Where are the big bucks?
That's the question on the majority of Oklahoma deer hunters' minds as they head for the woods every autumn.
Sure, there are lots of "meat hunters" out there too — hunters who just want to put a few bags of tasty venison in the deep freeze for good eating throughout the year.
But most of us hope to find that buck with the rack that's heavy, tall, wide and bristling with tines as well.
The biggest news on the trophy buck front last fall came from Oklahoma's Panhandle, a place where deer are relatively scarce compared to other parts of the state.
But that's where Oklahoma's new state-record typical mule deer was killed by Chandler Henderson — out in Cimarron County. That's the county at the far western end of the Panhandle, and he used archery gear to bag the brute.
It was an 11-pointer that had a wide 27 5/8-inch spread and scored 191 7/8 inches.
Henderson, who lives in Texhoma in Texas County, was actually bowhunting for elk when he saw the big mulie. That buck bumped the previous first-place mulie out of the leader's slot by more than 11 inches. The old record, killed by hunter Curtis McBrien in 2001, scored 180 1/8.
While mule deer are pretty rare anywhere in Oklahoma, one killed last year in Kingfisher County managed to make it to the No. 5 spot among non-typical mule deer on the state's Cy Curtis awards program list.
The Cy Curtis program is the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's trophy deer recognition program that uses the same general scoring methods as Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young clubs, but has somewhat lower minimum qualification scores in each category.
Hunter Eric Gray from Cashion arrowed the Kingfisher County buck last November. It was a 7x7 that measured 149 6/8 inches. The No 1 non-typical mule deer on the Cy Curtis rolls is a deer killed in Woodward County in 1973 by hunter Chris Hensley of Mooreland. That impressive 6x7 scored 215 even and has been tops in that category for 42 years.
Enough of mule deer, though. Whitetails make up all but the tiniest fraction of a percent of Oklahoma's deer harvest.
There were some impressive whitetail bucks taken last fall as well. Hunters using archery, muzzleloader and modern firearms equipment all added to the Cy Curtis list with deer taken in the 2014-15 season.
It is interesting to note though, that at this writing there haven't been any trophy bucks entered that were taken after Jan. 1, during the final two weeks of archery season. All the listings at this point were bucks killed before the end of the calendar year.
Of course, not all Oklahoma hunters who harvest deer that would qualify for listings with Cy Curtis, Boone and Crockett, or Pope and Young enter their animals for consideration by those programs.
During the 15 years or so that I covered the outdoor sports for a daily newspaper, I spoke with several hunters and photographed trophy bucks that well exceeded the minimum scores needed for the trophy listing programs. But apparently those hunters never submitted their deer for official scoring.
At this writing, there have been 43 typical whitetails but only 14 non-typicals entered into the Cy Curtis rolls from last year's hunting seasons. More may have been added by the time this appears on newsstands. Hunters can enter their deer for scoring even years after a deer is killed. "Current" buck kills must be scored after the 60-day drying period that allows for slight shrinkage.
The top three typical whitetails entered in the Cy Curtis lists last year were taken by archers, and in different regions.
The best typical whitetail was actually taken in McCurtain County by a bowhunter from Texas. Danny Rackley from New Boston bagged an impressive 12-pointer that scored 179 2/8, putting it in eighth place on the all-time Cy Curtis list of typicals.
In northwest Oklahoma, hunter Andrew Hall bagged a buck nearly as good as Rackley's. He also is a bowhunter. Hall is also from out of state — Pensacola, Florida. He bagged an 11-pointer in Garfield County that scored 176 5/8.
Bowhunter Jace Dunagan from Guthrie arrowed a buck in Logan County that scored 173 0/8. Listed as a typical on the Cy Curtis rolls, the buck reportedly had 8 points on one side and 13 on the other, an unusual configuration for typical antlers.
There is no doubt that the bulk of Oklahoma's deer harvest comes from the eastern half of the state each and every year. But when it comes to trophy-antlered bucks, they seem to be spread throughout the state. Even counties that harvest only a few hundred deer each year sometimes produce high-scoring racks.
And I recall some research that was taking place back in the 1990s, when the Wildlife Department was still collecting deer jawbones and other measurements from deer at physical check stations, with which they gathered information about deer age and health. The research showed that hunters in the heavily forested, mountainous counties in Southeastern Oklahoma and along the Arkansas border were bagging more of the older bucks than were hunters in the more open counties with lots of prairie grasslands.
In central and western Oklahoma 3 1/2- and 4 1/2-year-old bucks were a very small part of the harvest. Most of the bucks taken were 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 years old, and surely had not reached their full antler growth potential.
