Photo by Les Voorhis
Missouri’s bowhunters are arguably the most avid deer hunters in the Show-Me State. With nothing more than a stick and a string, they take to the woods each autumn in hopes of tagging one of North America’s most sought after trophies — the whitetail deer.
It’s almost impossible to determine exactly how many archery deer hunters there are in Missouri because of the Point of Sale Landowner Permits that are issued. However, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, approximately 125,000 bowhunters took to the woods in Missouri in 2005. Bowhunters killed 36,594 deer last year, which was down 3 percent from the 2004 archery season.
Breaking down the 2005 archery harvest even further, about 25 percent of Missouri bowhunters killed at least one deer. Harvest reports indicate that 4,643 bowhunters tagged two deer in 2005, 1,058 shot three deer, 337 killed four deer, 100 shot five and 88 bowhunters arrowed six or more whitetails last year.
Those are some pretty impressive statistics — but they probably don’t make you feel any better if you weren’t one of the lucky archers who wrapped a tag around a deer’s leg last season. The first step to making you a more successful bowhunter this season is choosing a tract of land known to hold good numbers of deer, especially good bucks, while having the least hunting pressure possible. If you think that finding such a place to bowhunt on public land is impossible, think again.
One of the best kept deer hunting secrets in the Show-Me State is the incredible deer hunting opportunities that await bowhunters on public hunting lands — but not just any public hunting lands. The tracts of public access hunting that I’m talking about allow bowhunting as the only means of deer hunting. These areas receive no pressure from firearms hunters, and archers are very limited to close-range shots, so deer numbers remain high in these areas. Also, these areas’ bucks live longer, thus allowing them to grow larger racks. Read on to learn about these best-kept secrets, and discover Missouri’s best bowhunts!
The 7,000-acre Reform Conservation Area is in Callaway County. About 6,300 acres of this area is open to archery deer hunting.
Reform CA is bisected almost in half north to south in terms of habitat types. The northern or open half is mostly a prairie-type habitat that’s relatively flat, with some row crops, pastures, old fields and fingers of woods. The habitat mix in the northern section of Reform is about 70 percent open and 30 percent forest. The southern half is 80 percent forestland, with the remaining 20 percent in open ridgetops planted in some small food plots.
“This area has been an archery-only area since about 1976,” said MDC wildlife biologist Chris Newbold. “There are good numbers of deer throughout the area — it just depends on which type of habitat you prefer hunting. We’ve got both open and timbered areas here.”
The bowhunting pressure intensifies as the rut kicks in at Reform CA. “We have 18 parking lots at Reform, and during mid-November you can usually find at least one car in each parking lot,” Newbold said. “However, with 6,300 acres to hunt, this area can absorb a lot of hunting pressure.”
Reform CA is about nine miles east of Fulton on County Route O. The closest major city or town is Jefferson City. For an area map or more information, contact the MDC at (573) 884-6861 or (573) 592-4080.
ST. LOUIS REGION
Howell Island Conservation Area
This 2,547-acre tract of land is just three miles off state Highway 40 on Olive Street/Eatherton Road in St. Charles County. This area’s closest major city is St. Louis.
Howell Island is composed primarily of river-bottom woodlands with lots of cottonwood, willow and pecan trees. The MDC has planted some food plots throughout the area for wildlife. Howell Island is known not only for its good deer population but also for its extremely thick cover.
“It can be very thick at Howell Island,” said MDC wildlife regional supervisor Joel Porath. “We burned about one-third of the area in 2000, and since then there have been brush fires that burned a couple of hundred acres. These burns allowed for grasses and underbrush to grow and created some great heavy bedding cover for the deer there.”
Access to Howell Island is the biggest obstacle in hunting there. There is only one causeway that crosses the Missouri River and leads to the island. This is the only way to access this tract by land. If the river is up, the only way to get to the island is by boat from the Missouri River.
“Many folks access the island by boat as their primary means of access whether the river is up or not,” Porath said. “Once on the island, there is a good loop trail about nine miles long that goes through this tract.”
In some places, the looping trail meanders near the Missouri River while other portions of it lead deeper into the island.
