The Oklahoma deer harvest declined last year. Hunters in modern firearms, archery and muzzleloader seasons reported a total of 88,467 deer taken. That's down nearly 9,000 animals from the previous year's harvest of 97,265 and down by more than 24,000 animals from the harvest in 2011.
The peak harvest, in 2006, was 119,349, or nearly 31,000 more deer than last year.
Hunters in several areas of the state are reporting seeing far fewer deer than in previous years.
A prolonged drought that finally eased last year likely contributed to the declining deer population in recent years, especially in Western Oklahoma, which was much drier than central and eastern regions. Some hunters also thought that our Wildlife Department's "Hunters in the Know Take a Doe" campaign, which for several years encouraged doe harvests, may have contributed to reducing populations too much in their hunting areas.
The ratio of does and bucks harvested hasn't really changed much in several years, according to annual harvest reports, but some older hunters who remember the days when killing does was frowned upon still have a hard time accepting widespread harvest of does. In 2015, bucks accounted for 60.3 percent of the harvest. In 2006, the year with the highest harvest on record, bucks totaled 60.5 percent. The ratio varies slightly from season to season, but not significantly.
It appears more likely that the drought, and maybe increased hunting pressure, may be the reasons for shrinking deer herds.
On the bright side, the harvest last year didn't decline significantly in some counties. And the drop wasn't nearly as steep as the drop following the peak year, when the harvest fell by 29,000 in a single year.
Osage County, which is Oklahoma's largest county and usually has the largest deer harvest, did not decline last year. The private land harvest there was 4,317, up a little from the 4,106 the previous year.
With a few minor exceptions, most of the counties with the worst percentage decline in harvest last year were those west of I-35, and, in general, the farther west the worse the drop. But hunters in far Western Oklahoma, and the ODWC's biologists and land managers out west have been observing that decline worsen as rainfall virtually abandoned the area for several years.
I have friends who have a hunting camp in Ellis County, less than 20 miles from the Texas Panhandle, as the crow flies, who have seen only one or two antlered bucks in the last two years, after many years of seeing far more deer on their area.
The last two springs, though, have seen a little more rain in many of those counties, and range conditions are closer to normal than they have been in several years. So while it may take a few seasons for deer numbers to recover out west, if the rains continue, there is hope that the deer herds may grow again.
Oklahoma's highest harvest countie-es haven't changed that much in the the past two seasons, other than a slight re-ordering. The accompanying chart lists the counties and their harvests for last year. Osage remained at the top of the list. McCurtain County, far down in the southeastern corner of the state, jumped from seventh place to second place on the list with an increase of 420 deer over the previous year. That's good news for Southeastern Oklahoma where deer harvests were waning long before the drought period, but have stabilized and seem to be improving in recent seasons.
Delaware County jumped into the Top 10 last year with a harvest of 1,978 animals, replacing Sequoyah County on our Top 10 list. The other counties on the list also were on the previous year's Top 10.
When you look at the decline in harvests last year, broken down by archery, muzzleloader and modern firearms season, it appears that the decline was pretty similar, percentage-wise, among the seasons, probably an indication that the drop was more attributable to a smaller deer population than to a flurry of bad weather during one of the seasons.
The archery season lasts 3 1/2 months, but the 9-day muzzleloader season and the 16-day modern firearms season are much more sensitive to having foul weather keep hunters home or making their hunting experience more difficult.
Archers last year bagged 23,350 deer, including 12,598 bucks and 10,752 does. That compares to archery harvests the previous year of 13,769 bucks and 11,972 does, for a total of 25,741.
Muzzleloader hunters last fall bagged 13,998 deer, including 9,320 bucks and 4,578 does. The previous year they took 14,832 deer — 9,774 bucks and 5,058 does.
Gun hunters last season took 51,119 deer, including 31,409 bucks and 19,710 does. The year before they bagged 56,690 deer, including 34,117 bucks and 22,575 does.
The statistics show that Oklahoma archers take a much more balanced ratio of bucks to does, and that the greatest spread (percentage-wise) between buck and doe harvests goes to the muzzleloader hunters. That's probably because muzzleloader season traditionally falls in the period when the rut is building to a peak each fall and the buck deer are a bit less cautious than they are at other times.
During the 2015-16 season, 53.9 percent of the archery harvest was bucks. The muzzleloaders' harvest was 66.6 percent bucks and the gun harvest was 61.4 percent bucks, according to figures supplied by the Wildlife Department.
For 15-plus years while I was the outdoor editor of a Tulsa newspaper, I polled several consistently successful hunters, deer check station operators, WMA managers and biologists from the Wildlife Department about when they thought the rut peaked in Oklahoma.
