Arkansas' Bow Season Preview

The AGFC commissioners are currently tinkering with archery seasons, but fear not -- where bowhunting's concerned, Arkansas will remain the "Land of Opportunity"!

Photo by BillKinney.com

By Kenn Young


Donald Ray Sweetin of Tichnor in Arkansas County is the lifelong bowhunter who arrowed the state's first Boone and Crockett record book typical bowkill in January 1996. During our conversations following that happy event, he said to me: "Bowhunting teaches you more about deer, and about wildlife in general, than any other type of hunting. You get a chance to see nature up close - at its best."

THE STORY IS IN THE NUMBERS

According to Alice Browning, assistant chief of fiscal services for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 288,517 hunting licenses were sold between July 1, 2003, and Jan. 1, 2004. Of those, 241,310 went to resident hunters.


I figure about 20 percent of those buyers, or about 48,262 outdoorsmen, carry archery gear afield at some point. Of that number, about 15 percent are the really "serious" bowyers who hunt more than a few days a year. So that number would be 7,239, give or take a few.


Within that 7,239 will be found that special core group to whom bowhunting is a passion - a way of life. I figure a maximum of 10 to 15 percent fall into this select category, giving you maybe 1,085 who truly go the extra mile when it comes to bowhunting.

According to AGFC statistics, bowhunters accounted for 6,060 deer this past season, down slightly from the 6,445 taken in 2002-03. Of that number, 3,208 were bucks, making the past season the first one in quite a while that saw archers take more males than females.

So how do things look for 2004? Well, if you believe AGFC personnel in the field, the deer are still out there, in spite of lower overall kill figures for 2003-04. In addition, last fall's excellent acorn crop, combined with generally mild weather, means that the herd should have made it through the winter in good shape physically. Things look pretty promising for the coming fall!

So with that upbeat forecast in mind, let's take a look, region by region, at the better public bowhunting spots scattered throughout the state.

GULF COASTAL PLAIN (GCP)

I've never seen any actual figures to support it, but my feeling is that in our state today, most of the better bucks taken by archers are killed on either private land or public land to which access is controlled. If you can't regulate the numbers of both hunters and their harvest, you're not going to maximize your deer herd.

That's the primary reason that I also believe that the GCP has surpassed the mountain areas (Ozarks and Ouachitas) both with respect to overall numbers of deer and in terms of fostering big bucks. More than half of Arkansas' total deer kill still comes from the south-by-southeast quarter of the state, and bigger bucks are showing up more and more frequently. Nathan Driver of Columbus in Hempstead County proved that when he took a 199 5/8 non-typical in 2003 that currently ranks as the state's No. 4 bowkill of all time.

Dave Garland of Texarkana falls into the fanatic class when it comes to bowhunting. Like me, he's at a point in his life that finds him feeling that the prize is in the size. Together we came up with a few prime spots - and a tip or two - for bowhunters hunting the GCP this coming fall.

Felsenthal NWR

(870) 364-3167

Felsenthal's 65,000 acres lie in Ashley, Union and Bradley counties. It's past the days of its being touted as being another White River in terms of big-buck potential. Plain truth: It simply doesn't have the food sources necessary for consistently producing either the high numbers or the trophy club racks for which White River is celebrated. Nevertheless, it always makes my lists of better public places to hunt. Gun hunting is regulated (permit only) and access is controlled - two factors that virtually insure better bowhunting. Also, Felsenthal's terrain is hugely diverse; consider that in one relatively small area you can hunt travel routes (ridges), feeding areas (bottoms) and big-buck sanctuaries (swamps).

"A key," Dave observed, "is that when gun season opens the deer will retreat to the thickest cover - and on Felsenthal that means into the swamps. You'll need hip waders, or maybe even a boat, but hunting the dry spots within the swamp itself can certainly pay off."