Hunters wanting to get away from the crowd might consider access from the river. There is a boat ramp located at Weldon Springs CA, which is located right across the river from Howell Island.
For more information or an area map of Howell Island CA or Weldon Springs CA, contact the MDC at (636) 441-4554.
Ted Shanks CA
This CA in Pike County is a land in regeneration. The great flood of 1993 greatly damaged the habitat at this public deer hunting land favored by archers. The high waters of the Mississippi River devastated nearly all of the oak trees on the property and just about all other tree species. The flood’s wake left behind a silted-over tract with thousands of acres of standing dead timber. In fact, for a long time the MDC issued warnings to hunters and other visitors of the area, about the possibility of dead trees and limbs falling or blowing down on them. However, after years of rehabilitation, this 6,705-acre tract is well on its way to recovery.
“A lot of the dead timber has either fallen or we have pushed it down to clear it off,” said MDC wildlife biologist Ryan Kelly. “We actually started a clearing project in 2004, and we have cleared about 925 acres of the timbered area that had grown up into invasive grasses that overtook the area after the flood.”
Ted Shanks CA is primarily a wetland area with lots of bottomland, crop fields, and sloughs. About the only hardwood species that survived the devastating
flood of 1993 is the pin oak, most of which are near Flag Lake.
“We have a good deer population here, and we see some really good bucks on a regular basis during the season,” Kelly said. “Last year, we had 882 hunting trips reported, and 44 deer were harvested during those hunts.”
Archers who bowhunt the Ted Shanks area must sign in and fill out a daily hunting report card and drop it off when they exit the area. This area is primarily managed for waterfowl, and once the waterfowl season opens, about half of the area turns into a waterfowl refuge and deer hunters are restricted. However, from Sept. 15 through Oct. 14, hunters pretty much have free range. Also, there is a reserved section that closes to hunting at 1 p.m.
“Bowhunters have a good chance of shooting a deer here,” Kelly said. “Although we get some pressure on the weekends, there is plenty of places for everybody to hunt here.”
Ted Shanks will provide boats to bowhunters who wish to use them. You may also bring your own boat to access remote areas of this tract. Much of the area is only accessible by boat, so this is an option that you should consider.
Camping at the parking lot at the Ted Shanks’ headquarters is very popular among bowhunters. You may also camp at the nearby Dupont CA campground. Campers are allowed a 14-day continuous stay.
Ted Shanks CA is 17 miles south of Hannibal on state Highway 79, and then east on County Route TT. Hunters should make themselves aware of exactly which portions of this area are open for hunting at different times of the deer season. For a map and more information, contact the MDC at (573) 754-6171.
Bois D’Arc CA
The 5,000-plus-acre Bois D’Arc CA has been primarily targeted by the MDC as a quail restoration area since 1987. Bois D’Arc’s old fields and native warm-season grasses on the west side of the area and the woodland breaks on the eastern side of the area provide a great mix of habitat not only for quail but for whitetail deer.
The habitat and deer numbers are dispersed pretty evenly at Bois D’Arc. You will find rows of corn, legume plantings and old fields. The northeastern portion of the area is the most heavily timbered, but the entire area has lots of good places with cover for the deer to hide in.
“This area is very popular for archery deer hunting,” said MDC wildlife regional supervisor Tim Russell. “We have good numbers of deer and some good-sized bucks. Last year, a bowhunter killed a really big buck here.”
According to Russell, when the hunting pressure gets heavy on surrounding private lands, the deer move into the Bois D’Arc CA to escape the intense heat from hunters. In case you think you misread that last statement, let me say it again: The deer move from the private land to the public land to escape hunting pressure!
Bois D’Arc CA is in Greene County off of County Route UU, southwest of Willard. For more information or an area map of Bois D’Arc, contact the MDC at (417) 895-6880.
Grand Pass CA
“Deer hunting is good for the most part at Grand Pass,” said MDC wildlife management biologist Chris Freeman. “However, we do have an increased amount of hunting pressure during the month of November just prior to firearms deer season.”
Grand Pass CA includes 5,100 acres of deer hunting habitat that can absorb a good deal of hunting pressure. This area is composed of about 800 acres of timber, 1,600 acres of cropland and 2,800 acres of wetland.
