Arkansas' 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1
September 24, 2010
As deer season approaches, getting a handle on the numbers for the Natural State's herd grows increasingly important. We give you a look at the data. (October 2007)
Photo by Kenny Bahr.
It was on a cold Saturday morning back in 1965 that I went on my first deer hunt.
A senior in high school, I accompanied a couple of buddies who lived in the "country" and regularly regaled us "townies" with tales of hunting and trapping exploits. The day before my big adventure, I'd borrowed a 16-gauge shotgun from my next-door neighbor and bought four 00 buckshot shells.
The morning dawned clear and cold. I remember the frozen leaves crunching underfoot as the three of us walked down an old logging road in the early-morning light. After we split up, to "cover more ground," I came to an old sidehill sawmill site and, upon seeing numerous tracks in the sawdust, decided to sit there for a while. I found a flat spot with a big pine that I could lean back against and made myself comfortable, quietly working the action of the shotgun to slide a shell into the chamber.
It was colder back in those days, and within 10 or 15 minutes, chills were running up and down my back. My socks were so tight inside my leather boots that they cut off the circulation to my toes, which were soon as numb as my fingers. After a half-hour I was squirming, trying all the while to remain still, which I knew hunters should do, my teeth chattering loud enough that any deer within miles surely heard.
Suddenly, movement in a row of dark pines below me -- and, all thoughts of cold forgotten, I saw a shape materialize in the dimness, then saw the glint of sunlight off an antler. I'm sure I was holding my breath as the buck stepped into the small opening around the sawdust pile, then stood there testing the breeze. To this day I can still see him there, steam blowing from his nostrils, everything about him -- beauty, grace, wariness -- a symbol of the outdoors. Somehow I got the shotgun up without him seeing me, and even remembered to click the safety off as I tried to center the bead on his chest.
At the blast he whirled and disappeared back into the dark timber. The thing I remember the most, even today, is the complete stillness that enveloped the clearing after his disappearance. Before, crows cawing, squirrels rustling in the leaves, even a raccoon flipping rocks in the small stream there below; after, all silent.
When I got to the spot where he'd been standing I felt a growing panic: no blood, only gouges in the damp leaves that he'd left in flight. I walked slowly in the direction he'd taken, heart heavier with every step, knowing that I'd missed what would surely be my only chance ever to take such an animal.
And then there he was, lying less than 50 yards into the trees, white belly like a beacon. As I ran to him, I could hardly breathe; my whole body shook, but no longer from the cold. Heart racing, I lifted his head from the leaves: an 8-pointer.
Back in that now long-ago season 20,028 deer were checked in statewide. I believe that there were more deer hunters at the time. I can remember schools closing, local plants taking days off, downtown businesses shutting down, "gone hunting" signs common in store windows along Main. Most written accounts of the time put hunter numbers at around 350,000, so the overall state success ratio ran somewhere in the 5 to 7 percent range.
Fast-forward to the present: Last year, 164,579 deer were checked in here in the Natural State. Even the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission admits that hunter numbers are down, with the most-often published totals being in the 300,000 range, which translates to an overall success ratio of around 54 to 55 per cent. Sometimes I sit on my deer stand and contemplate what the "old-timers" would think of the bounty we now enjoy. Growing up and raised in a time when there were virtually no deer in this state, I'm sure they would be amazed at the quantity of deer here today.
Some years back I observed that, were you to throw a dart at a map of Arkansas, deer hunting of substantial quality would be present wherever it stuck -- and that's still true today. But naturally, some areas are better than others.
For many years Arkansas was divided into four basic deer-hunting regions: Ozarks, Ouachitas, Gulf Coastal Plain, Delta. Realizing that such large areas, which often had several differing types of terrain within them, made management difficult, the AGFC deer team divided those regions into the more-workable deer management units.
The majestic Ozarks and Ouachitas, which cover most of the western half of our state, offer something that no other region has: thousands upon thousands of acres of land open to the public. Unfortunately, that "open" part is both a plus -- you can still hunt free of charge amid some of the most beautiful land in the state -- and a minus -- deer management there lags behind areas to which access can be controlled.
When you hunt this region, you must think of Big Piney Creeks Wildlife Management Area, which lies northwest of Russellville along Scenic Highway 7, as an example of the "why" of that. It consists of some 180,000 acres of rugged and rolling land, most of it remote and accessible by relatively few roads. Last year, 133 deer were taken there, which works out to 1 deer per 1,353 acres. Smart hunters look for spots away from the roads; that search got tougher or better (depending on your preferences) with the National Forest Service's new off-road vehicle policies.
