Lynn Burkhead — Sooner smokepole season looks good despite no chill

Herald Democrat
Despite temperatures much milder than they were a year ago, upwards of 97,000 muzzleloaders are likely to take to the field in Oklahoma over the next nine-days as the state's Oct. 23-31, 2021 muzzleloader season takes place.

You know it’s autumn like in Texomaland when you can take a deep breath while sitting in a deer stand, exhale it slowly and see “smoke” as a warm stream of human hot air meets with chilly morning temperatures.

While this weekend’s mild thermometer readings will be a far cry from the temps in the 30s necessary to produce such moments afield, there will still be another form of smoke on the wind as the annual Oklahoma muzzleloader deer season opens up on Saturday for a nine-day run from Oct. 23-31.

While the Sooner State’s version of muzzleloader deer season might not bring the same level of excitement that the smokepole season might in a corn-filled Midwestern state like Iowa, it probably should get more attention than it does.

Why is that? For starters, take a look at the overall deer numbers in the state. According to Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation big game biologist Dallas Barber, the deer population in Oklahoma remains robust with somewhere between 650,000 and 750,000 deer living in the Sooner State.

If those numbers are impressive, and they are, so are the numbers of deer hunters and the number of deer they are taking during the state’s various hunting campaigns. And that includes the muzzleloader season, where according to the most recent ODWC Big Game Report (www.wildlifedepartment.com), an estimated 97,000 muzzleloader hunters took part in the 2020 deer muzzleloader season and took a total of 17,414 deer.

“No doubt about it, we’ve got plenty of deer,” said Barber on Thursday afternoon. “It’s a good time to be a deer hunter in the state of Oklahoma.”

While Barber notes that such numbers were likely pushed upwards last fall because of the chilly weather and the COVID-19 affect that saw more hunters spending more time in the woods than ever before, it was still the highest smokepole deer harvest total in Oklahoma since 2012.

If the numbers are one exciting thing about Oklahoma deer hunting this month, a second reason for the state’s deer hunters to get excited about hunting over the next nine days is because of where the muzzleloader season brings with its spot on the calendar.

While the peak of the November rut is still weeks away, the last full week of October is actually the preferred week to hunt in some deer hunter’s minds, and that’s when the upcoming Sooner State smokepole season will be occurring.

In short, it’s about as good a time to be in the deer woods as there can be short of the whitetail rut. Why is that? Because the temperatures are cooling down, the leaves are showing the first blush of autumn color, and the deer are noticing the changes in the wind.

No, bucks won’t be running crazed through the woods right now like they will in mid-November as they throw caution to the wind and chase does all over the place. But they’ll do the next best thing, getting on their feet more during daylight hours, starting to notice the cooling temperatures, and starting to anticipate the coming breeding frenzy with scrapes, rubs, and responses to a hunter’s antler rattling and grunting efforts.

Finally, in addition to the numbers and the beautiful autumn days that are ramping up the daytime whitetail activity in Oklahoma, there’s also plenty of deer hunting opportunity right now in the Sooner State.

As a result, Barber and the ODWC big game staff continue their push to get hunters to take antlerless deer in the Sooner State, something that might have been unthinkable two or three generations ago when the state was struggling to rebuild its limited whitetail population.

But that was then and this is now and Oklahoma’s muzzleloader hunters have the chance to take as many as four deer this year, with only one of them being an antlered whitetail.

(Editor’s Note: Please consult the current Oklahoma Fishing and Hunting Regulations book to see a map of the state’s various antlerless deer zones and the bag limits that exist in each zone.)

About the only fly in the ointment heading into the 2021 Oklahoma muzzleloader season is how much the deer will move around because of the weather, or at least how much will they move during daylight hours.

Last year, a cold snap and memorable ice storm gripped much of the northern half of the state as the muzzleloader season arrived in late October. In previous years, the other end of the weather spectrum has been true with temperatures pushing up towards 90 degrees and more.

What can hunters anticipate next week? Something in between in terms of the weather.

“I’m checking the weather forecast right now as we speak,” said Barber on Thursday afternoon. “It looks like the temps will be in the 70s early in the week and maybe dropping into the 60s by the end of the week. That’s not too bad, actually, and pretty close to normal.”

Barber also notes that such weather usually affects the state’s muzzleloader hunters more than it does the deer.

“If you look at it from a biological standpoint, the deer have to move to eat and survive,” said the Oklahoma State grad, who couldn’t resist a little good natured ribbing about how his Cowboys beat up on my Texas Longhorns last Saturday afternoon.

“So, really, the question isn’t how much movement there will be, but how much of it will be during daylight hours when the deer hunters are actually in the woods.”

With the acorn crop starting to fall to the ground right now, Barber said that Sooner State deer might have even less reason to move: “If deer can lay in their beds and only have to move a couple of hundred yards to feed on acorns, then they’ll do that.”

While movement of deer could be questionable over the next several days, Barber says that the one thing that isn’t really up for debate is the fact that some good — maybe even some great — bucks are sure to hit the ground.

Why is that? First, because the habitat is generally in good shape after timely rains this year. Second, if you’ve been paying attention to North American Whitetail, Bowhunter, Petersen’s Bowhunting, and other magazine websites that yours truly writes for in his day job, then you’ve probably noticed a lot of giant bucks falling to bowhunters, muzzleloader hunters, and gun hunters sitting in stands across Oklahoma in recent years.

Barber, who notes that the current archery season in Oklahoma is already producing good harvest numbers and some solid big buck reports, certainly believes there will be some pre-Halloween monsters getting tagged on his side of the Red River during the muzzleloader campaign.

Because the bottom line is this, that when October ends and November is waiting in the wings, it pays to have a smokepole in your hand, an unused buck tag in your back pocket, and some time off to chase the monster bucks that roam across the Sooner State.

Even if the autumn weather in 2021 is a little warmer than many hunters might like.

Because if the Oklahoma version of Mr. Big comes strolling by in the first 30 minutes of daylight or the last 30 minutes of daylight, what’s a little sweat against a big taxidermy bill and a freezer full of venison?