Bayou State Bow Season Preview

Bayou State Bow Season Preview

Thanks to an early start, Louisiana's bowhunters get the jump on our state's bucks.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By John N. Felsher

Bow seasons for deer typically start earlier, last longer and offer more either-sex opportunities than do gun seasons. In addition, some public areas allow only bowhunting, so Louisiana archers enjoy some of the most rewarding experiences in the wild.

The state sells about 145,000 big game licenses each year, reports Dave Moreland, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries deer biologist. Not everyone needs an annual license: Children and senior citizens are exempt because of age, and 30,000 lifetime license holders have paid for the permanent right to hunt the deer seasons. Put all of those together with the annual permittees, and it comes to about 200,000 hunters bagging between 220,000 and 250,000 deer in the Bayou State each year.

"Our archery license numbers have been dropping," Moreland said. "We sell a little less than 30,000 archery licenses."

Proposals from the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission could spark more archery license sales. In public meetings across the state, LDWF biologists encouraged Louisiana hunters to bag more does and leave more bucks to grow larger antlers. During the LWFC meeting of March 4, 2004, commissioners discussed a proposal to limit the deer harvest to no more than two antlered bucks per person per season. Limiting buck harvests could make archery equipment more attractive, because the state allows archers more latitude to take deer of either sex.

In order to help keep surplus populations in check, biologists encourage hunters to bag more does. Too, trimming the doe population and limiting the buck harvest arguably can lead to more and bigger trophy bucks. Any given piece of land can support only so many animals - a potential known as "carrying capacity" - so, in principle, a reduction in the number deer feeding on any available habitat should increase the size of the remainder. Eliminating a doe surplus might allow the surviving females to gain weight and produce healthier offspring; with more food, bucks would also grow larger bodies and more-impressive antlers.

WE'VE COME A LONG, LONG WAY

Just a few decades ago, Louisiana hunters faced quite the opposite problem: Centuries of subsistence hunting and a growing human population's encroachment on habitat and urbanization of wilderness areas took a heavy toll on wildlife. In 1900, fewer than 400,000 deer roamed North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and early in the 20th century, Louisiana was home to fewer than 70,000 deer; as recently as the early 1970s, seeing a deer track in the forest brought excitement to local sportsmen. In places that allowed hunting, sportsmen could only bag bucks, does being too important for species repopulation.

Intelligent management brought deer numbers back; according to Moreland, the population of the state's herd ultimately swelled to more than a million animals. Today, deer inhabit nearly every possible acre of suitable habitat, some having even expanded into marginal areas such as brackish marshes and urban terrain.

"Our deer herd is relatively young," Moreland observed. "In Louisiana, we restocked deer in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1969, we made our last big deer release because herds were beginning to build up."

Ironically, habitat changes actually made deer populations more robust than ever before. Once considered an animal that favored thick virgin forest, deer in fact love edges and transitional areas, and thrive in subdivided lots and farm country. Accordingly, converting forests and swamps to agricultural land or suburban sprawl expanded deer populations. Crop fields provide more food more easily obtained food than do forests. However, some changes of this sort have had negative consequences.

"This state is losing its rural identity," Moreland said. "Subdivisions are springing up everywhere. We see slight population increases in some areas where former agricultural lands are being restored to hardwoods, and slight decreases where forests become more pine-dominant. We've seen a tremendous change in timber management of the mixed pine and hardwood forests. Many commercial forests are becoming pine plantations. The hardwood component is not what it used to be."

Today many of Louisiana's white-tailed deer are living virtually under the noses of the human residents, hiding during the day in gardens or small pockets of woods and emerging at night to roam golf courses and yards. In suburban areas, deer browse amid the landscaping, plucking vegetables from gardens and nibbling shrubs planted around houses. They feed on backyard fruit trees and orchards, often causing millions of dollars of damage. Highly adaptable and elusive, several deer could easily live literally at a suburban doorstep without any of the inhabitants ever catching a glimpse of their whitetail neighbors.

A SUBURBAN PROBLEM'S ARCHERY SOLUTION

While deer thrive in some populated areas, most remain off limits to hunting, and many big bucks accordingly grow old and die of natural causes unseen by hunters. Concealed by thick brush, the animals watch as the humans with whom they share the space go about their domestic lives, and then come out at night to eat their two-legged neighbors' succulent (and expensive) ornamental plants.

As deer come into ever more conflict with human populations in the suburbs and exurbs, those living in such areas often push officials to trim excessively invasive herds. And while the residents of bedroom communities don't want to hear the report of a 7mm Magnum booming through the streets at 7 a.m., they frequently don't mind hunters killing deer with quiet and unobtrusive archery equipment.

Archers can often gain access to small parcels of land off limits to rifle hunters and target giant, unstressed deer never exposed to other hunters. In a heavily hunted area, a large buck may never move during daylight, but heavy-racked kings holed up in small woodlots have been known to lose some of their natural wariness, and archers can slip into small patches of woods, set up and bag impressive bucks without anyone or anything else even knowing they hunted there.

