Oklahoma's 2008 Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Oklahoma's 2008 Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Big deer sporting big antlers can show up anywhere in the Sooner State, arguably -- but the locations pinpointed here have proved that, year after year, they can produce trophies. (November 2008)

I'll admit it: I have an affinity for big bucks. Though I've hung my tag on some respectable animals in several states, I've yet to take a real monster. However, last season I took two of my best bucks ever. Although neither made the record book, they were trophies to me.

During blackpowder season, I headed southwest at the invitation of Jay Jack of Double J Outfitters -- (580) 591-1181 -- in Roosevelt. Jack's hunting grounds are in the foothills of the Wichita Mountains, where for four days, Razor Dobbs, a videographer from San Antonio, and I were serenaded by bugling elk.

Three days of my hunt were vexed by a full moon, with game cameras recording some incredible bucks moving between midnight and 3 a.m. When we were in the blind, the area's bucks were obviously bedded.

On the final morning of my hunt, the clock had ticked to the final hour. Without warning, a 10-point buck sporting a pair of drop tines appeared 30 yards away. The buck seemed to sense danger and began trotting across the wheat field as I leveled my frontloader on his shoulder.

At 150 yards the deer stopped perfectly broadside and I dropped my best Okie buck ever.

A few weeks later, during rifle season, my wife Donna and I watched a tall, heavy-horned typical walk through tall gras, offering only brief glimpses of his outstanding antlers -- an incredible set of bone that would score high in the Cy Curtis Record List.

This season should prove a great time for trophy-conscious Sooners to bag some dynamite bucks. Some hunters will seek big-bodied deer so they'll have enough venison to stuff their freezers. Others, however, seek the Holy Grail of deer hunting: a monster-racked brute to adorn a wall in their homes.

Whichever route you choose, you can be confident that ample rainfall has left our deer herds in tiptop shape. So before you head to the deer woods, read what we've compiled here concerning the state's top trophy-producing areas.

Before you hit the woods in search of a trophy, maybe you should set some parameters for just what it is you're after. Some hunters consider any deer taken after a long stalk a trophy; others want a buck with enormous antlers; I like bucks with unusual antlers. Still others might define a trophy as a buck with a heavy body weight, and some of our counties seem to yield heavy deer consistently.

A famous whitetail authority once said that big bucks are where you find them. Another expert noted that you can't take big bucks on property lacking the potential to grow them. So where does a serious deer hunter look for a monster buck in Oklahoma?

A trophy truly is in the eyes of the beholder. Big antlers look impressive when prominently displayed on a trophy shoulder mount, but an animal doesn't have to be eye-popping huge to be considered a trophy.

Particular spots in the Sooner State yield deer big enough to be put on the Cy Curtis records list. The bucks that qualify for the state's deer awards program certainly rate description as trophies.

A typical buck must net 135 points to be entered in Cy Curtis. A non-typical, or largely abnormally antlered deer, must score at least 150 after deductions. The records we had examined at press time showed that 140 deer chasers took bucks last season that were worthy of entry in Cy Curtis. However, as entries trickle in, that number will undoubtedly edge up. The real irony is that I know of several law-abiding hunters who tag huge bucks each season but shun notoriety, and therefore refuse to have their antlers officially scored. Who knows how many more hunters like that may inhabit our state?

Last season some outstanding typical bucks were taken -- two vying for the top spot in the Cy Curtis records and toppling Larry Luman's Bryan County buck. Jason Boyett and John Ehmer took phenomenal bucks in Pushmataha County scoring 192 5/8 and 194 0/8 respectively.

(Editor's Note: For full details on those two giants, the hunters who killed them and the stories behind the hunts, see "A Tale Of Two Records" elsewhere in this issue.)

This southeastern county produces its fair share of record-book bucks, with nearly 250 entries in Cy Curtis and seven bucks qualifying for Boone and Crockett -- four typicals and three non-typicals. The standards for that record-keeping organization are a minimum net score of 170 for typicals, and 195 for non-typicals.

For me, non-typicals conjure up a wild feeling that reflects the ruggedness of the outdoors. Gnarly, sometimes outright deformed, such antler formations can only leave you to wonder what caused the unique shapes. Some non-typical points are genetic traits passed on by dominant bucks; other abnormalities result from accidents or injuries while the animal was in velvet.

Scoring a non-typical rack can be a trying proposition sometimes requiring a panel to agree on the specific measurements to be taken. Non-typicals are scored first on their basic typical frame, and then the measurements of abnormal points are added to get the final score.

Baler Stewart took last year's highest scoring non-typical -- a gnarly, wire-wrapped 32-pointer from Jefferson County. The incredible buck is the largest ever taken in that southern county. Stewart's unique 228 7/8-inch muzzleloader buck was featured in the October issue of Oklahoma Game & Fish.

Rick Burden of Weleetka also connected on a wide-racked 19-pointer in Okfuskee County that scored 200 2/8 inches. Like Stewart's buck, Burden's monster non-typical was also taken by means of a blackpowder weapon. It holds the distinction of being the highest-scoring buck ever recorded from that county.

Samuel Barrett took a 17-point buck in Johnston County during gun season that's a mere half-inch smaller than the largest buck ever taken there. Barrett's amazing whitetail carried a rack more than 20 inches wide.

More than 50 counties yielded Cy Curtis-qualifying whitetails last season. The top counties, tying with nine entries apiece, were Pittsburg and Pushmataha, followed closely by Seminole with eight. Those counties are all in the rugged southeastern part of the state, which had the most regional entries. The best Pittsburg County buck was a 192 6/8-inch non-typical taken by Kyle Wilkins during early archery season.