Pond Creek NWR

(870) 364-3167

This 27,000-acre area in Sevier County has been giving up more and more respectable bucks in recent years. Gun season there is limited to six days (four for muzzleloaders and two for modern guns), while the bow season runs through the end of January.

The various Casey Jones WMAs (a total of 83,832 acres) scattered throughout the region, particularly the ones southeast of Warren, can also provide above-average opportunity for the bowhunter; the same can be said for the Big Timber WMA areas (34,000 acres) around Gurdon.

THE OZARKS AND OUACHITAS

Arkansas is blessed with tons of open hunting land, something almost unheard of in many other states. In the western half of the state alone, the Ouachita and Ozark national forests offer nearly 3 million acres of public hunting. These vast mountain ranges serve hunters not only in the Fort Smith area but all the way up to the Fayetteville-Rogers-Springdale triplex as well.

It's important for the archer hunting the mountains to find secluded territory away from the beaten path. One trick that I've learned over the years involves marking off spots a half-mile or so from roads and ATV trails as shown on a topographic map or aerial photo. These, the hidden places into which an old buck will head when human presence increases, offer the bowhunter a chance to ply his craft without outside interference. That description seems to fit the walk-in turkey areas established by the AGFC to a T. In these protected spots, all vehicular traffic is prohibited.

Ouachita walk-in areas include: Chinquapin Mountain in Perry and Saline counties, Leader Mountain in Polk County, Fourche Mountain in Yell County, Hogan Mountain in Scott and Logan counties, Deckard Mountain in Garland and Perry counties, and Sharptop Mountain in Montgomery County. Ozarks walk-in areas include: Sylamore in Stone County, Huckleberry Mountain in Logan and Yell counties, St. Francis in Lee and Phillips counties, and Salt Fork in Franklin and Crawford counties.

Much like the walk-in areas, wilderness areas also limit vehicle intrusion, and thus offer the same pluses for the hunter. Ouachita

wilderness areas include: Dry Creek in Logan, Scott and Yell counties, Flatside in Saline and Perry counties, Caney Creek in Polk County, Black Fork in Scott and Polk counties, and Poteau Mountain in Scott and Sebastian counties. Ozarks Wilderness Areas include Richland Creek in Newton and Searcy counties, East Fork in Pope County, Hurricane in Pope and Newton counties, Upper Buffalo in Newton County, and Leatherwood in Baxter, Searcy and Marion counties.

As wonderful as open hunting land sounds, biologists will tell you that to maximize any area's potential, you must be able to manage it. To accomplish this, access must be limited, harvest numbers controlled, and in-depth data kept on the deer harvested - all measures that are virtually impossible to implement in the mountains. So while all that public land does offer unlimited opportunity, your best shot at success, particularly if you hunt for "horns," will more often than not lie on managed properties.

Once again, the western Arkansas hunter is fortunate, because many such are present there in the form of state wildlife management areas and federal national wildlife refuges. Practically all offer bowhunting.

Holla Bend NWR

(479) 229-4300

"The Bend," as it's known locally, lies along the south shore of the Arkansas River somewhat southeast of Dardanelle in Yell County. Oddly (or so it might seem if you don't know the area's history), the refuge itself is considered part of Pope County, owing to the river having changed its course many years ago.

The 9,000-plus acres of this bowhunting-only facility have long yielded trophy-class whitetails, the largest of which was Danny Reed's 208 4/8 non-typical buck from 1999. But changes currently in the works could have far-reaching effects.

Like most NWRs, Holla Bend's primary function is that of a resting station for waterfowl, so for years, about two-thirds of the total acreage was farmed cooperatively by locals who would leave part of their crops in the field in lieu of rent.

Today, however, quite a chunk of that cropland is being turned over to bottomland hardwood restoration. Seedlings were planted several years ago, and some of the crop fields were allowed to go rank with a variety of grasses.

Last fall, during a season that ran Oct. 1 through Nov. 30 there, 30 deer were taken on Holla Bend - a very low total - of which 14 were bucks; a special $12.50 hunt permit is required. One refuge employee speculated that there might be a one-deer limit for the coming season. Area hunters know that the very best time to hunt there comes after modern gun season opens on surrounding lands.