Hunters are required to check themselves in when they get here. “The daily tag is free — hunters just need to get one before they go hunting at the area headquarters,” Freeman said. “They will need to fill out the top portion of the tag and put it in the box and keep the bottom portion of the tag with them while hunting.”
At the end of the hunting day, archers must fill out the bottom, or harvest portion of the card and drop it off before they leave.
Hunters must be aware of the Oct. 15 waterfowl season opener, because a good portion of this area close to hunting. About 1,000 acres remain open to archers during the waterfowl season.
Grand Pass CA is in Saline County eight miles west of Marshall on state Highway 65 and one and a half miles west on an unnamed county road. Hunters should make themselves aware of exactly which portions of this area are open for archery deer hunting and at what time of year. For a map or more information on Grand Pass, contact the MDC at (660) 595-2444.
TIP & TACTICS
Jefferson County resident Earl Jones is an avid bowhunter who spent 23 years bowhunting public areas like these. He was kind enough to share some of the tips that make him a consistently successful bowhunter on public lands.
“You always read about how you have to go as deep as possible to find a remote place on these public areas,” Jones said. “However, it’s been my experience that no matter how far you go, you will never be the only person to hunt a particular area.”
Jones has always found human tracks, tree stands or other telltale signs of other hunters in the area no matter how remote the particular area he is hunting. “You just can’t worry about other hunters,” he said. “Instead of worrying about what other hunters are doing, I rely on finding the most and hottest deer sign on the area and hang my stands accordingly.”
Jones looks for the most recent deer sign available, and when he has found a good amount of deer sign, he knows that he has found a hotspot — at least, one for the moment — and that is where he concentrates his efforts.
You’ve probably heard this saying: “When you find the rabbit’s droppings, you’ve found the rabbit.” Jones applies the pellet theory to his deer hunting as well. “When I’m looking for deer sign, I primarily look for well-used deer trails and lots of fresh droppings,” he said. “After years of experience, I’ve found that hunting over ground scrapes isn’t that productive. At least, it hasn’t been for me.”
Jones looks not only for good amounts of deer droppings but also for large deer droppings. His theory: The larger the deer, the larger the droppings.
Jones also likes hunting near the boundaries of such areas. These might be the boundaries of the public land bordering private property, or ones that border refuge areas on the public lands he is hunting.
“If I can find a funnel area or a good corner near a bordering crop field, I know I’ve found a hotspot,” he said. “I like to set up next to these boundaries for some really hot action.”
As a veteran bowhunter, Jones has learned that no matter how scent-free he tries to be, the deer can and will smell him if the wind isn’t in his favor. He knows that if the wind isn’t right, then you should avoid using a parti
cular stand until things change. Multiple stands in different locations help him be a successful hunter.
Jones also likes to brush in his tree stands with oak limbs that he cuts during late summer while their leaves are still green. By the time hunting season rolls around, the leaves are brown and ready to be tied to his stands with string to help break up his outline.
Jones doesn’t worry about hunting pressure from others. Instead, he looks for hot deer sign in large amounts, loves hunting funnel areas or hot trails on the borders and always hunts the wind. These tactics will help you be more consistently successful when hunting anywhere in Missouri.
The archery deer season in Missouri will probably remain the same as last year. Opening day should still be Sept. 15 and the close of the season should be Jan. 15. However, the MDC does have some concerns about urban deer and is currently looking for new ways to increase the harvest in these urban areas. New urban zones may be an option that the MDC implements to help reduce deer numbers in these areas. Regulations for 2006-07 were not available at press time.
“I feel we should have a very good deer hunting season this year,” said MDC resource scientist Lonnie Hansen. “Harvest was depressed in many areas of Missouri last year because of the overabundance of acorns, especially in the south.”
According to Hansen, the areas in which a heavy mast crop served to hold down the deer harvest last season should have a surplus of deer for hunters this season.
If you want to increase your odds of harvesting a deer this season, check out the conservation areas listed above. These public hunting lands do indeed offer some of Missouri’s best bowhunts!
Find more about Missouri fishing and hunting at: MissouriGameandFish.com