Trailing Toms In The Natural State'™s Northwest

Northwest Arkansas still isn't the cream of the crop for Natural State turkeys, but longbeard hunters have noticed a definite improvement in the hunting there. (April 2007)

Photo by Kraig Haske

The first close-up look I ever had of a living wild turkey gobbler was when I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas, in the fall of 1965. Three of us country boys come to town were making a weekend escape from the rigors of academia, country-boy-style -- camping and squirrel hunting in the Wedington Unit of the Ozark National Forest a few miles west of Fayetteville, not far from Lake Wedington itself.

Potatoes and bread were our only store-boughten provisions. We escaped the campus and got camp set up on Friday afternoon with an hour of daylight to spare, enough time to collect a few bushytails for supper if we were lucky.

I was sitting along an old logging road near several big hickories, waiting for something to happen, when I heard deliberate footsteps in the leaves. Thinking one of my buddies had walked in on me, I turned my head that way and was about to speak when what looked like a black ostrich came into view.

Walking steadily and with purpose, but not in any hurry, he marched down the left rut of the woodland two-track and passed within 2 yards of my outstretched feet. Even with my lack of experience with turkeys, I knew this bird was exceptional. His beard was a rope, and his spurs were long, sharp, and had a definite upward sweep. He came by me so close I could see the late sunlight glinting in his eye.

He never saw me, and though I didn't think that was remarkable at the time, I find it slightly amazing today. When he was out of sight, I noticed my heart was beating faster and heavier than normal, and there was a film of sweat on my brow that hadn't been there moments before. I didn't know it then, but it was a feeling I was to have many, many times in the years to come. I don't remember whether I killed any squirrels that afternoon or not. But I remember that gobbler, and I can summon him back to thrill me again by just closing my eyes.

Another thing I didn't know at the time was that seeing a turkey in that part of the Ozarks in those days was a rare occurrence. The habitat was there, but the birds mostly weren't. Today, that's changed and northwest Arkansas has come into its own as a turkey-hunting region. While the overall turkey population and the spring harvest has been down the past few years, as it has been elsewhere in the state, there's still some fine turkey hunting to be had in northwest Arkansas. Here's a run-down.

WHITE ROCK WMA

At slightly more than 280,000 acres, White Rock Wildlife Management Area is the largest WMA in the state, and it contains some of the most remote and hard-to-reach country in northwest Arkansas. The land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and is managed cooperatively by the Forest Service and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. White Rock has land in five counties: Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Madison, and Washington. It is bisected north-to-south by Highway 23 -- The Pig Trail -- and gravel Forest Service roads branch off the highway in both directions, giving access to the interior. There's also a fairly good network of 4WD and ATV roads branching off the Forest Service roads.

Current regulations allow vehicles to use many of these rough secondary trails, and many hunters take advantage of them to penetrate farther from the main roads. But still, a turkey hunter must go to where his bird is gobbling, and White Rock turkeys, like their kinfolk elsewhere, are mostly found away from the roads. And the going can get tough in a hurry. Most of White Rock WMA is not the kind of terrain to be tackled by the seriously out-of-shape.

Which, of course, is one of the reasons it has a good turkey population. Hunters willing and able to invest the energy to get off the beaten path will usually find the effort worthwhile. Hunting pressure in some of the deep valleys and steep mountain slopes is as light as you'll find on any public land this side of the Rockies.

Black Mountain State Game Refuge, west of Highway 23 near Turner Bend and Cass, was one of the original deer restocking sites (in 1926) and was also the site of Arkansas' first elk reintroduction effort in 1933, and the state's first ruffed grouse reintroduction effort in 1948, 1949, and 1950. Those things have nothing to do with turkey hunting, except that they give a broad hint that biologists thought the area provided good habitat and was hard enough to reach that the stockings had a chance of succeeding.

