Nestled in southern Oklahoma, McAlester Army Ammunition Plant offers a drawing for a limited number of controlled deer hunts each year. Even though the hunts are limited to traditional archery gear, thousands of resident and non-resident bowhunters throw their names into the hat.
Why? Just look at the “Ten most-wanted list” on the plant’s controlled hunts Facebook page. This place produces some world-class bucks, with a bent toward those with non-typical antler features. The drop-tined monster shown here is but one of many monsters that currently call MCAAP home.
The caliber of bucks found on this property is an indication of what Oklahoma can produce, even on public land. But many hunters in the state still have an “if it’s brown, it’s down” mentality, so quality bucks must be searched out. Fortunately, if you know where to look, you can find a great deer to take home from public land in this state.
Most of us probably picture Oklahoma as vast open prairies and oil wells. That’s an accurate depiction of the western half of the state, but the eastern half is more characterized by oak ridges, farmlands, large reservoirs and the rugged Ouachita Mountain range that extends into western Arkansas. Pockets of public land can be found in the western counties, but the bulk of Oklahoma’s 87 wildlife management areas (WMAs) are found east of Interstate 35, which roughly splits the state.
To narrow it down even more, a search of the Pope & Young record books shows that the counties producing the most quality bucks are those between the base of the mountains on the east and the prairies of the west. And some of the counties in this north-south band have many patches of public land. Several large reservoirs are surrounded by Army Corps of Engineers federal lands and/or state WMAs, many of which are large and difficult to access. For us whatever-it-takes DIY hunters, this is what we love to hear.
Those who do the research through online maps and aerial photos, along with phone calls and on-the-ground scouting, can find a place to hunt with plenty of elbow room. Much of the pressure on these public lands occurs during the November firearms season, but bowhunters have room to roam.
Accessing these out-of the way places can be done by walking long distances or by using waterways. Many large WMAs are located along winding creek bottoms. Often the floodplains at the upper ends of the reservoirs provide perfect cover and food for whitetails seeking to avoid human intrusion. Getting to these pockets can be as easy as sliding a canoe down the bank near a public bridge and setting off upstream or downstream.
The lakes themselves often provide the best way to access good hunting sites; a boat will get you to places most hunters don’t get to, simply because they aren’t willing to go to the trouble. A common issue with public hunting lands is the amount of pressure they get from locals on evenings and weekends. This is generally concentrated within a half-mile or so of access points and roads. Using a boat or canoe to get off the beaten path can put you into areas where few other deer hunters go.
Another example of the excellent opportunities would be a small number of WMAs so large and diverse that they simply spread out the hunting pressure. One such place is James Collins WMA in Latimer and McIntosh counties. This 21,353-acre property has roads and trails suitable for hunting access and about 30 food plots that turn hunting pressure into a shotgun pattern rather than a tight rifle group. There also are other WMAs featuring this approach, as a little research on the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation website (wildlifedepartment.com) will illustrate.
Oklahoma’s Land Access Program offers incentives and payments to landowners who allow public hunting on their lands. You’ll find a map of these properties on ODWC’s website. These lands are almost entirely upland game bird habitat; in fact, they’re mostly CRP with little timber. However, a little research could turn up a patch of excellent deer habitat you might have all to yourself.
That brings us to the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma. This scenic region is loaded with whitetails and has hundreds of thousands of acres of public hunting land. However, it also has a gigantic orange army during firearms season. Despite the fact the mountainous areas of eastern Oklahoma produce a large percentage of the state’s deer harvest each year, the numbers of trophy bucks are dismal. Sure, there are plenty of places to hunt and plenty of deer, but a high harvest isn’t conducive to growing the mature bucks we crave when we travel hundreds of miles from home on a DIY road trip. Yes, there are pockets of exceptions to this rule, but not many.
These mountains have good road access, a fact that’s both good news and bad news. The good news, of course, is you might not have to drag your buck far to get him to the truck. The bad news is that a lot of other users besides deer hunters enjoy cruising these roads in the backcountry.
One of the Sooner State’s benefits, from a DIY whitetail hunter’s perspective, is a large number of limited-entry hunts. Many public properties have special applications for controlled hunts. There are more 100 options if you include youth hunts, antlerless hunts and disabled hunts. The ones you want, those that offer buck hunting on a limited basis, can be really good — but the odds of being drawn can be really long.
In 2016-2017, a total of 57,438 hunters applied for 3,939 tags. Maybe those odds don’t seem horrible, but the percentages are less in your favor on the more preferred hunts. Take, for example, the Four Canyon Preserve hunt in western Oklahoma. There, 420 people applied for one of the two total tags available.
Compounding the challenge of getting drawn for a controlled hunt is the fact an applicant must possess a valid hunting license for that season at the time his or her application is put in. Oklahoma’s non-resident deer license is available over the counter and costs $280. It allows you to take up to six deer, but only two of them can be antlered. And of course, if you don’t get drawn for one of the controlled hunts, you either must make plans to hunt elsewhere in the state or simply eat that license.
On the positive side, a bonus point is given to each unsuccessful applicant for a controlled hunt. That improves your odds of being drawn in the future. However, it differs from a preference point system, wherein applicants with the most points are drawn first. You could be drawn in your first year or never get drawn. Fortunately, it costs only $5 to apply.
If you’re looking for somewhere new to chase whitetails on a DIY basis, give the Sooner State a serious look. It doesn’t get the publicity of some of our other good whitetail states, but it’s a big, diverse place with solid trophy buck potential.