Arkansas Gobblers -- North, South, East & West

No matter which direction you travel in the Natural State, outstanding turkey hunting won't be far away. We review some top public lands at all points of the compass. (February 2006)

Photo by D. Toby Thompson

The first gobbler I ever killed came to the gun a long time ago, up a steep ridge in the Ouachita National Forest in western Arkansas, not far from Mt. Ida.

We set up on my first-ever bird before he flew down that fine spring morning, but my guide that day didn't know much more about turkey hunting than I did, and as a result, we made some serious mistakes. Looking back, it's obvious to me that we not only crowded the bird too much while he was still on the roost, but we called to him too much. It's little wonder that he pitched out away from us down the slope instead of uphill to our setup. The only puzzling thing about the whole situation is that he eventually walked back up the hill and let me kill him.

Never mind just how long ago that was; it's been awhile. Let's just say that back then, if you wanted to hunt Arkansas gobblers on public land, you went to the Ouachita Mountains -- the only public lands within the state's boundaries that held a viable turkey population.

Luckily for us, that situation has changed. Sure, the Ouachita Mountains and the Ouachita National Forest of western Arkansas still have a good turkey population; in fact, harvest statistics show that public hunting in the Ouachitas is even better now than it was back then. What's changed is that the rest of the state has caught up.

Today, the Ouachita region ranks third behind the Ozarks and Gulf Coastal Plain as a producer of spring gobblers. Only the Delta lags behind, and only because there's so little suitable turkey habitat left in that heavily farmed region. In most places where suitable habitat still exists in the Delta, turkey hunting is as good as anything the Natural State has to offer anywhere.

Much of the best turkey hunting in Arkansas is on private land, of course, and that's especially true in the Delta, the Gulf Coastal Plain and the portion of the Ozarks that lies east of White River. Even so, there's good public-land turkey hunting available in every quadrant of the state.

NORTH

Piney Creeks WMA: This big, rugged area in the central Ozarks offers the turkey hunter more than 180,000 acres of space to bump around in, and most of it is excellent turkey habitat. Piney Creeks Wildlife Management Area lies north of Russellville on both sides of Highway 7. The land belongs to the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and is managed cooperatively by the Forest Service and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

Private inholdings totaling more than 5,000 acres are scattered throughout the area, and while these inholdings provide habitat diversity in the forms of fields and pastures, most of them are also posted against hunting. Hunting near an inholding can be an advantage, but be mindful of the boundaries and stay on public land.

Like many of Arkansas' cooperative WMAs, Piney Creeks WMA is not a place for the out-of-shape or the weak of heart. There's an extensive network of Forest Service roads and ATV trails, but many of the roads are blocked and are off limits to motorized vehicles. Even where driving is permitted, there's a lot of rough real estate between roads. If you're flabby, you're not going to like hunting here. But if you like turkeys, you will.

There are several developed campsites on Piney Creeks. Beyond developed areas, though, practically all the area is open to camping, and scenic campsites are as common here as ticks on a hound dog.

White Rock WMA: Another monster area, this is the largest chunk of public hunting land in Arkansas. White Rock WMA covers 280,000 acres of Ozark National Forest property north of Ozark on both sides of Highway 23, the southern leg of the Pig Trail.

If anything, White Rock is even more rugged than is Piney Creeks, but in general White Rock's mountains have better-defined benches, which makes getting around in this area a little more manageable. However, if you hear a gobbler on the next mountain, you're still going to have a workout trying to cross the valley to get to him. Experienced White Rock gobbler chasers know it's usually more productive -- not to mention much easier -- to stay fairly high on a mountain and follow the benches sideways along the slope rather than crossing the deep valleys and trying to reach a gobbler on the next mountain.

SOUTH

Bayou Meto WMA: Lying in both Arkansas and Jefferson counties, southwest of Stuttgart, 34,000-acre Bayou Meto WMA is known primarily for the quality of its flooded-timber duck hunting. But many east Arkansas residents know that Bayou Meto is also home to a decent turkey population. These swamp gobblers lure hunters in each spring despite the ravenous swarms of mosquitoes. "I'd rather go turkey hunting down here without my shotgun shells than without my bug dope," said one veteran Bayou Meto turkey chaser. Probably an exaggeration -- but not by very much.

