While Oklahoma didn’t produce bucks in 2018 which threatened to top state-record status like those No. 2 and 3 bucks killed in recent years, it still produced a mass of big-antlered bucks and should again in 2019.
Taxidermists from Tulsa to Oklahoma City commented not only on the overall numbers brought in last season but also on the number of bucks in the 150- to 160-inch-plus range, including archery season bucks.
Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) Big Game Biologist Dallas Barber said the size and number of deer reflect another year of good weather conditions and habitat, and hunters who are letting young bucks walk.
“We have a strong and healthy population and obviously a lot of trophy bucks out there,” Barber said. “People are figuring out how to take advantage of that.”
THE GHOST BUCK
David Mass, the manager of a 6,000-acre ranch in Latimer County, credits his connection on a buck he called “The Ghost” to his “full-time obsession” with bowhunting.
No stranger to big bucks, Mass and his father own the annual Backwoods Hunting and Fishing Expo, which sponsors the state’s biggest big-buck contest each March. This year, Mass brought his 8-point, mainframe typical, arrowed in 2018, to be measured. It grossed 183 3/8 and netted 171 3/8 inches.
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“The Ghost” is one of many that have shown him just how secretive a big Southeast Oklahoma buck can be, he said. As manager on the ranch, he is outdoors day after day, but in four years he never laid eyes on that buck — not until the moments before he drew down on it. It would disappear from cameras for months at a time, he said.
Southeast Oklahoma provides plenty of hiding places.
“It’s mountainous and it’s nothing but pine trees,” Mass said. “There are no food plots or places where you can get up high and glass areas with binoculars or a spotting scope. It’s thousands of miles on your boots and thousands and thousands of trail camera photos.”
He hunted hard for the buck in 2017. Its rack was “huge,” and he figured it was 6 1/2 years old.
“It was disappointing,” Mass said. “After he disappeared that season, I thought he would be dead, and I never would see him again.”
But his Southeast specter turned up on cameras in July 2018 and the hunt resumed for a buck older, wiser, and with a smaller rack.
The game changer that led to success with his bow — during the rifle season — was, Mass said, a wealth of cellular cameras he leaves out year-round. Now he checks cameras remotely and visits hunting spots only when necessary and only if the wind is right. He had narrowed The Ghost’s main home range to about 200 acres. Still, his appearance came as a surprise.
“It was actually about the worst day you can imagine, 20-mph wind and it was about 75 degrees, and then he came in about an hour and a half before dark, so, really early,” he said.
The sound of his range finder accidentally making contact against a plastic clip on his safety harness almost spoiled things.
“It was just a slight noise, but an old buck like that, it was something he knew wasn’t a natural sound and he zeroed in on me,” Mass said.
When the buck finally turned broadside at 20 yards, Mass drove a three-blade mechanical point into the sweet spot.
“I watched the fletching sink in right behind the shoulder,” he said. “When he ran off, I could hear him crash. I think I waited maybe 15 minutes before I got down. I could barely wait that long to go and finally lay hands on him.”
A TRADITIONAL TEN
Shiloh Butts is a traditional archer with numerous titles from shooting competitions in Oklahoma and Texas, but he still aims to bring his deer within 15 yards. His November 2018 Johnston County buck was in that range — plus a mile and a half — and another new archery “tool” came into play for recovery of his trophy 10-point typical.
“I put a tape on it and called it 150 (inches),” Butts said. “It might be five inches more or five inches less, but the thing is he’s perfect in my mind. I’ve shot a lot of really nice bucks but never one this clean and of this size. It’s definitely top of the list as prettiest.
“And he was definitely bigger two years ago, by 10 inches or more,” he continued. “He was starting to fall off in his older age.”
He watched the buck on trail cameras for four years, but it disappeared in 2017.
“The area I hunt is kind of known for poaching, so I thought it was dead,” he said.