White Rock WMA, which lies north of Ozark and Interstate 40, falls into that same category. If anything, this 280,000-acre area is even more rugged than Piney Creeks, and is something of a staple for the hunting crowd in the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metroplex. There, 473 deer were taken in 2006-07, a ratio of 1 deer per 592 acres, and the numbers today are far better than in recent years. Sylamore WMA -- 150,000 acres up in Marion, Searcy, Stone and Baxter counties -- has long been one of the better areas within the Ozarks, and it maintained that reputation last fall, with 1 deer taken per 667 acres.
Over across the river in the Ouachitas, such areas as Muddy Creek WMA -- 146,000 acres in Yell, Montgomery and Scott counties -- and Winona WMA -- 160,000 acres in Saline, Perry and Garland -- offer ample opportunities. But 1 deer taken per 1,133 acres (Muddy Creek) and 1 per 708 (Winona), indicate that the deer are scattered over a wide area, which can make hunting there a daunting task, particularly for the non-local.
To sum up: The mountains certainly offer opportunity, but to be successful, you're going to have to wear out some shoe leather. They're also rugged, so being in at least reasonable shape in als
o a necessity.
The areas I've mentioned so far feature "open" hunting, dates and regulations for which follow statewide guidelines. But hunting in other areas throughout the region is available through draw permits, and several of those stand out. Fort Chaffee WMA, its 66,000 acres just southeast of Fort Smith, offers fine deer hunting, particularly for the area's archers. Two days of muzzleloader hunting and two days of modern gun area are all that's allowed. But last fall the rolling hills gave up 475 animals, for a ratio of 1 deer taken per 139 acres -- way above average for the region.
Further down I-40 and just northeast of Morrilton lie Ed Gordon Point Remove WMA's 8,694 acres, which accounted for 139 whitetails last season -- an average of 1 deer per 62 acres, which is about as good as it gets. Apart from a pair of two-day gun hunting segments taking place on the last weekend in October and in early November, it's strictly bowhunting. Ed Gordon and Camp Robinson WMA -- 19,648 acres northwest of North Little Rock -- would be my choices for draw hunts. Robinson's 1 deer taken per 101 acres falls right into the same higher-than-average-for-the-area list. It has a pair of two-day modern gun hunts in late November, a two-day muzzleloader segment the week before, and almost unlimited bowhunting. It should be mentioned that the facility is indeed a military base, just like Chaffee, so some unusual rules and requirements are in place. Call (501) 212-5232 for information if you're drawn for a permit on Robinson, 1-877-478-1043 for Chaffee.
Keep in mind that the late-March cold snap destroyed a lot of the acorn crop in the Ozarks. If you can locate a secluded grove that has several trees producing, you'll be into about as close to a sure thing as you're ever likely to have.
Camp Robinson Wildlife Demonstration Area lies just north of the WMA. With a three-day gun season and only 125 permits available, this 4,029-acre area produced 44 deer last fall, a ratio of 1 deer per 91.5 acres. That's considerably above average in that part of the state.
Running alongside the Mississippi River is DMU 5, which is technically known as the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. At the northern end lies DMU 6, which takes in Crowley's Ridge, an upthrust created when tremendous forces beneath the earth's surface shook the area eons ago. The ridge runs from the Missouri state line down to Helena, a linear distance of about 150 miles. The reason for making it a separate DMU is that the soil along the ridge is a different makeup than the surrounding delta dirt.
Next month, when I do the trophy forecast piece, you'll hear me describe the delta in far more glowing terms. This is big-buck country, with a better age-structure, more-nutritious food, and limited hunting pressure being primary reasons that outsize headgear is grown by the deer there. But it's an agricultural area, so much of it consists of vast, open croplands, and deer density is lower than in other areas. Public areas are also limited, and virtually all are available only via draw.
White River National Wildlife Refuge, stretching through Arkansas, Monroe, Phillips and Desha counties along the flow of the same name, is big-woods hunting at its best. Last year 845 deer were taken on its 160,000 acres, for a ratio of 1 deer per 189 acres -- very impressive for an area of this size. I consider it to be the No. 1 trophy spot in the state, but it's a good place just for collecting your venison steaks, too.
