Arkansas' 2006 Deer Outlook

Last month we covered the best places to go for a deer; this month we track the big boys. Come along with us as we review the venues with the greatest bragging-buck potential. (November 2006)

Last year, two Arkansas hunters took bucks scoring high enough to be eligible for entry into the all-time record book of the Boone and Crockett Club, the nation's oldest records-keeping organization for big game. Those hunters were 14-year-old Coty Bones of Holly Grove and Rod Alexander of Marion. Both their bucks have been featured in previous issues of Arkansas Sportsman.

Two Booners in one year is slightly below the state's annual average, which has stood at just over four since about 1990 or so. The reason for the decline? Probably the extreme drought that gripped the state for much of last summer and persisted throughout the fall.

In Mother Nature's scheme of things, nutritional intake goes first to the animal's body; only after that requirement is satisfied is it the headgear's turn. Since the body attains maximum growth by about mid-August, years in which dry weather after that time degrades the food sources' quantity and quality -- like last year, for example -- see antler size go down.

As I travel throughout the state with the Monster Whitetails of Arkansas traveling big-buck display I'm often asked how the Natural state ranks nationally in terms of big buck production. If you consider only the deer that are actually entered into the B&C all-time record book, our state has a total of 84, and ranks 17th. However, there are an additional 32 bucks that have been scored by official B&C personnel but for various reasons were never entered into the book. If those deer were added, making the state's total 116, it would raise Arkansas to 14th nationwide.

If you consider only the Southeastern region, it's quite a different story. Arkansas ranks No. 2 in the region, behind only behind Kentucky, in terms of B&C bucks produced.

Where's the best place to kill a big buck in Arkansas? Back in 1992, when I was involved with the old Arkansas Big Bucks Association, I started keeping records lists of the biggest bucks our state had ever produced. Even after that organization went under I kept working on those lists, aided by B&C, Pope & Young and Buckmasters scorers who contacted me when they scored a deer big enough to be added.

Today there are 906 bucks (734 typicals and 172 non-typicals) in what I have dubbed the "Arkansas Trophy Club." An eligible buck will have a net score of 150 points typical or 175 points non-typical using the B&C scoring system.

Naturally, as time went by I noted the areas that the bucks entered onto that list were coming from and, using those data, coined the phrase "Arkansas Trophy Triangle" some years back: On a map of Arkansas, draw a line from Little Rock northeast through Jonesboro all the way up to the Missouri Bootheel; draw another line southeast through Pine Bluff all the way to the Mississippi River. Within the boundaries of that lop-sided triangle, just over 75 percent of the state's largest bucks of all time have been taken.

Take a look at the graphics included with this article. Every single county listed in both B&C production and Trophy Club production lie within the boundaries of the triangle. Some of those deer were killed as recently as last season; others go back as far as 1923, when George Matthews took his 177 7/8 buck, Arkansas' first B&C trophy, down in Chicot County. Big bucks have been there for generations, are there now, and will be there in the future!

Why? The answer's simple: food sources. This is the cropland of the Arkansas delta, and the same nutrients and minerals that go into those crops go into the deer that feed on them. If you look at the various national record books you will find a vast majority of the bucks being entered today coming from just such agricultural regions. In states such as Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, all the way up to the windswept prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta, deer are what they eat.

Current trends are important when looking for a wall full of "horns." For most of the 1990s, Cross County was the hot place for big deer in Arkansas. In that one decade alone, eight deer were either taken or found there (B&C accepts picked-up deer) that were large enough to make the all-time record book.

Today, no single county shines to that degree, but one stands out. Monroe County has come on in recent years to the point where it has joined the Top Five in terms of Trophy Club listings, and has also produced four B&C bucks since the turn of the century! Last fall, Coty Bones took his B&C buck there, while Roy Lee Grayson, Coty's uncle, took a huge buck that scored 155 1/8 points only a short distance away from where Coty killed his!

Figures are nice, but even in the face of all the evidence in the world, big bucks are still where you find them. To find proof of that you only have to look at Thomas Sparks' state record typical, taken in 1975, which was for more than three decades the highest-scoring whitetail ever taken in the entire Southeast. Mr. Sparks' buck, taken up in Crawford County, not all that far from his home in Natural Dam, is the only buck from that county to ever be entered into the Trophy Club!