Then came the last day of muzzleloader season 2018. Butts shot a nice buck in the morning and, on the way out of his area, he pulled trail camera cards and found the 10-point buck had returned.
“He had been through there that morning, about 15 minutes before I pulled the card,” he said. “As soon as I saw that picture, I told my wife, ‘I’m coming back in here this evening to kill that buck.’”
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In the rolling cattle country of south-central Oklahoma, Butts concentrates on intercepting bucks as they pass through timbered, brushy areas. He uses tree stands but keeps them only about 8 to 12 feet up for the most advantageous shooting angle. He brushes them in and, this year, he started wearing leafy camouflage.
“You get that little bit of natural movement of a leaf if the wind blows instead of being just a motionless blob up there,” he said.
After years chasing the old buck, this time it came right on cue, along with a smaller buck and a doe.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I’d get a shot,” Butts said. “It circled around and came in behind me at about 13 or 14 yards. There was no way to stand up, so I turned in my seat. I couldn’t get squared away. It was definitely an awkward shooting position.”
The shot from his 67-pound-pull longbow drove a 2-inch-wide broadhead about 4 inches behind the shoulder and it exited low, “about where the brown meets the white,” he said.
Enter a long wait, a long night, and something new: his beagle, Beau, which he trained as a blood tracker. The 2018 season marked the second in Oklahoma where blood-tracking dogs have been legal for use in the recovery of a deer. After a 4-hour wait, Butts used Beau to track the buck a half mile to a field of tall grass. To his great surprise, it stood and walked off, so they backed out until morning to look again.
“I definitely would not have found him without Beau,” he said. “He went another mile, in a giant circle, we ended up 180 degrees from where I expected him to be.”
Braden Wagner has hunted Jackson County all his life. He shot his first buck at 13 but years passed before he got the two biggest bucks of his life, just seven days apart, on Oct. 7 and 14, 2018. The smaller was 155 inches, the larger 165.
“Almost literally, right out my back door,” he said. “The two biggest ever in my life.”
In the relatively flat lands of Bermuda grass pasture, broken up by patches of scrub oaks and cottonwood-dotted tree lines here and there, Wagner and his wife built a home on 60 acres.
With a big, wrap-around porch, he decided to put in a food plot for some at-home wildlife viewing.
“I ran a strip, planted some wheat and threw a camera up,” Wagner said. “Before I knew it, I had six shooters on camera, and one was real big old buck.”
He got a little more serious about it from there. He leased an adjacent 160 for hunting in 2018, and he created other food plots with wheat and turnips.
But he was still close to home. “I can see the roof of my house from the tree stand,” he said.
It’s not a heavily hunted area, he said. An aerial view of the land would show a lot Bermuda grass and pasture and just a few patches with chinaberry, black locust, oaks, a few cottonwoods and sagebrush.
“On the whole section there are two stretches of trees about 200 yards wide, one on one side and one on the other,” he said. “Those are the only trees on the place. The rest is Bermuda grass.”
His first buck, on Oct. 7, was the easy one. Walked right in on one of the 2-acre food plots.
“He was 7 yards when I shot him,” he said.
A week later, he almost didn’t go hunting and had offered the stand to his father, but the weather was ugly, and rare, for Southwest Oklahoma in October.
The afternoon found him 20 feet up in a dead cottonwood, exposed to near-freezing temperatures, wind, rain and sleet.
“I had on every stitch of clothes I own,” he said.
Without much cover, he stood up at the first sense of something moving in the brush about 90 yards away, at the edge of the food plot.
“At about 3:15 I look up and the first one that walks out is big and it’s followed by six other bucks. It was quite a sight, I wished I had a camera,” he said.
He stood, shivered and watched the bucks meander around the food plot below. He worried about how much he was shaking as the distance slowly narrowed to about 22 yards, he said.
“Finally, he comes in broadside for a shot and I let one fly,” he said. “I must have got lucky because I know I was shaking bad with buck fever. But it couldn’t have been a better shot, he went about 45 yards and dropped.”