In my short lifetime, I have seen deer hunting in Arkansas go from poor to great in a quantum leap.
I saw my first deer in 1974, while hunting ducks with my dad and two elderly uncles in Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. It was a big buck running from hounds in waist-deep water, and the sight of that big body and ivory-colored antlers transfixed me. I’d listened to my mentors talk about hunting deer, but to me, the animals verged on the mythical.
My uncle Demp was prepared for such an opportunity. He removed the duck loads from his shotgun, replaced them with buckshot and disappeared for the rest of the afternoon. He came back empty-handed, of course, because deer were relatively scarce in Bayou Meto, just as they were everywhere else.
A year later, I saw my first harvested deer, again at Bayou Meto. A couple of hunters dragged an 8-point buck across a small field near the Long Bell Access. I ran across the field to greet them, and I actually touched the deer. That was as close as I would get to one for 12 more years.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s, when a national hunting magazine rated Arkansas — with a deer population of about 500,000 — as one of the South’s top deer-hunting destinations. By then, deer were fairly common in many parts of the state. I finally got onboard in 1988, when I killed my first deer in Faulkner County.
In 2010, things are even better. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission estimates our deer herd to contain about 1 million animals. Almost every hunter expects to kill a deer these days, and it seems rare for hunters to kill just one. If you put in the time at a productive area, you stand a really good chance of filling a limit.
That’s been the story for at least 10 years, and 2010 should be no different. If you want to put some venison in the freezer, you can expect plenty of opportunities in any county.
As with any state, Arkansas contains many different types of habitat and land-use patterns. The Mississippi Alluvial Plain, or the Delta, in eastern Arkansas contains vast farms that shelter a lot of deer. Most of the area is privately owned, however, and access is limited. Access to public land, including AGFC-owned WMAs and the White River and Cache River national wildlife refuges, is tightly controlled during firearms seasons, and harvests are limited by quota. On the other hand, access usually is open for bowhunters, except during the muzzleloader and modern gun seasons, from Oct. 1 through Feb. 28.
The Gulf Coastal Plain encompasses most of southern Arkansas. That is where the greatest concentrations of deer live. Big timber and paper companies own most of the land, and hunting it usually requires membership in one of the many clubs that leases the land. Membership in those clubs ranges from about $150 to nearly $250,000 per year.
The Arkansas River Valley also has a lot of deer, but again, most of the land is privately owned. Bowhunters enjoy open access and ample opportunities at WMAs like Galla Creek and Petit Jean River.
Public access is most generous in the Ouachita Mountains and Ozark Mountains, mostly on the 3 million or so acres that comprise the Ozark and Ouachita national forests. Access is largely unrestricted, and while hunting pressure is intense in some areas of the national forests, it’s non-existent on others, especially in remote, hard-to-reach areas. Deer densities are lower per square mile in the mountains than in the rest of the state, but whitetails are plentiful for those willing to work for them.
According to the AGFC, hunters killed about 186,000 deer in 2009-10, compared to 184,800 in 2008-09. That includes a checked total of 170,517. The remainder came from property enrolled in the AGFC’s Deer Management Assistance Program. The overwhelming majority of those were does. Of deer that hunters checked, 83,087 deer were antlered bucks, and 14,048 were button bucks. The remainder, 73,382, were does.
New last year was the AGFC’s online and telephone-checking systems, which replaced the age-old practice of checking deer at authorized check stations. Brad Miller, the AGFC’s deer biologist, said he believes the harvest numbers, deer data and place of kill that hunters reported through the new system are more accurate than those reported at check stations.
David Goad, chief of the AGFC’s wildlife management division, said that many hunters who killed deer late in the day on their own land were more likely to check their deer by phone or online. Before last year, they probably didn’t bother to haul the deer to a check station, haul it back home, and then clean and skin the animal late at night.
Brad Carner, the AGFC’s regional wildlife supervisor in Russellville, took it a step further. He said harvest figures from WMAs were more accurate with online and telephone checking. “When someone took a deer to a check station, the person checking the deer a lot of times didn’t think to ask if the deer was taken on a WMA, and the hunter didn’t think to mention it,” Carner said. “With online and telephone checking, you’re asked if you took the deer on a WMA. The deer got reported in the past, but it wasn’t necessarily reported as being taken on a WMA. Now, we think the WMA harvest reports are more accurate.”
Carner also said it helped increase the doe harvest, especially in the Ozarks, when the AGFC opened doe days in various regions. For several years the AGFC issued doe quota permits for various zones.
For deer hunters, the biggest change in 2010-11 will be a bag limit increase in Zone 12, which encompasses most of the Gulf Coastal Plain, to five deer. Only two can be bucks. The AGFC made that change to encourage hunters to kill more does. Also, in the Ozarks, bowhunters will be able to take a doe at any time during modern gun season, even on days when gun hunters only take bucks.
Zone 12 harbors more deer than any other region in the state, but it also has the most hunters. Hence, it always produces the highest harvest totals. In 2009-10, hunters checked a total of 67,551 deer in Zone 12. As usual, hunters in Union County killed the most deer in Arkansas last year with a checked harvest of 7,427. Of those, 3,069 were antlered bucks, and 3,858 were does.
The rest were button bucks. Ashley County was a distant second with a checked harvest of 5,242, of which 2,019 were antlered bucks and 2,779 does. Close behind was Ouachita County, with a checked harvest of 4,929 — 1,995 antlered bucks and 2,509 does.
Notice the trend of hunters killing more does than antlered bucks? That was consistent among the top 12 counties in the GCP. And remember, the doe tally will go even higher when you include those killed on DMAP lands. The rest of the Top 12 in Zone 12 include, in fourth place, Drew County with 4,891 deer (2,058 antlered bucks, 2,423 does), Cleveland County, with 4,889 (1,857 antlered bucks, 2,537 does), Clark County (4,757; 2,021 bucks, 2,317 does), Dallas County (4,854; 1,885 antlered bucks, 2,469 does).