Arkansas Public Turkey Hunting

Arkansas Public Turkey Hunting

Here are some great places you can tag a tom this spring on land that's open to the public for hunting.

One of my relatively early forays into the realm of turkey hunting came about a decade ago on a friend's property north of Searcy. The birds were plentiful, and they even answered me when I attempted to mimic their language and pull a tom turkey within range of my shotgun. In the end, however, the turkeys were the obvious winners. I never glimpsed a single bird while I was in position to pull the trigger.

But, because those gobblers had responded to my amateurish attempts at calling, I was bitten by the turkey-hunting bug. So, I set out in search of other possibilities. I began asking around for someone to teach me the ropes, land that I might access for hunting, and secrets to bagging a bird.

Until then, I thought that fishermen were tight-lipped about their sport. Man, they don't even hold a candle to the folks who chase Old Tom. I don't even think I'd get the answers I'm seeking if I placed an ad in the Thrifty Nickel with the offer of lifetime cash payments.

Thankfully, Arkansas has plenty of public lands available for turkey hunting. And, there are a couple of turkey authorities willing to offer up their advice to hunters wanting to know more about where to bag a bird this season.

THOSE IN THE KNOW SAY...

Mike Widner spent roughly four decades working in the conservation field, with much of the latter two being the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's turkey program coordinator. From that position, Widner has eyed turkey hunting in The Natural State through several of the up-and-down cycles that mark bird populations and hunter success in Arkansas.

"The best public area in the state is probably Harold E. Alexander Spring River WMA in the eastern Ozarks," Widner said without reservation. "Sharp County often leads the state in turkey harvest, and this area is in the heart of the county."

That assertion is backed up by scientific data, with Widner pointing to observations, gobbling indices and harvest numbers being better at that location than at most other WMAs for many years. He also noted there are three regular hunts, one youth permit hunt and a special archery hunt conducted at Harold E. Alexander annually.

Spring River WMA is about six miles south of Hardy and five miles east of Highland. The area's nearly 14,000 acres can be accessed from Arkansas Route 62/267 at Highland or Hardy, or from Arkansas Route 58 at Sitka.

Some locals suggest checking out the WMA's fields and food plots. The AGFC's Web site (www.agfc.com) lists about 900 acres in old fields and 84 food plots in those fields. There are also roughly 22 miles of fire lanes that can provide good openings for birds to see decoys from longer distances.

Otherwise, Widner pointed to several permit hunts as the best bets for taking a turkey on public ground. Those spots include Freddie Black Choctaw Island WMA Deer Research Area (Desha County), Moro Big Pine Natural Area WMA (Calhoun), Shirey Bay Rainey Brake WMA (Lawrence), Camp Robinson WMA (Faulkner, Pulaski) and Lafayette County WMA (Lafayette).

"In addition, the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge permit hunts should be good, partially because this area was closed in 2010," Widner continued, then listed limited-permit hunt opportunities at Big Lake WMA, Holla Bend NWR, UA Pine Tree Experimental Station WDA and Rick Evans Grandview Prairie WMA as other possibilities. Of those, Big Lake, UA Pine Tree and Grandview Prairie are youth hunts.

Jim Spencer, a noted outdoor writer and a turkey hunter for 34 years, agreed with Widner's assessment regarding some of the better available permit hunts -- Spring River and Camp Robinson. His short list of the better WMAs in the state, however, included some different entries.

"In general, the whole state has a depressed turkey population, but Muddy Creek WMA and Caney Creek WMA in the Ouachitas, Piney Creeks WMA in the Ozarks, St. Francis National Forest WMA in the Delta, and Poison Springs WMA in the Gulf Coastal Plain are good bets for this spring," Spencer said. "None of these places are overrun with turkeys, but a good hunter who works at it ought to be able to find a bird to play with in any of these areas."

