Arkansas'™ Best Bowhunts

Your statewide guide to bagging a buck by means of stick and string this season. (August 2006)

Photo by JOHN FORD

What's the best state to live in if you're a serious bowhunter? No one probably knows for sure, but it's certain that Arkansas would have to be on almost anyone's short list. Opportunities for bowhunting are unsurpassed here.

For the past several decades, Arkansas has had one of the longest archery seasons in the nation. Until a few years ago, stick-and-string enthusiasts had five months to hunt. Even with the recent reduction in length, it still runs four and a half months in most of the state, from October through mid-February.

Annual limits have been generous, ranging from three to four deer over the last 30 years, so Arkansas archery hunters have had not only lots of time to get out there and chase 'em, but also the opportunity to make winter meat as well.

In addition, Arkansas was one of the first states to legalize crossbows for deer hunting and has consistently been a leader in this respect. Although "traditional" archery hunters have lobbied against the state's liberal crossbow season (which has usually been concurrent with and identical to the bow season), the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has maintained its position that the crossbow is a legitimate tool and provides another option for hunters without harming the deer population.

Several years ago, when I was the assistant wildlife chief for the AGFC I had an opportunity to defend the commission's liberal archery season at a public meeting.

"The AGFC's goal is to provide maximum recreational opportunity without harming the resource. Because the impact of archery hunters is so low, we can allow a liberal season structure without having a negative affect on the deer population."

The commission has been liberal with its crossbow regulations for precisely the same reason. Some conventional archers rail against crossbows, maintaining that crossbow hunting lacks tradition and doesn't require as much dedication or practice. Both may be true, but they're beside the point. Crossbow hunters and "traditional" archers account for almost identical percentages of the total statewide deer harvest -- about 3 to 4 percent of the total kill for each type of equipment. Clearly, neither hunting method is detrimental to the deer population.

However, archers and crossbow hunters alike would be out of luck if the deer weren't there to hunt. Arkansas hunters are fortunate in that respect. The Natural State deer herd had a substantial setback several years ago and hunter success reflected that downturn, but deer numbers are once again on the rise. Arkansas is home to nearly a million deer, and every county has a huntable population.

Since about 90 percent of Arkansas land is privately-owned, it naturally follows that the majority of the annual deer harvest occurs on private land. However, the land in public ownership amounts to well over 5,000 square miles, and encompasses a staggering amount and variety of public deer hunting opportunity. Here's a sampling:

CACHE RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

This federal refuge, established in the 1970s primarily as a wintering area for mallards and other waterfowl, recently received national attention as the site of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The area provides deer hunters with a lot of recreational opportunity as well. Cache River NWR is a long, narrow checkerboard of public land stretching along both sides of Cache River from Clarendon to Grubbs, and along Bayou DeView to McCrory. The refuge acreage is growing, as additional tracts are purchased from adjacent landowners.

The northeast Arkansas delta country has long been known for quality deer, and Cache River NWR is no exception. The fertile bottomlands and adjacent row crop fields produce some of the biggest body weights and antlers in the state. Access points are too numerous to mention here, but the refuge map and use permit (free and unlimited, but required for all hunters) shows you how and where. Contact refuge headquarters at 26320 Highway 33, Augusta AR 72006, phone (870) 347-2614 for a map/ permit and other information.

CANEY CREEK WMA

Caney Creek WMA lies in the rocky, folded country of the southernmost Ouachita Mountains, and it's rough and steep. Fortunately, most of the better deer habitat is in or near the bottoms of the valleys, and an observant bowhunter can locate plenty of good stand locations that don't require an arduous climb.

Caney Creek WMA lies 15 miles south and east of Mena, between Arkansas highways 246 on the south and 375 on the north. The area can be reached from either highway, but there are only a few developed interior roads. There are, however, numerous logging trails and hiking trails that provide walking access.

Caney Creek WMA is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and managed by the AGFC. Its 85,000 acres provide perhaps the best chance for a trophy deer on public land in the Ouachita Mountains -- particularly in the 14, 433 acres in the southwestern corner designated as Caney Creek Wilderness Area.

