The Grind: Hunting Hard on Oklahoma Public Land

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The Grind: Hunting Hard on Oklahoma Public Land
My hunting partner, Ryan, is shown here dragging out an Oklahoma public-land doe he’d arrowed in November 2018.

The tree was marginal, but it was in a stand of timber that featured a few fresh rubs and some piles of buck droppings. It was the first decent deer sign I’d come across in a spot that was huntable after five hours of hiking with a stand and sticks on my back. I was sweaty, bleeding from various thorn encounters, and at a loss for where to hunt. It was the second day of a rut hunt on public land in Oklahoma, and aside from jumping a few random does and small bucks, I had yet to see a deer.

I looked the tree up and down and was about ready to work my way into it when I noticed a brown wasp tucked into a crevice in the bark. Then I spotted another. Their camouflage would easily rival the gray treefrogs my girls and I catch back home in Minnesota. I wasn’t overly comfortable getting into a tree harboring well-hidden wasps of appreciable numbers.

I hiked back to camp hoping that my hunting partner was having better luck. When I got there, I loaded my truck and drove down the road to a spot I’d marked before we’d ever made the 14-hour drive south. As soon as I hiked in, I found the makings of a fresh, natural ground blind just above the creek I planned to hunt, complete with some empty water bottles and candy wrappers.

The creek was lined on both sides by rock, and the spot I picked to go down also happened to feature a natural spring, which made the whole thing like an ice rink set at a 40-degree angle. My bow hit at least as hard as my body when I fell, but unlike me, it skittered to the bottom and came to rest in the clear water. After looking it over very carefully, I ranged a cactus and took a 35-yard shot to see if I’d messed the whole rig up. The arrow clipped the five-inch cactus and exploded as soon as it hit the hillside behind it, which was far rockier than I had guessed.

I eventually found a suitable tree to hang my stand, but I never did see a deer. The next morning I returned, and it was like a scene from a science-fiction movie with all of the headlamps heading out across the landscape in the dark. At first light, a doe and two fawns fed through out of range and free from boyfriends.

There were 13 trucks parked along the only road on the property when I drove back to camp at noon. That’s when Ryan and I decided it was time to write off our pre-hunt research and go find a place that either had fewer hunters, or more deer.

Game On

With stands on our backs and some fresh mapwork in our brains, we set out from a parking area close to where we’d seen a good buck the night before while casing the new ground. We chose a spot that had a creek running through it and looked to have difficult access. At worst, we figured we’d cross the creek a few times and hike at least a mile in to get away from the close-to-the-parking-lot pressure.

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It took us a lot longer to get a mile in than we’d expected, partially because the creek was deeper than anticipated, and largely mud-bottomed. Eventually, we managed to get to an area that had some deer sign, so Ryan and I split up. I headed deeper into the timber to find a good crossing, and when I did I felt like I finally had something going on.

The crossing led to a really promising pinch point between a cliff over the river and a wide-open, private pasture. When I got my stand set in a decent-sized oak tree, I could see an old stand in front of me and a natural blind complete with a camp chair in it behind me. I could also see a fresh scrape and a few rubs, and it was November 11. As soon as I settled in and reached for a candy bar, I heard something behind me. Two does were coming in hot. If it had taken me one more minute to get settled, I’d have been busted.

The lead doe curled around my stand and started to walk by at 15 yards. I did a quick check to make sure that there were no bucks following and then tried to stop her. She just kept on going, so I focused on the second doe.

After the shot, she hopped a few steps and stopped. I could hear blood trickling on the leaves. She walked directly under my stand and I could see my exit was perfect, but for some reason the lights weren’t going out. I nocked another arrow in a panic, which spooked her. At 25 yards, she gave me a small opening, and my arrow hit exactly where I was aiming. She took off and stood on the ridge for a minute before disappearing.

It was strange, but not as strange as hunting the next five hours without seeing anything. When I climbed down, I followed the easy trail and found her in the creek, dead. Both of my shots were the kind I’d take all day long. It was a good reminder that even when you do hit them where you think you should, it doesn’t always follow the script.

