Arkansas' 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Best Hunting Areas

A whitetail herd numbering more than a million and spread out over many thousands of acres gives Natural State deer hunters much to anticipate this season. We focus here on the places spotting you the best odds. (October 2008)

Arkansas' two mountainous deer regions -- the Ozarks and the Ouachitas -- offer the hunter large-scale opportunities.
Photo by Robert Franz.

In 1974, outdoor writer John Cartier estimated that the state of Arkansas had a deer population of "around 300,000 animals," a figure that ranked the Natural State at 17th nationwide. Cartier also pegged the state's annual hunter success rate at about 11 percent, which ranked 38th nationally.

Those figures are important today. To know where you are, you first have to know where you've been.

Today, nearly all published estimates put our state's deer herd in the range of 1 million animals. Our checked harvest for last season was 169,853 animals, according to Arkansas Game and Fish Commission figures. Since current reports put our hunter numbers at about 275,000 or so, that means our success ratio is today somewhere in the 60-62 percent range.

I was brought up by a group of old Johnson County deer hunters, most of whom had lived through the days when catching a glimpse of a whitetail in this state was roughly akin in rarity to seeing the president of the United States. So it's only natural that I find myself contemplating from time to time what they would think about the wealth that we enjoy.

I remember one year, about 1969 or '70, when we hunted every day of the December segment of what was then a two-part Arkansas season. There were five of us who "took it serious," and, hunting from can-see until can't-see, we saw four deer, one of those a 5-point buck that Elbert Ramsey killed.

By comparison, modern times are good. So what can we look forward to this coming season? Last winter was another mild one, and the green food sources were available to the deer far later than is usual. That's a good thing, particularly in the uplands, since in many areas white oak mast was virtually nonexistent. This past spring was also mild, which means that little weather-related stress was put on the does during that crucial two- to three-month period prior to fawning.

Most of this will have limited impact on harvest numbers this fall, but it's good to know for the future. Probably more important is that the mast crop should be much improved this season, barring some form of summer blight. According to Cory Gray of the AGFC, there seems to be no major disease problems affecting our herd today.

"Cautiously optimistic" is the general attitude of about everyone with whom I've spoken about the upcoming Arkansas deer season. If no unexpected variables come into play, everything seems ripe for another good season in 2007-08!

With that optimism at the fore, let's look at some of the better "public" places where you can get your venison this season. But before we begin, it would probably be helpful to understand the different types of land that are prevalent here in Arkansas.

"Public land" is just that -- land open to the public. Prime examples are the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests, where hunting seasons follow state guidelines and there are no special permits required.

"Managed public land" is state- or federally-controlled property where hunting is allowed, but with special seasons and/or restrictions in place. Access on this type of land is typically controlled, there may be defined harvest quotas in effect, and permits are required. Examples are the various wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges scattered throughout the state.

"Private land" belongs to individual landowners who may or may not allow hunting on their property and sometimes only in return for a fee. The vast timber company lands of southern Arkansas are the most common example of this type of land.

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THE BEST OF THE BEST

Statistics from the 2007-08 deer season indicate one specific certainty: The Gulf Coastal Plan reigns supreme among Arkansas' deer hunting regions.

ARKANSAS' TOP 5 COUNTIES

(Total Deer Harvest, 2007-08 Seasons)
COUNTY TOTAL KILL
Union6,814
Cleveland5,501
Dallas5,493
Ouachita5,308
Clark 5,261

ARKANSAS' TOP 5 COUNTIES

(Deer Killed Per Square Mile)
COUNTY KILL/SQ. MILE
Cleveland9.19
Dallas 8.22
Bradley 7.45
Ouachita7.18
Grant6.80

ARKANSAS' TOP DEER ZONES

(Total Deer Harvest, 2007-08 Seasons)
ZONE TOTAL HARVEST
Zone 1268,967
Zone 1313,444
Zone 611,599

Keep these definitions in mind as you continue through the remainder of this article.

ARKANSAS' TOP COUNTIES FOR TOTAL DEER HARVEST
Refer to the list of top five counties in total kill that accompanies this article. Union County near El Dorado has now led the state in total deer harvest for the past eight years; unsurprisingly, the remaining four too are perennial favorites. Also note that each of the top-ranked counties is part of the Gulf Coastal Plain, the flat timberlands lying south of Little Rock. This is Deer Zone 12, which takes in all or part of 22 counties, and where last year 68,967 deer were taken, or approximately 40 percent of the state's overall total.