PUBLIC HUNTING: GOOD OPTIONS, AND LOTS OF THEM

Not everyone wants to hunt neighborhood woodlots. Fortunately, Louisiana hunters can access more than 1 million acres of state land and about 500,000 acres of federal lands for hunting. Many of these lands, especially national wildlife refuges, either allow only archery hunting for deer or severely limit gun hunting.

"Many federal areas restrict hunting, but they have good deer populations," Moreland remarked. "They cater

to bowhunters. In 2003, we saw quite a few big deer taken. The best one that I know about was a 149 4/8 bow kill from East Feliciana Parish. Bowhunters looking for a big buck might consider the Tensas NWR area, because they can hunt the entire rut."

The 64,012-acre Tensas National Wildlife Refuge, near Tallulah in Madison, Tensas and Franklin parishes, remains one of the wildest swamps in the United States - and it can produce awesome deer. Bottomlands bordering the Tensas River in the Mississippi River overflow basin foster some of the biggest deer in the South, with some bucks approaching 300 pounds in weight and wearing 12-point racks.

"Historically, Tensas NWR has been known as one of the premier public deer hunting locations in the southeastern United States," said Maury Bedford, a wildlife biologist for the refuge. "We get a lot deer in 155- to 160-pound range - that's field-dressed. About half of our bucks harvested are 8 points or better. We are surrounded by croplands, but we are one of the largest contiguous areas of bottomland hardwoods in the South. About 95 percent of our acreage is forested, mainly in hardwoods."

Hardwood bottoms along the lower Mississippi River valley provide extremely fertile conditions for the growth of big deer, and neighboring crop fields increase the amount of food available to deer in the area. Each year, consequently, the area produces some bucks that make the Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett clubs' books.

"The parishes with the higher deer densities are ones with hardwood bottomland habitat along the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya rivers," Moreland said. "Beginning in East Carroll Parish and down the Mississippi River, the river bottomlands with nearby agricultural land produce many big deer. Swamp habitat can produce a lot of deer, but pure cypress-tupelo swamps and marshes traditionally produce few deer. The river bottomland habitats have the potential to grow the largest deer."

Tensas NWR officials manage the swamp big-deer potential by limiting hunting pressure; about 5,000 hunters annually participate in limited modern firearms hunting by lottery. Archers, however, can enjoy their sport for about three months. Combining modern firearms, muzzleloaders and archery equipment, sportsmen typically kill between 1,000 and 1,200 deer on refuge land each year, according to Bedford.

Down the Mississippi River, near Marksville, Lake Ophelia NWR also sits amid some outstanding deer habitat near the confluence of the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya rivers. The 17,500-acre federal refuge in Avoyelles Parish allows limited hunting on about 12,000 acres.

Federal officials have restored some agricultural lands to their prior historic state: fertile bottomland hardwood forests of the sort that once dominated the lower Mississippi River. About 8,400 acres remain in bottomland forests. Another 4,200 reforested acres and 3,400 acres of croplands are adjoined to more than 1,000 acres of bayous and lakes, which include the 350 acres of Lake Ophelia.

In Concordia Parish, 11,255-acre Bayou Cocodrie NWR borders its namesake, one of the designated scenic streams in Louisiana. This federal refuge in the heart of the big-deer bottomlands near Ferriday offers limited gun hunting, but archery opportunities are ample. Biologists consider these bottomland hardwoods to be some of the last and least disturbed timber tracts in the Mississippi Delta.

About 35 miles south of Ferriday are the Three Rivers and Red River wildlife management areas, which the state manages almost as one tract of land. Three Rivers contains about 24,307 acres and Red River another 36,043 - in total, 60,350 acres of noteworthy trophy deer habitat. As the name suggests, these bottomland tracts border the Mississippi and Red rivers in proximity to the Atchafalaya River.

During strong mast-production years, deer grow fat on overcup oak acorns, Nuttall acorns and sweet pecans, which augment typical browse and underbrush including honey locust, willow, hackberry, swamp privet, button brush, box elder, Smilax, trumpet creeper, peppervine, dogwood, hawthorn rattan, dewberry and blackberry and other species associated with bottomland habitat. Numerous lakes, cypress-lined bayous and small streams traverse these relatively flat and poorly drained bottoms. Each season, hunters harvest from the combined properties about 500 to 600 deer, quite a few of which are 8-, 9- and 10-point bucks that in some cases weigh more than 200 pounds.

Besides harboring quality bucks, these popular public areas offer solid numbers. In the extremely rough and difficult-to-hunt terrain, the deer herd stays at or near carrying capacity, and hunters must really work for their trophies. Sportsmen may enter the property along state Highway 15 or come in by boat from the Red River. Many hunters use pirogues, the better to access remote, nearly inaccessible sloughs.

