Arkansas' Delta Longbeard Hunts

Nothing wipes a long, harsh winter off the books quite like a spring pursuit of a wary longbeard. Head for one of these 10 delta turkey haunts for some much-needed adventure! (April 2009)

Of the 40 WMAs and four national wildlife refuges in the Arkansas delta, only five require a permit for the regular spring turkey season.

I consider myself an organized person, but it seems every couple years I forget to mail in one of my applications for an Arkansas public-land quota hunt. Deer, turkey and elk applications have all occupied some secret location behind the seat of my truck, and all have mysteriously appeared the day after the deadline.

Thank goodness Arkansas hunters have access to numerous wild areas that afford the unorganized a chance to pursue the king of gallinaceous birds without the hassle of advanced planning. Arkansas Game & Fish Commission Turkey Program Coordinator Mike Widner indicated that "of the 40 WMAs and four national refuges in the delta, only five actually require a permit for the regular (turkey) season."

Arkansas turkey-hunting opportunities can be found across the entire state and each has its own, unique pros and cons. In the delta, flat ground and easy walking is a plus, until you have to maneuver around a flooded bayou and battle mosquitoes. But even the drawbacks can be overlooked if you're in pursuit of an old swamp gobbler. Overall, the delta offers some good turkey spots that include a mix of habitat types, management and ownership and, in most cases, fewer hunters.

WHITE RIVER NWR
The delta's top producer, White River National Wildlife Refuge is also in the top 10 turkey harvest areas statewide. The refuge's 160,000 acres of prime bottomland forest has been consistent throughout the years. The 2008 harvest was below normal as high water levels on the White River forced a season closure.

Ironically, turkeys can survive a "normal flood" by locating ridges scattered across the bottoms that allow them to forage until waters recede. These spots also provide protection from hunting pressure. Even more amazing is that during extended floods, turkeys can live for weeks and even months in trees, feeding on insects, tree buds or anything that looks edible. The most significant, negative impact of flooding, however, is that it almost always results in little or no reproduction, as was the case in 2008. (Continued)

During normal floods, small ridges remaining out of water are potential spots for locating a gobbler. Prospective high grounds in the White River NWR include Rattlesnake Ridge and the east side of the White River Levee. Keep a close eye on the St. Charles river gauge, because as levels drop below 22 feet, your options will increase. Using a boat can greatly enhance access options along the river and bayous. In most years, the White River NWR turkey harvest hovers around 70 birds.

ST. FRANCIS FOREST WMA
Located near Helena and Mariana, St. Francis Forest WMA has also consistently placed in the top 10 areas statewide in terms of turkey harvest results. According to Mike Coker, the AGFC's regional biologist for this part of the state, St. Francis Forest annually accounts for 40 birds and would be his choice for a hunter lacking a permit. The bulk of St. Francis Forest is on Crowley's Ridge, although a small portion lies in the Mississippi and St. Francis river bottoms. While this WMA is in the delta, it is a unique part of the landscape. Some hills here rise more than 300 feet above the floodplain. Coker said there is a good distribution of birds that are easily accessed along the excellent road system. However, the biggest drawbacks -- that undoubtedly help birds during the season -- are the steep ridges that make moving to a bird difficult.

OVERFLOW NWR
Few people might have heard of Overflow National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge manager Lake Lewis characterized this area located on the south end of Ashley County as "almost in Louisiana," but this unknown delta jewel is one that hunters should take time to check out. This 14,000-acre tract was originally acquired because of its importance to waterfowl, but there are other hunting opportunities here, including those for turkey hunters, who are allowed to hunt with archery equipment only during the spring season.

"If you look at our harvest record, it's not very impressive, with only four or five birds per year," Lewis said. But given the fact that these birds are taken with archery gear quickly changes the outlook. "Most of the hunters hunt around the edges of the backwater or in the waterfowl units, with hunters who use decoys being the most successful."