The next-best county, with six bucks, was Hughes, which has placed more than 200 bucks in Cy Curtis. It was followed closely by Payne and Woods counties, yielding five bucks each. Oklahoma and Grant counties had four bucks apiece.

Counties coming in with three Cy Curtis entries were Atoka, Caddo, Cherokee, Garvin, Jackson, Johnston, Kingfisher, Latimer, Logan, MacIntosh, McClain, Okfuskee, Pottawatomie, and Woodward.

Although all 77 Oklahoma counties boast good populations of whitetails, not all counties routinely produce big-bodied deer. While big-bodied deer can show up in anyplace as an anomaly, some counties historically yield heavy deer.

Why are there big deer in some places and not others? I posed that question to Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation wildlife research technician Jerry Shaw. An infinite source of information on numerous species of Sooner wildlife, he knows a lot when it comes to white-tailed deer and their habits.

Shaw believes that if a hunter is after a heavyweight deer, he should concentrate on one of our far northwest counties -- Beaver, Harper, Woods, Dewey, Alfalfa, Major or Woodward. There, deer weighing more than 200 pounds have become commonplace.

"The reason that the deer grow larger in the northwest part of the state," he said, "is because the soils in that region have more minerals, which in turn provide better forage for the area's whitetails."

Shaw said that although much of the extreme northwest is open country with rolling sandhills, the best hunting usually is found near the wooded river bottoms. These riparian sanctuaries are typically populated with good numbers of deer.

With three distinct elk herds and an exploding population of whitetails now in all 77 counties, our state is fortunate to have mule deer on its big-game résumé. Though confined to a few northwest counties and the Panhandle, these plus-sized deer behave much differently than whitetails.

Several years ago my brothers and I drew a hunt at the Beaver River WMA in the Panhandle. This vast WMA is composed largely of open country dotted with draws and a few creek bottoms. On that hunt, my brother Ronny tagged a mule deer buck and we saw several others.

A friend of mine, Harold Fisher, hunted Beaver WMA a few years ago and had his muzzleloader misfire on a mulie buck that, he claimed, had a rack nearly 3 feet wide!

According to Wade Free, the ODWC's northwest region wildlife supervisor, the Panhandle and some of the northwest counties are home to small populations of mule deer. "Most of the best mule deer country is in Cimarron County and is privately owned or leased," he said. "There have been some good mule deer taken up there."

Last season, 228 mule deer were checked in, the majority, 103, taken in Cimarron County. Beaver and Texas counties each reported 37, with a few stragglers checked in from Woodward, Woods, Harper, and Ellis counties.

Oddly, hunters armed with blackpowder weapons or rifles who are out after mule deer aren't permitted to take does. But it seems that most who make it a point to hunt specifically for mule deer are after a buck with a rocking-chair rack anyway.

The largest mule deer that Free heard of last season field-dressed at 242 pounds. He also reported that an archer took a mulie doe that tipped the scales at 177 pounds.

Two public hunting areas in the Panhandle -- Optima and Rita Blanca WMAs -- harbor fair numbers of mule deer. Free regards their habitat as marginal.

The state's all-time top typical mule deer, an impressive 5x5, was taken in Cimarron County by Curtis McBrien; it scored 180 1/8. The state's top non-typical -- a massive 9x7 killed in Woodward County by Chris Hensley -- scored 215 0/8.

Now you know the facts on where trophy bucks were taken last season -- and knowledge is powerful when it comes to choosing your autumn hunting grounds. So consider some additional things that you can do to improve the odds of taking a big buck.

Some areas of Oklahoma currently exhibit a 20-to-1 doe-to-buck ratio -- too high, in the view of most biologists. We should be taking more does in those counties, not shooting immature bucks. To reach its trophy potential, a buck should attain at least 4 1/2 years of age. Taking antlerless deer for meat and leaving young bucks to mature just makes sense when the desired effect is to produce more trophy-sized racks in the herd.

According to the ODWC, bucks need adequate year-round nutrition to grow trophy racks. Deer need a minimum of 9 percent crude protein in their diets to maintain a healthy weight; to produce a trophy rack, a buck needs 16 to 18 percent crude protein. Genes play an important role in antler size, but the most important factors are age and nutrition.

Deer cameras can play a role in managing whitetails. Strategically sited, these devices can record vivid images of whitetails that might never have been seen otherwise. Numerous lottery-type hunts in the state offer hunters a better-than-average chance at taking a real trophy. Places like the Wichita Mountains NWR and the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant hold phenomenal trophy potential. These choice areas are hunted on a limited basis and not routinely open to the public. Both sites offer mature, ripe-aged bucks, some with headgear that will qualify for the Boone and Crockett or Pope & Young records.

It's interesting to note that the youngest hunter to harvest a B&C buck in the state last season was 9-year old Baler Stewart. The buck with the heaviest, gnarliest rack would undoubtedly be the 3-beamed 38-pointer taken by Marty Hyde; that bruiser scored 190 3/8. Two brothers took high-scoring Cy Curtis bucks in Jackson County -- Michael and Arlis Moon. Also noteworthy were two gals, Nancy Haney and Laura Pierce, who showed the guys how it's done by taking two monster non-typicals scoring more than 170 inches each.

Here's my last tip: Have a camera ready to take a roll of film of your trophy, whatever its size, in the field it was killed in. Those are much more desirable than ones in the bed of a truck or at home in your driveway or garage. Later, when you're reliving the moment, you'll have pictures of that buck to be proud of.

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