Out-Of-The-Way Late-Season Bowhunts

Tired of the crowds? Some Arkansas archery venues are far enough off the beaten path that the rare hunter there can leave it all behind. (January 2006)

Photo by Michael H. Francis

Donald Ray Sweetin makes his home along with his wife, Edith, way down in the small eastern Arkansas community of Tichnor. Mr. Sweetin, 77, says he has taken "a bunch" of deer over the years by a variety of means, but for the last 50 years or so, his passion has been bowhunting.

Just after New Year's Day 1996, Mr. Sweetin was hunting on private property west of the White River National Wildlife Refuge. "For two weeks I had been seeing a big buck in one particular area I was hunting, but I could just never seem to get him within bow range," he recalled. Then the big buck disappeared.

Thinking he had perhaps over-hunted the area, Mr. Sweetin moved to another spot a half-mile or so away. The early-January Arkansas weather was terrible -- gusting winds mixed with occasional snow flurries. But the morning of Jan. 7 dawned clear and cold, although gusty winds continued.

Mr. Sweetin was hunting in an area of planted wheat and oat fields. At about 4:30 that afternoon, a doe moved right in front of his stand.

"At one point she stopped to look back," he said, "and when I looked in the direction she was staring, I could see a large buck hooking a bush maybe 60 yards away. But after a while he turned and walked away, and I thought I had missed another chance.

"Then he turned and came straight back toward me, his head up, looking right at the doe! She turned and trotted parallel to my stand, about 30 yards out. The buck followed her, and I was able to get my PSE drawn when he stopped, no more than 20 steps away."

At the thunk of the shot, the buck bolted and ran about 20 yards, the arrow sticking out from behind his foreleg. Then he ran again, but only for another 20 yards or so before sinking to the ground. Donald Ray Sweetin had just killed Arkansas' first Boone and Crockett buck taken by bow!

That Arkansas County whitetail, which was later officially scored at 172 0/8 Pope & Young points, is one of the more graphic examples of what the serious archer may see if he remains in the Arkansas deer woods in January after most hunters have hung it up for the season. To the uninitiated it might seem that the remainder of the deer-hunting season after New Year's Day offers far fewer opportunities for taking a trophy whitetail, but in many cases the opposite is actually true, for a variety of reasons.

A GREAT TIME FOR BOWHUNTING

January is a great time for bowhunters to be in the Arkansas deer woods. By its very nature, bowhunting is a solitary sport, and after the gun-hunting deer season ends, the woods virtually empty. Without human intrusion, Arkansas whitetails return to their "normal" or basic travel patterns, which at this time of year primarily revolve around food and cover.

With the acorns largely gone, pastures brown and the crop fields harvested, virtually anything green can become a deer magnet. Honeysuckle thickets, greenbrier and the other various vines, along with the occasional planted fields and food plots, are typical examples of spots that may become late-season whitetail restaurants.

Mother Nature also plays a dirty trick on Arkansas bucks in January. Not only have the deer endured the gun-hunting season, but they've also survived the rigors of the rut. Their bodies are overall in the poorest condition of the entire year, and during the dead of winter, deer forage is at its least available. That dearth provides the bowhunter with an advantage not obtainable earlier in the season. Diminished food resources mean that deer won't travel long distances to feed, simply because it burns valuable energy. So don't look too far from the food sources for bedding areas; concentrate instead on more rugged and/or inaccessible spots.

I do my January bowhunting along travel routes near those bedding areas, but I always begin by looking at the most-preferred food source available. It's the old adage: Find the food, find the deer. That's never truer than at this time of year.

Is there rut activity in January? In at least some areas, the answer is definitely yes. Whitetail bucks are physically capable of breeding virtually from the time of velvet shedding in October until antler dropping in February or March. Indeed, recent studies seem to indicate that they can actually breed at any time throughout the entire year.

When does are not bred during their initial estrous cycle, which typically occurs during November, they come into estrus at least twice again a 28-day schedule until they are successfully bred. This recurrence is nature's way of ensuring propagation of the species.

Two major factors affect the number of does bred during that primary period in November, the first of which is the buck-to-doe ratio in any given area: If there are too many does, the bucks simply can't get the job done. The second is the fact that Arkansas' statewide November gun season opens right in the middle of the primary breeding period (biologists figure the peak breeding date occurs on or about Nov. 15). That curtails buck movement, which again leaves does unbred.

In areas in which lots of does are present, each of these scenarios leaves at least some females unbred into December and even into January. That's why midwinter's a good time to hunt dominant bucks!

Older bucks don't get older by being stupid. In November they sense the heightened human presence surrounding gun season and greatly curtail their movement during daylight hours. Depending upon the amount of hunting pressure in any given area, some even become totally nocturnal, moving only at night. To some extent this same scenario persists into December, as gun-hunting season winds down and muzzleloader season opens for a few days.

But after New Year's Day bucks again stir about, particularly the larger dominant bucks, but they do so in remote places, where they encounter fewer humans. For that very reason, after the New Year I seek out the most remote hunting spots I can find.

EAST FORK WILDERNESS AREA

In Arkansas, numerous patches of land scattered throughout the Ouachitas and Ozarks are designated as "wilderness areas." Motorized travel is prohibited in these tracts, and because man is basically a lazy animal, most of these areas are underhunted, even during the gun season. Believe me, the deer are aware of that lessened hunting pressure.