Fort Chaffee WMA

1-877-478-1043

Fort Chaffee WMA, consisting of some 66,000 acres lying southeast of Fort Smith, annually leads the state's WMAs in total archery harvest.

A large part of Chaffee's topography consists of gently rolling hills covered with thick brush and hardwoods. Several steep ridges, all adorned with hardwoods, divide up the area. In recent years the AGFC has planted quite a number of food plots there; these provide mast for the resident deer, which also feed in the impact areas.

A while back, units 9 and 9A, formerly closed as impact areas, were reopened to hunting. Since these were protected no-hunting areas for years, the trophy prospects are now probably at a sort of peak not only there, but also along the perimeter of those impact areas that are still closed.

Once again, the area's desirability is enhanced by the lack of gun hunting. Typically, only a two-day permit muzzleloader hunt and a two-day modern gun hunt are scheduled, occurring during the last two weekends in November; the rest of the time, Chaffee is bowhunting-only.

All hunters are required to attend an orientation class to secure a permit, which costs $15 for two years. Call (479) 484-3995 for class schedules and locations.

Camp Robinson WMA

(501) 212-5232

Camp Robinson is a 26,675-acre military facility lying roughly north of North Little Rock. Public hunting land of quality being at a premium in the central part of the state, this WMA serves as an oasis for bowhunters from both NLR and Little Rock.

Having hunted the area several times, I would classify overall herd numbers there as average. In trophy terms, a buck in the 130-140 class is possible, but not all that likely. The topography of Robinson is typified by overgrown fields and narrow hardwood bottoms cut by sharp ridges and punctuated by planted pines; there are no row crops. In years during which acorns are available, the resident deer live pretty well.

Last season there were only six days' worth of gun hunting allowed on the facility (two days of muzzleloader; four of modern gun). Meanwhile, the bow season there follows statewide guidelines. The only requirement for bowhunters was that they purchase a $10 Sportsman's Pass, which is available at post headquarters, building 5130; you can also get it by calling (501) 212-5232.

THE DELTA

The Arkansas delta, the agricultural area that lies roughly east of Little Rock, is far better known for big deer than for a lot of deer. So while overall numbers in the area seem to be riding a slight upward trend, the lack of appropriate cover in what's essentially a row-crop-defined topography dictates it'll never be a high-deer-population area. But, being a buck hunter myself, I consider any of the public areas listed here as being above average for horns.

Wattensaw WMA/Dagmar WMA

1-877-734-4581

These two areas, which together total some 28,904 acres, straddle Interstate 40 some 40 miles or so east of Little Rock. Wattensaw lies in Prairie County, Dagmar in Monroe. Among the first state-controlled areas to be put under the 3-point antler restriction about eight years ago, both now operate under a stricter 4-point standard. Each is heavily hunted by Little Rock archers.

I recommend both chiefly because they're within the delta region. Further, they're both surrounded by cropland, so the area's food resources all but guarantee that well-nourished and big-racked deer will be in the vicinity. It was hard by Dagmar last fall that Gary Ingle took his controversy-shadowed 231-class non-typical. And Kirk Brann of Brinkley found a 48-point non-typical dead along the edge of Dagmar in 2002. Both bucks illustrate the level of quality that's really available in the delta region.

Cache River NWR

(870) 347-2614

Cache River NWR, which runs along the Cache River in Jackson, Woodruff, Prairie and Monroe counties, is the upper end of the famous White River NWR. It offers only limited gun hunting, but virtually unlimited bowhunting. I've hunted this area several times since Bill Dooley took the state record non-typical along the refuge's edge in 1999. Like most spots within the delta, it's not a high-density area, but it does harbor some truly noteworthy deer. I'd try the area south of state Highway 7

0 between Biscoe and Brinkley.

