Inside Oklahoma's Blitz of Trophy Bucks
August 07, 2018
Recent seasons have produced a flurry of trophy bucks in Oklahoma. Here's a look at some of the best, and why they are becoming so prevalent.
By Kelly Bostian
Moving on is necessary in life, and it sure is a part of deer hunting. Dwelling on what the past has been, or might have been, must yield to what the future can hold.
After the past two years, Oklahoma deer hunters might just want to bear that in mind as the bow season opener (Oct. 1) draws near. Only those not living under rocks the past two years know that bucks killed in the 2016 season raised eyebrows, and the 2017 season was literally unbelievable.
The latter season produced more 195-plus-inch bucks (the minimum for Boone & Crockett Club All-time Awards) than any season in the past. That is, unless hunters were very good at keeping their successes quiet in previous years. A slim possibility indeed.
Three of the top 5 non-typical bucks now listed in the state's Cy Curtis big game records list were taken the past two years, and an Ellis County typical that netted 185 1/8 notched No. 4 all-time honors on the Cy Curtis list. Bryan Bayless' buck was the first to crack the typical top 5 since 2011. Its gross score was 220 4/8, by the way.
The state's busiest and most dedicated Boone & Crockett official scorer, George Moore of Arcadia, battled with some social media naysayers and non-believers as he tallied the numbers on 37 bucks that grossed over 200 inches.
Moore said the most he had measured in that rarefied air previously was in 2016. There were only four, but among those was Brad Julian's Oklahoma County buck. That freaky, heavy 3-by-3 mainframe was a Facebook buster with so many points it looked spooky. That set of antlers netted 216 1/8.
As good as 2017 was, there were some near misses and some real heart breakers. But that's the way it is when you're in pursuit of 200-inch-plus bucks. It's heartbreak or absolute joy.
The question is, will 2018 be even better? Will it be about the same? Or will history record 2017 as a statistical outlier, a fluke?
Common thinking is that Oklahoma has crossed a size marker that is now established. It used to be that anybody's 180-incher would've been the talk of the county for weeks; now it takes 200 inches to earn a mention at the corner cafe.
"It does seem a new bar has been set," said Dallas Barber, big game biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "I think it's definitely possible to have that kind of season again the next season, but there always are a lot of factors that can play into it."
The big-buck seasons followed two good years of wet springs, which followed several years of widespread drought that thinned herds. Suddenly deer could really pack on some nutrients with lots of fresh growing greens. Relatively mild damp autumn and winter weather followed. Already-fat deer had plenty of mast and other foods and faced minimum environmental stress, Barber said.
Hunters in some areas, during both seasons, complained that hunting â€” particularly over corn feeders â€” proved challenging. Deer simply didn't have to move very far to satisfy their needs. They had plenty of food and water and places to loaf and bed in a small area, and plenty of tall grass and thick understory in which to hide.
South-central Oklahoma hunter Larry Wheeler said weather and his own management efforts set up his incredible, but short, season and that he has his fingers crossed for 2018 on a buck he left behind.
Hard to imagine, but Wheeler has a bigger buck on the brain even though, eight days apart in October, he punched tags on two bucks near the 200-inch mark, one 25-point buck that had 10 points left, 15 right and scored 203 1/8. The other, with 34 points, 15 left and 19 right, netted a 195 2/8 score. The pair hang in tandem on his wall.
"I still look at them and wonder where they even came from," he said.
His Canadian River bottoms hunting property in Pontotoc County grew thick, high grass in 2017 and regular rains kept the river full. Prior years had been dry in the late summer and fall. When the river is low people run up and down the exposed sandbars on ATVs. He believes the lack of traffic, combined with his own habit of causing as little disturbance as possible in managing his hunting area, plus some arrowleaf clover food plots for the deer, set up his incredible take.
He makes a practice of saving good-looking smaller bucks and he culls the ones with odd or substandard antlers. "We always had a lot of what I called unicorn bucks for a while," he said. "Four or five points perfectly normal on one side or the other and a straight spike on the other."
He tries to fill his six-deer limit each year. "I try to get all does I can and donate the meat from three of those to people who need it," he said.
