our herd at 600,000 and growing; some believe the number is much higher. Deer counts aside, though, you'll surely agree that our deer hunting is better than ever. Success rates have risen, and yet some farmers complain that the animals are destroying their crops, and would gladly welcome more hunting days to reduce depredation. However, the big sums asked by some landowners for a grant of hunting rights suggest that raising crops isn't the only way that farmers are making a living. Private hunting grounds represent a highly-sought commodity, and huntable land is leased at a premium.
Newly imposed for the 2007 season is a reduction in bag limit to two bucks total for all seasons, the ODWC's hope being that hunters will be more selective and opt to harvest older deer. This will surely elicit mixed emotions, but most hunters I've asked about the development have favored the change.
Last fall I participated in an outstanding blackpowder hunt near Hollis -- which is almost as far southwest as you can go and still be in Oklahoma -- with Bruce Mabrey of Hiroost Outfitters, (918) 756-8039. On arrival, I promptly found myself amazed at the quality of deer that this fertile area produces. The afternoon before my hunt, I saw deer everywhere, and although the weather was very warm and dry, I had high hopes for the next few days. Mabrey of course expected that I'd be looking to shoot a buck, but with both bucks and does being legal, he also encouraged me to take an older doe if the opportunity arose.
Late that afternoon, after taking a stand near a well-used wheat field, I watched several does filter onto the lush field to gorge on high-protein greens. Movement near the edge of the field drew my attention to a large doe feeding my way. When the doe was 75 yards away, I fired, filling the air with thick smoke. The doe traveled only 40 yards before collapsing. Well-worn teeth indicated she was old, and I felt good to have done my job as a wildlife manager.
Two days later, while situated in a brushy draw, I took a nice 8-point buck that walked to within 40 yards of my location; a well-placed shot from my .50-caliber rifle dropped the animal. The buck was beautiful, and I was proud to have it.
Though no absolutes apply in this life, one thing's sure: If you're an Oklahoma deer hunter, you can look forward to some of the best action ever this coming season!
TOP COUNTIES FOR BAGGING A BUCK
The state's best counties for bagging a buck are scattered. However, some historically worthwhile spots remain the same year after year. Interestingly, our top counties offer a diversity of landscapes, with habitat types ranging from tallgrass prairies to heavily wooded forests.
Here I'll list the top counties for taking an antlered deer. These counts reflect general harvest numbers, not special hunts or wildlife management area totals, which will be listed separately.
For archers, the top county for taking a buck last season was Pittsburg, which was also the top county for the 2005-06 archery season. In Southeastern Oklahoma's Jack Fork Mountains, Pittsburg County is home to one of the most-coveted trophy areas -- the McAlester Army Ammunition Depot, where bowhunters took 421 bucks in a heavily wooded county that features spectacular pine forests.
Cherokee County ranked second, with 386 archery bucks; Osage County, in the northeast, ranked third, its bowhunters taking 361 antlered deer. Sequoyah and Atoka counties came in with 333 and 260 bucks, respectively.
For blackpowder hunters, the best county for bagging a buck was again Pittsburg County, where 999 were taken. Cherokee County blackpowder hunters killed 873 antlered deer; Pushmataha County came in third, with 723 bucks. Sequoyah County was fourth with 691, followed by Atoka County with 665.
The best bet for gunning a buck down is Osage County, the largest county in the state and birthplace of cowboy actor Ben Johnson. This highly esteemed tallgrass prairie region is heavily leased, or held by large ranching operations, and access can be had by paying big bucks. Osage's annual buck harvest almost doubles the next-highest county's. Last season this notable county yielded 2,112 bucks.
Coming in second as a hotspot for gun hunting was Pittsburg, where 1,343 gun hunters were successful; Atoka was third, with 1,107 bucks taken. Creek and Cherokee counties rounded out the top five, with 1,074 and 957, respectively.
BEST COUNTIES FOR TAKING DOES
When it comes to tender, tasty venison, a fat doe is tops as table fare. An added bonus: By taking a doe, you contribute to the betterment of the state's deer herd. As the ODWC's slogan goes: "Hunters in the know take a doe."
Osage was the top county for does during the 2006 archery season, with 391 checked in. Next was Cherokee County, 329, followed by Pittsburg, 298. Placing fourth and fifth were Rogers and Atoka counties -- both popular spots for stick-and-string shooters -- yielding 250 and 230 does, respectively.
Top counties for taking a doe by means of a blackpowder gun were Osage, with 525, followed by Cherokee, 421, Pittsburg, 342, Atoka, 326, and Pushmataha, 292. For gun hunters, the top county for does was Osage whose 1,832 taken more than doubled the 894 of the next county, Pittsburg. Cherokee surrendered 874 and Craig 714; Atoka and Creek tied at 699 each.
OUR TOP PUBLIC AREAS
The state makes several wildlife management areas available to hunt
ers having no access to private land. Most of these ODWC-owned lands can boast solid numbers of white-tailed deer, but, on the other hand, can sometimes be overrun by hordes of gunners and archers.
Two fantastic options are Three Rivers and Honobia Creek WMAs. Vast wilderness areas in the southeast that hold substantial complements of deer, they open more than 700,000 acres of prime wooded habitat to hunters and are accessible for a mere $16 annual fee. These areas yielded a total of 1,739 deer and led all public spots in total harvest.
