It seems as if an eternity has passed since last year's deer hunting seasons ended. But now those three precious fall months are here and Oklahoma hunters can take to the woods again.
Archery season begins Oct. 1 and runs for 3 1/2 months until Jan. 15, 2016. Muzzleloader season opens Oct. 24 and runs through Nov. 1. The big season — rifle season — for which up to 200,000 hunters turn out each year, runs Nov. 21 through Dec. 6. There also is a late-season, antlerless-only deer hunt for rifle hunters Dec. 18-27.
Archery equipment can be used during the muzzleloader and rifle seasons, and muzzleloaders can be used during rifle season, as long as hunters comply with clothing and equipment regulations.
Those can be found online at wildlifedepartment.com, or in the current Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklet available at hunting license vendors. What do the 2015 seasons hold for Oklahoma deer hunters?
Well, the big-game managers and field biologists from the state wildlife department say that drought could still be reducing deer populations and deer harvests. Not to the extent that hunting must be curtailed, but enough so that hunters in some areas, especially our arid western counties, might still see fewer deer than they were seeing three and four years ago.
That's not to say there aren't still some areas with abundant deer populations. Drought conditions are far less severe in most of central and Eastern Oklahoma, and deer harvests remained strong in those areas while they declined out west. In fact, springtime rains this year brought much of central and Eastern Oklahoma back to near normal conditions, at least in the first half of the year.
Overall, the deer harvest increased last fall compared to the year before. At this writing, the Wildlife Department reports that 97,265 deer were checked in for the 2014-15 hunting season. That number included 57,660 bucks and 39,605 does. That's a significant increase over the 88,009 deer checked in during the 2013-14 season.
That number includes both the private land harvest and the deer taken from various state and federal wildlife management areas and refuges, and those from the controlled hunts in which hunters apply for permits in the annual lottery.
The statewide private land harvest totaled 91,164 deer and the public lands harvest totaled 6,101 deer.
Quite a few counties harvested more deer last fall than they did the previous year. In Osage County, for example, the harvest from private lands jumped from 3,755 the previous year to 4,106 last year. That was closer to the 4,947 harvested in 2012, perhaps an indication that deer numbers there are on the rise again.
Before the 2014 season, Osage County Game Warden Larry Green said that he thought the deer numbers in western Osage County were down as much as 30 to 40 percent, and so that increased harvest last season was welcome news.
Osage County is pretty much always the Oklahoma county with the highest number of deer harvested. However, it also is, by far, the state's largest county in land area. Several other counties usually harvest more deer per square mile than does Osage.
Oklahoma's far southeastern county, McCurtain, had a slight increase in private land harvest last year, jumping to 2,230 from 2,135 the previous year.
Most of the counties with notable increases in deer harvest last fall were in the eastern third of the state, coincidentally the area that has suffered least from the ongoing drought.
One county that showed a dramatic increase was Atoka, where private land harvest totaled 3,227 deer, making it the county with the second-highest harvest for the year. It increased from 2,625 the previous year.
Nine counties had harvests of more than 2,000 deer in 2014-15. That was one more than in the previous year. Five of those counties were in the northeastern region and four were in the southeast.
There were 40 counties in which the 2014-15 private land deer harvest exceeded 1,000. Only one of the state's 77 counties had a harvest of less than 100 deer. That was Texas County in the Panhandle where the private land harvest totaled only 92 animals, 75 bucks and 17 does.
As always, modern firearms hunters took the greatest number of deer on private lands. Gun hunters also took the most deer from public lands, but there, archers came in a close second.
Gun season hunters bagged 34,117 bucks and 22,575 does last fall, for a total of 56,692 deer. Muzzleloader hunters bagged 8,971 bucks and 4,468 does, for a total of 13,439 animals.
Archers accounted for nearly twice as many deer as muzzleloader hunters. The archery kill included 13,769 bucks and 11,972 does for a total of 25,741.
If you separate the state into four quadrants, using I-35 and I-40 as the dividing lines, the two eastern quadrants made up the clear majority of the harvest, as is the case pretty much every year. There are a few central and western counties, though, with pretty high numbers.
We've already looked at Osage County, but several other northeastern counties produced abundant numbers of deer for hunters last fall and winter.
Creek County, just southwest of Tulsa, gave up 2,798 deer, including 1,639 bucks and 1,159 does last fall.
Craig County was close on Creek County's heels, yielding 2,613 deer, including 1,533 bucks and 1,080 does.
Cherokee County, which is always a high-harvest county, produced 2,408 deer last fall, including 1,423 bucks and 985 does.
Delaware County, another good producer, accounted for 2,169 deer, including 1,186 bucks and 983 does.
Four southeastern counties had 2,000-plus harvests last fall.
I've already mentioned McCurtain County. The other three were Atoka, with 3,227 deer, Pittsburg with 2,819 and Pushmataha with 2,171. Several more topped the 1,000 mark, including Choctaw with 1,638, Coal with 1,494, Hughes with 1,704, Haskell with 1,564, Latimer with 1,374, LeFlore, with 1,561, Pontotoc with 1,437, Pottawatomie with 1,166, Sequoyah with 1,906 and Seminole with 1,316.
