Arkansas' 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Arkansas' 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

With a strong deer population like we have in the Natural State, it's fairly easy to fill a tag or two, but some areas do produce more deer than others. Here's a closer look at some top spots for taking venison this fall. (October 2009)

"Me and my dad were out cutting some firewood," recalled Earl Pitts. "Near as I can recollect it was along about 1937 or '38. We were just over that ridge there from where we are right now." He pointed off to the west.

"At one point, we got pretty far from the wagon, so I walked back to bring it up. As I swung up onto the seat, there was something standing there in the road we had come in on, maybe 50 yards behind me.

"I didn't know what it was at first, but then I realized it was a doe. That was the first deer I ever saw!"

That little story was told back in the late 1960s as the old-timers I was hunting with and I sat around our noonday campfire, eating bologna sandwiches and drinking scalding hot coffee from an old coffeepot that had seen better days. Most of the men at that fire were only in their 40s at the time, but ancient to my youthful way of thinking, and they had lived through the true hard times of Arkansas deer hunting. Consider that back in the 1930s, estimates put our total deer herd at somewhere around 500 animals, and even in the 1960s, we considered just seeing a half-dozen whitetails in a season a good year.

So for the Natural State deer hunter, these truly are the good old days!

Today's published estimates put our overall deer herd in the range of 1 million animals.

According to Arkansas Game & Fish Commission figures, our checked harvest for last season was 184,991 animals, up from 169,853 in 2007-08. Since most reports put Natural State hunter numbers at somewhere around 275,000, that means our success ratio is in the 67 to 68 percent range. That is an all-time high if you disregard the few seasons at the end of the past century when we wore out the does. Some 108,000 of those deer were bucks; leaving 76,721 does, a slightly skewed ratio that could indicate a problem somewhere down the line.

I have joked many times that all you have to do to find a good place to hunt in Arkansas is take a dart and toss it at a map of the state. Anywhere it lands will be a good spot unless you land in the middle of the Arkansas River, because virtually every single county in our state has good deer numbers.

Naturally, some hunting spots are better than others, and this article is designed to look at what numbers and experience tell us should be the best of the best for the coming season. But before we begin, some terminology guidelines need to be established.

There are three types of land in Arkansas: public land, managed public land and private land.

Public land is just that, open to the public. Prime examples of public land are the two national forests in the western and northwestern regions of the state, the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Hunting seasons on public land follow state guidelines with no special permits required or quotas in effect.

Managed public land is state or federally controlled property where hunting is allowed, but with special restrictions in place. Access is typically controlled, harvest quotas are in effect, and permits are required. Examples of these are the various wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges scattered throughout our state.

Private land belongs to individual landowners who may or may not allow hunting on their property, and in some cases, they'll allow hunting for a fee. The vast timber-company lands of southern Arkansas are the most common example of this type of land.

Keep these definitions in mind as we continue through the remainder of this article. Public vs. private is, of necessity, the deciding factor for Arkansas hunters looking for a place to hunt for deer.

Union County, down around El Dorado, had led the state in overall kill for the past decade, while Cleveland and Clark are annual members of the Top 5. Bradley and Ouachita are relative newcomers, but what is most illuminating is that all five are from the GCP, the endless sea of timberlands located south of Little Rock. This is Deer Zone 12, which takes in all or part of 22 counties, and where deer seemingly lurk behind every bush. Last year, this single hunting zone accounted for 79,907 animals harvested, approaching half of the state's entire total. Even though it is a large area, the number of deer killed there is impressive.

But there is some bad news, if you want to call it that. Most of the land in the GCP is private, so if you want to hunt there, you pretty much have to join one of the clubs that lease hunting rights from one of the timber companies.

In reality, the GCP is not alone when it comes to a lack of public hunting. There is little open land in the Delta, where the land is typically owned by large private or corporate farming operations, or even in the Arkansas River Valley.

