Deer season in full swing

Taxidermist Clint Hunt puts the finishing touches on a deer mount for Hunter Bowles. Hunt gives some advice to hunters in this week’s column to better prepare your deer for mounting.

Thousands of Oklahoma hunters have already hit the field in search of white-tails, as the annual deer gun season started yesterday. With two weeks to get in on the action, there’s plenty of time to head to the field.

For many sportsmen and sportswomen, the 16-day season will be the best time to put meat in the freezer and maybe hang a trophy on the wall.

Overall, the state’s deer population is in great shape this year, thanks to abundant (in some cases record-setting) spring rainfall and a fairly mild summer, said Big Game Biologist Dallas Barber with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

“Along with habitat conditions, deer numbers look good over most of the state.” That means plenty of deer are moving about with the rut, or breeding season, underway.

“The rut has been going strong over the last two weeks across much of the state,” Barber said. “While most does have been bred by the time gun season starts, it will not be uncommon to still see bucks seeking does that have yet to be bred.”

Deer hunting plays a major role in the Wildlife Department’s deer herd management strategy. For the past several years, the Department has stressed the role deer hunters play with the slogan “Hunters in the Know…Take a Doe!” Barber praised hunters for their voluntary participation, because every time a hunter decides to pull the trigger, he or she is making a management decision.

This year, he is hoping hunters will harvest more does than they did in 2019. This was the fourth year in a row that harvest failed to reach the doe harvest goals set ty the ODWC.

“Doe harvest is critical to keeping a herd healthy,” Barber said. “It’s again time for hunters to meet the challenge to let young bucks grow and take a doe.” Whenever a deer hunter decides to pull that trigger, he’s acting as a voluntary deer manager to ensure better herd health in the future, he said.

According to the 2019-20 Big Game Report published in the September/October issue of Outdoor Oklahoma magazine, hunters took 38,900 does, amounting to 37 percent of the harvest, well short of the 40-45 percent target range.

Doe harvest helps keep populations in balance with available habitat, helps maintain healthy buck-to-doe ratios, and helps synchronize fawning when conditions are most favorable for fawn growth.

To help hunters plan their opening-day outing in the deer woods, here are up-to-date regional reports from Wildlife Department field personnel.

Southwest Region — Reported by Ron Smith, Wildlife Senior Biologist

Rut activity increased sharply the week of Nov. 9. Many active scrape lines have been found. Bucks are sparring with others and pushing does. Rattling has been effective in some cases. Deer movement has been good in morning and evening.

Habitat conditions vary widely across the southwest. Much of the region has been impacted by severe drought, though moisture received during the ice and sleet storm has provided just enough to germinate winter wheat crops. Deer are beginning to take advantage of wheat since other vegetation was quickly pushed into dormancy with the hard freeze. Overall cover in the far western portion of the region will be much below average. Native mast production has been severely impacted by late spring freezing weather and drought.

Both hunters and landowners are reporting increased activity with good numbers being seen early and late. Bucks are becoming much more active chasing does. Fawn recruitment in 2018-19 appears to have been very good. Many hunters have reported seeing solid numbers of all age classes. Overall deer numbers have maintained or increased in all but the worst drought-impacted areas.

Public Land Best Bets — Black Kettle, Packsaddle and Ellis County are the top three WMAs in the region for gun season. Altus-Lugert and Fort Cobb WMAs are also open to shotgun with slug.

Advice for Deer Hunters — Safety first! Remember there will be many people in the field during gun season. Be prepared to hunt all day. As rut activity increases there will often be opportunity throughout the day. Always consider wind direction and possible changes when you enter and exit your hunt area. Be informed of special regulations for public hunting land vs private. Be respectful of other hunters, landowners and property lines.

Be prepared to stay all day. As we move further into peak rut, any time of the day can be productive. Always use wind to your advantage when planning entry and setup for the hunt. Spend as much time as possible scouting all the elements of your hunt area. Be patient.

Smith says leaving the field early can lead to missed opportunity. And not accounting for changing weather and wind conditions may take you out of the game.

Preparing your deer for taxidermy

Perhaps no other means displays a successful hunt than a really good shoulder mount of your deer, elk or other big game. A good taxidermist, like a good artist, can present your mount in a lifelike pose that might even fool an onlooker that there is life in that carcass.

In order to help preserve your trophy (trophy can be many different things to many different hunters) there are some steps that will make a taxidermists work much easier when he begins your mount. I asked local taxidermist, Clint Hunt, for some guidelines to make the best preserved mount. Here are some of those tips.

Plan ahead – Finding a taxidermist during the deer season is a little too late. Even though this is written for the opening weekend, I hope you did your research. And we are not just talking price, as with binoculars, good taxidermy is worth a little extra cost. Talk to different taxidermists, look at their work in person or online, and discuss the process.

Talk with former customers. What did they like about the taxidermists? How long did it take to get your mount back? Would they use them again?

Hunt cautions shopping around for the cheapest deal. While everyone wants a bargain, you spent lots of money on guns, clothes, tags, etc. why not sped a little extra on something that will look really good for a long time. Quality is important, so do your homework and make a good choice of taxidermists.

Think about what type of mount you want. Where will you display your mount and how much room you have might help determine what type of mount is desired. When I look at the old mounts of my dad and grandad, there was not much of the deer besides the head. Only a few inches of neck was used. Today, most mounts will extend back to the brisket, past the shoulder. So this requires much more space on a wall.

Free standing shoulder mounts are beautiful, but take up lots of counter space, so measure and plan ahead if you want something special.

In the field – You’ve pulled the trigger and made a good shot, now what? Proper field care ensures that the meat of the game is worthy of the harvest, and it can also make sure the mount is ready for the taxidermist.

One of the easiest things to do prior to preparing your harvested animal is to snap a few pictures. Take several good photos with your cell phone and be sure to get some different angles and good light. This will help the taxidermist to recreate your trophy as close to life-like as possible.

Bacteria is the biggest destroyer of good meat, but it can also cause the cape to lose hair, making for a difficult mount. So get your deer field dressed, and cooled down as soon as possible. The warmer the weather, the more active is bacteria, so hunters have less time before damage occurs.

“Treat your head and cape like you would the meat,” said Hunt. “Get your deer field dressed, caped and head removed and get it cooled down as quickly as possible.”

Along the same lines, avoid dragging the animal if possible. Dragging causes damage to the hide, so use a cart, ATV or quarter and remove in sections if need be.

When field dressing, do not cut past the brisket, or base of the chest plate. It’s better to reach into the cavity to remove organs than to damage the cape. Remember the Taxidermist can always remove hide, but cannot replace it.

“The biggest mistake I see is people is cutting the cape off too short,” said Hunt.

He recommends using the back of the front legs as a guide. Cut strait up and around the animal behind the legs, while skinning down the legs to the knee. That will give a little extra for the taxidermist to play with.

Leave the head attached for the taxidermist to skin. While many hunters are plenty skilled to remove the cape from the legs, back and belly, the skin is much more delicate around the face, especially the eye and nose area. Let the expert do that part.

After removing the head and skinning the cape, roll up the loose skin and get the head into the freezer. While it takes up some room, there is no better way to prevent bacteria from working on the pelt. Keep the head frozen until you can get it to the taxidermist. Oh, and you might put it in a trash bag, or the wife might have a heart attack when she is reaching for the ice cream.

The temptation is to haul the carcass around and show it off, but that’s why you took the pictures. Post the picture on your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account and get the head in the cold box instead.

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