We all know which states and provinces produce the biggest whitetails. Or do we?
At first glance from the side, my Oklahoma buck looked like an average eight-point. When he turned and showed sweeping beams and long tines, I knew he was a shooter.
WHEN MY FRIEND and business associate Kevin Howard, of Howard Communications, asked, "Are you interested in an Oklahoma bowhunt?" he caught me off guard. I've spent much of my adult life studying and hunting whitetails and generally know where the big ones grow. At least I thought so until Kevin called. Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Saskatchewan, Texas, Wisconsin -- easy picks for big bucks. But Oklahoma?
Was I willing to burn a week away from family and work to hunt in a state I didn't know much about? For reasons too numerous and varied to cite, I opted in. But I still remained skeptical.
And the assurance that, "The place hasn't been hunted in years," did little to relieve my skepticism. As a New Englander, I'm inherently skeptical, and years of bowhunting have only reinforced that attitude, which every once in a while costs me. Several years ago I was told the same thing about the Medicine Bow River Ranch in Wyoming. Not believing it, I arrowed the first decent muley I had a chance at. Then, for the next three days I watched my hunting partners chase 150-180-inch bucks all over the ranch.
Thus, when I arrived at the Turley Ranch in Durham, Oklahoma, and heard that the ranch hadn't been hunted, not just in years but in decades, I tried to keep an open mind.
A very long drive and late arrival made the concept of sleeping-in the first morning somewhat appealing. So Bowhunter Equipment Editor Curt Wells, Matt Coffey, and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in camp while Ranch Manager Tony Sumpter and his wife, Lorrie, took other hunters to their stands.
When Tony returned after sunrise, we quickly piled into his truck and headed out to scout. Right away we spotted deer heading out of the bottomland food plots toward the surrounding red sandstone hills. These were merely the lead guard in what would turn out to be an army of impressive whitetail might. Around every corner we saw a group of deer, every one of which contained a buck or two that elicited oohs and aahs from those of us in the truck.
On the way back to camp, we all agreed the morning drive was time well spent. Now we knew what to expect. And, needless to say, my skepticism had been somewhat tempered.
Before reaching camp, we crossed paths with Lorrie and two other hunters, Lisa Price and Lisa Metheney. When we pulled up alongside their Blazer, the front seat was full of smiles and the back seat was full of legs and antlers. Lisa Price was as ecstatic about her first-day Oklahoma buck as I was with my Wyoming muley a few years earlier. And she would later have second thoughts similar to those I'd experienced.
Several members of our hunting party opted to scout the first morning rather than hunt, and were glad we did because it gave us a hint of the number and quality of bucks on the Turley Ranch. Large food plots planted in the bottoms are a magnet for both deer and turkeys.
NEEDLESS TO SAY, I was pretty eager to get on stand that afternoon. With all the bucks we'd seen that morning, I figured at least one would wander within bow range. Tony directed me to a ladder stand in a giant cottonwood at the far end of a long food plot.
"The deer will probably file out of the thick bedding cover to the south and hop the fence in front of you," he said.
The sun was still high in the western sky when I happened to glance over my shoulder and, to my surprise, saw deer in the field. Clearly I could see antlers on one, and a look through binoculars quickened my pulse. If he wasn't a shooter, he was close.
The rest of the afternoon was fun and frustrating as I watched a nearly constant parade of deer. They came from all around, but most entered an adjacent field and slowly made their way toward me, only to turn and stroll through an opening that connected the two fields, 100 yards from me. That was as close as any bucks came to my stand.
That night the dinner table was abuzz with tales of shooter bucks. To a man, and woman, everyone had a close encounter to relate. Lisa Price's would have been the hardest to believe, if she didn't have the proof to back up her claim. When she passed her cell phone around the room, I watched eyes bug out and jaws drop as one by one the other hunters looked at the tiny image on the screen.
"That's a 170-inch buck," Curt Wells said, which only resulted in more phone passing, eye bugging, and jaw dropping. Then the reality of it all began to sink in. She'd taken the photo with her cell phone.
"He just stood there, at 25 yards," she said.
The members of my happy hunting party: (front row) Randy Templeton, Curt Wells, and Lisa Metheney; (back row) yours truly, Matt Coffey, Lisa Price, and Kevin Howard.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING dawned cold and clear, an ideal morning for bowhunting. Tony put me in a strip of cottonwoods that snaked along either side of the Washita River with instructions to be on the lookout for several good bucks known to frequent the area, and one in particular.
