With more than 165,000 expected participants, the Deer Gun season is the state’s most popular hunting event in terms of participation. The season kicks off this coming Saturday, Nov. 21 and runs through December 6.

It is also the deer season that boasts the greatest success rate in terms of harvest each year. Firearms accounted for 55.5 percent of all deer harvested in the 2019-20 seasons. That amounted to 59,045 deer, a 10 percent decrease over last year.

Although still quite a bit short of the record harvest of 2006, healthy herds, and good weather for the first part of the season contributed to a great season last year. And there is no reason deer gun season hunters shouldn’t find ample opportunities for success in 2020.

“Even with dryer conditions in Southwest part of the state, habitat is generally in good shape, especially in areas that did receive rain,” said Dallas Barber, big game biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “The season got off to a great start, Archery and Muzzleloader seasons are on par or a hair higher than this time last year.”

While cleaning up after the recent ice storm, I can attest that acorns and other food sources are in good supply. Those hunters who take note of deer feeding patterns as the season opener approaches will have an advantage.

The deer breeding season, known as the rut, will peak over the next few weeks, which means deer will be more active during daylight hours. During the week prior to opening day, the Department will issue its annual Deer Rut Report, which will offer hunters valuable insights on deer movement and hunting prospects using the most recent information available from all regions of the state. That report as well as regulations and other great outdoor information can be found on the ODWC’s website at wildlifedepartment.com.

Fueling deer hunting’s popularity in Oklahoma is a management plan that serves the state’s diverse hunters’ interests by providing region-leading season lengths and bag limits along with a strong education component outlining the benefits of balanced sex ratios and selective buck harvest.

Our hunters have taken the ‘Hunters in the Know ... Take a Doe” message to heart, said Barber.

As a deer hunter, you are truly a boots on the ground wildlife manager, regardless if you are hunting private or public land. Your choice to harvest, or more importantly, pass on an animal has an impact at a local population level. Harvesting antlerless deer is incredibly important when healthier deer, greater antler size, and stable population levels are management goals.

A piece of habitat can only support a certain number of deer. As more and more deer begin to utilize the habitat, the available food is spread more and more thin until it reaches a level at which animal health starts to decline. By reducing animal numbers, the share of available nutrients becomes more abundant to those animals remaining on the landscape, including bucks. Antler size is largely dependent on nutrition and so working towards a balanced sex ratio will help with the production of larger racked bucks as well as larger bodied animals.

The statistics bear this out. Last year, 26 percent of all deer harvested were in the 0.5-year and 1.5-year age classes, while 41 percent of the harvest was in the 3.5-year and 4.5-year age classes.

The Department’s balanced voluntary approach with its “Hunters in the Know” campaign has gained national attention in recent years. The Quality Deer Management Association recognized Oklahoma among the top five states showing declines in yearling buck harvests.

A buck-to-doe ratio that is weighted heavily towards does also leads to females that remain unbred during the primary rut. As a result, a second, third, or even fourth breeding cycle can occur, said Barber. When this happens, bucks exert a tremendous amount of energy traveling great distances to rut for 2 to 3 months instead of 2 to 3 weeks. In the end, bucks are either harvested exceedingly underweight or they enter the harshness of winter in poor body condition.

Simply put, reducing the buck-to-doe ratio improves antler quality potential on a property by increasing the nutritional availability on your land, reducing the rut to a short but intense time period, and reducing the frequency of late born fawns. It also offers enhanced fawn survival and provides more pounds of deer meat from each animal harvested.

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation liberalized the bag limits and season dates for antlerless deer starting with the 2020-2021 seasons. Deer management and antlerless harvest go hand in hand, and biologists challenge land managers and deer hunters alike to practice both.

Even if your freezer is full, you can always donate the deer to the Hunters Against Hunger program and provide nutritious, delicious food for someone less fortunate.

From the largest outdoor and sporting goods stores in the major metropolitan cities to the smallest of cafes and roadside motels in rural outposts across the state, deer hunting has a sizable economic impact estimated at more than $600 million a year.

It wasn’t always this way. From the time of Oklahoma’s first deer hunting season in 1933 until well into the 1960s, the forests of southeastern Oklahoma were about the only places with huntable populations of whitetails. As part of what has become one of conservation’s greatest success stories, the Wildlife Department began successfully trapping and transplanting deer from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Now, the state’s deer population is estimated to be well over 500,000 animals. And deer hunters in Oklahoma have a better chance of harvesting a deer than at any other time in the state’s history.