So hope springs eternal. But before we begin this look at some of the better big-buck honeyholes in our state, let's debunk a rumor. I used to hear about the quality of big-buck hunting available on Arkansas' public land, but that's mostly a myth. Over the last 15 years the ratio has run about 7:3 in favor of private lands (WMAs and NWRs being deemed public) for B&C buck production, slightly lower for Trophy Club standards.

So where would I go if I had unlimited time, cash, and a wife that didn't think I should spend at least a few hours at home during deer season?

Well, even after all my doom and gloom about public-land hunting, I just might stay home and hunt the Ozarks. Why, you might ask?

Because of the spot I'm going to pinpoint: White Rock WMA, And I admit that I'm singling it out because of some negative reasoning rolling around inside my head. The first point to ponder is that White Rock is a huge area, encompassing some 280,000 acres stretching north of Interstate 40 over five northwestern counties -- Madison, Franklin, Johnson, Crawford and Washington. The second is that during the past three seasons, the kill for this area has been down drastically -- only 269 animals in 2005-06.

Lots of country, few deer: On the surface, that might sound like a good place to avoid, especially since the steep draws and ridges of the area also make it a real bear to hunt. But remember that seldom do high deer numbers and good buck quality mix, and that is especially true in the mountains, where food sources are

limited.

And with that aforementioned 280,000 acres, it also stands to reason that some remote pockets in which an old buck can find the solitude necessary to get some age on him still exist. The book non-typicals that young Kylan McCutcheon of Jasper and Richard Little of Lincoln took during the 2004-05 season are proof that this very thing can and does happen.

So get a map or aerial photo of the area you want to hunt; then, look for spots a mile or more away from roads and trails. Pay special attention to small creek bottoms and spots where several ridge points come together, especially if there are oaks at the spot and they're dropping acorns. Then park your truck and get out your GPS unit. Pack along a lunch and plan on staying all day, especially when the rut peak occurs around the middle of November. Hunting the mountains, be it the Ozarks or the Ouachitas, ain't easy, but just maybe the rewards are there!

In both the Ozarks and Ouachitas are two types of areas that should beckon to any big-buck hunter: walk-in turkey areas and wilderness areas. All vehicle travel within these designated spots is prohibited, and because many hunters don't go unless they can ride, human intrusion is kept to a minimum.

So where would I go when I come to my senses and leave the mountains behind?

When Felsenthal NWR was formed back in 1970, it was generally touted as being, at least potentially, another White River. The plain truth is that it hasn't happened, and to my knowledge, there has never been a B&C buck taken on this 64,000-acre facility located west of Crossett.

The primary plus of the facility is that it has great diversity, ranging from pine ridges on the north to deep swamps in the south. The area north of state Highway 82, above the confluence of the Saline and Ouachita rivers, is prime river bottom hunting, while the occasional "islands" within the swampy areas further south allow old bucks security spots to retreat to when hunting pressure is heavy.

It's the amount of pressure that makes managed-public areas so potentially productive. Last year gun hunting on Felsenthal consisted of a two-day muzzleloader season in mid-October with a pair of two-day modern gun hunts on the first two weekends in November. Compared to public and even many private areas, that's not a lot of pressure, the very reason why a big buck may well live on Felsenthal today.

The rut occurs around Thanksgiving, so my choice would be to hunt the second gun segment in November. If the weather's warm, mosquito spray is a necessity. Locals have told me that one reason more and bigger bucks aren't killed at Felsenthal is because to have find them you have to get back into more remote parts of the swamps with deeper water, and most hunters don't do that. Having hunted the facility on two occasions I think they're likely right, and I have also learned that a small boat, along with good waders and a compass, are required, especially in wetter years.

Cache River NWR gained a lot of notoriety when young Bill Dooley of Biscoe took the Arkansas state-record non-typical just outside its borders back in 1999. Then, in 2002 Jerry Griggs harvested another Booner there, this one a 13x13 monster that scored 201 4/8 non-typical points. Two B&C bucks in three years is impressive.

The refuge is located primarily south of state Highway 70, which runs between DeValls Bluff and Brinkley in Jackson, Woodruff, Prairie and Monroe counties. The 44,000-acre facility, like many other areas in the delta, simply has everything in place to produce big bucks, including cover, food source and limited access. Cache River is actually the upper reaches of what becomes White River NWR further south, with much of its interior located between the confluence of the Cache and White rivers. It was, along with Dagmar WMA, one of the primary focal points for the recent search for the ivory-billed woodpecker.

