Hunting Oklahoma's Post-Rut Bow Bucks

Now's the time to get after the bucks with bow and arrow, and these are the tactics that produce results.

A virtual army of orange-clad hunters (150,000 and more) invades Oklahoma's woods and fields each November to take part in our nine-day firearms deer season.

But that army retreats by early December. (This year gun season ends on Dec. 1.) Then it's time for the bowhunters to take over again.

But December bowhunters face an entirely different situation than what faces those hunters in the woods and fields in October and November.

December marks the waning days of the whitetail's rutting period, which typically peaks around the second or third week of November. Deer may breed as early as September and as late as January, but after mid-November fewer and fewer does are receptive to the breeding antics of most bucks.

When the rut is heating up, and during the few days at the peak of that period, all but the youngest and oldest of whitetail bucks have mostly one thing on their minds: finding receptive does and passing on their genes.

That can be good if you're a hunter, for a whitetail buck with reproduction on its mind often behaves foolishly, a trait some say is shared with human males. Bucks pursuing does, or bucks herding does that are about to come into estrus, may stroll across open areas in broad daylight - something they wouldn't think of doing during other times of the year. They may trot down well-used trails with their noses to the ground, sniffing for signs of receptive does, rather than creeping slowly down the trails with frequent stops to search the surroundings as they normally would.

Photo by Ken Thommes

But by December, most whitetail bucks are reverting to their "normal" lifestyles. That means they think chiefly about where to eat, where to sleep, and maybe about how to travel between those places without getting detected.

And when the preoccupation with sex fades, caution again rules a typical buck's behavior. Some bucks will revert to being primarily nocturnal. Some will shun open areas during all daylight hours. When traveling, they will be much more attentive and cautious than they were in mid-November.

And many will stick much closer to their seasonal food sources.

Identifying a deer's winter food sources can be perhaps the most reliable way of finding deer after the rut. Find the food and you'll find the deer.

December through early March is a tough time for deer. There is very little that's still green or growing that is tasty or nutritious during Oklahoma's winter months.

That means many deer must live mainly on stored fat, or on what scarce foods they can find after the acorns have all been eaten or infested with worms. By now, frost has killed all the tender forbs that grew in meadows and on the forest floor when the weather was warm.

In normal-weather years, much of Oklahoma has several heavy frosts by late November, and there are only a very few plants still green and tender in the woods and fields. That means deer have far fewer sources of food than they had back in September or early October.

Even though winters can be tough on Oklahoma deer, our herds are luckier than those living in Northern states, where snow can cover most of the land to depths of a foot or more throughout the winter. Up there, deer can starve to death or die from disease related to malnutrition between December and February when food is hard to find.

Oklahoma deer may lose weight and have a tough time, but it's pretty rare for deer to die from winter-related causes here.

Speaking of Oklahoma deer health, it may be pertinent to note here that the state wildlife department's governing board recently took steps to protect Oklahoma's deer herds from chronic wasting disease, which has plagued deer in other states.

The Wildlife Conservation Commission suspended the importation of deer and elk from states where chronic wasting disease has been identified in free-ranging deer. The decision followed concerns about captive herds owned by commercial enterprises and private individuals and the possible spread of diseases, particularly chronic wasting disease.

Chronic wasting disease is an infectious disease of wild and captive elk and deer that results in progressive degeneration of the brain tissue in infected animals. First recognized in 1967, the ailment is not a new disease and has been found in wild herds in limited areas of several Western and Northern states.

"Although this disease has never been documented in wild deer or elk herds in Oklahoma, this is an important proactive step to ensure the safety of the native deer herd," said Mike Shaw, wildlife research supervisor for the Wildlife Department. Shaw said the white-tailed deer is part of a rich hunting heritage in the state and also provides a significant annual economic impact. A recent survey showed that the total economic impact from deer hunting in Oklahoma exceeded $600 million annually.

Over the past three years, biologists and veterinarians have examined 399 deer and elk taken during Oklahoma's hunting seasons as part of the CWD monitoring program. All samples obtained from animals taken from the wild have tested negative. Biologists will continue to closely monitor the deer and elk herd for signs of the disease.

"This import suspension, along with the continuation of the surveillance program, will help ensure a healthy future for one of Oklahoma's prized natural resources," Shaw said.

He recommends that hunters practice standard safety practices when handling any wild game, including the use of protective gloves when dressing animals, and avoiding consumption of brain and spinal cord tissue as general precautionary measures.

But back to the subject at hand: winter deer food, and how bowhunters can use it to locate deer this month. Here are some research findings on what, exactly, our deer spend their time feeding on.

Forbs make up the largest percentage - 44 percent - of a white-tailed deer's annual diet in Oklahoma, according to research done by the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. But forbs - those myriad broad-leaf plants that grow in all but the most arid of desert climates - are available mostly in the spring, summer and early fall. When they start drying up and turning brown in winter, deer must rely on other food sources.

Browse makes up the next-biggest

category of deer food in Oklahoma. Browse is a category that includes woody plants and vines and their leaves and fruits. Acorns are a browse food. Acorns account for about 8 percent of a typical Oklahoma deer's diet, the Noble studies show.

Browse makes up 41 percent of our deer's annual diet, but it constitutes 69 percent of the autumn diet and 46 percent of the winter diet. By comparison, in the summertime, when so many green and tender forbs are available, browse makes up only about 18 percent of what deer eat.