He started to notice more, larger bucks in his area about five years ago, and in the days he took those two big bucks, he had eye candy all around. The real big one is still out there, he said.
"There were six other bucks in that bunch, the one bigger one that I killed I think was the dominant buck because he was mostly on his own, but there was a bigger one in the group, more points, bigger body, but it just never got close," Wheeler said.
Speaking of close, the 2017 season fell just 2 7/8 inches and one fence line short of having new No. 1 and No. 2 non-typical Cy Curtis record bucks.
The Michael Crossland buck, at 248 6/8, remains the state's top monarch. It was taken in 2004 in southwest Oklahoma's Tillman County, notably a place not previously recognized as a home of big bucks.
Now No. 2 on the list, Steven Everett's "Goliath" has 10 more points (28) and is wider than the Crossland buck, with a striking 26 7/8-inch spread. But the buck netted 2 7/8 inches short of the glory mark at 245 7/8.
Everyone who puts a close eye on the photo of Everett holding that buck notices the tip of the sweeping left main beam is broken off. Everett's story is the hare's breadth tale of the season. He documented the buck for several years, watched the buck grow, and just missed on a 60-yard archery shot on him two years earlier. It haunted him, obsessed him, he said. He was ready for 2016, but never saw the buck during daylight hours.
"Last year he was even bigger," Everett said. "He just had big stickers coming off everywhere."
With the opening of the 2017 bow season, the lifelong hunter was beyond ready to undo that miss of two seasons prior.
"I had two encounters with him, but he never got close. The second time he was coming in and it was going to happen, and 15 hogs ran in and spooked him off," he said. "I just couldn't believe it."
The season's biggest heartbreak was suffered in LeFlore County by Josh Hughes and Drake Fletcher, now known as the guys who found the Hughes-Fletcher buck, one they watched grow in trail cam photos for five years. It disappeared before the start of the season.
They later found it hanging above a creek with its magnificent 47-point antlers tangled in a barbed wire fence. On official measurement, the rack hit 257 5/8 gross and netted 250. It would have been the new state record.
Meanwhile Hughes and Fletcher are back on their properties and checking their trail cameras for what comes next.
Barber said he looks at trends like the use of trail cameras and more hunters adopting the philosophy of letting young bucks walk as indicators big bucks will continue to be more common in the future. Data shows that change to be true as the percentage of 1 1/2-year-old bucks that make up the annual harvest is decreasing, he said.
"Trail cameras are cheaper and higher quality, so a lot of people that see a mature buck on the trail cam say, 'that's the deer I'm going to go after,'" he said. "That's something that makes it easier for people to decide on passing up a younger buck."
Still, could Oklahoma really see back-to-back years like 2017, or maybe something even better?
"The safe bet is to say 'no' because so many that were harvested in 2017 were newsworthy animals," Barber said. "You can't really expect to see that many animals over 200 inches. That's a hard number to beat for any state."
But he added, "Would I be surprised if it happened again? Not in the least."
Eriq Hadley's Inspiration Buck
If there is any story of a trophy buck out of Oklahoma in 2017 that should inspire any hunter headed into 2018, it is the one of Eriq Hadley's big winner.
Eriq Hadley, a 17-year-old and first-time bowhunter from Ponca City in Kay County, popped his buck on property he hunted before and after he attended the local trade school. His mom entered it in the "180 Club" trophy buck contest with the Tulsa newspaper, a free-entry contest for any buck that grossed over 180 inches, and offering a $500 cash prize.
On the day his truck broke down and he figured he'd have to spend his taxidermy money on transmission repair, he was drawn the winner in the contest. Twenty-four hours later his rack was ready for its final scoring, netting 192 5/8 P&Y points. So, his taxidermy costs were covered.
But that's not even the best part of the story. The 17-year-old welder in training pulled this off with permission to hunt the creek-bottom side of a 10-acre property on the outskirts of town. No big lease, no charge â€” the kid just walked up to the door and asked.
He thought he would hunt from a tree stand that he welded up at school. It turned out to be uncomfortable, and he put it in a poor location where the deer could see it. Next he got a ladder stand on sale at Walmart for $50, a trail camera at the store for $25 and a neighbor loaned him a 5-gallon hanging feeder.
That was the setup that proved fatal to his trophy buck.