Caney Creek WMA has two developed but primitive campgrounds within its boundaries, and a third campground (Albert Pike) on the eastern edge. However, as on other Forest Service lands, primitive camping is allowed anywhere in the forest, except where signs tell you otherwise.

FELSENTHAL NWR

At 65,000 acres, Felsenthal is the second-largest of Arkansas's federal refuges. It lies at the confluence of the Saline and Ouachita rivers in south-central Arkansas, not far west of Crossett. The refuge consists mostly of bottomland hardwoods, although there's also a piney-woods component where refuge lands extend into the surrounding upland pine forest.

Felsenthal's deer herd is good, but the open nature of the overflow bottomlands sometimes makes for difficult bowhunting conditions. The best bowhunting is usually along the edge between bottomland and upland, where open hardwoods begin to give way to brushy piney woods. Permits are required, but are unlimited.

There are several access routes into the refuge -- off Highway 82 west of Crossett, off Highway 129 at Huttig, off Highway 275 north of Strong, off Highway 160 west of Vick. Camping is allowed at any of the designated campgrounds, but nowhere else on the refuge. The nearest motels are in Crossett, eight miles east.

GULF MOUNTAIN WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREA

Located in Van Buren County west of Clinton, this 10,000-plus-acre WMA adjoins the Bayou Ranger District of the Ozark National Forest. The primary access is in

to the southern part of the WMA off Highway 95 at Scotland. Access to the more remote northern section of the area is by gravel road off Highway 16 at the tiny community of Rupert.

Gulf Mountain WMA's wildlife openings and brushy areas combine with a hardwood-dominated forest type to produce excellent habitat for deer, bear and turkeys alike, and this area is among the top picks in the state for a bowhunter looking for a better-than-average chance of bagging either of these other two species while deer hunting. Deer herd quality is good, with a healthy buck-to-doe ratio, and each year by gun hunters and bowhunters alike take some respectable racks.

The Little Red River's South Fork flows across Gulf Mountain WMA, and the area south of the river receives the bulk of the hunting pressure. But a rough, primitive road crossing provides access to the north portion of the WMA, and as already mentioned, you can also come in from Rupert.

Camping is allowed in designated campsites only, all six of which are on the southern portion of the WMA. The nearest motels are in Clinton, approximately 15 miles east.

HAROLD E. ALEXANDER WMA

Located near Hardy, the 13,444 acres contained within the boundaries of Harold Alexander WMA represent the only public hunting land in Sharp County. The gun and muzzle-loader deer hunts are by permit only, and it's a popular draw. There are usually five times as many applicants as permits (450 for the muzzle-loader hunt, 350 for the gun hunt), but archery hunting is legal outside the dates of the permit gun hunts for all comers, and a good many of the annual deer kill comes from bowhunting.

Harold Alexander is a mixture of hardwoods and open land, and while the steady pounding of the annual permit hunts keeps the overall buck size from reaching its full potential, there are still a few pretty good deer taken here every year.

Primitive camping is allowed in designated areas, and there are motels in Hardy and Mammoth Spring.

HOBBS STATE

MANAGEMENT AREA

All but Hobbs State Park, which comprises about a thousand acres of this 11,644-acre area, is open for bowhunting. Hobbs sits where Madison, Benton and Carroll counties meet, about 10 miles east of Springdale. As with nearby Madison County WMA, Hobbs is open to permit-only gun deer hunting and is popular with bowhunters from northwest Arkansas. This tract has a reputation for yielding exceptionally long-tined racks, and there's enough rough country to allow a few of the bucks to get some age on them.

Campers are welcome in the state-park section of Hobbs SMA. No camping is allowed on the management area proper.

LAKE OUACHITA

This 40,000-acre lake is the largest man-made impoundment in Arkansas, and it also has the most undeveloped shoreline. Most of the lake is bounded by the Ouachita National Forest and has been left in natural condition.

This situation provides excellent deer hunting opportunities for hunters who are willing to boat to their hunting areas. The numerous islands and peninsulas on the lake provide excellent deer habitat that's often hard to reach overland, and when you do kill a deer here, it's almost always a downhill drag to your boat.