I won't go into all the numbers here, because readers can view the county-by-county harvests from archery, muzzleloader and gun seasons on the Wildlife Department's Web site (wildlifedepartment.com), but it is interesting to note that the archery kills are significantly higher in the eastern counties. Those are far more heavily wooded than central and western counties.
Apparently the denser cover makes it easier for hunters to get within comfortable bow range of the deer. In some western counties there are few places with large expanses of forests, and the dense clumps of post oaks, which form the heaviest cover in most of those areas, are too tangled and short to provide good locations for tree stands.
The eastern half of the state, with lots of tall oaks and hickories and hackberries and pines, generally offers much better bowhunting situations and opportunities.
The drought-plagued counties of north-western Oklahoma, including the Panhandle, have been even shorter on good hunting cover in recent seasons because of the weather. Even the underbrush has been scrawny and scarce in some areas for the past two or three seasons.
But there are a few counties with good harvests for the past season. Grant County hunters bagged 1,291 deer, including 673 bucks and 618 does. Alfalfa County produced 1,264 deer, 693 bucks and 571 does. Roger Mills County, which has some good public-land hunting on the Black Kettle National Grasslands, gave up 1,030 deer, 309 of which came from Black Kettle.
There are a few high-harvest counties in southwestern Oklahoma, but harsher drought conditions there in recent years have negatively impacted deer recruitment and harvests have been declining.
Caddo County had a respectable 1,479 deer taken last year, just slightly less than the 1,520 taken the year before. It was the highest harvest of any county in the region.
A couple of other southwestern counties got close to the 1,000 mark, but didn't quite make it. Grady had 991 deer killed. Stephens accounted for 963 and Beckham checked in 942.
Many Oklahoma hunters hunt public lands each fall, and accounted for 6,101 deer bagged on public tracts last fall.
The area with the largest deer harvest last fall among the wildlife management areas is actually private land owned by timber companies in Southeastern Oklahoma. But the hunting there is managed by the Wildlife Department as if it were public.
That is the Three Rivers WMA where a total of 536 deer were killed last fall, including 310 bucks and 226 does. A significant improvement over the 396 deer taken on the 203,215-acre Three Rivers WMA the previous year.
The second-highest harvest area moved up a step. The Kaw Lake WMA produced 344 deer last fall, putting it a little above the Black Kettle National Grasslands with 309. A complete list of harvest totals from each WMA in the state can be seen at the Wildlife Department's Web site.
WHERE TO HUNT?
There are many factors that go into determining the best places to hunt deer in Oklahoma. Access to leased land, family-owned land, and other private holdings probably is the most important factor, but even hunters with access to multiple and diverse hunting areas should consider other factors in deciding where to put their tree stands or blinds.
Weather is a factor and has been a major one in recent seasons. When weather is conducive to a good acorn crop, hunters can likely concentrate their efforts where there are lots of white oak-family oak trees — burr oaks, chinquapin oaks, white oaks, et al. That's where to find deer feeding when the archery season opens Oct. 1.
And then concentrate on areas where the red oak family of trees drop their acorns a few weeks later, about the time the leaves start disappearing.
I've seen extremely dry years when deer completely changed their normal movement routes and patterns in late summer and early fall, probably because various forbs were in short supply in their usual feeding spots. When rainfall levels returned to normal, the deer reverted to their old routes and feeding spots.
Paying attention to the weather, the food supplies, etc. can help a hunter place his stand or blind in a more productive spot on any given tract of land, public or private.
Hunters planning to hunt public lands this fall should study the current hunting regulations, either online or in one of the booklets available from most hunting and fishing license vendors. Regulations, open dates, equipment restrictions, and so forth can vary considerably from one public tract to the next, depending on whether it is managed federally or on a state level or on other factors.
In general, the deer populations and annual harvests are significantly higher east of I-35, but there are many places in Western Oklahoma, especially the northwest, where big-antlered bucks and numerous deer can be found.
There also are more commercial hunting outfitters and guide services operating in northwestern Oklahoma than in other parts of the state, although some guided hunts are available in pretty much every region. The state agriculture and forestry department lists a few such outfitters on a page in its Web site at traveler.oklahomaagritourism.com/producer/?categories=2.
Let's hope that last fall's increased deer harvest is the start of a trend; a reversal of the declining harvest numbers seen in recent years.
Drought conditions appear to be lessening, at least in most parts of the state, and so fawn recruitment, habitat and other things affecting deer populations may be improving. Deer harvests might be even higher this year than last!
Bowhunters, always the first group to get into the woods each fall, should soon be learning whether deer are more abundant in their hunting areas, and as muzzleloader and modern rifle seasons approach and the rut begins, deer movement should increase and give hunters an even better idea of what this season holds in store.