"He's only a six-pointer, but when you see him, you'll want to shoot him," Tony said. He was right on both counts: I did see that buck, and I did want to shoot him. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong side of the river, and on a mission. Nose to the ground, he ignored my every grunt and bleat as he ghosted through the cottonwoods.
Sitting back off the fields, I saw fewer deer this day than the previous day. But most of those I saw were bucks, and they seemed to be on the move -- a good sign. The tail end of the rut is one of the best times to take a mature buck because hot does are harder to find and the older bucks seem to step up their efforts for the final lap. Every so often I'd glimpse movement through the brushy cover along the river, and more often than not it was a buck.
As the action began to slow, I decided to make some
thing happen. This area had a well-balanced age and sex ratio, the time was right, and I sat very close to, if not in, bedding cover. I decided to roll the dice by rattling.
First I clacked the antlers lightly in case anything was nearby. Nothing. Time to go for broke. I clashed the antlers together with all the vigor I could muster. In fact, I made so much noise I never heard the buck approaching at a fast trot. Fortunately, I glanced over my left shoulder with barely enough time to drop the horns and grab my bow.
On he came, so quickly I barely had time to size him up. It was only the second day, and no longer skeptical about the quality of bucks here, I didn't want to be hasty. But I didn't want to let a shooter walk either. From the side, he showed a decent eight-point rack -- borderline. Then he paused momentarily and turned toward me. That's when I saw long, sweeping tines and beams. Shooter!
Lisa Price was both thrilled and relieved to connect on a nice buck on the first day of her Oklahoma hunt.
The buck was on a heavy trail that paralleled the river on the opposite bank. If he kept on it, he would pass by me at 35 yards. However, there was a heavy river crossing directly in front of me. If he turned on it and crossed, he would end up right underneath me.
The buck trotted up to the crossing, slammed on the brakes, and seemed to stare right at me. I would have to time my draw perfectly. If he decided to cross the river, I could wait until he walked down the bank. But if he kept going straight, I would have a split second to draw and stop him before he was out of range.
He broke the standoff by first turning and then stepping straight ahead, behind a cottonwood. That gave me the instant I needed to pull back. As he stepped ahead into the open, I made a loud blaaat! That stopped him in his tracks just long enough for me to center my pin on his chest and release.
The shot felt good, but there was that inevitable moment of doubt as he bolted through the underbrush, stopping 75 yards away to look back over his shoulder. Not a good sign, I thought. The buck then turned and started to run, but his front legs buckled under him and he fell in a heap.
THE NEXT MORNING I convinced Curt Wells to sit that same stand. I'd seen several other good bucks, including a real dandy that came by as we were loading my deer into the truck. To make a very long story short, Curt saw few deer, but one he did see more than made up for the lack of quantity.
"That was the biggest deer I've ever drawn back on," Curt later related. "Unfortunately, he came right under my stand and never gave me a good shot."
Matt Coffey is all smiles after tagging his 11th-hour buck at the Turley Ranch.
That afternoon, Matt Coffey ended up in the stand I'd sat the first evening, and this time the deer did what they were supposed to, coming out close and in front of the stand. Tony and I were cruising the ranch roads when Tony's cell phone vibrated. As he opened the text message from Matt, a smile came across his face.
Among us we managed to fell three bucks and two does. Everyone had multiple close encounters with big bucks, but for one reason or another, all the pieces just didn't fall into place. I guess that's just bowhunting.
In the final analysis, we all agreed this was one of the best whitetail hunts we'd ever experienced. I'd be hard pressed to recall one or two other locations where I've seen as many deer and as many quality bucks as I did in west-central Oklahoma. Now, when anyone asks me which states and provinces produce the biggest bucks, I must add Oklahoma to the list. And based on personal experience, I'm not even skeptical about that.
The author is a wildlife biologist and outdoor writer from Pownal, Maine.
Author's Notes: I hunted with a BowTech General, Gold Tip 5575 XT Hunter arrows, 100-grain Grim Reaper Razortip broadheads, Apex Gear sight and quiver, Whisker Biscuit rest, Tru-Fire Hurricane release, Knight & Hale Rack Blaster grunt call and Pack Rack rattle call, and Nikon Monarch 10x40 binoculars. I wore Russell Outdoors APX base layers underneath ScentBlocker Dream Season fleece outerwear.
The Turley Ranch is a 15,000-acre working ranch. Deer and turkey combo archery hunts run five days and six nights and hunters are allowed to take one buck, one doe, and one turkey. The $3,500 cost includes four-star meals and very comfortable accommodations. Contact: Turley Ranch, Rt. 1, Box 23A, Durham, OK 73642; (580) 983-2326; www.turleyhunting.com