The old refuge is no more, but the Black Mountain area was restocked with turkeys in the 1960s, and the brooding bulk of Black Mountain itself still makes the place one of the harder-to-reach sections of White Rock. And that makes for good turkey hunting. So does the Salt Fork Walk-In Deer and Turkey Hunting area, a tract of almost 9,000 acres about ten miles southwest of Cass. Another big chunk of remote, rough country lies east of Forest Service Road 1504, on the east side of the WMA.

White Rock WMA is remote and rugged, but biologists still manage to maintain a good number of wildlife openings, which add to the quality of the turkey habitat. There are also many private inholdings that are partially or wholly cleared, adding to the overall habitat diversity. Abundant springs and a good network of surface streams round out the good habitat picture.

Forest Service regulations allow camping practically everywhere on White Rock WMA, except in food plots and sensitive areas with no-camping signs, and 280,000 acres of land makes for lots of good primitive campsites. There are also several developed Forest Service campgrounds: at Redding (on FS Road 1003, one mile north and three miles east of Cass); Shores Lake (15 miles north of Mulberry on Highway 215 and a half-mile north on FS Road 1505); Wolf Pen (22 miles north of Clarksville on Highway 23 and two miles west of the highway on FS Road 1003), and White Rock Mountain (seven more miles past Shores lake on FS Road 1505, then another three miles on FS Road 1003).

For an Ozark National Forest map, contact the Ozark National Forest, P.O. Box 1008, Russellville AR 72801. Currently, the cost is $6.

MADISON COUNTY WMA

This state-owned wildlife management area lies well north of the Ozark National Forest, in the north end of Madison County and east of Highway 23 a dozen or so miles north of Huntsville. This is a sleeper, utilized mostly by local hunters, and doesn't get a lot of outside pressure after the first weekend of the season. Madison County Wildlife Management Area contains 14,185 acres in two sections, separated by a mile-wide strip of private land. The terrain isn't quite as rugged as what you'll find on White Rock, but it's still not a place for

the faint-of-heart and weak-of-leg.

The larger southern section contains roughly 9,000 acres and has a good interior road network, but the north section is virtually roadless. Good turkey populations exist on both sections, but if you're looking for remote country and solitude, go to the north section and fall off into one of the canyons of the Rockhouse Creek drainage. The north section can be reached via the network of gravel roads from the southern section, and Highway 221 south of Berryville cuts across the northern end of the north section for approximately two miles. Highway 23 also borders about a half-mile of the southwest end of the north section.

Primitive camping is allowed on the area, but in designated campgrounds only. Commercial lodging is available in both Berryville and Huntsville. Area maps are available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 2 Natural Resources Drive, Little Rock, AR 72205, (501) 223-6300. You can also download a .pdf file map from the agency web site.

GENE RUSH/

BUFFALO RIVER WMA

An irregular, very roughly horseshoe-shaped WMA with a few outlying parcels and totaling just over 17,000 acres, Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area lies between the Ozark National Forest on the south and the Buffalo National River on the north. This three-owner continuum of public hunting is as scenic as any public area in the country.

The WMA and the Buffalo River corridor are most famous of late because of the small but thriving elk herd that lives here, and the active management to maintain extensive openings for the elk herd is helping the region's turkey population as well. Turkey hunters can find plenty to smile about here.

It's getting to be an old refrain in this piece, but turkey hunters on Gene Rush WMA had better toughen up before hunting here. The WMA doesn't have a terribly extensive road network, with the exception of the Carver Road, which comes into the area off Highway 123 at Carver and wiggles westward through the heart of the WMA. There are a few offshoot roads from this main one, but only a few. The hollows are deep and steep, and access is tough. Some ATV and 4WD trails exist, but off-road regulations are much stricter here and on the Buffalo National River lands than on the Forest Service lands farther south.

There are several designated campgrounds scattered through the area, and the National Park Service's Carver campground is only a half-mile from the western boundary of the WMA, on Highway 123. Access to the area is off Highway 123 at Carver and also via gravel roads off Highway 74 east of the tiny valley community of Mt. Judea. The nearest commercial lodging is in Jasper, 15 crooked and winding miles west.

