Collapse bottom bar
Your Location: You're in the jungle, baby! X

Forecast By Marshall Ford

Deer hunting in Arkansas has never been better than it is right now.

During the combined 2012-13 deer seasons, Arkansas hunters set a new record by checking 213,487 deer. That’s an 11 percent increase from 2011-12, when hunters checked 192,748 deer. We killed 96,956 bucks, a 14 percent increase from 85,838 bucks killed the previous year. We also killed 103,039 does, a 10 percent jump from the previous year when we killed 93,838 does.

We’ll examine those numbers more closely later, but the inescapable conclusion is that Arkansas has a lot of deer and a lot of places to hunt them, and hunter success is at an all-time high. Cory Gray, deer project leader for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said he expects the good times to continue.

“I thought years ago that we’ll flatline at about 160,000, but we never did flatline,” Gray said. “It just keeps going up and up. We don’t level off. I think this year we’ll be over 200,000 again. We’re in green pastures now. Times are good.”

It hasn’t always been so good. Those who hunted in the 1970s or before remember when it was rare to see a deer and comparatively rare to kill one. In the mid-1980s, our deer herd kind of hit a critical mass when the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission estimated its number at about 500,000 animals. Deer had always been numerous in south Arkansas, but that’s when they started spreading out and saturating other areas where deer densities had traditionally been fairly sparse. We started seeing more deer in more parts of the state. Greater opportunity meant that sportsmen got increasingly interested in hunting deer.

I killed my first deer in 1988, in Faulkner County. That was the first time the annual kill surpassed 100,000, to the tune of 106,392 deer. In 1987, by comparison, our statewide kill was 79,880. Since 1988, our annual kill has dipped below 100,000 only once — to 90,910 in 1990.

From 1991-94, hunters killed around 120,000 deer per year, but 1995 was another watershed because hunters checked a record 163,924 deer. It dipped to 152,460 in 1996, followed by three more consecutive record years. We set our last record in 1999 when hunters checked 194,687 deer. It dropped precipitously in 2003 to about 103,000 deer, but rebounded annually by about 20,000 animals until last year, when we topped 200,000 for the first time.

The reason we kill so many deer is simple. The animals are everywhere.

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. Harvests on WMAs are regulated by limiting the number of hunters who can hunt with modern guns and muzzleloaders, by way of a lottery-style draw for permits. On the other hand, access usually is open for bowhunters, except during the muzzleloader and modern gun seasons, from Sept. 21 through Feb. 28.

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.

Rhett Butler with his 194-inch Arkansas Non-Typical. Photo via North American Whitetail

The Gulf Coastal Plain, Zone 12, encompasses most of southern Arkansas. Big timber and paper companies own most of the land, and hunting it usually requires membership in one of the many clubs that lease the land. Membership in those clubs ranges from about $150 to nearly $250,000 per year. This area traditionally supports the greatest concentrations of deer, so naturally, that’s where hunters traditionally kill the most deer.

In the past, it’s where hunters killed almost all the deer, but that has changed.

In 1990, the Gulf Coastal Plain contributed the overwhelming highest percentage of the state’s overall deer harvest. That year, hunters in Dallas County killed 9 deer per square mile, the most in the state. In Cleveland County, directly to the east, hunters killed 8 deer per square mile. Most counties throughout the rest of the GCP yielded 5 to 6 deer per square mile. Howard, Lafayette and Columbia counties lagged with only 4, 3 and 3 deer per square mile, respectively, but they were still a lot better than anywhere else.

In the eastern Delta, for example, hunters killed zero deer per square mile in 1990! Add Pulaski and Perry counties to that group, too. In the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, hunters killed about 1 deer per square mile.

By 1999, the harvest percentage skewed even heavier to Zone 12. Hunters killed 13 deer per square mile in Drew County, and 12 per square mile in Ashley and Cleveland counties. Kill rates per square mile increased slightly across the rest of the state, too, but not in proportion to those in the GCP.

