Later this week, thousands of Oklahomans will be heading to the woods to set up deer camps. Nowhere more so than in southeastern Oklahoma, where deer gun season is akin to a national holiday.
“I would go just about as far to say it's as big as Christmas down here,” said Dakota Christian, biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, who is responsible for management on the Three Rivers and Honobia Wildlife Management Areas in southeastern Oklahoma.
“All of our schools let out for the whole week of Thanksgiving for the first nine days of deer gun season. There are no schools that have class during that week of Thanksgiving. It's a big tradition.”
The 16-day deer gun season opens Saturday statewide and hundreds of hunters will be heading to Three Rivers and Honobia Creek, whose 300,000 acres combined make it the largest public hunting area in the state.
Generations of families have made a tradition of camping and deer hunting on the timber lands. The hunters come from all over the state, but most campers are from southeastern Oklahoma, Christian said. Many families in the area have their Thanksgiving dinner in the deer woods, he said.
“I grew up doing it,” Christian said, who is a 2003 graduate of Valliant High School. “There were a couple of years where it was just me and my mom, dad and my brother would camp, but most of the time it was also my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, all of us camping together on Three Rivers.”
Ross Fenley, 26, of Valliant is another local resident who has been deer hunting on Three Rivers ever since he was old enough to carry a gun.
In his neck of the woods, the deer hunting seasons “are something you look forward to every year,” Fenley said. “The school takes out the entire week of Thanksgiving for everybody to go deer hunting. It's definitely a big deal.”
For Fenley, it is a really big deal this year. During the muzzleloader season, Fenley killed perhaps the biggest buck in the state so far this season and the biggest ever taken off the Three Rivers WMA. Fenley's buck has a preliminary score of 211 inches.
“It's one of the biggest I know of that's been legally taken off of it (Three Rivers),” Christian said. “I've seen some pictures and heard some rumors about some that weren't killed legally, but that's one of the biggest. If the score stands after the 60-day brain dry, I think it will be the second-largest deer killed in McCurtain County.”
The buck has made Fenley a local celebrity where it's the talk of the county.
“It's just really kind of rare for a deer to be that big down here,” he said.
For the Wildlife Department, deer hunting is a critical important revenue source. Just the sale of deer licenses accounts for 20 percent of the agency's operating budget, said Melinda Sturgess-Streich, assistant director of the Wildlife Department.
And that doesn't account for the general hunting licenses sold, which deer hunters also need unless exempt, and the federal matching funds the agency receives for the state's total number of hunters. Among the total general hunting licenses sold, 73 percent of those license-holders also buy deer licenses, Sturgess-Streich said.
According to ODWC's 2015-2016 Game Harvest Survey, 186,173 hunters participated in the state's deer gun season.
“Looking at the total annual combination hunting and fishing licenses plus the hunting licenses that allow you to deer hunt, and assuming that 73 percent of those purchase a (general) hunting license in order to hunt deer, the revenue generated totals $1,443,463,” Sturgess-Streich said.
Using the same assumption and based on the number of certified hunters, ODWC receives about $1,781,022 in additional federal funds as a result of deer hunting, she said.
And that doesn't include the amount of money spent in communities by deer hunters.
“The economic impact to the state is significant,” Sturgess-Streich said.
Fenley will be back in a deer camp with friends at Three Rivers later this week. But after killing a 200-inch buck last month, he admits the rest of this deer season and future ones likely won't get any better.
“Probably the rest of my life will be a letdown,” he said.
WHAT: Deer Gun Season
WHEN: Nov. 19 through Dec. 4