When water flow is low enough (an iffy proposition in April,) walk-in hunters can access the east end of the area by fording Richland Creek at a low-water bridge on a dead-end gravel road two miles south of Eula, which in turn is five miles west of Snowball, which in turn is 14 miles west of Marshall.

An excellent way to get into the heart of the Gene Rush/Buffalo River WMA is to follow the example set by the hordes of canoeists who each spring float down the Buffalo River.

As the preceding paragraphs indicate, getting to Gene Rush WMA isn't the easiest thing in the world, nor is getting around on the ground once you arrive. But make the effort, and you stand a good chance of encountering some pretty unpressured turkeys.

Another excellent way to get into the heart of this prime chunk of remote country is to follow the example set by the hordes of canoeists who each spring float down the Buffalo River. Hunting is also allowed on the National River lands, but not within 100 yards of the Buffalo River itself. But even with this restriction, the river provides hunters with good access to some excellent hunting opportunities on both sides of the river. The Carver to Mt. Hershey and Mt. Hershey to Woolum floats are both one-day trips for canoeists, but for hunting you might consider making an overnight float out of it. Just remember that Arkansas law requires that turkeys be checked within 24 hours, and while you can do this by phone, you're probably not going to get a signal when you're at the bottom of the Buffalo River valley. Detailed Buffalo River maps are available from Buffalo National River, 402 N. Walnut, Suite 136, Harrison, AR 72601, (870) 439-2502, or visit the Web site.

For a map of Gene Rush/Buffalo River WMA, contact the AGFC at the address given above, or download the Gene Rush WMA map.

HOBBS SMA

Owned by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, 11,644-acre Hobbs State Management Area is open to turkey hunting except for the approximately 2,400 acres of Beaver Lake State Park, which lies along the shore of the lake of the same name.

Hobbs SMA is located in the southeast corner of Benton County, with a very slight spillover into Madison County. As is the case with nearby Madison County WMA, Hobbs has a good turkey population, but is more accessible and is therefore more heavily hunted than Madison County WMA. It's also considerably closer to the large population center of the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers-Bentonville corridor, and that may have an effect as well.

Hobbs SMA is bisected by Arkansas Highway 12 east of Rogers, and several gravel roads off the highway provide interior access. Camping is available in the state-park section of Hobbs SMA, but all weapons must be unloaded and cased at all times in the campground. Camping too is available at nearby Prairie Creek Campground on the lake; similar firearms restrictions apply. No camping is allowed on the management area proper. Commercial lodging is available in Rogers, only a few miles west.

As of this writing, the AGFC has no downloadable map available for Hobbs SMA, but the agency's Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, available at any regional office or online, can help you get around on the area. The cost is $15 for walk-in sales or $18 by mail.

PINEY CREEKS WMA

Refer to the discussion of White Rock WMA earlier in this article, and you'll have a pretty good idea what to expect on Piney Creeks WMA. This is also a Forest Service/Game and Fish Commission cooperative management area, but Piney Creeks is not quite as big -- "only" 200,000 acres to White Rock's 280,000.

Highway 7 north of Russellville bisects this huge area, and a good road network provides access to the interior of each half. Developed campgrounds are numerous and include Brock Creek, Bayou Bluff, Haw Creek Falls, Long Pool, and Richland Creek.

Piney Creeks WMA contains two officially designated wilderness areas: Richland Creek Wilderness and Hurricane Wilderness. The same Ozark National Forest map that covers White Roc WMA also has Piney Creeks WMA. Refer to the White Rock WMA discussion above for ordering information.

Many spring turkey s

easons have come and gone since I watched that first-ever longbeard walk by near Lake Wedington, and although the turkey season is still closed in the Wedington Unit, there's once again a viable turkey population there. I expect that within a few more years, turkey hunting will be legal on that particular chunk of public land.

I know full well that the one particular gobbler that so long ago set my life in the outdoors on this track has long since departed those hills and hollows; no turkey lives that long. But when the turkey population there grows enough and there's an open season, I'm going to go there and look for him. In my mind's eye, he's still as alive as he was on the day that he nearly stepped on my feet. 

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