Best Big Buck States for 2014: Arkansas
October 31, 2014
In May, I visited a little pizza joint in Fayetteville called Giraldi's. The NCAA West Preliminary Track and Field Championships were in progress at the University of Arkansas, and across from me sat a couple wearing North Dakota State University garb.
Their son was competing in the steeplechase event. I mentioned my lifelong desire to hunt grouse and pheasants in North Dakota, which prompted a long discussion about hunting.
"What do you consider a big buck here, Boone and Crockett-wise?" the man asked.
"Our biggest non-typical last year was 212 and change," I replied.
"That's a nice buck," he said, nodding his head approvingly. "Yeah. We get at least one big non-typical like that every year. We usually get at least one typical to make book, but generally speaking, we consider a 140 typical to be a really nice buck here."
He was impressed, and surprised.
Arkansas simply isn't widely known as a place that produces trophy whitetails, but in reality, it's a great place to hunt deer with big antlers, and that hunting gets better every year. To get a complete picture of buck quality in Arkansas, visit the Arkansas Big Buck Classic. It is the state's premier deer hunting show, held annually in January at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds in Little Rock. The highlights are the Wall of Honor and the awards ceremony.
The best racks are displayed on the Wall of Honor, which forms a giant arc around the south grandstands of Barton Coliseum. The awards ceremony honors the Top 10 bucks in each category. It is always impressive, and both attractions demonstrate the quality of bucks that can be found from one corner of Arkansas to the other.
The Past & Present
It wasn't always that way, but for two decades, Arkansas has been a place where big-buck dreams can and do come true. Our golden era began in 1998, when the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission passed a statewide regulation that required a legal buck to have at least 3 points on one antler.
Some hunters criticized the regulation at that time because they believed the AGFC was veering into trophy management. Cory Gray, the AGFC's deer program coordinator, said the regulation was designed to improve the age structure of the state's deer herd.
It worked, by shifting the brunt of the annual buck kill from 1 1/2-year-old bucks to 2 1/2 years. Bigger antlers were a consequence because a 2-year-old buck naturally has bigger antlers than a yearling.
By virtue of experience and greater maturity, a 2-year-old buck also has a better chance of living to age 3 and beyond. At age 3, antlers start to get interesting. Along with the 3-point rule, the AGFC also encouraged hunters to kill does. The intent was to balance sex ratios, which were wildly skewed in much of the state.
"You can't harvest 70 percent bucks and 30 percent does and be in the deer business very long," Gray said. "Our goal was to get them to 50-50."
We're getting closer. As we noted in Part 1 of this series, in the October issue of Arkansas Sportsman, hunters in 2013 killed more does than bucks for the first time in the era of regulated sport hunting.
After a few years, hunters began noticing positive changes. Private landowners started protecting young bucks and willed themselves to shoot only mature ones.
They started killing large numbers of does. Clubs and landowners on the AGFC's Deer Management Assistance Program invited children and women to fill surplus doe tags. Justin Spring, assistant director of big game records for the Boone and Crockett Club, said the national perception of Arkansas is starting to change.
"It never was considered a trophy state," Spring said. "It was known for quantity, not necessarily quality, but every year we see some very nice bucks coming out of there. It's starting to get more and more on the radar as a trophy destination."
For entries into B&C's all-time awards program, Arkansas has slipped over the last two years. Hunters usually submit three to five qualified applications per year that meet the 170-inch minimum for typical racks and the 195 minimum for non-typicals.
Our biggest buck last year was a 212 1/8 non-typical killed by Ryan Sullivan of Burdette. Sullivan, a student at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, killed the buck with a compound bow in Mississippi County on Nov. 15, 2013. Impressively, Sullivan began chronicling and patterning that buck four years before, and passed on an opportunity to kill it in 2012 because he wasn't comfortable with the shot. He later found the buck's shed antlers and scored them at 193. The extra year's growth certainly made the wait worthwhile.