In general, Bayou Meto WMA's turkey populations are centered in the east-central and west-central portions of the area, near grand Cypress Lake on the east and Mulberry on the west, but any part of this sprawling WMA is likely to hold a few willing gobblers. The Buckingham Flats area on the south end is another potential hotspot.

Depending on the amount of late-winter and early-spring rainfall, Bayou Meto WMA can be bone-dry or nearly fully flooded when turkey season rolls around. The AGFC tries to dewater the area in February to keep from killing trees, but nature doesn't always cooperate. When the flatwoods are flooded or partially so, it adds another dimension to an already complicated sport. Trying to figure out which neck of dry land your bird is gobbling from can be a frustrating thing.

Camping at Bayou Meto WMA is restricted to designated campgrounds only, but there are plenty of them. It's primitive camping only; no hookups are available anywhere on the area.

Poison Springs WMA: Purchased in 1957 by the Arkansas Forestry Commission, Poison Springs is the only state forest in Arkansas. It lies in western Ouachita and eastern Nevada counties, 20 miles west of Camden.

At 19,500 acres, Poison Springs WMA is smaller than Bayou Meto WMA but is still a decent-sized area. However, for hunters not adept at map-reading and on-the-ground reckoning, this area's checkerboard composition makes it tricky to hunt. Hunters who know how to navigate with map, compass and GPS can find high-quality, uncrowded hunting on the scattered chunks of land that make up this unusual area. Most of the land surrounding Poison Springs WMA's scattered

property is corporate timberland leased to hunting clubs, so staying within the management area boundaries is important.

This is typical Gulf Coastal Plain country, with flat or gently rolling terrain and mixed pine and hardwood creek bottoms. The largest blocks and most of the acreage of Poison Springs' land mass borders upper and lower White Oak lakes. One good way to hunt this area is by launching a boat in either the upper or lower lake and listening for gobbling birds while you're on the water. However, much of the WMA's acreage lies far from the lakes, and therefore can't be hunted by boat. Driving the roads from block to block and trying to strike a willing gobbler can be a productive way of hunting at Poison Springs.

EAST

St. Francis Forest WMA: At about 21,000 acres, St. Francis Forest WMA is by far the smallest of the AGFC/Forest Service cooperative wildlife management areas in the state -- but don't let that fact discourage you: St. Francis Forest WMA sits atop the southern end of Crowleys Ridge, and this odd landform provides excellent turkey habitat and good turkey hunting.

Proximity to Memphis and a location amid the turkeyless farmland of the Arkansas Delta combine to guarantee that this WMA receives a lot of weekend and early-season hunting pressure. However, hunting during the week and later in the season allows a hunter to avoid much of this pressure.

St. Francis Forest WMA, split more or less equally between Lee and Phillips counties, is traversed north to south by one main road; only a few lateral roads branch off the main road or enter the WMA from its flanks. The loess hills are steep but not high, and hunters who want to get away from the crowds can usually do so by bushwhacking cross-country across one or two ridges.

Hunting by boat at the WMA is also possible at 625-acre Bear Creek Lake, on the north end of the forest near Marianna, and at 420-acre Storm Creek Lake, on the south end near West Helena. There's a 10-horsepower outboard motor limit on both lakes.

Here, as with most national forest lands, camping is allowed pretty much everywhere. Developed campgrounds are present at the above-mentioned lakes.

White River NWR: Established in 1935, White River National Wildlife Refuge is not only the state's oldest federal refuge but, at 165,000 acres, also the largest. The area has recently attracted national attention after the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker just to the north of the refuge, but veteran refuge-roamers have long known what the rest of the world is just now hearing: This place is one of the best and most valuable remaining chunks of bottomland habitat in the world. The bears that live here are old original-stock Arkansas bears, not imports from the north like the bears of the Ozarks and Ouachitas; likewise, the turkeys that live here are of the native bloodline, saved from extermination by the fastness and remoteness of the river bottoms.

Most of the refuge isn't quite as hard to reach today as it was when it was the last stronghold of bears and turkeys -- and ivory-billed woodpeckers -- but it's still pretty tough going in many places: They don't call these "the Big Woods" for nothing. Hunters wanting a near-wilderness turkey hunting experience should check this place out.

