posted on July 27, 2004 00:00
Oklahoma Game & Fish Magazine
Hunting Oklahoma's Public-Land Bucks
This year, will you hunt deer on Oklahoma's public lands, private lands . . . or both? Here's some valuable information that should make it easier for you to decide.
By Bob Bledsoe
The good ol' days of public land deer hunting may be behind us in Oklahoma. But that doesn't mean you can't still find a buck or two.
Back in the 1960s and '70s, there were lots of government-owned lands open to public hunting where deer herds were relatively plentiful.
There were wildlife management areas where draw-in hunts yielded success rates of 50 percent or better.
I killed my first archery deer on public land. It was on the public hunting portion of the Okmulgee Wildlife Management Area. I saw and heard only two other hunters there on opening day of archery deer season, even though I was hunting within earshot of the main access road.
Of course, that was in the 1970s.
These days, opening day of firearms season on some public hunting areas resembles the parking lot at Lewis Field before an OSU football game. There's someone wearing orange almost everywhere you look.
This past fall, Hawk Bledsoe, my 14-year-old son, spent three days hunting with a muzzleloader on the Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge. It was almost within a bow shot of where I killed that archery deer on the state-owned land, which borders the federal refuge. In three days he didn't see or hear a deer. Two other hunters who drew that hunt didn't see a deer in the area either. And that was during three days of hunting!
Photo by John R. Ford
That's the way it has gone on many of the state wildlife management areas. You can forget trying to collect an "easy" buck these days. The easy deer are gone from the heavily hunted public portions.
But that's not to say there still aren't some very good public-land deer hunting opportunities in our state. It's just that you may have to work a little harder to find them.
There are two factors working to limit harvests on public lands. The first is that many hunters, for whatever reason, don't like to stray more than a few hundred yards from their vehicles while hunting. As a result, most of the hunters spend their time in the woods within a quarter mile of the roads. Many hunters put up their stands within sight of the roads!
After several decades of this pattern, most deer have learned to avoid areas where hunters are likely to be walking or sitting.
The other factor is that even the hunters who don't mind a long walk and who don't fear getting lost in the woods are still reluctant to hunt the far corners of the public tracts. Dragging or packing a deer out long distances through rough terrain, they feel, is just more trouble than it's worth.
I once shot a doe on the banks of a river in an Oklahoma wildlife management area during a controlled (draw-in) hunt. It was about a mile and a quarter, all gradually uphill, to the closest open road. That's where I had parked my truck in one of the designated parking areas.
I killed the doe about 9:30 in the morning. After I field dressed her and cleaned up my mess a little, it was about 11 a.m. I started dragging.
It was about 2:30 in the afternoon by the time I finally got her onto the road near my truck. I was exhausted, wringing wet with sweat, dying of thirst and seriously worried about having a heart attack. I was only about 35 years old at the time.
I started out dragging the deer 50 or 60 yards at a brisk pace before stopping to rest. By the time I had gone three-fourths of a mile, I was dragging her about 10 yards at a time between bouts of panting.
The deer dressed out to 92 pounds. I was glad it wasn't any bigger, or I might not have been able to drag it to the truck. I swore I would never kill another deer so far from my truck and so far downhill again.
On many private lands, I could have driven to within a short distance of the deer and made a much shorter drag. But on most wildlife management areas, off-road ATVs are prohibited.
There are, however, other options. There are two-wheeled handcarts that can be used to transport deer more easily over rough terrain. There is no prohibition against using such carts on state WMAs, as long as they are not motorized.
Most any hunting products catalog these days sells one or more kinds of deer transport devices. They range from the two-wheeled carts that resemble those used for hauling lawn and gardening materials and equipment, to the single-wheeled types that are made exclusively for transporting game animals out of the woods.
One of the best such devices I've seen was homemade. A deer hunter whose camp I visited down in McCurtain County had fashioned a deer transporter from a single bicycle wheel and axle and two long wooden handles - like those on post-hole diggers. The handles were fastened to the axle with some heavy-duty door hinges that allowed the handles to swing wider apart.
Between the handles was a triangular piece of canvas. The canvas was strongly sewn to the handles, which could be spread apart. A wooden spreader bar salvaged from an old-fashioned army cot could be wedged between the handles above the canvas and a deer could be tied on top of the canvas carrier.
The hunter could then turn around, pick up the handles, and pull the carrier, like a wheelbarrow in reverse, back to camp. The big 26-inch bicycle wheel allowed the carrier to travel over logs and rocks and over small depressions without getting stuck.
I've wished for several years that I had photographed that hunter's carrier, and I've always had the ambition of making one of my own, but so far I've never gotten around to it. It was a dandy!
But there are commercial models that serve the same purpose that are advertised in lots of catalogs.
A hunter also has the old elk and moose hunters' option: quartering the deer and packing it out in pieces on a pack board or backpack. I've never resorted to that tactic in Oklahoma, but I know hunters who have.
However, anytime you start doing any more disassembling of the carcass than routine field dressing, you may risk running afoul of the law in Oklahoma.
Our state still requires deer to be checked at check stations. And deer must have a tag with the hunter's name and license number attached until the animal gets to the check station, where the tag is replaced with an official carcass tag. If you're transporting a deer in more than one piece, I believe I'd suggest putting a name-and-number tag on each piece.
The next mode of transport I'd recommend is also one that can help you find some of the best public-land hunting available. I'm talking about a boat.
