Deer Season is Oklahoma's Biggest Attraction
It attracts more participants than the busiest day of the Oklahoma State Fair and the Tulsa State Fair -- combined. It attracts more Oklahomans than the number of football fans attending sold out home games at Lewis Field, Owen Field, and Skelly stadium --- combined. And although it may surprise many, the state's largest single-day recreational attraction is the opening day of Oklahoma's deer gun season.
The gun deer opener, Saturday, Nov. 17 this year, will draw an estimated 200-250,000 hunters and their non-hunting companions. The nine-day season, which runs Nov. 17-25, will see these thousands of orange-clad hunters heading into Oklahoma's forests and prairies in search of the state's number one game animal, the white-tail deer.
Through deer hunting license statistics and license holder surveys, officials with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) say at least 160,000 people hunt deer during the modern firearms season, although the actual number may be higher. When combined with non-hunting relatives, who participate in camping and other deer season related activities, the total number of participants is estimated at well over 200,000.
"We know that virtually all of our deer gun hunters are out on opening day of the season, and a significant number of those hunters have non-hunting family members either with them in the field, or back at their campsite or RV," said Mike Shaw, research supervisor for the Department. "It's pretty remarkable when you consider how many people might be sitting in the stands of all our major college football stadiums on a fall Saturday, and then realize there are many more sportsmen out enjoying the deer woods on opening day."
Department officials say that per capita participation in the deer gun season is traditionally strongest in the southeast part of the state, however, the trend is changing. Due to the expansion of the state's whitetail deer herd, other regions of the state are growing in popularity.
"For many hunters and their families living in the southeast, deer season is family tradition that has been passed down through generations," said Rich Fuller, information supervisor for the Department.
"From the time of Oklahoma's first deer hunting season in 1933 to the 1960s, the forests of southeast Oklahoma were about the only places with huntable populations, so consequently people in that area have the strongest ties to the activity. Certainly, with the expansion of our deer herd to all corners of the state, you'll see about as many people driving around wearing blaze orange caps in towns like Woodward or Vinita as you do in Antlers. The southeast, especially places like the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area or Honobia Creek Wildlife Management Area, is still unique as far as big deer camps with grandparents and grandkids who are along to enjoy the camaraderie."
Through a special $16 land access fee paid by hunters and other users of the area, the ODWC leases approximately 725,000 acres of timber company lands in southeast Oklahoma that are open for deer gun season. The Three Rivers WMA is comprised of 450,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser property, and approximately 275.000 acres are leased from John Hancock Timber Resources Group for the Honobia Creek WMA. Additionally, the Ouachita National Forest offers another 320,000 acres that is open for deer gun season. Deer season remains such a popular event in the southeast that many lucky youngsters get an entire week off from school during the season, rather than just two days at Thanksgiving.
Due to the successful trap and transplant restoration efforts of the ODWC beginning in the 1950s through the late '70s, Oklahoma deer hunters have a better opportunity to harvest a deer than at any time in the state's history. According to Department officials, the state's whitetail deer herd is estimated at between 500,000 and 750,000 animals, and is reaching levels considered to be excessive in some areas.
"This year, our deer hunting regulations underwent dramatic changes in order to encourage harvest of more antlerless deer," said Shaw. "We need more does harvested in order to balance the herd with available habitat, reduce agricultural depredation and reduce deer vehicle collisions."
For more information about Oklahoma's deer hunting regulations and opportunities, consult the 2001-2002 Oklahoma Hunting Guide and Regulations, available wherever hunting licenses are sold.