By the time we’d finished dinner, the perfect rut weather had given way to a front that brought 40 mph winds and a serious blizzard. The forecast was brutal, so we decided to sleep in and butcher the doe in the morning.

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Round Two

The following evening we set out to a new public area that had several agricultural fields. We figured that the snow and unseasonably cold temperatures would get the deer moving to the groceries. The area I chose had a standing soybean field but looked too easy, so I didn’t have high hopes. While hiking in, I saw a ridiculous number of tracks in the muddy snow and several rubs and scrapes, all within 150 yards of the parking area.

Tony Peterson with 2018 Oklahoma public land buck
This young Oklahoma buck made the mistake of trotting too closely on the last evening of my hunt. The buzzer-beater deer capped off three deer in three days for us on new ground after we left a spot that was covered in hunters.

I talked myself out of setting up there, instead reasoning that I should hike to the far corner of the field to be able to see better. I had on every stitch of clothing I’d brought with me and I was still cold, but eventually I started to see deer.

With 20 minutes of shooting light left I scanned the field with my binoculars and picked up a cruising buck that I thought was a mule deer by the way he was framed up. He wasn’t. He was a nontypical whitetail buck with antlers that came straight off of his head and branched out all over. It was one of the coolest deer I’ve seen anywhere, ever. What wasn’t cool was that he spotted a pair of does I didn’t know had joined me in the corner of the field and he trotted in. I had to scramble to stop him and draw.

I also had to guess the range. I guessed wrong. My arrow missed him low by two inches. It was pure operator error and nothing else. As I walked out that evening, I bumped four does from the spot by the truck and knew where I’d be the following night, which would be our last hunt.

Down to the Wire

The following morning, Ryan and I made the long hike back to our original spots. I managed to see a cruising forky, but he got downwind of me and took off. Later, just out of sheer boredom and because I was freezing, I rattled, which is out of character for me on heavily hunted public dirt. As soon as I hit the antlers together, I watched two deer run away that had clearly been on their way in. It would be hard to argue that I was on my A-game this trip.

Ryan, however, managed to make good on a quick encounter with a doe to put us on the board once again. While shooting a doe in general usually isn’t cause for too much back-slapping, I can safely say that on that chunk of ground it was a lot more challenging than arrowing good bucks in many other places I’ve hunted.

The front had pushed through by the time we were discussing our last sit. I planned to take a stand into where the buck from the previous night had originated, and Ryan was going to go into an area he liked. We vowed that it would be bucks or nothing for our last sit.

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I felt stupid parking my truck knowing I was going to hunt so close, but not as stupid as I did when I realized that there was only one suitable stand tree from which to shoot the best trail. The tree offered no cover to hide from the deer, or the road hunters I could see creeping slowly by all night long.

The deer I was hunting were bedding in a private CRP field across the road. I really think they were listening for a lull in the traffic and then making a run for it. When they did, it would go from no action to being covered up in deer. While random does and fawns popped up in the field in different spots, the only group that crossed the road by me was also made up of does and fawns. They veered off of the main trail and entered the field even closer to my truck. I figured my luck had run out when I checked my phone and saw that there were just a few minutes of shooting light left.

Then I heard the most wonderful sound in the world. A deer was coming down the right trail, and it was clear from the cadence of the steps that it sported antlers.

The problem was that if he looked up I’d be toast, so I froze knowing that I needed him to get past me so I could draw, stop him, and shoot.

When the young buck did look up, he paused for two seconds and that’s when the timing of the hunt did me a huge favor. He was too concerned with getting into the field with the ladies to pay me any mind, and at 15 yards I stopped him. He hit the field at a dead run, but he didn’t make it too far before piling up.

It was the shortest drag of my life, and a most welcome one at that. We broke camp by lantern light, and then we butchered the buck before loading the valued meat into the cooler and pointing my truck north. What had started out as nearly a lost cause, had turned into a hunt where we arrowed three deer, in three days, on public land. It’s pretty hard to ask for much more than that.

Author’s Note: On this hunt I used a Mathews bow, Black Gold sight, Carbon Express arrows, Muzzy broadheads, SIG SAUER optics, YETI coolers, and Cabela’s camping gear.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>