Lewis also suggested that hunters new to the refuge might start scouting at the Green Tree Reservoir, which is reached by going west on state Route 173 from U.S. Route 165. Rainfall tends to push water into the surrounding bottomland hardwood forest, so be prepared and watch the weather.

ST. FRANCIS SUNKEN LANDS WMA
Hunters can access 26,000 acres of quality habitat on St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area.

"Turkeys have been on a slight decline," said WMA manager Jeremy Brown, "mainly because of a series of unfortunate events," including severe flooding in 2008. This undoubtedly had some negative effects on the population and poult production. Despite the normal fluctuations in population levels, the Sunken Lands are still worth investigating for a possible hunt this spring. Brown identified Turkey Island, Hatchie Coon Island, Pearson's Field or Locust Creek Field as good starting points, and access for hunters with disabilities is available on 7.4 miles of mobility-impaired trails. Brown indicated that hunting the Sunken Lands requires scouting. He suggested scouting and hunting as much as possible beyond the "normal early-morning hours." Check out the field systems and be adaptable. You may have to move to the birds, so be prepared for a walk. He also suggested using a boat to access the WMA.

SCATTER CREEK WMA & MUD CREEK WMA
Scatter Creek and Mud Creek are two of the smaller WMAs in the delta, but are definitely worth mentioning. Scatter Creek, located in Greene County, is actually on Crowley's Ridge and has an interesting history. This WMA was developed with help from partners including the National Wild Turkey Federation and Greene County Wildlife Club, both of which helped purchase the land.

Like most of Crowley's Ridge, the WMA has many narrow ridges and steep slopes, but of benefit to turkeys are scattered fields maintained by the AGFC. Each one of these openings is a potential site to ambush a strutting gobbler.

"There has been a slight decline (in turkey harvest) over the past five years or so," WMA manager Dennis Elkins said, "but they do not plan to make any adjustments (to the season) at this time." Elkins said the best chances for a turkey hunter are

on the Prater Tract located just off state Route 34, and "the best strategy to kill a bird on this WMA is to scout, scout, and scout!"

Mud Creek WMA is also one of the one of the smallest WMAs in the state with only 1,025 acres and with an even split between open lands and forest habitat. AGFC management efforts here include planting food plots, conducting prescribed burning and conversion of fescue to native grasses, all of which provide winter food and quality turkey brood cover.

Elkins recommends midday hunting, which is slightly different from what a majority of hunters are doing. By changing your hunting hours from the normal early-morning hours to later in the day, hunters can sometimes gain an edge, particularly if there is heavy hunting pressure.

DAVE DONALDSON BLACK RIVER WMA
Black River WMA contains 6,394 acres supporting a mix of habitats. Like most of the WMAs in the delta, this area benefits from active management programs that enhance habitat for a number of species. Currently the WMA has around 30 acres of food plots. According to WMA manager JP Fairhead, turkey populations are fair, but "the area is experiencing poor reproduction due to extensive flooding last spring. . . . At this time we are not anticipating any major changes, as these fluctuations are normal in floodplain forests."

Fairhead advised that the best way to locate birds is to spend some time at Little River Island, which is accessed via boat ramps at Hubble Bridge or Schaffer's Eddy. In addition, use these same ramps to access out-of-the-way places along the river and to hit the higher elevations. In his opinion, "one of the best strategies is scouting by boat along major waterways, but be prepared for moderate water levels in the timber and mosquitoes."

CACHE RIVER NWR
Cache River NWR stretches for miles along the Cache and White rivers. According to refuge biologist Richard Crossett, "if you are pursuing Cache turkeys, you should direct your efforts to units I and III, where our success rate is a little higher."

Currently Unit II is open to turkey hunting, but you must apply and obtain a permit issued by the AGFC due to a cooperative management effort in conjunction with neighboring Black Swamp WMA.