The deer food category that takes the biggest jump from summer to winter is grass.

I've encountered hunters who believe deer never graze on grasses. They've heard the old teaching that says, "Cattle graze. Deer browse." And that's true much of the year. In the summer, according to the Noble studies, grasses make up only about 1 percent of a deer's diet.

But grasses, especially cool-season grasses such as bromes, rye, fescue and winter wheat, make up about 39 percent of a deer's diet winter diet.

One of the most important winter foods is a plant that is widespread and grows both in the woods and in the open fields: buck brush. It is also called coral berry, but it got the name buck brush for a reason - because deer eat it.

During one year of the Noble study, when acorns were still abundant late in the season, coral berry made up only 11 percent of the deer's winter diet. But in another year, when acorns became scarce by winter, coral berry was the single most preferred food, making up 31 percent of the diet.

Coral berry is important, too, because it is a fairly consistent producer. It will usually be available in all but the driest of years, and it remains tender and palatable longer than most plants as winter drags on.

Clovers, when available, are also sought after by deer in the wintertime.

And in some parts of the state, although not necessarily in the area where the Noble research was conducted, honeysuckle is a plant that deer depend on in the winter for food. Honeysuckle may stay green well into the winter after most everything else has withered and dried.

You can't discuss the winter deer diet in Oklahoma without including winter wheat. I believe it is one reason we have many more deer in some parts of Oklahoma these days. Winter wheat is not the most nutritious of deer foods, but it is green and tender during those winter months when anything green and tender is very hard to find. And it provides calories that can keep a deer going through those winter months.

Winterkills of deer are pretty rare in Oklahoma, even when we have an unusually harsh winter. Agriculture, especially the growing of winter wheat, is probably a factor in many parts of the state. Even in eastern counties that are negligible in terms of wheat production, there are numerous small plots of wheat that can help local deer through the winter. I've seen more than 80 deer grazing on one small 10-acre wheat field in Osage County on a winter evening. That was just at dark, and deer were still creeping out of the woods until it became too dark to see them. That one is the only wheat field for several miles in any direction, and it lies in a timbered creek valley. I've been tempted to purchase a night-vision device and go stake out that field just to see how many deer actually use it at night.

Since I have cited the Noble Foundation studies here on several items, I should note that the comprehensive study was based on deer in the Cross Timbers region. Native Oklahomans may remember from school biology and geography classes that the Cross Timbers in our state is an irregularly shaped belt that runs from the Red River up through the middle of the state, about 150 miles wide, bending gradually to the northeast as it reaches the Kansas border. It is an area of mixed forests and grasslands and contains vegetation types of both the eastern and western portions of the continent.

When the state Wildlife Department check station books are examined, it's readily apparent that the Cross Timbers region of Oklahoma contains most of the highest deer-producing counties each fall. Most of the actual research was done at a research facility southeast of Ada. But most of the research results can be projected to a very large portion of Oklahoma.

But enough about the research project. What does all this mean to the December bowhunter in search of a buck? It means that finding the food can be a key to finding the deer. You can sometimes find what deer are eating in December just by watching them eat. With most trees bare of leaves, a hunter in a stand, or watching from afar with binoculars, can pinpoint the plants on which deer are nibbling.

But it helps to be able to identify many of the common deer food plants in your area.

I should mention too that while we are talking primarily here about hunting for a buck, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is putting a lot of emphasis on encouraging hunters to harvest more antlerless deer in December and in the first half of January. The department says Oklahoma's deer herd is too large in many parts of the state and that having hunters harvest antlerless deer is the most desirable way of keeping herd growth in check.

To encourage the harvest of antlerless deer, the Wildlife Department this year has an antlerless-only gun season that is open Dec. 20-22 and Dec. 27-29 in much of north-central and northwestern Oklahoma and open Dec. 27-29 in much of central and northeastern Oklahoma. Archers can hunt only for antlerless deer between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15, 2003. This is the second year for those special late-season hunts. Hunters should check the current Oklahoma hunting regulations booklets for details about zone boundaries, permit requirements and the rest. Those booklets are available free from hunting license dealers or from Wildlife Department installations statewide.

The regular archery deer season in Oklahoma lasts through Dec. 31 each year, so archers who haven't already filled their buck limit can still hunt for that trophy to hang over the fireplace. And don't think that all the good bucks were killed during the gun and blackpowder seasons. There are always some exceptional bucks left alive after the blaze-orange hordes return home to spend their weekends on the couch watching football games on TV.

It's true that trophy bucks don't get big by being foolish. Most white-tailed deer don't develop their peak antler growth until at least their fourth season. Bucks that live that long are extremely lucky, live in an area where there is little hunting, or are very cautious. Or it might be some combination of the three.

Wherever there are deer, hunters can usually find a place to bowhunt. However, Eastern Oklahoma bowhunters do have an advantage over western hunters in that there is a virtually infinite selection of stand locations in the eastern counties' millions of acres of forests.

The state deer harvest figures show that the bulk of the archery harvest occurs in eastern counties. Nine of th

e top 10 archery harvest counties last fall were east of I-35.

Cherokee County was the clear winner, with 645 deer reported - 346 bucks and 299 does. In second place was Osage County, with 194 bucks and 212 does. Pittsburg County was third, with 359 deer, and Sequoyah County was fourth, with 349. In fifth place was Delaware, with 337 archery deer taken in 2001.

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