Barber urged deer hunters to also do their part for future generations.

For complete rules and regulations, consult the current Oklahoma Hunting Guide.

Field Dressing tips

An old hunting buddy of mine use to say, “In hunting, the work begins after you pull the trigger.”

In many ways that is true. While preparation, study of sign, and hiking in and out of the woods all have their physical demands, field dressing a downed animal is the least fun, and perhaps the most important part of your hunt.

When I taught Hunter Education for new hunters, we always spent a little extra time covering this part of the hunt. Making sure the meat that is harvested from game, was properly cared for not only prevents food borne illness, it also improves the taste of the game.

Here are some things to avoid when field dressing a deer to make your experience a little more enjoyable:

· Waiting too long — Many times after shooting a deer, or other similar big game animal, the person who shot the animal celebrates, and takes pictures while showing off their kill to their buddies. If you do this too long though, depending on how the animal was shot, it can spoil. Don’t prolong the inevitable, and just get it over with.

· Using the wrong tools — How many times have you hit the woods not fully expecting to harvest an animal, but you end up having a successful hunt? Always be prepared with a quality knife. The joy of shooting a harvesting an animal can quickly become frustrating with a dull, or missing knife, gut hook or bone saw.

· Puncturing the stomach — This could quite possibly be the worst smelling mistake we all make. You dive in, all ready to get your animal gutted as fast as possible, and boom, knife into the stomach, and a smell you won’t soon forget will erupt out of that animal. Go slow and use two fingers to run along inside of the skin, separating it from the stomach to avoid this mistake.

· Not being prepared – I cannot tell you how many times, I have reached in my bag for something and it wasn’t there – Use a checklist to make sure you have – knife, rubber gloves, baggies, trash bags, water – everything you need to do the job. It will save you much frustration in the field. Watch a couple of YouTube videos to prepare yourself. Unfortunately this is a skill that cannot be practiced beforehand, so watch, read and study up before you are thrown into the situation.

· Not getting help — After shooting an animal you will more than likely feel on top of the world. This doesn’t mean do everything by yourself. We’ve all tried and struggled. Wait for help to arrive so your buddy or whomever it may be can assist you while you’re elbow deep in a deer.

· Not tagging your kill — Everyone forgets at least once. Make sure after you field dress your animal to put that tag on it, then as soon as possible, go online and echeck the deer in. Many times, we are so excited about our kill, after we field dress it, we just want to get it out of the field as quickly as possible, and that’s when Mr. Game Warden will appear. Take the two seconds to put that tag on first.

· Going too fast – There is an old saying that says “haste makes waste,” this is absolutely true in field dressing a deer. While we want to process the deer as quickly as possible. One wrong move (snipping the bladder or cutting into the stomach) can ruin the entire process. Slow down, concentrate, and do your best to not waste a single piece of meat.

· Not paying attention — How many people do you know that have cut themselves while field dressing an animal? It can be easy to lose sight of your hands when covered in blood and organs. Make sure you feel where your cutting, and watch out for cutting yourself.

· Cool down — Cooling the carcass is imperative to prevent meat spoilage. On cool days, prop the cavity open with sticks and keep the carcass in the shade. If weather is warm, bags of ice can be placed in the cavity to speed cooling.

Getting the deer to a processer as quickly as possible can improve meat quality. There is no need to drive around all day with the deer in the back of a pickup, take lots of photos and show those off instead, and your table fare will be much improved.

Download Oklahoma Hunting App

This year’s Deer gun opener will be the first with the Department’s new Go Outdoors Oklahoma online licensing system. Using a computer or a mobile device, dove hunters are now able to buy hunting licenses at license.GoOutdoorsOklahoma.com. The licenses and permits are delivered via email to the hunter, and the electronic versions are now valid proof for license holders in the field.

The easiest way to interact with the Department is to download the free Go Outdoors Oklahoma mobile app, available for Apple and Android devices. Experience new customer service features allowing customers to purchase, access and store license information, no matter where they are. The app is also a legal means of carrying licenses in the field. And hunters are able to complete e-check forms through the app, regardless if there is a cellular connection. The app automatically syncs when cellular service returns.

The mobile app also provides handy access to the hunting and fishing regulations guide, wildlife management area information and maps, and even access to the online hunter education certification course.

All sportsmen and sportswomen – especially lifetime license holders and returning customers – should sign in to the Go Outdoors Oklahoma online system to update their information and complete their profile setup. New users are invited to create a profile.