Scott May of Parkin killed a non-typical in Cross County with a modern gun that earned all-time recognition with a score of 205 7/8. The state's largest typical of 2013-14 came from Cross County and scored 165 5/8. Phillip Norton of McCrory killed that deer with a muzzleloader in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Woodruff County.
ARKANSAS' TROPHY REGIONS
As usual, the Delta produced the largest number of trophy bucks. You can delineate this region on a map by making a point at Little Rock, in central Pulaski County, and drawing a line northeast to the Missouri border that bisects White County, follows the western edge of Jackson County, bisects Lawrence County and takes in Greene and Clay counties.
Again, from Little Rock, draw another line roughly to the southeast that roughly follows the Arkansas and White rivers through Jefferson and Lincoln counties, and takes in Desha and Chicot counties. Ten of our Top 12 bucks came from the region. The Ozark Mountains produced two.
"The Delta has historically grown good deer," Cory Gray said. "A lot of it is the soil fertility and the food sources there. The soils are very rich, very fertile. Coupled with the amount of food you have there, you can't help but have good deer. And access is controlled."
Because of its history of producing big bucks, landowners in the Delta are more progressive and proactive in managing for big bucks. It is also worth noting that the AGFC has given three zones in the Delta — 16, 16A and 17 — a more aggressive antler regulation than the 3-point rule. In these zones a legal buck must have at least a 15-inch inside spread and one main beam of at least 18 inches.
That also applies to most of the WMAs in the region.
"There is a lot of interest in the Delta for increased quality antlers," Gray said. "You don't see that in other parts of the state. There's not a lot of public land. The biggest thing is they see what's being taken off. A 130-class buck is fairly typical in the Delta. They know that area can produce that kind of deer."
Along with the Sullivan, May and Norton bucks, the Delta also produced a 189 4/8 non-typical from Lincoln County, a 164 7/8 typical from Phillips County, a 164 5/8 typical from St. Francis County, a 162 2/8 typical from Jefferson County and a 161 5/8 typical from Phillips County. In addition to Sullivan's buck, one other top Delta buck was taken with archery equipment. It was a 161 5/8 typical killed by Blake Robbins of Helena in Phillips County. The others were killed with modern weapons.
While public land is not plentiful in the Delta, there are some potentially rewarding places to hunt. As mentioned before, the Cache River NWR is a good destination, as is the much larger White River NWR. The White River NWR covers 160,000 acres along the White River from Clarendon to the Arkansas Post Canal near Tichnor. The Cache River NWR covers 56,000 acres bracketing the Cache River from Clarendon north to McCrory. They are heavily hunted at times, but their remote sloughs and ridges provide ample territory for bucks to grow old and big.
Trusten Holder WMA (17,587 acres), which borders the southwest end of the White River NWR, is an excellent place for killing big bucks, as are Wattensaw (18,702 acres), Dagmar (7,976 acres) and Bayou Meto (33,832 acres) WMAs. They are open to anyone for bowhunting, but access during modern gun and muzzleloader seasons is regulated by a lottery-style permit process.
A former deer project leader for the AGFC, once remarked that it was a miracle there were any deer in the Ouachita Mountains because of its poor soil, low carrying capacity, and the tendencies of hunters in certain locales to hunt all year and all night. Cory Gray remembers that comment too, and he laughed it off.
"Don't ever underestimate a deer," Gray cautioned.
They make the best of it wherever they are, and the Ouachita Mountains area holds its own. It grows some big bucks, too. Regrettably, last year wasn't as good in the Ouachitas as was 2012-13, when it produced two of our Top 12, but it did produce our No. 9 typical. That buck scored 158 7/8 and was killed in Hot Spring County by Tim Gardner of Ward. The Ouachitas also produced our No. 3 muzzleloader non-typical (Zack Abernathy, 161 5/8), as well as our No. 4 and No. 5 muzzleloader typicals.