Before we look at some of the best of our managed public areas, I need to mention both the Ozark National Forest and Ouachita National Forest. Together these two huge areas comprise nearly 3 million acres in northwestern and southwestern Arkansas. While there are WMAs within both, such as Piney Creeks and White Rock in the Ozarks, along with Muddy Creek in the Ouachitas, with restrictions that differ from the statewide guidelines, for the most part that entire incredible acreage is open to the public. With the leasing expansion currently taking place in the southern part of the state, more and more hunters are venturing toward the public land in the mountains.

When it comes to managed public land, Arkansas is blessed. That's because there are 82 wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges located throughout the state. On a majority of these the hunting opportunity is better than on surrounding lands. Gun hunting is either by permit or quota, with permits allocated through a random draw held during the summer.

Down in the GCP, where public land is almost nonexistent, lies the 65,000 acres of Felsenthal NWR spreading across Ashley, Union and Bradley counties. If you check the Top 5 counties in overall kill, you will see two of those are listed here, and Ashley had a kill of more than 5,000 animals last season. To be successful, you have to hunt where the deer are, and with 464 deer killed in 2008-09, Felsenthal fills the bill.

This is an area with great diversity of terrain. The topography ranges from pine ridges on the north to deep swamps, complete with hardwood bottoms and blackwater sloughs, on the south. The lower portion is especially hard to hunt and

requires either a boat or, at the very least, hip waders. When the weather is warm, mosquitoes can be a real problem, so plan on taking along bug-proof clothing or a ThermaCell unit anytime you're hunting early in the season.

Gun hunting on Felsenthal is limited to a two-day muzzleloader season in mid-October, and a pair of two-day modern gun seasons in November. A signed permit is required, but those are given out free of charge. Since this is a federal facility, antler restrictions do not follow state guidelines. State Highway 82 runs between Strong and Crossett, and provides access. For more information on hunting, contact the refuge office at (870) 364-3167.

Choctaw Island WMA lies east of McGehee, way down in the southeastern corner of the state. Last season, 42 deer were killed there on 7,676 acres, a good deer-per-acreage ratio. Choctaw is the state's deer research facility, and was the first land purchased after the enactment of the 1/8-cent conservation sales tax back in 1996. Today it remains the only Arkansas-owned public land inside the levee of the Mississippi River.

Gun hunting last season consisted of a three-day blackpowder season in October and a three-day modern gun hunt in early December. There are 50 permits available for each, and the later gun hunt would certainly have fewer mosquitoes. Hunters must take a doe before being allowed to harvest a Type A buck. What's a Type A buck? A buck that has 5 or more points on one side, or one with an inside spread greater than 15 inches.

Access to Choctaw is by State Highway 4, which turns off SH 65 just outside of McGehee. Call the facility at 1-877-367-3559. You can see a detailed map of the area by going to the AGFC Web site at www.agfc.state.ar.us.

Scott Montgomery and I hunted one of the muzzleloader hunts on Camp Robinson WMA three years ago. This 19,648-acre area just north of the capital city is somewhat a staple for the Little Rock hunting crowd, particularly the bowhunting segment.

We found the ground to be gently rolling ridges cut by wide, flat-bottomed draws, which that particular year held a good crop of acorns. There also are quite a few fields scattered throughout the facility, and checking the edges of those for scrapes close to the rut should be productive.

Gun hunting last year consisted of six days -- a pair of one-day muzzleloader hunts followed by a pair of two-day gun hunts in late November. There are 500 permits per day available for the blackpowder hunts and 400 per day for the modern gun. Archery season follows statewide guidelines, Oct. 1 through Feb. 28 for the coming season. One hundred seventy-five deer were taken there last season, a high number for a small facility.