East Fork Wilderness Area lies about 10 miles due north of Hector, close to the small mountain communities of Tilly a

nd Witts Springs. It can be reached by taking state Highway 7 north from Russellville to Dover and then switching to state Highway 27 through Hector. Signs clearly mark the area, which lies on the east side of the highway.

For the most part, East Fork is typical of the surrounding Ozarks -- flat-topped ridges separated by deep hollows. Those ridgetops become natural travel routes for whitetails that move along them between feeding and bedding areas. Look for rubs and scrape lines left over from the fall; check often to see if the scrapes are re-opened at any point. In places where ridge sides are steep, the ridgetops can actually funnel deer movement.

The primary terrain features that make East Fork WA special for hunters are three upland ponds that attract various forms of wildlife. The area is also dotted with numerous grown-over food plots and old homesites. Most of these openings are now covered with a variety of grasses, along with greenbrier and honeysuckle, all of which become prime deer foods during mid to late winter. Setting up a tree stand between these and the nearest heavy cover can pay big dividends.

LOWER BUFFALO WA

Literally thousands of canoe buffs visit the spectacular Lower Buffalo WA, coming from far and wide to float the popular waterway. The picturesque river winds through some of the most beautiful scenery that the Natural State has to offer.

I had occasion several years ago to do some scouting within this WA southeast of Yellville. A friend and I spent an afternoon walking several trails within the interior of the Marion County tract, stopping often to check out ridgelines, benches and field edges for deer sign. The terrain itself is rugged, with several mountains more than 1,000 feet high, and quite a few draws deep enough that neither of us wanted to wander into them.

Our efforts paid off. As any veteran hunter will tell you, the best sign is the type that has a deer standing in it. In a little more than four hours, we saw nine deer, four of them bucks. We discovered numerous scrapes along the trails themselves, as well as along the edges of several fields.

As at most wilderness areas, other hunters won't trample you at Lower Buffalo WA if you get off the few county roads that wind around the perimeter of the area. Or take a canoe and drift along the river itself, looking along the ridges above you for bearing oak trees, prime places for bowhunting January whitetails.

CHINQUAPIN MOUNTAIN WALK-IN TURKEY AREA

Do you know what deer and turkeys most have in common? They don't like to be disturbed by humans.

Chinquapin Mountain Walk-in Turkey Area lies within the Ouachita Mountains about 35 miles west of Little Rock. It is easily accessible by state Highway 10 from the east and Highway 9 from the south.

Chinquapin Mountain TA rides across a series of steep mountains, much like the one that gives the area its name. These are typically divided by deep draws along the bottoms where fair-sized streams, such as Narrow Creek and Trace Creek, tumble along. The walk-in area connects on its western side to the Flatside Wilderness Area. In that area, the solitary hunter can roam thousands of acres without being bothered by ATVs and ORVs.

The sides of the steeper peaks such as Chinquapin and Wildcat mountains consist of a series of benches, which the resident wildlife use as both travel corridors and bedding spots. Locate one of these covered with white oaks or, better yet, greenbrier, and you'll be stationed as close to a sure thing as any bowhunter ever encounters!

TRUSTEN HOLDER WMA

Most of the state's deer hunters by now have heard about White River National Wildlife Refuge, located along the White River in Arkansas, Monroe, Phillips and Desha counties. Nearby, the Arkansas Post Canal separates Trusten Holder Wildlife Management Area from White River NWR, just off the southwestern tip of the refuge. Here, serious bowhunters expect good deer activity among more than 10,000 acres of woodlands whose ownership is shared by state and federal agencies. No modern gun hunting is allowed in the WMA, and only a single two-day muzzleloader season is annually scheduled.

Archery hunting regulations on the WMA follow state guidelines, and a 4-point (on one side) antler restriction is imposed. Bowhunters killed 53 deer (14 bucks, 39 does) last year.

Trusten Holder WMA is hard to get into. Benzal Road, which runs along the canal to the north, and Nady Road, along the western edge the WMA, are the only roads that provide access points into the area. Much like White River NWR, this area offers bottomland hunting at its finest. The WMA's southern edge features adjacent croplands that typically are not harvested until late in January. Otherwise, the dense thickets within the interior provide both food and cover for the area's whitetails.

DAVE DONALDSON/BLACK RIVER WMA

Virtually surrounded by row crops, the 21,150-acre Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA contains chiefly bottomland, with many hardwood flats cut by numerous sloughs. Smack in the middle of Arkansas Deer Zone 4 in Clay, Randolph and Greene counties, the WMA carries nothing more than a two-day October muzzleloader hunt for gun hunters, while the local bow season runs Oct. 1 through Jan. 31.

While this is not a high-numbers area, your chances for arrowing a good buck in January are above average. The only drawback for bowhunters is that the entire WMA is also a low-water flood plain. If rains are heavy, your favorite hunting spot may quickly become inaccessible.

The places mentioned above are a little off the beaten path, I admit -- not the typical hotspots that most deer hunters look for. In fact, unless you're a fanatic deer hunter, you're not likely to pursue Arkansas whitetails in January.

But with each passing season, true fanatics (those who hunt an average of two or three days per week, rain or shine, hot or cold) are recruited into the fold of Arkansas deer hunters. Their numbers are still few, and they are the only hunters you will share the Arkansas deer woods with after the gun season closes.

C'mon! Grab your bow! Let's go deer hunting!

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