The latter two bucks were killed in Garland County by Alan Abbott and Jason Smith, both of Hot Springs. Their bucks scored 146 7/8, and 145 6/8, respectively. In addition, Lindsay Spivey of Little Rock killed a 144 2/8 typical, also in Montgomery County. The biggest non-typical killed by a youth last year came from Pike County. It scored 166 5/8 and was killed by Kane O'Neil. Muzzleloader season is a good time to kill big bucks in the Ouachitas. That's when Abernathy, Abbott and Smith bagged their trophies When we think of the Ouachitas, hunters naturally gravitate to the 1.5-million-acre Ouachita National Forest.
With that much territory, there's always a chance of encountering a once-in-a-lifetime buck, especially in places like the Chinquapin Mountain, Hogan Mountain and Sharptop Mountain Walk-in Turkey Hunting Areas. The Dry Creek and Flatside areas are good places to go because they are closed to motor vehicles. Perhaps the best areas are in the pine-bluestem restoration areas between Waldron and Mena.
That's a wide swath of forest the U.S. Forest Service manages to restore the native pine-bluestem savannas that once dominated the region. The timber is large, and the forest floor is rich in native grasses, forbs and legumes. It is some of the best highland deer habitat in the South.
Two of the Top 12 bucks from 2012-13 came from the Ozarks, including a 165 1/8 typical killed in Benton County by Sean Warmack of Springdale and a 189 5/8 non-typical killed in Randolph County by Jarrod Hart of Benton. Charles Dodson of Little Rock killed a 152 7/8 non-typical in Sharp County, and Jean Mullory of Stuttgart killed a 144 3/8 typical in Newton County. Seth Tucker of Concord killed a 168 7/8-inch non-typical in Cleburne County, and Billy John Harris of Marshall killed a 142 6/8 typical in Searcy County.
The Ozark region has plenty of public land in the form of the 1.5-million-acre Ozark National Forest. It has remote areas to grow big bucks, like the Richland Creek and Hurricane Creek wilderness areas. It also has walk-in turkey hunting areas where motor vehicles aren't allowed, and also the Buffalo National River, which spans nearly the entire breadth of the Ozarks from Boxley to the White River.
There are some great state-owned WMAs too, like the Harold Alexander Spring River WMA (12,787 acres) in Sharp and Fulton counties, Madison County WMA (13,672 acres), and Gene Rush Buffalo River WMA (17,652 acres). White Rock Mountain WMA and Piney Creeks WMAs are also great places. The AGFC and the U.S. Forest Service have done extensive habitat improvements in Piney Creeks WMA, and it's a much better place to hunt.
Gulf Coastal Plain
Covering nearly one-third of the state, the GCP is famous for producing a lot of deer, but not for big bucks. It quietly churns out its fair share, and is getting better as the big hunting clubs in the region get more serious about deer management.
A shining example is the 161 3/8 typical that Wesley Reeves of Wilmar killed in Drew County with a rifle, or the 147 0/8 typical that Evan Lamb killed in Hempstead County. For a host of reasons, 2013-14 was one of the best years in recent memory to kill mature bucks in the GCP. We attribute our success mostly to the widespread clearcutting conducted over the last two years by the timber companies that own most of the land in this region. Before this particular round of logging, mature bucks could hide all day in an unlimited amount of refuge cover.
The clearcutting eliminated a huge amount of refuge cover and made bucks more accessible. Also, a lot of green and succulent forage grew in the clearcuts, which immensely improved the amount and quality of nutrition for deer.
We observed a much more intense rut last year than we have in recent times. Sweet 16 For the best chance of killing a big buck on public land, consider the AGFC's Sweet 16 WMAs. They are managed so the peak harvest will consist of 3 1/2-year-old bucks. Antler requirements there are more demanding than the 3-point rule. Modern gun and muzzleloader hunting is controlled through a lottery-style permit system, with the application period June 1 to July 1.
The Sweet 16 WMAs are Ed Gordon/Point Remove, Hope Upland, Wattensaw, Bayou Meto, Choctaw Island, Harold Alexander/Spring River, Shirey Bay Rainey Brake, Bois d'Arc, Dagmar, Grandview Prairie, Gulf Mountain, Trusten Holder, Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake, Black River, Madison County and Moro Big Pine Natural Area.