One aspect that could make hunting difficult at Cache are the scattered tracts and myriad roads, but this problem can be eliminated by shifting your scouting and hunting activity to the waterways. The larger blocks of land are on the river, and splitting your time between Cache and neighboring White River Refuge via the White River will provide access not only to some larger blocks of timber but also lower hunter densities. Some of the better bottomland habitat is adjacent to the river, because every riverbank has small ridges referred to as natural levees. These are the areas where floodwaters first break over the riverbank and, as the water flow slows, sediment is deposited. After many years, a "high ridge" is made. These natural levees are sites where many birds spend their time during high water and, more often than not, are overlooked by hunters.

CASEY JONES WMA
AGFC regional supervisor Roger Milligan said the turkey populations on Casey Jones WMA could stand some improvement. "The best places to kill a bird would be those areas immediately adjacent to Cut Off Creek WMA," Milligan advised. "Cut Off has some decent turkey numbers, and birds do venture over into Casey Jones, providing some limited opportunities especially in mid to late season."

To compensate for population changes, Milligan said, "We have shortened the season and moved it farther back in the spring to allow for peak breeding to occur." Some of the best spots to start your hunt are the two AGFC access points off the west side of the WMA, as well as two timber company roads that currently offer hunters access adjacent to Cut Off Creek.

WATTENSAW WMA
There are at least seven or eight public tracts in the delta that produce only one or two birds each year, and Wattensaw is a good example of these. It seems many Arkansas WMAs can simply adjust seasons, while other WMAs just can't seem to get up and running. Coker said, "Wattensaw is one of those areas that has a low harvest each year, even though we are doing everything we can with intense management efforts."

Coker said large rains fill low areas seemingly at the wrong time each year, making management difficult, but the agency is doing all it can to offset the problem. Wattensaw is next to Interstate 40 and within an hour of Little Rock near Hazen and Wattensaw. Many other low-harvest tracts can provide a great spot for a quick, last-minute turkey hunt.

Bottomland hardwood forests are typically very productive, but, Widner said, "many people want to compare habitat in Missouri or other locations to the delta because Missouri forests appear very similar, yet they have high turkey numbers. . . . The difference is that a majority of Arkansas delta forest areas are low and flood prone." The Missouri Bootheel region is similar, and in that region, turkeys and turkey hunters are faced with many of the same issues.

While all of the public land managers in the delta seem to be optimistic that birds will rebound, there is always that pesky little problem of too much water, which continually wreaks havoc with populations over the short term.

DELTA TECHNIQUES
Hunting turkeys in the delta presents some unique problems, and several professionals provided some ideas for outsmarting delta turkeys.

"Good decoys and less calling may be of more value in the delta," Widner suggested. "This is due to increased visibility in most bottomland hardwood forests, as well as more-intense hunting pressure at some areas that causes birds to 'hang up' at 75 yards or so in open woodlands.

"Basically, the (male turkeys) are looking for the hen that made a call," Widner said. This is much different on many upland sites, where thicker vegetation and the lay of the land actually help bring birds a little closer.

"I would only hunt during the week and during the early part of the season," Milligan suggested, "because most areas usually receive fairly heavy hunting at this time and especially on weekends." He and several other WMA managers also advised the best hunting opportunities are actually during mid to late season, when most hunters have given up.

Another useful strategy for hunting wary delta longbeards is to use a boat to access rarely hunted and out-of-the-way areas, particularly in the floodplains where endless bayous, channels, chutes and rivers provide hunters additional opportunities to reach insolated spots.

Keep an eye on the weather when hunting delta lands. You'll be hunting in flood-prone areas, so you must be aware of possible season closures that are dictated by river levels. Always refer to the AGFC turkey guidebook and routinely check their Web site (www.agfc.com) for updates. While the national wildlife refuges mentioned do not require a permit, they do require that each hunter carry a refuge brochure. These can be obtained at refuge offices, or you can access the South

east Regional Web site on the Internet at www.fws.gov/ southeast. Once you get there, just click on "Arkansas Refuges."

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