Possibly even more illuminating is the list of top five counties in deer killed per square mile. Not coincidentally, all of those counties come from the Gulf Coastal Plain too.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. When I was a young man in the 1970s, southern Arkansas was the place to go if you wanted to kill a deer. That's as true today as it was then.

In many deer forecasts, too much emphasis is placed only on the overall harvest numbers from any given spot or area. But deer density -- not harvest numbers -- should be among the prime considerations when selecting a hunting spot.

For instance, White Rock Wildlife Management Area had a total kill of 176 animals last fall, while Trusten Holder WMA had only 95. If you consider only these numbers, White Rock would seem the better of the two. But those 95 deer FROM Trusten Holder were taken on only 8,173 acres, which figures out to an average of 1 deer harvested per 86 acres. White Rock, on the other hand, encompasses more than 280,000 acres, and that same ratio figures out at 1 deer killed per 1,590 acres there. Which of the two is really the better choice for collecting your backstrap?

THE DELTA REGION
In next month's Arkansas trophy forecast you'll hear me talk in different terms about the delta, the swath of fertile cropland covering the eastern third of the state from the Missouri border to the Louisiana line. Like most predominantly agricultural areas, this region is geared toward the production of bigger deer rather than of more deer -- the same situation seen in states such as Iowa, Kansas, and the Dakotas, and even the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Deer densities in the delta are the lowest of any region in our state. Add in the facts that most of the land there is private, much of it in the form of large farming operations, and that cover is somewhat limited, and you see why this may not be the best area for taking a deer.

However, there are spots where hunters can go in the delta. White River National Wildlife Refuge, the 160,000-acre facility located along the White River in Monroe, Phillips, Arkansas and Desha counties, annually leads the state in overall kill. Last season, if you add the north and south units together, there were 944 deer taken there, and that figure is slightly lower than in preceding years! Dagmar WMA, which consists of some 9,720 acres in Monroe County, is another possibility. Cache River NWR, whose 54,000 acres lie in Jackson, Monroe, Prairie and Woodruff counties, has permit blackpowder and modern gun hunts.

In the southern reaches of the region, Choctaw Island WMA, which lies south of McGehee inside the levee of the Mississippi River, has for years led the state in harvest-per-acre ratio, but permits for this area are hard to come by. Trusten Holder WMA, off the south end of White River NWR in Desha County, is in the same category, but it is hard to access.

THE OZARKS REGION
The majestic Ozarks present natural beauty at its finest during the fall. The brilliant colors of the turning leaves combine with rugged beauty to bring back memories of hunting that our forefathers experienced a century ago.

Today the better hunting throughout the region has shifted, a fact illustrated by zone kill figures. There are four primary zones within the Ozarks: Zone 1 (northwest), Zone 2 (northcentral), Zone 3 (northeast) and Zone 6 (southern tier counties). Zone 3, with such high-kill counties as Sharp, Fulton and Independence, leads the region in total kill with 17,377 animals taken last season. Zone 6 is a distant second with 11,599 harvested deer. That is in sharp contrast to figures from a decade ago, when the southern counties annually led the region in harvest.

The two Ozarks WMAs that get the most attention are Piney Creeks WMA, north of Russellville, and White Rock WMA, north of Interstate 40 in Johnson, Franklin and Crawford counties. Together, these two mega-areas comprise more than 460,000 acres of public hunting opportunity. Kill figures are not high on either (176 on White Rock; 120 on Piney Creeks), but if you're willing to get off the ATV, your chances are better than they have been in years.

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PRIME TIME ON PUBLIC LAND

These wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges topped the list duting the 2007-08 deer seasons in Arkansas, and the upcoming seasons look to be no different.

TOP WMAs, DEER KILLED PER ACRE (5,000 acres or more)

WMAs HARVEST ACRES PER DEER KILLED
1. Choctaw Island 99 77.5
2. Ed Gordon/ Point Remove 104 83.6
3. Trusten Holder 95 86.0

TOP WMAs/NWRs, TOTAL DEER HARVEST

WMAs/NWRs HARVEST
1. White River NWR (South Unit)626
2.Felsenthal NWR 480
3. White River NWR (North Unit) 318
4. Sylamore WMA 299
5. Winona WMA 255

Harold Alexander WMA (13,445 acres south of Hardy) had a kill of 106 deer in 2007-08. With only a five-day muzzleloader hunt in October and a five-day gun hunt in November, that's not a bad total.