Beginning in the Ouachita Mountains, Muddy Creek WMA lies in Montgomery, Scott and Yell counties about 10 miles northwest of Mount Ida. Nearly 150,000 acres of fairly rugged terrain includes about 150 food plots. Established in 1968, the land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and Weyerhauser Corporation and governed by the AGFC. To reach the WMA, turn off U.S. Route 270 10 miles west of Mount Ida or take U.S. Route 71 six miles south to Needmore from Waldron and then turn east on Arkansas Route 28 for 12 miles.

The approximately 85,000 acres of Caney Creek WMA, meanwhile, encompass parts of Howard, Montgomery, Pike and Polk counties farther to the south and west of Muddy Creek. Rugged mountains there give birth to the Little Missouri and Cossatot rivers. As with the other aforementioned WMAs, food plots are utilized. To reach Caney Creek, head south on Arkansas Route 375 10 miles from Mena, or take Arkansas Route 8 for 25 miles to the west from Glenwood. You can also reach it from U.S. 71 at Vandervoort by taking Arkansas Route 246 for 10 miles.

In the Ozark Plateaus, Piney Creeks WMA in Johnson, Newton and Pope counties lies 16 miles north of Russellville and 15 miles northeast of Clarksville. It can be accessed via Arkansas Route 7 from Russellville or Arkansas Route 123 from Clarksville.

Much of the area's 176,000 acres is owned by the Forest Service. Like the Ouachitas WMAs, the ground can be steep and harsh. Openings and food plots are also part of the management practices seen there, with about 360 such areas having been worked since the area opened in 1967.

Jumping across the state to the Delta, St. Francis National Forest WMA spreads across Lee and Phillips counties. At nearly 21,000 acres, the WMA is bisected by Arkansas Route 44. Access is also available from Arkansas Route 1 at Marianna, or from Route 1 or 242 at Helena-West Helena. The topography there is not as up-and-down as that of western Arkansas, but you'll find some slope in the Crowley's Ridge portion of the WMA. Otherwise, much of the forest is bottomland hardwoods. About 150 acres are maintained in food plots each year.

Our final stopping spot brings us down south to the Gulf Coastal Plain and Poison Springs WMA in Nevada and Ouachita counties. There, you're just to the south and east of the Ouachitas, but the land is characterized by rolling hills and a general

ly upland habitat. At 17,000-plus acres, Poison Springs is located about 25 miles west of Camden on Arkansas Route 24. The AGFC maintains roughly 75 wildlife openings there.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

In eastern Arkansas, the White River National Wildlife Refuge covers roughly 160,000 acres of ground along the lower White River in Desha, Monroe, Arkansas and Phillips counties. The area was established in 1935 with the preservation of grounds for wintering waterfowl chief among the refuge's purposes.

But, manager Dennis Sharp acknowledges there are what he calls "pretty good numbers" of turkeys throughout the refuge. After experiencing three consecutive high-water years, though, Sharp said that turkey populations are down there, as they are elsewhere in the state. Still, the opportunity to bag a bird is higher there than in many of Arkansas' other public areas.

"We know that the flooding impacts nesting and nest success," Sharp said. "But, we have some high ground and fringe habitat on the west side coming up to the Grand Prairie. Some of our birds move off the refuge and up on the prairie to nest there. They may be a little more susceptible to predation there, or on the levee on the east side, but our best indication is we've had some nesting success with the number of poults seen during the summer."

Otherwise, Sharp said, hunters coming to the White River NWR should realize that turkey hunting there is not a deal of using the terrain to sneak up on the birds. "This is flatlands hunting. If we have high water, access can be a problem. Hunting in the bottoms can mean needing your knee boots, your hip boots or your boat."

WORDS OF WORTH

Other than where to go, both Widner and Spencer offered some advice on how to approach the quest of hunting turkeys on public grounds. Widner said the permit hunt at Harold E. Alexander Spring River WMA would be his first choice if given the opportunity to pick a hunt and location.