Access to Robinson can be either by SH 89 east off Interstate 40 near Mayflower, or by SH 176 out of North Little Rock. Since this is an Army base, there are special rules in effect. Those include daily check-in, plus the driver of any vehicle taken onto the base must have proof of insurance and registration, in addition to a driver's license. If you'd like to scout ahead, you must purchase a $10 Sportsman's permit, available at post headquarters building 5130. More information is available by calling (501) 212-5155.

Lying just east of Fort Smith is the 66,000-acre Fort Chaffee WMA, long a staple of deer hunters from that area. Two years ago, the area was closed to hunting because of military maneuvers, and last fall the area's hunters reaped the benefits by taking 508 deer there. Several of those were above average in body and rack size.

Every year I put in for one of the WMA permit hunts, and Scott and I hunted the Fort during one of the one-day gun hunts back in 2005-06. We found the terrain to be gently rolling, with quite a few hardwoods along the numerous streams. In years of low mast production, deer food can be a problem, since relatively few maintained food plots are in place. Hunting the bottoms along the streambeds was the method we chose, and both of us had opportunities to take a deer.

Typically, there's a pair of one-day gun hunts in mid-November (by permit only), one for muzzleloader and the other for modern gun. As with all military bases, there are special regulations. For the gun hunts, a daily check-in is required; first-time hunters must attend an on-base orientation and purchase a $15 bi-annual sportsman's permit. Area closures may occur on a day-to-day basis, so you must check the maps at the various entry points to make sure the area you want to hunt is open.

Chaffee is available by taking SH 22 east from Fort Smith. Call (877) 478-1043 for more information.

What makes Ed Gordon/Point Remove WMA unique is the great diversity of terrain over a small area of 8,694 acres. Along both sides of Point Remove Creek are your typical bottomland agricultural fields, with some old oaks along the various tributaries. Locals farm much of that cropland under a co-operative agreement. They leave a part of the crops in the field for wildlife.

To the north are mountains, or more appropriately rounded hills, covered with various mast-producing trees. These ridges are the spots deer will move to when high water floods the bottoms, which it does periodically during the rainy season. Some 600 acres of the WMA was re-planted in pines some years back, so no matter what type of terrain you prefer to hunt, this WMA has it.

Gun hunting is allowed on Ed Gordon by permit only, with a two-day hunt in late October and another in November. Only 100 permits are available for each, and if the same criteria are followed as in the past, the hunter must harvest a doe before he can take a buck. This is also one of those areas where the statewide 3-point rule is not in effect.

The facility is located just north of I-40 at the 101-mile marker, about 10 miles west of Morrilton, lying in Pope and Conway counties. More information is available by calling (877) 967-7577.

I'm almost loath to mention White River NWR in this part of the deer forecast, since it is the best of the state's trophy areas. I rank it No. 1 in the state in big-buck production. But the plain truth is that I'm not sure it isn't No. 1 in terms of total opportunity as well. If not, it's certainly close to the top. Hunters killed 798 deer there last season, and refuge personnel tell me those numbers could be up this year.

Consisting of bottomland habitat along the White River in Arkansas, Desha, Monroe and Phillips counties, this vast area is one spot every Arkansas hunter should visit at least once in his lifetime. Gun hunting is limited to a short 14 days on the north unit, and six days on the south (the two units are divided by SH 1), permits are available by drawing. Special hunts are also available for both youth and handicapped hunters. Call refuge headquarters at (870) 282-8200 for complete information.

So, there's your look into some of the top hunting spots in a state where the hunting seems to get better every year. As I've already mentioned, there is good hunting just about anywhere, but the spots I've focused on here are those that have maintained a consistent track record of success

.

Arkansans are fortunate that they still have large acreages of public and managed public lands available to hunt. And that is an area the AGFC has committed to improve upon even more in the future. With good weather during the critical late-summer period, the deer herd should be in good shape after another moderately cold winter and wet spring. Even the acorn crop in the mountains seems to be substantial, so everything is in place for another banner season in 2009-10!

These really are the good old days for Arkansas' deer hunters!

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