But down in places like LeFlore and McCurtain counties, where the cover is dense and deer have lots of places to hide, the harvest included more old bucks that had reached those years when antlers were probably about as good as they were going to get.
A hunter in the woods of McCurtain County may not see as many deer as one in the prairies of Osage County, but maybe has a better chance of seeing a mature buck with bigger antlers.
On the other hand, deer tend to grow quite a bit bigger in Osage County and in central and Western Oklahoma. It's pretty typical for 18-month-old bucks in Osage County to dress out at 120 pounds or more, and for older bucks to be much heavier. Down in our southeastern counties, though, a buck with an impressive, high-scoring rack may still dress out less than 100 pounds.
The prairie deer, though, usually have more diverse food supplies, including agricultural crops, while the deer from the southeastern mountains may have more limited diets and poorer nutrition.
The best non-typical whitetail taken last year was taken in Coal County by a hunter from Weatherford, Chad Norris. His buck scored 200 3/8 and is in 53rd place among non-typicals on the Cy Curtis rolls. No bucks from last season challenged the leaders in that category.
Hunters seeking trophy bucks should be prepared to spend as much time as possible in the woods, and to pass up many small and mediocre animals. Yes, it is possible to go to the woods and see a trophy buck in the first five minutes of light on opening day, but it's not probable. Most of the hunters I've talked to through the years who killed trophy-quality bucks did so by hunting hard and long and passing up quite a few shots before taking their trophies.
One factor in recent years that has changed deer hunting for trophy hunters is the use of trail cameras.
It can be hard to pass up an easy shot on a so-so buck if you don't know there are much better bucks in the area. But when a hunter puts out a trail camera, or two or three, on his hunting spot and sees there are some much better bucks around, it is easier to pass up opportunities on mediocre bucks. That comes from knowing a real wallhanger is frequenting the area.
Trail cameras can be frustrating, too, of course. I recall the first couple of seasons my son and one of his hunting buddies used trail cams. Night after night they got photos of a couple of bucks with monstrous antlers. But the deer only appeared at 2, 3 or 4 a.m., never anytime close to legal shooting hours. They saw, and eventually killed, smaller-racked bucks and does, but the really big ones refused to show themselves except in the wee hours of the morning.
That's normal on trail cams in most situations — to see the best bucks in the middle of the night. But often as the rut approaches, those bucks start showing up after the sun is rising.
The cameras not only can show hunters that trophy-quality bucks are present, but also tell them when and where the deer are moving. In general, the cameras can be a real asset to hunters hunting bucks with high-scoring racks.
The trophy bucks that my son and his friend were seeing on their first trail cameras were in an urban area, alongside a major expressway and within a few hundred yards of businesses and neighborhoods. It might surprise some hunters to know that trophy bucks are not all that uncommon in urban areas. I've seen four or five bucks that I believe would score in the 150s or higher right around the Tulsa suburb where I live.
There are two Oklahoma County bucks — one typical and one non-typical — entered in the Cy Curtis books from last fall. George Moore from Jones arrowed an 11-pointer in Oklahoma County that scored 153 5/8. Gun-season hunter Alex Pugh from Harrah took an impressive 18-pointer, the non-typical, that scored 164 6/8. The Oklahoma City area has produced numerous trophy bucks over the years, and so has the Tulsa area.
Yes, your chances of taking a trophy buck are probably better out in rural areas, but urban-dwelling hunters should pay attention to what's around them because sometimes these urban deer herds include some awfully impressive bucks.
Timing is another big factor when hunting for trophy bucks.
Each year a few great bucks are killed in the early part of the archery season, and quite a few are killed during the modern rifle season, which always opens the Saturday before Thanksgiving. That's also when there are more than 100,000 hunters with firearms in the field. But, most of the time, the biggest and best bucks are killed during that period when the rut is peaking and most bucks are running around searching for receptive does.
At that time, which typically occurs between Nov. 8 or 9 and Nov. 19 or 20, bucks are at their most careless and are the most likely to appear in broad daylight.
Depending on the calendar, gun season may begin while the rut is still near its peak. Usually, though, by opening day of rifle season the rut is still in progress but starting to wane. Muzzleloader season can see some rutting action also, but usually is a few days ahead of the peak.
Bowhunters, though, can take advantage of the peak of the rut and be in the field in those days between muzzleloader and modern firearms seasons. That's the time when bucks are most careless and most active.
During years when I was able to spend quite a bit of time in the woods in November, I was always amazed at how many more bucks I saw each day during the peak of the rut than I saw just a few days before and after.
If you're a bowhunter in search of a trophy, I would recommend being in the woods as much as possible on those mid-November days when the rut activity is most intense.
Deer seasons last for 3 1/2 months in Oklahoma, but the best time to bag a trophy is in November.