I've hunted Cache River on several occasions, and have found that a boat is all but a necessity unless you can get permission to cross private farmland to reach some of the better spots. Prime areas of big-buck activity seem to lie within the dense hardwood pockets back along the numerous feeder creeks and bayous, or along some of the more remote edges of crop fields shielded from roadways.

Gun hunting is limited to a single five-day blackpowder segment in mid-October and a five-day modern gun segment in mid-November. The rut seems to peak in late November, so I would opt for the late-season gun hunt if given a choice. Both the blackpowder and modern gun hunts involve quotas, and permits are required. Antler restrictions follow the 4x4 slot limit: 4 or more points on one side of the rack, or 4 or fewer points on both sides combined.

Up in the northeastern corner of the delta, lying south of Corning and east of Pocahontas, is what I believe to be a real sleeper in terms of big-buck potential. Remember back a couple of decades ago, when vast parts of this area were completely closed to hunting? Even today Deer Zone 4 has drastically reduced gun hunting seasons, so it doesn't take a real genius to figure out that there are still some bucks walking around up there with age on them.

Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA is a 26,000-acre facility that allows only three days of gun hunting, in the form of a permit-only blackpowder hunt in mid-October. "Most of Black River is bottomland hardwoods like nuttall, overcup, pin and water oaks," says area manager Paul Provence. "We have an active timber harvest program in effect, but a lot of the hardwoods here fall into the 90-year-old category. There are also croplands along the sides, so we have good food sources for deer. In addition, a lot of the interior is really hard to get to, so that means we have some good bucks here."

Realistically, with such limited gun hunting, the true potential for Black River is in bowhunting, the season for which runs Oct. 1 through the end of January.

I've saved the crème de la crème for last. If you're looking for a big-buck Valhalla here in Arkansas, White River NWR is it. This sprawling facility runs for miles upon miles along the White River, its 160,000 acres taking in parts of four different counties -- Arkansas, Monroe, Phillips and Desha.

This area has been a consistent big-buck producer virtually from the time of its inception back in the 1950s. The most recent book buck taken there is Wayne Lindsey's current state-record archery buck, which scores 177 7/8 P&Y points and was taken in 1998. However, Jim Finch took his 174 6/8 typical off Mozart, that legendary hunt club that forms the western boundary of the refuge, in 1999. Jim's buck probably has grandbucks and granddoes on White River NWR as we speak.

When you consider what it takes to make a big-buck area, White River truly has it all. Deep-woods security cover, row crops around its edges, and limited hunting pressure all combine to produce bucks distinguished by both size and age. The facility has also had systematic doe harvest in place for decades, long before it became fashionable, and that management tool has been successful to the point that, during that entire period, the kill ratio of

bucks to does has been right at 1:1.

For gun hunting, the refuge is split into north and south units, with the dividing line being state Highway 1. A pair of three-day muzzleloader seasons take place on the north unit in October, followed by three- and four-day modern gun hunts in November. On the south unit there is a single three-day hunt for both muzzleloader (October) and modern gun (November). The gun hunts are the best if the weather cooperates, with cold weather needed to cut down on the trophy mosquitoes that also call White River home. Permits are required, and the same 4x4 slot antler restriction in use on Cache River is used here.

Numerous other WMAs within the delta, such as Wattensaw, Dagmar, Bayou Meto and Trusten Holder, offer virtually the same quality of hunting as the places I've mentioned. Your chances of taking a good buck at virtually any of those are increased simply because of the food sources available throughout the region.

Of course, as stated, that's not the only region in which Natural State hunters have shot a big buck. I have a friend who planted several 2- to 5-acre food plots on some acreage he owns up the road a piece, all of it surrounded by Ozark National Forest land. Over the year and a half since he planted, he has shown me photos of bucks feeding on those plots that most Johnson County deer hunters wouldn't even believe exist.

That explains as well as anything why the next state-record whitetail may not come from the delta, even though that is by far the most likely area. It may well come from the Ozarks, the Ouachitas, the GCP, or even Crawford County!

And that possibility is really what keeps the big-buck hunter's heart pumping just a little faster, every time he heads into the woods!

Find more about Arkansas fishing and hunting at: ArkansasSportsmanMag.com

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