What exactly is a trophy deer?
To the youngster, it may be a basket-racked 6-point. To the meat hunter, it could be a freezer full of venison. To the bowhunter, it should be any deer, but especially a buck that scores high enough to make the Pope and Young record book. For the gun hunter, maybe it’s a buck large enough to go into the Boone and Crockett Club’s all-time record book.
The point is the term trophy means different things to different people. One of the best definitions may have been made by well-known big-buck aficionado David Morris. According to him, a trophy whitetail is “A mature buck, at least 3 1/2 years old, with antlers large enough to rank him among the best bucks harvested in any given area.”
That definition holds water here in the Natural State. In the high-deer-density flatlands of southern Arkansas, the average buck probably scores around 110 points. It may be slightly higher in the Ouachitas, and slightly higher still in the Ozarks, but substantially higher in the protein-rich farmlands of the Delta.
But I think most hunters would agree that the bucks listed with the Arkansas Trophy Club are true trophies. This list requires a minimum of 150 B&C points for a typical buck, 175 for a non-typical.
There are 781 deer — 638 typicals and 143 non-typicals — listed in the ATC today. Those have been taken during the last 80 years, all the way back to the one killed by George Matthews in Chicot County in 1923.
Of that number, 131 are large enough for inclusion in the all-time B&C record book, which requires a minimum of 170 for typicals, 195 for non-typicals. Of that number, 70 are typicals and 51 non-typicals. For a variety of reasons, not all of them have been entered into the record book, but all have been scored by official B&C scorers.
Arkansas ranks 18th nationwide for B&C book deer production. But among Southern states, Arkansas ranks No. 2; Kentucky is No. 1.
THE ARKANSAS TROPHY TRIANGLE
Draw a lopsided triangle starting at Little Rock, and extend one arm northeast through Jonesboro, the other southeast through Pine Bluff. Within those boundaries have come more than 70 percent of the state’s B&C record bucks!
Big bucks have been here for decades; they are here now and they will be here in the future. The reason? Food. Look at the national records and you’ll find that a majority of bucks entered now come from agricultural regions, such as Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois. Deer are what they eat.
What about the deer outside that triangle? Well, the good news is that trophy deer are showing up in places they never have before. As an example, before 2004, Washington County had never reported a B&C buck. With the area pretty much mountain terrain and relatively poor soil, many thought it unlikely a book buck would be killed there. We know that isn’t true. Richard Little took the so-called Barbwire Buck there in 2004; it scored 221 1/8. And then Mike Franks took his 170 0/8 bow buck in 2007.
The same is true for Polk County, located along the southern slope of the Ouachitas. No B&C bucks at all until 2002, when Lonnie Cecil took his 172 4/8 blackpowder typical. Then Andy Butler in 2007 shot a 176 5/8 typical, and Frank Foster last season got a 174 2/8 monster! (Continued)
With bucks like those showing up, hope springs eternal. So, let’s take a look at some of the places here in Arkansas where hopes can get higher.
THE GULF COASTAL PLAIN
“If you want to kill a deer, head south.” That was the word back in the 1970s when I was a youngster. It was true then and it’s still true today. If your focus is merely killing a deer, the Gulf Coastal Plain is your place.
More good news is that trophy prospects throughout the region are on the rise. While you’re not going to see a Booner behind every tree, each year more and more good GCP bucks are showing up at the Arkansas Big Buck Classic held in Little Rock.
Why? Primarily because a number of clubs in the GCP instituted deer management programs long before the AGFC entered that particular arena in the late 1990s. International Paper Company, for decades the region’s largest private landowner, was promoting quality over quantity as early as 1990. With that head start, it just stands to reason that hunt clubs are seeing positive results today.
While much of the hunting land within the GCP is private, as always a few public areas stand out.
I know many readers get tired of hearing me mention Felsenthal NWR, which lies at the confluence of the Ouachita and Saline Rivers in Union, Bradley and Ashley counties. Show me a better spot and I’ll talk about it.
Felsenthal has great diversity in its terrain, the 65,000 acres ranging from pine ridges on the north to deep swamp on the south. When the refuge was formed in 1975, many thought it would become another White River NWR in terms of big-buck production. That hasn’t happened unless the locals are keeping the news quiet.
The primary reason is soil quality. While part of the interior of Felsenthal could be described as bottomland, the area surrounding White River is blackland dirt, cultivated and covered with mineral-rich row crops.
But Felsenthal does offer opportunity for taking that buck above the norm. Gun hunting is limited to a pair of two-day seasons in November and a two-day muzzleloader season in October. If you’re really serious about taking a good buck, take along a boat or at least chest waders, and get back in the swampy areas. Even in November, and especially if the days are warm, I’d take along a ThermaCELL unit!
LAFAYETTE COUNTY WMA
Over on our west, Lafayette County WMA was under the IPC deer management program for many years. Consisting of 35,000-plus mostly timbered acres, the area today operates under a 4-point antler restriction. Gun seasons pretty much follow state guidelines, and a $20 leased-lands permit is required to hunt there.
Charles Self, then the IPC biologist on the area, told me years ago, “Lafayette has good genetics where antler size is concerned. Deer in the 140 class are not all that uncommon, and even a 150 will show up from time to time.” Charles said that if he were hunting Lafayette, he’d plan on the week after Thanksgiving, when the rut really kicks in.
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