In 2012-13, however, harvest rates balanced more equally across the state. Bradley, Cleveland and Grant counties were most productive with 9 deer killed per square mile, but the Ozarks and the Arkansas River Valley compared favorably. Washington, Crawford and Saline counties, for example, yielded 6 deer per square mile. Even in the Ouachitas, hunters killed 3 to 4 deer per square mile last year. On the other hand, harvest rates have not increased significantly in the eastern Delta, where hunters still kill just 1 deer per square mile.

“It’s not just a south Arkansas driven harvest anymore,” said Cory Gray, deer program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “In Washington County (northwest Arkansas), they’re harvesting 6 per square mile. That’s comparable to Nevada and Ouachita counties.” Nevada and Ouachita counties are traditional deer hunting hotspots in the Gulf Coastal Plain.

As the data illustrates, hunters all over the state have a better chance of killing a deer than ever. Liberalized regulations reflect that premise, as well. In 2011, the AGFC increased the statewide bag limit for deer to six, of which no more than two can be bucks. Many zones have smaller bag limits, but six is the aggregate. The increased bag limit encourages hunters to kill more does, especially in Zone 12, where deer densities are high and the season is long.

Hunters responded, too. Last year, hunters actually killed more does (103,039) than antlered bucks (96,956). The rest were button bucks, which hunters often kill mistaking them for does. If you factor in the “intent,” then the doe kill would be much higher.

So, where are your best chances to kill a deer? Judging by the numbers, Zone 12 is still the best place to obtain meat. During the 2012-13 seasons, hunters killed 74,660 deer, or 35 percent of the statewide total. That is partly because Zone 12 encompasses nearly 35 percent of the state’s land mass, but it’s also because that area still has so many deer. Of that total, 40,967 were does, 28,669 were antlered bucks and 5,024 were button bucks. In all, 56 percent were antlerless deer.

As usual, hunters in Union County led the state last year by checking 7,594 deer. Of those, 4,338 were does, 2,876 were antlered bucks, and 380 were button bucks. Drew County was a distant second (5,751 with 3,096 does, 2,231 antlered bucks), but second through fifth place clustered with comparable numbers. Hunters in Bradley County killed 5,709 deer (3,043 does, 2,303 antlered bucks), followed by Cleveland County with 5,666 total (3,172 does, 2,040 antlered bucks), and Grant County with 5,640 total (3,152 does, 2,093 antlered bucks). Again, it’s noteworthy that in all those counties, hunters killed significantly more does than antlered bucks.

However, Gray also noted that hunters statewide also killed nearly 13,000 more bucks than they did last year.

“Skewed harvest sex ratios can lead to problems, and it’s just a matter of time before we start running into issues,” Gray said. “We sell 300,000 hunting licenses, and every hunter wants two bucks, and they all want the biggest one out there. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but that’s 13,000 bucks that won’t be available this year.”

The rest of the Top Ten in the GCP were Clark County with 5,601 deer, Dallas County with 5,313 (2,867 does, 2,015 antlered bucks), Ashley County (5,253; 2,919 does, 1,974 antlered bucks), Columbia County (4,889; 2,699 does, 1,878 antlered bucks), and Calhoun County (4,651; 2,530 does, 1,766 antlered bucks).

Of those counties, Clark lies partially in the GCP and partially in the Ouachita Mountain foothills. It is a transitional zone loaded with excellent deer habitat, including large river bottoms and large tracts of hardwood forest.

Top public areas in the GCP were Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge (449 deer), Casey Jones WMA (299), Big Timber WMA (204), Howard County WMA (196), Moro Big Pine WMA (170), Poison Springs WMA (115) and Lafayette County WMA (110).

Land management practices might affect the number of deer killed in the GCP in the next three or four years. Many timber companies clearcut thousands of acres of pines in 2012-13. That will influence deer in a couple of ways. First, it greatly reduced the amount of sanctuary cover and fawning habitat for deer, Gray said. It also opened vast acreage to sunlight, which will increase the amount of green browsing forage for deer, he added.

“South Arkansas sure isn’t known for acorn production, but it does have a lot of browse species, especially when those new clearcuts start to ‘fuzz over,’” Gray said. “Those thickets are great places for does to raise their fawns.”