Above White River, but running along the same drainage in Jackson, Woodruff, Prairie and Monroe counties, lies Cache River NWR. This facility is smaller at 54,000 acres, and has a deer harvest ratio of 1 animal per 388 acres. Both of these areas are federal, and I notice that they no longer adhere to the state-imposed antler restrictions. But anytime you have short gun seasons (which is the case for practically every unit listed here), the hunting's going to be worthwhile.
That statement applies for Mike Freeze-Wattensaw WMA -- 19,184 acres lying just north of I40 in Prairie County -- and Dagmar WMA -- a 9,720-acre area straddling I-40 in Monroe County. Wattensaw is especially noteworthy, with 218 deer taken in '06-07, or a ratio of 1 deer per 88 acres. Dagmar saw 47 harvested, or 1 for every 216 acres. Lots of bowhunters roam Wattensaw, and both areas offer good possibilities if you draw a gun or muzzleloader permit.
Down in the southern part of the region, Choctaw Island WMA lies inside the levee of the Mississippi River -- the only Arkansas public area to do so. Intensely managed by the AGFC as a deer research area and patrolled by hordes of mosquitoes (at least during early fall), the 8,300-acre tract saw 60 deer killed last season, or 1 per 138 acres. Even further south, Trusten Holder WMA yielded 55 deer from its 8,173 acres, an average of 1 deer per 144 acres.
Most of the land in the Arkansas delta is private, so though it's known for big deer, it's less than desirable for the hunter concerned chiefly with just finding a place to hunt or with merely taking a deer for the freezer.
Last fall at Little Bayou Des Arc WMA, which lies in Prairie County, the area's 953 acres produced 32 deer, an average of 1 deer taken per 29.8 acres. I was surprised to find that gun hunting there follows state guidelines, which means that such a small area could easily be overhunted. But if you're looking for public land, it may well be worth a look.
Back when I was a kid, the deer hunting aristocracy of my hometown all ventured "south" when deer season opened. With deer just gaining a foothold in the mountains, the chances of success were far better in the pine groves south of Little Rock, and in any given year 75 to 80 percent of the state's harvest came from this region.
The more things change, the more they stay the same: A glance at the table showing the top counties in terms of total harvest will indicate that all five came from DMU 4, the Gulf Coastal Plain. Such has been the case for generations, and it'll probably continue in that way for many more. Large tracts of controlled-access hunting properties, heavy cover and moderate-to-good food sources dictate that a lot of deer will be present there -- sometimes too many.
The downside is that most of the better hunting lands are private, taking the form of large timber-company holdings leased to private individuals or clubs. If I were hunting public land in the GCP, I'd naturally check out such places as Felsenthal NWR. On its 65,000 acres of mixed hardwoods, pine and swamp down in Ashley, Union and Bradley counties, according to AGFC records, 520 deer were taken last fall, which equals a ratio of 1 deer per every 125 acres. Throw in the fact that parts of this facility never see human footprints -- particularly the swampy areas to the south -- and you have an opportunity to enjoy your hunt in seclusion. A two-day muzzleloader season and a pair of two-day gun seasons take care of the modern weapons hunting for the entire year. The blackpowder hunt is a quota hunt; the gun segment requires only an over-the-counter permit.
Big Timber WMA, up in the northwest co
rner of Clark County, consists of several parcels leased annually by the AGFC from private owners. In all, the fragmented area consists of more than 35,000 acres, most of which offer the promise of worthwhile deer action. Last year, 239 deer were checked in, yielding a ratio of 1 taken per 158 acres. The required $20 leased-lands permit is available by calling 1-877-836-4612. Gun seasons follow state guidelines.
Casey Jones WMA, another leased-land area, lies along the Drew-Ashley county line, and consists of some 57,000 acres leased by the AGFC from the Plum Creek Corporation. 143 deer were taken there last season, but these figures are skewed owing to deer having been checked outside the WMA itself. However, Casey Jones is right in the area of highest deer concentration in the entire state, so for the southern hunter looking for a place, it's definitely worthwhile. Hunting seasons follow statewide guidelines; the $20 leased-land permit is required. Call 1-877-367-3559 for information.
Warren Prairie Natural Area WMA lies down along the Bradley-Drew county line. In 2006-07, this small 889-acre area produced 47 deer, a ratio of 1 deer per 18.9 acres --the highest ratio in the entire state. Only archery tackle is permitted here.
So that's this year's look at potential deer hunting spots in Arkansas. I'll be the first to say that many areas not listed here are just as good as those that are. There are no really bad places -- and that's the beauty of hunting in our state today.