I know of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee who killed a beautiful trophy buck on the Kaw Lake public hunting area a few seasons back by accessing a seldom-used area by boat. I had another friend who used to work for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. He did the same thing at Lake Keystone.
Many of the big public hunting areas that surround major reservoirs in Oklahoma have some areas that are very hard to reach any other way than by boat. They may be cut off from roads by creeks, swamps or old river oxbows. During high-water periods they may even be cut off by the waters of the lakes.
Or they may simply be so far from the nearest road that no hunters bother to tromp in that far, even though there are no real physical barriers to stop them from doing so.
I do know that some of these hard-to-access public areas are hunted by neighboring landowners or neighboring leaseholders.
I know of one group of hunters with a multi-year lease on a northeastern Oklahoma ranch. They kill deer on the ranch sometimes, but they also kill deer on public lands that border their lease. And they rarely ever see another hunter on the public tract because a good-sized creek flows between the nearest public road and their boundary fence.
Hunters often hunt the lands on the far side of the creek. But there are a few hundred acres on the other side that the leaseholders get to hunt almost as exclusively as if it were private. That land could easily be accessed by someone using a canoe or johnboat, or even a float tube and waders.
You can look at topographic maps of many of our wildlife management areas around the big lakes and identify tracts that are close to water but far from roads, or that are virtually landlocked between private property and a lake or river. Those are generally the areas that get hunted the least of all our public lands. They are often visited more by duck hunters than by deer hunters.
I have a neighbor who has killed at least one tom turkey every spring for the past several seasons by visiting one area, at a lake not far from Tulsa, with his boat. It's possible to get there by land, he says, but it means about a mile-and-a-half walk through muddy bottoms and across a couple of small creeks from the nearest parking spot. He has seen signs of other hunters there, he says, but has never encountered another person while turkey hunting.
I know we're talking chiefly about deer hunting here, but turkey hunters, squirrel hunters and rabbit hunters can also benefit from that lesson. Using a boat can sometimes get you into areas where critter populations are good and hunting pressure is below average.
A word about boating safety may be appropriate here.
If you plan to hunt by boat, make sure your boat and accessories are up to the task. Don't expect a tiny canoe or johnboat to carry hundreds of pounds of equipment plus a couple of overweight hunters as well. In other words, don't exceed the rated carrying capacity of your watercraft. Carry the required personal flotation devices. And, especially if you're going to be on public lands, make sure your boat is properly licensed.
If you're just moving around in small sheltered creeks or backwater areas, just about any small craft will do. But if you are going to cross big water, where wind gets a good reach to build up waves and whitecaps, then make sure your boat is capable of handling such conditions.
Chances are you'll be hunting during the cooler or even colder months of the year, so take extra precautions to make sure you don't overturn in frigid waters. Such a dunking can throw you into hypothermic shock quickly. What might be just an inconvenient soaking in July can be a life-threatening event in November.
Remember, too, that according to our state laws you can't actually hunt from a boat under power. You can use boats as blinds if you wish in some situations, such as duck hunting, but when a boat is under power and moving, it is just like a car going down the road and you can't shoot from it.
For deer hunting in the river bottoms, though, I'd recommend the same tactics you use elsewhere, especially hunting from tree stands.
And don't think that just because the area is swampy and has shallow water standing in places, the deer won't be there. They will, and savvy deer hunters key on the swampy places. They hunt deer in hip boots or chest waders.
One outdoor writer acquaintance of mine told me he liked to hunt the swampy places because he could hear the deer approaching his stand as they splashed through the shallows. That allowed him to read books in his stand instead of constantly staring at the surrounding woods. He said whenever he heard something splashing through the water, he'd lay down his book and grab his bow or gun.
I heartily recommend that you study maps of the area before you go in, and that you carry a detailed map, like topographic sheets, with you. Don't go without a compass. Even better, if you have a GPS receiver, take it along. It will not only help you navigate, it will allow you to mark your stands as waypoints or destinations and return to them more easily in the dark.
I have a duck-hunting friend who programs his GPS with routes that allow him to navigate from point to point, avoiding shallow-water stump beds, dangerous rocks or other hazards, and stick to deeper channels or debris-free flats while traveling to his blinds before daylight.
I don't sell GPS units; I just think they're great tools for outdoorsmen. They have lots of good uses on land, but even more if you spend much time in a boat.
Navigating in unfamiliar bottomlands can be confusing, especially on cloudy days when you don't have the sun to guide you. So a map and compass are essential equipment in my book.
I could list a few lakes where I know there are some rarely used tracts of public hunting land, but you can find your own simply by referring to maps. As I said before, you can buy topographic maps, or access on-line versions at Web sites like the one found at www.maptech.com. or www.terraserver.com. You can also get free maps from the Corps of Engineers for lands around their Oklahoma reservoirs, or purchase the Public Hunting Lands Atlas from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The Corps and atlas maps are less detailed than good topographic sheets, but they will give you a good idea of which top sheets you need to examine further.
So don't despair if you don't have a high-dollar deer lease on private land to hunt on this season. It's still possible to find an uncrowded spot on public land in Oklahoma, as long as you don't mind going the extra mile to find it.
Using a lightweight carrier to help you transport your deer out of the woods can expand your range on public lands. And using a canoe or boat to get to those hard-to-reach places around public lakes and rivers can take you to places where the crowds can't go.
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