“Me and my dad were out cutting some firewood,” recalled Earl Pitts. “Near as I can recollect it was along about 1937 or ’38. We were just over that ridge there from where we are right now.” He pointed off to the west.
“At one point, we got pretty far from the wagon, so I walked back to bring it up. As I swung up onto the seat, there was something standing there in the road we had come in on, maybe 50 yards behind me.
“I didn’t know what it was at first, but then I realized it was a doe. That was the first deer I ever saw!”
That little story was told back in the late 1960s as the old-timers I was hunting with and I sat around our noonday campfire, eating bologna sandwiches and drinking scalding hot coffee from an old coffeepot that had seen better days. Most of the men at that fire were only in their 40s at the time, but ancient to my youthful way of thinking, and they had lived through the true hard times of Arkansas deer hunting. Consider that back in the 1930s, estimates put our total deer herd at somewhere around 500 animals, and even in the 1960s, we considered just seeing a half-dozen whitetails in a season a good year.
So for the Natural State deer hunter, these truly are the good old days!
Today’s published estimates put our overall deer herd in the range of 1 million animals.
According to Arkansas Game & Fish Commission figures, our checked harvest for last season was 184,991 animals, up from 169,853 in 2007-08. Since most reports put Natural State hunter numbers at somewhere around 275,000, that means our success ratio is in the 67 to 68 percent range. That is an all-time high if you disregard the few seasons at the end of the past century when we wore out the does. Some 108,000 of those deer were bucks; leaving 76,721 does, a slightly skewed ratio that could indicate a problem somewhere down the line.
I have joked many times that all you have to do to find a good place to hunt in Arkansas is take a dart and toss it at a map of the state. Anywhere it lands will be a good spot unless you land in the middle of the Arkansas River, because virtually every single county in our state has good deer numbers.
Naturally, some hunting spots are better than others, and this article is designed to look at what numbers and experience tell us should be the best of the best for the coming season. But before we begin, some terminology guidelines need to be established.
There are three types of land in Arkansas: public land, managed public land and private land.
Public land is just that, open to the public. Prime examples of public land are the two national forests in the western and northwestern regions of the state, the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Hunting seasons on public land follow state guidelines with no special permits required or quotas in effect.
Managed public land is state or federally controlled property where hunting is allowed, but with special restrictions in place. Access is typically controlled, harvest quotas are in effect, and permits are required. Examples of these are the various wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges scattered throughout our state.
Private land belongs to individual landowners who may or may not allow hunting on their property, and in some cases, they’ll allow hunting for a fee. The vast timber-company lands of southern Arkansas are the most common example of this type of land.
Keep these definitions in mind as we continue through the remainder of this article. Public vs. private is, of necessity, the deciding factor for Arkansas hunters looking for a place to hunt for deer.
Union County, down around El Dorado, had led the state in overall kill for the past decade, while Cleveland and Clark are annual members of the Top 5. Bradley and Ouachita are relative newcomers, but what is most illuminating is that all five are from the GCP, the endless sea of timberlands located south of Little Rock. This is Deer Zone 12, which takes in all or part of 22 counties, and where deer seemingly lurk behind every bush. Last year, this single hunting zone accounted for 79,907 animals harvested, approaching half of the state’s entire total. Even though it is a large area, the number of deer killed there is impressive.
But there is some bad news, if you want to call it that. Most of the land in the GCP is private, so if you want to hunt there, you pretty much have to join one of the clubs that lease hunting rights from one of the timber companies.
In reality, the GCP is not alone when it comes to a lack of public hunting. There is little open land in the Delta, where the land is typically owned by large private or corporate farming operations, or even in the Arkansas River Valley.
Before we look at some of the best of our managed public areas, I need to mention both the Ozark National Forest and Ouachita National Forest. Together these two huge areas comprise nearly 3 million acres in northwestern and southwestern Arkansas. While there are WMAs within both, such as Piney Creeks and White Rock in the Ozarks, along with Muddy Creek in the Ouachitas, with restrictions that differ from the statewide guidelines, for the most part that entire incredible acreage is open to the public. With the leasing expansion currently taking place in the southern part of the state, more and more hunters are venturing toward the public land in the mountains.
When it comes to managed public land, Arkansas is blessed. That’s because there are 82 wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges located throughout the state. On a majority of these the hunting opportunity is better than on surrounding lands. Gun hunting is either by permit or quota, with permits allocated through a random draw held during the summer.
Down in the GCP, where public land is almost nonexistent, lies the 65,000 acres of Felsenthal NWR spreading across Ashley, Union and Bradley counties. If you check the Top 5 counties in overall kill, you will see two of those are listed here, and Ashley had a kill of more than 5,000 animals last season. To be successful, you have to hunt where the deer are, and with 464 deer killed in 2008-09, Felsenthal fills the bill.
Pages: 1 2