As a result, forage quality will improve for a couple of years, but hunters will probably see more deer in the open this season. That might increase the number of deer killed in the region.

Because of generous public access and healthy deer populations, the Ozark region is always a good place to hunt and have a reasonable expectation of success. Although I belong to a very productive deer club in Grant County, I saw more deer last year in the Ozark National Forest — in the Piney Creeks WMA — despite a very bad year of acorn production.

The Ozarks encompass Zones 1, 1A, 2-3, 6-6A, 8-8A. In those zones combined, hunters killed 70,683 deer in an area roughly as large as Zone 12. Washington County, which contains the cities of Fayetteville and Springdale, was tops with 5,956 deer, including 2,841 does and 2,769 antlered bucks. Next was Benton County (4,707 with 2,212 does, 2,185 antlered bucks), which contains the cities of Rogers and Bentonville, followed by Sharp County (4,414; 1,940 does, 2,052 antlered bucks), Madison County (4,302; 2,044 does, 2,077 antlered bucks), Fulton County (3,829; 1,648 does, 1,901 antlered bucks), Van Buren County (3,669; 1,761 does, 1,681 antlered bucks), Crawford County (3,432; 1,748 does, 1,427 antlered bucks), Baxter County (3,175; 1,295 does, 1,678 antlered bucks), Izard County (2,983; 1,146 does, 1,670 antlered bucks) and Marion County (2899; 1,206 does, 1,535 antlered bucks).

The season bag limit in these zones was four deer in 2012-13, of which no more than two could be bucks. That will remain in effect this year. Only in Crawford and Van Buren counties did hunters kill more does than bucks. The Ozarks is one area where hunters would serve their herds well to remove a few more does and a few less bucks, but Gray said the AGFC has no plans to reduce the buck bag limit there.

Top public areas in the Ozarks were Sylamore WMA (525 deer), Ozark National Forest WMA (464), White Rock WMA (277), Piney Creeks WMA (200), Buffalo National River WMA (193), Gulf Mountain WMA (109) and Gene Rush WMA (84).

In the Ouachita Mountains, primarily Zones 11 and 13, hunters killed about 22,000 deer. The top county was Saline County (4,138; 2,072 does, 1,832 antlered bucks), followed by Pike County (3,815; 1,911 does, 1,697 antlered bucks), Hot Spring County (3,473; 1,785 does, 1,415 antlered bucks), Garland County (2,878; 1,257 does, 1,438 antlered bucks) and Yell County (2,478; 977 does, 1,354 antlered bucks). Of those, Pike and Hot Spring counties take in parts of the Ouachita foothills and the GCP. Yell County takes in part of the Ouachitas and the Arkansas River Valley.

Top WMAs in the Ouachitas were Winona (332), Mount Magazine (329), Muddy Creek (218), Howard County (196), Lake Greeson (148), and DeGray Lake (90).

It is hard to quantify just how many deer hunters actually kill in the Arkansas River Valley because it’s such a narrow area, and its counties also encompass large areas of the Ozarks and Ouachitas. However, Zone 7 takes in much of the valley and is a good indicator. Hunters killed 5,838 deer in Zone 7 last year, including 2,948 antlered bucks and 2,495 does.

The best WMAs in the Arkansas River Valley were Fort Chaffee (490), Dardanelle (64), Holla Bend NWR (64), Ed Gordon Point Remove (52), Petit Jean River (37), and Galla Creek (25).

The Delta encompasses 10 management zones in which hunters killed 21,443 deer last year. This area includes the White River and Cache River NWRs. Zone 17 takes in the game-rich lands between the levees on the Mississippi River. Arkansas County led that region with 4,373 deer, including 2,163 antlered bucks and 2,008 does.

Top public areas last year were Cache River NWR (580), White River NWR (1,125), Wattensaw WMA (198), Trusten Holder WMA (156), and Bayou Meto WMA (126).

As the numbers illustrate, Arkansas hunters killed more deer than ever last year, and this season could be as good, if not better. Deer have never been more plentiful, so if you’re hungry for venison, 2013-14 should be an excellent time for you to fill your freezer.

And don’t forget to upload your best deer photos to our Camera Corner!