Of course the answers varied a little from year to year, but overall the consensus seemed to be that, in most years, the whitetail rut peaked sometime between Nov. 9 and Nov. 16. My experience in the field showed me about the same. If those dates are valid, then most of the buck fighting and doe gathering goes on during blackpowder season, and a lot of the breeding is still going on during the first half of rifle season.
I believe that's why horn rattling seems to work best in Oklahoma during the muzzleloader season.
There have been years when I thought the rut peaked slightly later. I recall an opening weekend of rifle season a few seasons back when I saw bucks and does moving constantly throughout the day on Saturday and almost as frequently on Sunday. But most years I think the peak occurs right between muzzleloader and gun seasons, when only archers have an open season.
So last year's harvest declined. But what about this year? Where are the most likely places to hunt for deer in 2016-17 and be successful?
The harvest data report from last year, which should be displayed on the ODWC's Web site (wildlifedepartment.com) by the time this article appears in print, can give hunters a look at how many deer were harvested in their favored hunting spots. They can also access previous years' harvest totals to see how much harvests have increased or decreased in those areas.
The harvests are listed by method and county, and public land harvests are listed separately, to help those hunters who rely on public hunting areas or draw-in lottery permits on federal and state refuges for their places to hunt.
Hunters who apply annually for the controlled hunts on public lands can also see results of previous year's hunts and get an idea of what the success ratios have been on earlier controlled hunts.
In general, it's safe to say that central and eastern counties still offer more deer per square mile than most Western Oklahoma counties. That's a factor that hunters may want to take into account when looking for a new hunting area.
Osage County, for example, has been the state's highest harvest county for many years.
But because it is the largest county in land area, the harvest per square mile often is lower than several other northeastern and southeastern counties. With 2,304 square miles in the county, last year's harvest works out to 1.87 deer killed per square mile.
Compare that to Atoka County, fourth from the top on last year's harvest list, where the harvest worked out to 2.26 deer per square mile. There have been years when, although it still has the largest total harvest, Osage County hardly broke the Top 10 in terms of deer harvested per square mile.
And an area that is great for rifle hunting, where a prepared hunter can see and shoot deer easily at 300 yards, may be terrible for bowhunting, where, for most of us, we need deer closer than 40 yards for accurate shots. Yes, I know that with today's archery gear many hunters make longer shots, but close range is better with bows and arrows.
So a county like Osage, with lots of open prairie, may have a lot of spots that are great for gun hunting but not so good for bowhunting.
Then you have the densely wooded and hilly counties of far Eastern Oklahoma where, if you see deer at all, they're likely to be within 20 or 30 yards of you. Again, great for bowhunting but somewhat limiting if you're hunting with a scoped, long-range rifle.
In mountainous McCurtain County, for example, archers accounted for 30 percent of the harvest last year, compared to only 21.5 percent for Osage County.
So the harvest numbers aren't the only factors to consider when choosing a hunting spot. Terrain, vegetation and other factors are important as well.
The availability of crops like corn, milo and wheat can be a factor. While deer in some parts of the state rely mostly on "natural" foods — forbs and mast crops that grow on their own, others ride the gravy train and feed on standing crops or spilled harvest.
While the availability of planted crops isn't overly important for early season bowhunters and blackpowder hunters, it can become more and more important by gun season and especially by the late weeks of the archery season.
Public land harvests account for a small portion of the harvest each fall. Last year the WMA harvests added up to about 7 percent of the total state deer kill. Of course that means that 93 percent of our deer kill came from private lands.
That should tell hunters that securing a private hunting spot usually is more promising than relying on public lands. Still, there are a few WMAs and draw-in areas where hunters can see many deer, including some genuine trophy bucks. Areas like the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, where numerous hunters draw permits for hunting with traditional archery equipment, nearly always produce some Pope and Young bucks, even though the total harvest numbers there aren't high.
There were at least four WMAs that had harvests in excess of 300 deer last year. The big Three Rivers WMA in Southeastern Oklahoma accounted for 387 deer. The two portions of the Ouachita WMA accounted for 579 deer — 339 in the McCurtain County portion and 240 more in the Le Flore County portion. Kaw WMA, near the Kansas border, yielded 320 deer last fall, as did Black Kettle WMA way out in Western Oklahoma's Roger Mills County.
Pre-season scouting can be a key to locating a good hunting spot this fall. New crop plantings, disturbance of habitat by new developments, changes in mining or oil field activity, and many other factors can improve or degrade hunting prospects on any given area from year to year.
There may be good news this season. Oklahoma had one of the wettest springs in several years in 2016, and so there is a good chance that deer numbers, and maybe deer harvests, will take a turn for the better this fall. Let's keep our fingers crossed!