As updates on the current whitetail season continue to roll in, one place seems to be popping up frequently in big buck updates on such Internet hotspots as the North American Whitetail and Game and Fish magazine web sites.
What place is that? The state of Oklahoma, a spot well known for its college football and increasingly, for its big buck prospects.
The Sooner State’s top-notch deer hunting was chronicled earlier this year by longtime North American Whitetail editor Gordon Whittington, one of the country’s most knowledgeable whitetail authorities:
“Although somewhat off the radar for hunters outside the region, the Sooner State really is one of the best places for chasing big deer,” wrote Whittington. “In short, it’s still a bit of a “sleeper,” and those are becoming harder to find all the time.”
If the Sooner State remains a sleeper in the whitetail world, that status is increasingly threatened as news of huge bucks continues to roll steadily out of Oklahoma.
Last year, it was a one-two archery punch with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Cy Curtis Awards program that saw the state’s bowhunting record get challenged twice in a two-day period.
First, Moore, Okla. bowhunter Jeffrey Parker downed a massive 245 5/8-inch bruiser from Cleveland County on Nov. 10, 2016, a buck that is now the new Cy Curtis archery record. Two days later, Lawton, Okla. archer Jeff Ocker nearly wrestled the benchmark away with his Nov. 12, 2016 non-typical that scored 245 2/8-inches from Comanche County.
If anything, the big buck parade continues to impressively roll on this fall with a number of potential Pope and Young Club record caliber whitetails already showing up in the early archery season, not to mention the state’s muzzleloader campaign.
From a 230-inch caliber buck reportedly killed in a vehicle collision near Edmond to a pair of possible Boone and Crockett Club caliber bucks taken by hunter near the South Canadian River – from the same ladder stand, no less – to a massive smokepole bruiser tagged near Coalgate, this has already been another memorable deer campaign in the Sooner State.
And that’s not to even mention a rush of other good bucks in the 150, 160, 170 and 180-classes, big deer that are appearing frequently in grip-and-grin hunter photos being posted on social media sites.
With the heart of the state’s November rut approaching – not to mention Oklahoma’s upcoming modern firearm hunt – odds are that there is even more big buck news that will come rolling out of this prairie state on the southern end of the Great Plains.
Which begs a question – why does the Sooner State suddenly seem to be so good?
ODWC big game biologist Dallas Barber says that there are several reasons.
“Obviously, we’ve seen some significant improvement in our habitat over the past couple of years,” said Barber. “And that’s definitely making a big impact in our antler growth.”
There’s also the state’s genetics – it lies between Kansas and Texas, two states known for producing big whitetails – and a modest sized herd of approximately 530,000 whitetails that never really eat themselves out of house and home.
Barber, an Oklahoma State educated biologist from the Stillwater area, is also quick to point out that the state’s hunters are buying in to the ODWC’s four-year education campaign, one that encourages hunters to target more mature whitetail bucks during the state’s lengthy archery season, its nine-day long muzzleloader season and it’s two week long modern firearm season.
“Our agency used to encourage hunters to take does to help us keep our deer herd numbers in balance with what our state’s habitat can support,” said Barber. “But back in 2013, that changed to our current slogan “Hunters in the know let young bucks grow.”
As with any change that comes from a government agency, Barber admits that not everyone in the Sooner State was in favor of that idea a few years ago.
“Most of the time when you suggest some sort of change, there is at least some resistance,” he said.
But since Barber’s predecessors in the state’s big game biology office (Mike Shaw, Jerry Shaw, Erik Bartholomew and Emily Clark to name a few) pushed education and public relations instead of regulation change, the current biologist says that the state’s deer hunting crowd has increasingly bought into the concept.
“We don’t really want to manage with regulations if we can help it,” said Barber. “We’d rather manage with education. That’s what we like to do and why we choose slogans, then we try and market them as best we can.”
Does such a management approach work? Barber believes that it does.
“Since we began this push back around 2013, we’re now starting to see the results,” said the ODWC biologist. “A lot of our hunters are managing their own farms, talking to their neighbors, and in general, having something to do with all of it (deer management).”
Is there much in the way of proof to back up such a claim? Well consider that out of last year’s total deer harvest figure in Oklahoma of 99,023 whitetails – including a total buck harvest of 62,595 – the trends were certainly supportive of that idea.
“Age structure is really important for growing mature bucks that have better antler quality,” said Barber. “(And) last year (2016) was some of the best we’ve seen in terms of hunters moving in that direction. We had the lowest harvest total of 1 ½ year old bucks that we’ve seen in a long, long time. And it was also the highest harvest of 3 ½ year old bucks we’ve seen.”
How high can Oklahoma’s increasing reputation for big bucks go? Is another state record caliber buck – or maybe even a world record caliber kind of whitetail – possible over the next few years?
“In this profession, there is no such thing as either 100-percent or zero-percent,” laughed Barber. “So there’s a chance, I guess. Yeah, it would be a surprise if a world-record caliber whitetail were to show up here, but then again, I kind of figure that there might be something that size hiding around somewhere in our state. We’ve got a lot of good places for deer to live and grow.”
Whether the Sooner State keeps shaking up the whitetail world with increasing big buck news flashes, impressive social media posts and magazine stories in spots like North American Whitetail and Oklahoma Game and Fish, that remains to be seen.
But so far, the ODWC biologist in charge of the state’s whitetail herd likes what he is seeing.
“I’d like to see it continue for as long as possible,” said Barber. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, the trend has been going up fairly steeply. I’m sure that it will level off at some point, but I’d like to think that it will go up for at least a little while longer.”