A Family Tradition: Oklahoma's deer gun season opens Saturday
Growing up in Oklahoma, the Wildlife Department's new big game biologist fully understands the deer hunting culture in the state.
And the most popular of all of the hunting seasons in the state, the 16-day deer gun season, opens Saturday statewide.
“It's like Thanksgiving and football. That is what part of fall is, getting out there for a deer hunt with a rifle,” said Dallas Barber, the big game biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
“A lot of families are back together for the holidays and it's just kind of tradition that you go out with dad and brother and uncle and grandpa. It's just a given for a lot of families. It doesn't matter if you want to go are not, you are going.”
If past history is any indication, more than 150,000 hunters will be in the woods Saturday for the deer gun season opener.
“It's astonishing how many people we put in a stand every year,” said Barber, a graduate of Edmond Santa Fe High School who grew up hunting and fishing across northwest Oklahoma with his father, who was a member of a sportsman's club that leased properties across the state.
“I was kind of spoiled rotten growing up, having access to a whole lot of ground,” he said. “Every weekend that we could possibly go, we were outside, whether it be hunting, fishing or camping.”
Barber, 26, loved the outdoors so much he turned it into a career and joined the Wildlife Department in September as a big game biologist, an important position considering the popularity of deer hunting in the state.
Not only is deer hunting an annual tradition for many Oklahoma families, it also is significant to the Oklahoma economy. Gas stations, convenience stores, sporting good outlets and meat processors rely on the money spent by deer hunters each year.
One economic study estimates that Oklahoma deer hunters spend $136 million annually. That may sound far-fetched, but with nearly 200,000 deer hunters in the state counting all of the bowhunters and gun hunters, it averages to about $700 per hunter.
Deer hunting alone is responsible for more than half of Terry Mayberry's business at Terry's Taxidermy and Game Processing in Oklahoma City.
“The (deer) processing is kind of like our wheat harvest,” he said. “It kind of makes you or breaks you.”
Based on the number of deer taken by hunters during the archery and muzzleloader seasons, Oklahoma's deer harvest is on pace to reach around 100,000 again.
Oklahoma hunters killed more than 100,000 deer for the first time in 2000. Since then, hunters have reached near that mark or exceeded 11 times in the past 17 years.
Last year's grand total was 99,023, and the 13-year average is 103,000, Barber said.
“I think we will be right at average or maybe a little bit more (this season),” Barber said.
What has seemingly increased is the number of big bucks killed during the archery and muzzleloader seasons.
“It's been really impressive,” Barber said. “We have had some really impressive deer shot. As far as buzz within the department, I think a lot of people are surprised that there have been this many so quick.
“The people that have hunted for a long time, we know there is some great deer around, but if you would have told me by the first week of November that we were going to have five or six deer over 200 inches that we know about, I would have been surprised. It's pretty awesome to see.
“I am not sure if we are killing more amazing deer or it is that social media has gotten so prevalent that it just gets around more. I think it is probably a combo of both.”
In recent years, the Wildlife Department and groups like the Quality Deer Management Association have been preaching the importance of letting young bucks walk to increase the opportunities for trophy deer in the future.
Barber said more Oklahoma hunters are willing to practice what deer biologists are preaching.
“I think (the message) is reaching more people and I think as we see more of these amazing deer being harvested, more people are starting to adopt it,” he said.
According to the Wildlife Department's research, 65 percent of the deer killed by Oklahoma hunters in 1985 were yearlings (1 1/2-year-olds). Over the years, that number has dramatically decreased.
Yearlings represented 46 percent of the deer harvest in 2000 and just 23 percent in 2010. Last year, only 17 percent of the deer killed by Oklahoma hunters were yearlings.
The majority of bucks harvested last season (48 percent) were 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 years old.
Ten percent of the bucks harvested last season were 6 1/2 years old. In 2010, bucks that old only represented 3 percent of the harvest. In 2000, 6 1/2-year-old bucks represented just 1 percent of the harvest.
“It's really a testament to our hunters," Barber said. "They are actually the deer managers. They are the boots on the ground and making a decision every single time they pull that trigger or choose not to pull that trigger.”
DEER GUN SEASON
Dates: Nov. 18-Dec. 3
TOP TEN COUNTIES
(Based on 2016 Deer Harvest, excluding wildlife management areas)
1. Osage, 4,327 deer
2. Pittsburg, 3,383
3. Cherokee, 2,533
4. Sequoyah, 2,346
5. McCurtain, 2,330
6. Atoka, 2,244
7. Creek, 2,212
8. Delaware, 2,209
9. LeFlore, 2,180
10. Pushmataha, 2,171
TOP TEN WMA
1. Three Rivers, 722
2. Black Kettle, 423
3. Kaw, 335
4. Honobia Creek, 312
5. Wister, 238
6. Fort Gibson, 217
7. Oologah, 216
8. Ouachita, 186
9. McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, 163
10. Hugo, 155
HUNTERS AGAINST HUNGER
Deer hunters who legally take a deer this season can donate the meat to the Hunters Against Hunger program. Each year, thousands of needy Oklahoma families receive meat through the program.
Hunters who wish to donate the meat must first check in the deer online at www.wildlifedepartment.com.
Hunters then can take their carcass-tagged deer to a nearby participating meat processor. To help with processing costs, each hunter is requested to contribute $10 to assist with the costs of the program. The $10 donation is tax-deductible.
Meat processors participating in the Hunters Against Hunger program, listed by county, are online at wildlifedepartment.com/hunting/deer-processors.
Any meat processor interested in becoming a part of the Hunters Against Hunger program, or anyone wishing to become a sponsor or make a monetary donation, may call the Wildlife Department at (405) 521-4660.