Camp Robinson WMA (19,648 acres located north of Little Rock) has long been a staple of the capital city's hunting crowd. AGFC data indicate 191 deer were taken there last fall, a substantial increase over the previous year. Gun hunting is limited to a two-day blackpowder segment, along with a pair of modern gun hunts. Robinson is a military base, so special rules and requirements do apply. Ed Gordon/Point Remove WMA (8,694 acres northwest of Morrilton) allows only four days of gun hunting, via a pair of two-day permit hunts. During those four days of hunting, 104 deer were taken last season, making this area one of the best in terms of harvest per acre.

The Ozarks have a lot to offer, the main attraction being the availability of massive amounts of public hunting land. A word of caution would be prudent here: Being mountainous, most of that land is unsurprisingly of the up-and-down variety, so if your health is suspect, you might want to consider other options.

THE OUACHITA REGION
The Ouachitas mirror the Ozarks in many ways, primarily in the fact that both have substantial amounts of public hunting available. In addition, the deer herd there may be a little further along numbers-wise.

This region consists primarily of the Ouachita Mountains, which includes the vast Ouachita National Forest. There are many good hunting spots within this 1 million-acre-plus facility. The amount of land can be intimidating to some, but with steadily rising lease prices combined with ridiculous fuel prices, that public land is a magnet.

Fort Chaffee WMA (66,000 acres southeast of Ft. Smith) was closed last fall because of military training on the base. The good news is that a lot of deer made it through the hunting season, and those are available to hunt this season. Aside from bowhunting, a two-day muzzleloader season and two-day modern gun season take place in late November, both by permit only, and that is all the gun hunting that takes place on Chaffee. A $20 permit is required, along with an orientation class. Call 1-877-478-1043 for info.

Winona WMA (160,000 acres between Russellville and Hot Springs in Saline, Garland and Perry counties) is another of those "big" WMAs that exist in the mountain regions.

Last year, hunters took 255 deer there. An added plus is that Winona is one of the best black bear areas in Arkansas, so with a little luck you may get the opportunity to add a bear rug to your cabin. Muddy Creek WMA (160,00 acres southeast of Waldron) is another large area with a reputation for good deer hunting. The area claimed 119 deer in 2007-08.

Mt. Magazine WMA (140,000 acres south of Paris) saw the harvest of 146 deer last season -- a substantial increase over previous years.

To sum up: The Ouachitas really do mirror the Ozarks. There are many spots within both that will provide fair to good hunting opportunity. Scouting before the season is a definite help, and if you're an "outsider," it can be vital. Don't ever forget about the effect that the orange-clad hordes can have on deer movement, especially around opening day of the modern gun season.

THE GULF COASTAL PLAIN
The flat timberlands south of Little Rock afford the best deer hunting to be found anywhere within the borders of the Natural State; as we've seen, the figures prove it.

The fact is that if you were to divide the state exactly in half, more than two-thirds of the total kill would come from the southern half. The bad news: Just about all of that land is private, most in the form of land leased to private clubs by timber company owners.

The 64,000-plus acres of Felsenthal NWR (west of Crossett in Union, Ashley and Bradley counties) lie right in the middle of the state's best deer-production area. It's an area of great diversity of terrain, running from pine ridges to hardwood bottoms to swampland.

Las

t season, hunters at the area claimed 480 harvested deer, making it the second-ranked public area statewide in managed harvest, and most of those kills came during the pair of two-day modern gun permit hunts in November. There is also a two-day blackpowder hunt in mid-October.

The 56,908 acres of the Casey Jones WMA lie within Ashley and Drew counties, but they're segmented. To avoid the crowds, target the sections along the Drew-Ashley county lines west of Fountain Hill, along with those down along the Arkansas-Louisiana line east of the Beryl Anthony WMA. Hunters killed 189 deer on these lands last fall, but it's difficult to get a read on where the best numbers might be.

On the western side of the region, Howard County WMA consists of some 26,000 acres bordering the Cossatot River southeast of Wickes. It's one of those areas that are somewhat hard to get to, but there were 128 deer taken there last season, a very high number for a smaller WMA.

Lake Greeson WMA (38,000 acres in Howard and Pike counties) is another area than shows high kill numbers (193) for last fall, and I would also check out the various Big Timber WMA parcels, particularly those around Arkadelphia. These units are occasionally hard to find, especially for "outsiders," but they do offer access in a region where there isn't much.

* * *

That's a look at some of the better public and managed-public hunting spots within our state. But in reality, it would be hard today to find a spot in Arkansas other than inside one of the major cities or in the middle of the Arkansas River in which at least serviceable hunting opportunities are completely nonexistent.

This fall, oil up your rifle and head afield. Don't forget to take your kids with you -- they're the future of our sport. Hunt hard and hunt safely -- and maybe we'll bump into one another someday!

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