White River NWR

(870) 946-1468

A year ago I spotlighted White River NWR, the 160,000-acre facility that runs through Monroe, Phillips, Arkansas and Desha counties, as the premier bowhunting spot in the entire state. Where big bucks are concerned, there's not a close second. It was here back in 1998 that Wayne Lindsey took the current state-record typical, which scores 177 7/8 Pope and Young points, and rarely does a year go by that at least one White River buck doesn't make the top 10 at the Arkansas Big Buck Classic.

Again, like most spots in the delta, it's not an area of high deer densities, but an advantageous age-structure and great genes are in place. Also, gun hunting is limited: The south unit (south of state Highway 1) is more restrictive, with a total of only six gun hunting days - three for modern gun, and three for muzzleloader.

At the southern end of White River lies Trusten Holder WMA, a smaller area with many possibilities for those who get back into its interior.

Some special problems confront hunters who choose the delta for their next outing. Just about anywhere may be a low-water area (especially during a rainy year), and insects are a plague early in the season. Hunting can be affected by rising and falling water levels, particularly in the drainages along the White, Cache and Mississippi Rivers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has strict regulations about when you can access these areas. The Arkansas Hunting Regulations booklet has a section on flood-prone areas that will help you work with those guidelines.

ARKANSAS DEER ZONE 4

In 1980 - mostly because of low deer numbers and decreasing habitat - gun hunting was suspended in all or part of twelve northeast Arkansas counties. The season reopened in 1986, but even today, firearms hunting is limited to a two-day shotguns-only season (muzzleloaders are legal also).

It doesn't take a lot of smarts to figure out that some of the bucks walking around up in that part of the state have some age on them - and for the most part, only bowhunters can hunt them! Totally unintentionally, the AGFC created the state's No. 1 bowhunting region. Need proof? Consider that last spring, 10 bucks scored at the Arkansas Sportshow in Jonesboro were large enough to make the P&Y record book - and all were taken during the 2003-04 season! The 10 included the 196 2/8 non-typical arrowed by Kevin Owens of Harrisburg, which was the state's largest bowkill of 2003-04.

Of course, each coin has two sides. Unless you know someone, finding a spot to hunt in Zone 4 can be next to impossible. Also, hunting pressure has increased markedly in recent years, making gaining access even harder. In fact, very few public spots exist in the zone.

Big Lake NWR, (870) 564-2429

Big Lake WMA, 1-877-972-5438

These two areas in Mississippi County (along the Missouri border) lie side by side and total about 24,000 acres.

Bow season on Big Lake NWR runs from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31. A permit is required; it can be picked up at the refuge office in Manila. On the WMA side of Big Lake, the season runs through the end of January.

In a region in which public land is at a premium, those spots stand out. Each one has at one time or another yielded up a quality buck or two.

Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA

Sited in Clay, Randolph and Greene counties - smack in the middle of Zone 4 - is the 21,150-acre Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA.

The topography is largely bottomland, with lots of hardwood flats cut by numerous sloughs. The entire area is virtually surrounded by row crops, so the prime food sources necessary for both antler and body size are readily available to the deer. A two-day October muzzleloader season (which was where it stood at press time) takes care of the gun hunting there, while bow season runs from Oct. 1 through the end of January. This isn't a high-numbers area, but your chances of taking a decent buck are above average.

About the only drawback for archers is that some 7,000 acres of the area are flooded in early October to attract and hold ducks. The entire region is a low-water flood plain, and if rains are heavy, your favorite spot may quickly become inaccessible.

St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA

1-877-972-5438

The Sunken Lands are 27,244 acres of bottomland lying along the St. Francis River in Craighead and Poinsett counties. Locals tell me that if there's a new state record out there, he may well be in the Sunken Lands.

One part of the area stands out: The portion between Lake City and Marked Tree was entirely clearcut years ago and has today grown up into one big thicket. It makes for some hard hunting, but there are definitely some good deer there.



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