Likely hunting areas for turkeys are the Jacks Bay area on the lower west side, the East Lake area on the upper east side and the Prestons Ferry area on the central west side. Boat hunting is also possible anywhere along the lower White, from Clarendon all the way to the barge canal near Tichnor (more than 100 river miles.)

Bottomland hunting is a different ballgame. Those accustomed to hill-country turkey hunting often find the immense flatwoods of the river swamps baffling. A compass is a necessity here; go to the bottoms on a cloudy day, and you'll soon learn why. Other must-have items for WRNWR turkey hunters: waterproof boots (knee-length rubber boots are favored here) and mosquito repellent. The ability to walk long distances in boot-sucking conditions is mandatory.

Camping, all of it primitive, is restricted to designated sites. However, there's a Corps campground at Merrisach Lake near the lower west side of the refuge, and motels and campgrounds are available in DeWitt, Stuttgart, Marvell, Clarendon and other nearby towns.

WEST

Mt. Magazine WMA: This huge chunk of granite and its three lesser associated mountains (Chickalah, Rich and Huckleberry) rise improbably out of the Arkansas River Valley like a sea monster's back, forming the highest land mass in the state. Sited in Logan and Yell counties, across the river south of Clarksville, 120,000-acre Mt. Magazine WMA was in the 1980s considered to be the state's most successful turkey restoration area. Those glory days have passed, but it's still a good place to hunt.

Several developed campgrounds with electrical and water hookups are atop Mt. Magazine, but as with the other cooperative WMAs, camping is pretty much unrestricted on the area. Hunting here is a mixed bag, with many steep, rugged areas interspersed by areas of relatively easy going. Of course, most of the better turkey hunting is in the rougher stuff.

Muddy Creek WMA: This wasn't a deliberate exercise in saving the best for last, but a good percentage of veteran Arkansas turkey hunters whose careers began in the 1970s would agree that Muddy Creek was and still is one of the best public turkey hunting areas Arkansas has ever seen. This 146,000-acre area lies west and north of Mt. Ida in Montgomery, Scott and Yell counties. It has an extensive network of all-weather Forest Service roads and receives considerable early-season and weekend hunting pressure.

Even so, Muddy Creek WMA's series of steep east-west ridges provide pockets of remote country into which casual hunters seldom penetrate. The serious turkey chaser can find solitude here. At the same time, there's also some fairly gentle terrain available for less adventurous or less physically able hunters, especially along the flat ridgetops, along stream courses and in the valleys.

TURKEY HUNTING RESOURCES

Regardless of where you choose to hunt in Arkansas, public land or private, maps are a hunter's best friend. Here are a few suggestions.

U.S.D.A. Forest Service maps (which cost $6 each at this writing) are available from the various ranger district offices or from forest headquarters. For the Ouachita National Forest map, send a check to Ouachita National Forest, P.O. Box 1270, Hot Springs, AR 71901. For the Ozark or St. Francis, send a check to Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, 605 West Main, Russellville, AR 72801.

U.S. Geological Survey topo maps are invaluable for fine-tuning a hunt. They're available by requesting an Arkansas index map and a current price sheet from the Arkansas Geological Commission, 3815 West Roosevelt Road, Little Rock, AR 72204, or by visiting the AGC website at

www.state.ar.us/agc/agc.htm. However, since these cost $6 each plus postage, it can be expensive if you need to buy more than a few. For much more coverage at r

easonable cost, electronic topo maps are available on CD-ROM from such companies as Delorme

( www.delorme.com), Igage Mapping Corporation

(www.igage.com) and Maptech

(www.maptech.com).

Finally, there's the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas (available for $15 plus $3 postage from the AGFC, 2 Natural Resources Drive, Little Rock, AR 72205, or by credit card from the agency's Web site, www.agfc.com). This large-format book of county maps has WMAs, refuges and national forests, public lakes, boat ramps, many campgrounds and more features. It's not a very good on-the-ground hunting map, because the scale is too small, but it'll get you to the right place to start your hunt. A copy of this book should be in every hunter's vehicle.

(Editor's Note: For an autographed copy of Jim Spencer's 336-page book Turkey Hunting Digest, send $24.95 plus $4 shipping to the author, P.O. Box 758, Calico Rock, AR 72519.

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