In western, central and northwest Louisiana, the Kisatchie National Forest offers more than 604,000 acres spread over five districts in seven parishes. Here are to be found more managed pine forests and fields than hardwoods. However, some sportsmen hunt along bottomland creeks that feature some hardwood species. Hunters will need to scout thoroughly to arrow big bucks.

"The Kisatchie National Forest, Red Dirt and Catahoula areas have some deer, but they don't produce a lot of big deer," Moreland observed. "The forests are being managed mostly for longleaf pine, which is a low-quality deer habitat. On state lands, we have very intensive forestry management programs. In areas that we lease, we can't do much timber management, but we do plant food plots."

The 105,545-acre Fort Polk military reservation near Leesville also makes some serviceable deer hunting available from time to time, but as the U.S. Army uses the area for intensive training, given the heightened security arising from concerns about terror, military authorities can cancel civilian access to the property without warning or explanation at any time. To obtain daily military clearance to hunt Fort Polk or Peason Ridge WMA, hunters must call the post provost marshal at (318) 718-3029 or (318) 531-5715.

In the northern end of the Atchafalaya Basin, Sherburne WMA and Atchafalaya NWR, as well as adjacent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands in Pointe Coupee, St. Martin and Iberville parishes near Krotz Springs, offer 43,617 acres of prime bottomland habitat. The LDWF manages the entire tract of state and federal lands as a unit for public hunting.

The 37,000-acre Bogue Chitto NWR, which is sited mainly between the Pearl River Navigation Canal and East Pearl near Sun, consists of hardwood bottomland in which oaks, cypress and tupelo gum trees dominate, punctuated by some loblolly pines and upland forests. The Bogue Chitto River pours down from Mississippi and cuts into the West Pearl; numerous sloughs and creeks crisscross the swampy refuge. About 8,000 acres of the refuge extend east of the Pearl River into Mississippi.

Farther south, at Pearl River WMA near Slidell, hunters will encounter marshes, swamps and hardwood bottomlands in the area's 35,032 acres. Fresh and intermediate marshes comprise about 10,000 acres at the southern end of the pro

perty. Most deer hunters stick to the drier hardwood areas, but some deer are killed in the cypress swamps and marshes.

In western Louisiana, 54,269 Boise-Vernon WMA and 62,115-acre West Bay WMA will occasionally yield up quality deer. Other WMAs that hold out lots of promise for deer hunters include: 6,940-acre Bayou Macon, 19,221-acre Big Lake WMA (adjacent to Tensas NWR), 48,596-acre Boeuf, 60,276-acre Dewey Wills, 32,460-acre Jackson-Bienville, 4,211-acre Loggy Bayou, 8,747-acre Ouachita, 16,442-acre Russell Sage, 11,100-acre Thistlethwaite, 5,231-acre Tunica Hills and 13,391-acre Union.

In August 2002, the state set aside an area for the exclusive use of bowhunters: the 2,285-acre Acadiana Conservation Corridor WMA, which stretches approximately 30 miles along Interstate 49 (which offers no access to the area) in St. Landry, Evangeline, Avoyelles and Rapides parishes. Archers can arrow some nice bucks in this long strip of mixed forest.

Two federal refuges near Lake Charles - 35,000-acre Lacassine and 9,621-acre Cameron-Prairie NWRs - allow only bowhunting for deer; they remain open throughout each October. Freshwater marshes, old rice fields and converted agricultural lands dominate both refuges. With visibility at both extremely limited, many hunters set up tripod stands on low levees covered by thick brush.

The refuges attract a small but dedicated cadre of archers accustomed to tough hunting. In 2001, Gary Williams bagged the biggest whitetail buck ever seen at Lacassine NWR. Its typical 8-point rack with one broken brow tine measured 15 inches on the inside with a 5- to 6-inch base and 22-inch main beams. It weighed between 180 and 200 pounds - an enormous buck for coastal marshes. The rack scored about 130 Pope and Young points.

"Each year, archers harvest about 15 to 40 deer off the refuge," said Wayne Syron, a Lacassine NWR biologist. "They must obtain a free federal permit before hunting the month-long special bow season. The whole refuge is open for archery deer hunting during October. We average about 600 hunter-efforts each season. An average buck would weigh about 150 to 160 pounds with 6 to 8 points."

Archers at Cameron-Prairie NWR bag about 10 deer per year. Because of Cameron-Prairie's harsh environment, deer there don't reach the size that Lacassine's do. Of course, that fewer hunters visit this refuge often means that those who do walk the bogs face little competition.

Marshes about 30 miles south of Venice receive even less pressure per square mile. Pass-A-Loutre WMA, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, offers 66,000 acres of public hunting, while the nearby federal Delta NWR comprises another 48,800 acres of marshlands and open water in Plaquemines Parish. Archers at Pass-A-Loutre bag about 50 deer per year; slightly fewer fall at Delta NWR, but hunters must want to go there desperately, as they have to fight river currents and cargo ships to access the area.



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