"My first inclination if drawn for this hunt would be to do like I do on most areas -- get as far away from the roads and from other hunters as possible," said Widner. Sometimes, a hunter walks past gobblers doing that, he acknowledged. But a hunter can always hunt those birds later in the day while working back to the vehicle, for example. That works best after others have gone home and after hens have left gobblers for the day.

Spencer concurred regarding getting away from the crowds. "I have several 'perfect' places to hunt turkeys in Arkansas, none of which I will tell anybody about," he began, his remarks revealing the sacredness of secrecy among turkey hunters. "But, they all have a few things in common: They're all in the mountains. They all have a good, high listening place from which to launch a hunt. They all overlook several good strutting areas with east-facing exposures to catch the early sun. And, they are all quite a distance from the nearest road to insulate them from the rank and file of 'drive-by' hunters who do most of their turkey hunting from the roads."

Furthermore, Widner noted that "food is usually not a big factor in locating turkeys during the spring season (because) birds are primarily interested in breeding and nesting activities." Gobblers will follow hens, though, and Widner asserted that green fields are likely spots to find those hens.

"Succulent grasses and clovers are needed by hens in the spring to provide vitamins and nutrients to help them through the nesting process," said the AGFC turkey program coordinator. "So, if there is a food connection in the spring, it is usually associated with high-quality, green forage such as clover."

Following the same school of thought, Spencer said, "Don't worry too much about finding feeding areas in the spring. Hen turkeys are eating green grass shots and bugs and worms, putting on protein so they can lay eggs, and these things are rarely concentrated in small areas. Instead, concentrate on finding those potential strutting areas -- saddles, east-facing benches and points, protected field corners with east-facing exposures, etc. Later in the spring, hens start gravitating toward good nesting cover, and gobblers will follow."

Spencer also said hunters should note roosting areas when targeting turkeys this spring. "In hilly country, they like roosting in sheltered heads of hollows, with flat areas nearby for them to fly down on. They like pines for roosting where they're available. In flat country, they like to roost over water, in cypress brakes and places like that."

MORE ADVICE TO HEED

While our dynamic duo of turkey authorities were listing the preferred public grounds for spring 2011 and some of the more likely spots for bagging a bird within those areas, they also handed out some sage acquired during their many seasons of chasing old Tom.

First, Widner offered the following.

SCOUTING: "Scout before the season and hang tough during the hunt. Easy birds on public areas don't last long (so scout them before the season and hope you tag one quickly) and tough birds tend to clam up with hunting pressure, so hang tough in the areas they frequent."

PERMIT HUNTS AND PRESSURE: "Realize that any of the public areas in the state, including the large coop U.S. Forest Service WMAs, can have heavy hunting pressure. Normally, permit hunts have quotas to keep hunting pressure at moderate levels, so those lucky to draw a permit usually don't have to deal with as much competition. Put in for permit hunts, but be prepared to go looking for other places to hunt if necessary."

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: "I would strongly encourage anyone reading any article in a sporting magazine to contact a local biologist or wildlife officer for the latest information on a particular area. Many factors can make my predictions go awry, such as flooding, lack of mast, ice storms, etc. Talk with the area manager or someone who regularly hunts the area."

COURTESY: "Show courtesy if you're hunting on public lands. If someone else is trying to work a bird or has set up on an opening, don't crowd them for safety and ethical reasons."

As for Spencer, he preached the importance of when to hunt and the need for staying power.

TIMING: "Hunt during the week if possible. For sure, hunt later in the day. Most folks are out of the woods by 9 a.m., which is just plain stupid.

PATIENCE & PERSEVERANCE: "Hunt as often and as long as possible. Stay out there. You won't kill many gobblers sitting around the campfire. I keep hearing hunters talk about another hunter being 'lucky.' Well, in most cases, it's not luck, it's persistence. In turkey hunting, as in most other things in life, the harder you work at it, the luckier you get."

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