The north shore of the lake generally receives less hunting pressure than the south shore, since it's farther from Hot Springs and from heavily traveled U.S. Highway 270, which passes not far from the south shore. But you'll be pleasantly surprised at the low hunting pressure no matter where on the lake you choose to hunt.

MADISON COUNTY WMA

At 13,270 acres, this rugged chunk of real estate is one of the most picturesque of the AGFC's WMAs. Located off Highway 23 between Huntsville and Eureka Springs, Madison County WMA is well away from the major population centers of the state and lies well off the major highways that traverse the Ozarks. It can be reached from the west off Highway 23, and from the northeast via Highway 221 from Berryville.

Due to its location this sizable WMA is nearly deserted during most of Arkansas' long bow season. For the dedicated bowhunter, it's a delightful situation: a large, scenic, diverse area of pine, hardwoods, thickets and wildlife openings. There's a very good deer population, a good percentage of quality bucks and very little human traffic or competition from other hunters.

This is especially true in the smaller, more northern portion of the WMA, which has fewer roads and is therefore more difficult to penetrate. This roughly 5,000-acre section of the area is made to order for a bowhunter who's looking for solitude.

There are nearly two dozen primitive campsites scattered around the area, and camping on the WMA is allowed only on these sites. The nearby towns of Eureka Springs, Huntsville and Berryville have motel facilities, and campsites with hook-ups are available at several state parks and Corps of Engineers campgrounds on and around Beaver Lake, approximately 15 miles to the west.

SYLAMORE WMA

This 150,000-acre chunk of national forest land occupies parts of four counties between the White and Buffalo Rivers -- Marion, Searcy, Stone and Baxter. Most of it is steep and hard to reach, but still receives heavy hunting pressure because it's the closest national forest land available to east Arkansas hunters. Even so, most hunters stick close to the roads and ATV trails, leaving most of the area virtually untouched. Consequently, the area has good trophy potential, and several real wall-hangers come from here each season.

Access routes into the interior of the area are numerous, consisting of Forest Service and county roads off Highways 9, 14 and 341. Two major campgrounds are available within the area, but as with national forest WMAs elsewhere, camping is allowed almost everywhere here. Motels are available at Allison, Mountain View and Calico Rock.

WHITE ROCK WMA

This huge, rugged area sprawls across 280,000 acres in five counties -- Washington, Crawford, Franklin, Madison and Johnson. Although the country is rough and rugged, there are numerous level benches, with most of the slopes consisting of a series of stair-stepped slopes and terraces that provide good travelways for deer and deer hunters as well. It makes for plenty of good stand locations, although getting a dead deer out is always problematic.

There are four designated campgrounds on White Rock WMA, but camping is allowed almost everywhere on national forest land. Scenic and lonely campsites are plentiful.

WHITE RIVER NWR

White River NWR is Arkansas' oldest and largest national wildlife refuge, with more than 160,000 acres along 100-plus miles of the lower White River, from Clarendon on the north to the entrance to the White River/Arkansas River barge canal on the south.

Between those points lie some of the most pristine and hard-to-reach land in the state. White River NWR is home to one of the best-balanced deer herds in the Southeast, and each year hunters on the refuge take

several bucks with body weights approaching 250 pounds.

White River NWR is subdivided into North and South units, separated by Highway 1 at St. Charles. The North Unit has a more liberal hunting season framework, with the statewide 41/2-month archery season.

ATVs and 4WD vehicles are allowed on much of the extensive system of undeveloped roads, but if the weather has been wet, it's not advisable to drive it. Much of the refuge is cut off from vehicular access by lakes, sloughs or boggy places, and of course, these places are where the big ones live.

Access to the refuge is available off any of the highways that encircle it, from Clarendon, Stuttgart, DeWitt, St. Charles, Tichnor, Marvell, Holly Grove and other towns. There are primitive campgrounds on both sides of the river all up and down the refuge, and all these are pinpointed on the refuge map and permit required for all hunting. Motels are available in DeWitt, Marvell, Clarendon and Stuttgart.

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