Every February since 1991 I’ve flown to cities from Maryland to Texas and Arkansas to Florida to attend the annual Southeast Deer Study Group meeting. That’s where white-tailed deer biologists from universities and wildlife agencies gather to hear -- and sometimes debate -- the latest research on whitetails and whitetail management.
The two-day conference features 32 research presentations by university students and professors, as well as researchers from government agencies, private corporations and nongovernment organizations.
Trust me, the speakers won’t be insulted when I say their 20-minute talks would drive most deer hunters from the room. And those who don’t flee are probably asleep in their seats. It’s rare for their talks to include topics like rattling, calling, decoying or scent-based tactics for whitetails.
Joking aside, I respect and appreciate the researchers’ work. Their presentations simply aren’t made for TV or scripted for entertainment. All 32 talks discuss hardcore scientific research, and they’re seldom juicy or colorful. Even so, almost every bit of this research is relevant to deer hunting. That’s because these biologists study deer nutrition, habitat preferences, travel patterns, predator impacts, disease prevalence and breeding habits, to name a few.
That’s why I haven’t missed a meeting the past 20 years. As an outdoor writer, I’m always looking for scientific insights that my readers will find useful, and this is a target-rich environment. This is where many of the nation’s top deer researchers and managers meet, and most are good at translating their science for laymen like me.
The meetings rotate between 16 states in the Southeast, which allows the host state to show off its home-grown assets to the 400-plus attendees. This year’s meeting was held February 20-22 in Oklahoma City at the downtown Sheraton. As attendees entered the hotel’s conference center last week, they often stopped to admire an impressive display of bow-killed bucks from the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.
When looking for familiar faces in the crowd, I usually saw Bill Starry, McAlester’s longtime natural resources manager. Starry has held that position 30 years, so he knows nearly every inch of McAlester’s 45,000 acres. He also manages the base’s unique bowhunting program that’s restricted to traditional archery equipment.
Yep. That means no compound bows. It also means no binoculars, no cameras, no rangefinders, no GPS units and no two-way radios, to name a few of the hunt’s forbidden items. Despite such restrictions, Starry said this primitive bowhunt remains extremely popular. In 2010, more than 22
,000 bowhunters applied for one of its coveted 1,600 permits. Of those drawing a tag, roughly 13 percent each year kill a buck or antlerless deer.
Bowhunting is allowed on 40,000 (89 percent) of McAlester’s 45,000 acres, but the base is broken up into four hunting areas that accommodate 85 to 90 bowhunters each. The bowhunters can put their tree stand anywhere they want on the 10,000 acres they’re assigned. Starry works with them to make this a quality hunt, but they can’t roam the base at will. After all, much of the munitions being used in Afghanistan and Iraq originate from McAlester.
“There’s more tons of TNT stored there than just about anywhere else in the world,” Starry said. “The most difficult part of the hunt is meeting all the military’s security concerns. It’s a tough job, but we can conduct this hunt safely so the Army can still do its military missions.”
Starry said McAlester’s bowhunters achieve annual harvests of 225 to 250 deer, with a buck-to-doe harvest ratio of nearly 1-1. Of the approximately 120 bucks bowhunters kill each fall, about 11 to 13 qualify for the Pope and Young Club’s record book. In fact, during the past five years, 63 of McAlester’s bucks have achieved P&Y status. Of those, 40 gross-scored more than 140 inches, and 17 gross-scored 150 or better, with some approaching 200.
“Our program proves there’s a lot of bowhunters looking for a challenging, high-quality hunt,” Starry said. “They know their odds of drawing a tag are low, but they keep applying. They also know their odds of getting one McAlester’s big bucks are also low, but everyone wants a crack at them.”
Starry said the archery hunts’ 1-1 harvest ratio has kept the herd stable for several years. Although bowhunters account for most of McAlester’s annual deer harvest, the base also holds a “Wounded Warriors” hunt each hunt for war veterans, as well as a youth-only shotgun hunt for antlerless deer.
To learn more about the McAlester bowhunts and see photos of its legendary bucks, please look them up on the web.
Bill Starry, second photo below, has been the natural resources manager at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in Oklahoma for 30 years. The other photos, courtesy of the MAAP web site, show some of the impressive bucks arrowed during recent traditional bowhunts at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in Oklahoma.