The best deer producer in our three Panhandle counties is Beaver, home of Beaver River WMA; there, 54 bucks and six does were killed last season. A fair number of mule deer also haunt the area. My brothers and I drew in on a special hunt at Beaver River some years ago, and my brother Ronny took a mulie buck.
In the northwest, last year's top public area was 31,710-acre Black Kettle WMA where 311 deer were harvested -- 190 bucks and 121 does. This spacious WMA offers great opportunities; I've hunted this area numerous times, and have never failed to see whitetails. A buck killed there that I happened to get a look at weighed 300 pounds on the hoof.
Other good northwest spots are Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, where 233 deer were taken -- 97 bucks and 136 does -- and Canton WMA, where a total of 208 deer were checked in -- 113 bucks and 95 does. Both of these refuges harbor good-sized deer, some of which weigh better than 200 pounds.
Last season in the northeast, the best bet was Kaw WMA, near Ponca City -- specifically around Kaw Lake. Hunters there took 340 deer: 173 bucks and 167 does. Two other options are Cherokee Game Management Area and Cherokee Public Hunting Area, neighboring areas that gave up 325 deer, which breaks out to 209 bucks and 116 does. Another worthwhile spot: Oologah WMA, near the town of the same name, where 179 deer -- 93 bucks and 86 does -- were downed. Other possibilities are Fort Gibson WMA and Fort Gibson WR, where 150 deer were taken -- 83 bucks and 67 does -- and Copan WMA, where 81 bucks and 48 does were harvested.
In the southeast, you can't do better than Three Rivers and Honobia Creek WMAs, which combined for a whopping 1,739 deer. Three Rivers, the larger of these fee-access areas, gave up 847 bucks and 376 does last year, while Honobia hunters tallied 516 deer -- 351 bucks and 165 does.
Other good public areas are Ouachita WMA and Ouachita WMA (McCurtain County Unit), in Le Flore and McCurtain Counties. These units combined for 854 deer -- 553 bucks and 301 does. Another bet is Hugo WMA, where hunters harvested 193 bucks and 147 does for a total of 340 kills.
Hunters in the southwest, where whitetails once were few, know that deer numbers are now at an all-time high. In a neat reversal, this region has produced two state-record bucks -- the current state record non-typical, a 248 6/8, and a heavy-horned typical scoring 18 6/8.
Southwestern deer chasers without private land access will find their choices limited to Fort Cobb WMA and Fort Cobb State Park, where hunters took 56 deer -- 24 bucks and 32 does -- Waurika WMA with 11 deer -- six bucks and five does -- Altus-Lugert WMA, where hunters took three bucks and one doe, and Sandy Sanders, where three does were harvested.
Consult the 2007-08 deer hunting regulations, as some of the previously mentioned refuges are open for individual seasons, but closed for others. Some refuges are open only for nine days of the 16-day gun season, with the nine days varying. Some refuge harvest figures are exclusively from draw-in hunts, and closed to the general public during deer season.
For a complete listing of public hunting areas, contact the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation at (405) 521-3851, or go online to www.wildlifedepartment.com. Hunting regulations can be picked up at your favorite sporting goods store.
EXPERT PREDICTIONS FOR THE 2007 SEASON
Outfitter Danny Pierce, who operates Rush Creek Guide Service, (806) 323-3030, out of Reydon, is ecstatic about the upcoming deer season. He believes that the deer hunting in the western part of the state is better today than it's ever been before. In fact, the 56-year-old resident outfitter asserted, it wasn't until he was 14 that he saw his first whitetail in this area; now, he said, the numbers are so incredible that he recently had to erect a pair of scarecrows to keep deer from eating up the garden near his home.
"The much-needed rain has significantly improved the habitat, and I am seeing good antler growth," offered Pierce. "The quality of the bucks and the number of deer in my area are as good as they've ever been. There are some real trophies here!"
Pierce applauded the ODWC's reduced buck limit and encouraged hunters to do their part by taking does. "If a hunter books a buck hunt with me, he can take his limit of does for free," he said. "I will even make someone a special deal who wants to hunt does only." The outfitter reported his hunter success rates as usually running at about 85 percent.
Outfitter Jay Jack, of Roosevelt echoed Pierce's sentiments, agreeing that the upcoming season should be awesome. "I am already seeing a lot of big bucks in my hunting areas," he noted. "With all the rain we've received, I believe we are in for another record deer season. A year like this only happens once every 20 years or so."
According to Jack, the deer population in the southwest is exploding, but it hasn't always been that way. "When I was younger I'd leave home and go north to hunt," he said. "There were few deer around here -- but now you can't drive down the road without almost hitting a deer. We have 10 times more deer than we used to have."
Jack, who operates Kiowa Creek Outfitters, (580) 639-2518, can put clients onto some exceptional hunting on more than 30,000 acres of prime land intensively managed for deer hunting. His hunter success rates run 90 percent during gun season, and 65 to 75 percent on all combined seasons.
If this season's figures mirror last year's, an estimated 81,000 archers, nearly 107,000 primitive-arms hunters, and more than 159,000 gun hunters will take to the field in pursuit of the state's No. 1 big-game animal -- the white-tailed deer.
Optimum numbers of deer will be found in every locale, so be sure to take your legal limit of does in addition to that buck!