Arkansas' 2009 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Arkansas' 2009 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Big bucks show up all around our state, but some areas do seem better at producing trophy animals than others. Here are some prime locations for tagging a wallhanger this season. (November 2009)

What exactly is a trophy deer?

To the youngster, it may be a basket-racked 6-point. To the meat hunter, it could be a freezer full of venison. To the bowhunter, it should be any deer, but especially a buck that scores high enough to make the Pope and Young record book. For the gun hunter, maybe it's a buck large enough to go into the Boone and Crockett Club's all-time record book.

The point is the term trophy means different things to different people. One of the best definitions may have been made by well-known big-buck aficionado David Morris. According to him, a trophy whitetail is "A mature buck, at least 3 1/2 years old, with antlers large enough to rank him among the best bucks harvested in any given area."

That definition holds water here in the Natural State. In the high-deer-density flatlands of southern Arkansas, the average buck probably scores around 110 points. It may be slightly higher in the Ouachitas, and slightly higher still in the Ozarks, but substantially higher in the protein-rich farmlands of the Delta.

But I think most hunters would agree that the bucks listed with the Arkansas Trophy Club are true trophies. This list requires a minimum of 150 B&C points for a typical buck, 175 for a non-typical.

There are 781 deer -- 638 typicals and 143 non-typicals -- listed in the ATC today. Those have been taken during the last 80 years, all the way back to the one killed by George Matthews in Chicot County in 1923.

Of that number, 131 are large enough for inclusion in the all-time B&C record book, which requires a minimum of 170 for typicals, 195 for non-typicals. Of that number, 70 are typicals and 51 non-typicals. For a variety of reasons, not all of them have been entered into the record book, but all have been scored by official B&C scorers.

Arkansas ranks 18th nationwide for B&C book deer production. But among Southern states, Arkansas ranks No. 2; Kentucky is No. 1.

THE ARKANSAS TROPHY TRIANGLE

Draw a lopsided triangle starting at Little Rock, and extend one arm northeast through Jonesboro, the other southeast through Pine Bluff. Within those boundaries have come more than 70 percent of the state's B&C record bucks!

Big bucks have been here for decades; they are here now and they will be here in the future. The reason? Food. Look at the national records and you'll find that a majority of bucks entered now come from agricultural regions, such as Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois. Deer are what they eat.

What about the deer outside that triangle? Well, the good news is that trophy deer are showing up in places they never have before. As an example, before 2004, Washington County had never reported a B&C buck. With the area pretty much mountain terrain and relatively poor soil, many thought it unlikely a book buck would be killed there. We know that isn't true. Richard Little took the so-called Barbwire Buck there in 2004; it scored 221 1/8. And then Mike Franks took his 170 0/8 bow buck in 2007.

The same is true for Polk County, located along the southern slope of the Ouachitas. No B&C bucks at all until 2002, when Lonnie Cecil took his 172 4/8 blackpowder typical. Then Andy Butler in 2007 shot a 176 5/8 typical, and Frank Foster last season got a 174 2/8 monster! (Continued)

With bucks like those showing up, hope springs eternal. So, let's take a look at some of the places here in Arkansas where hopes can get higher.

THE GULF COASTAL PLAIN

"If you want to kill a deer, head south." That was the word back in the 1970s when I was a youngster. It was true then and it's still true today. If your focus is merely killing a deer, the Gulf Coastal Plain is your place.

More good news is that trophy prospects throughout the region are on the rise. While you're not going to see a Booner behind every tree, each year more and more good GCP bucks are showing up at the Arkansas Big Buck Classic held in Little Rock.

Why? Primarily because a number of clubs in the GCP instituted deer management programs long before the AGFC entered that particular arena in the late 1990s. International Paper Company, for decades the region's largest private landowner, was promoting quality over quantity as early as 1990. With that head start, it just stands to reason that hunt clubs are seeing positive results today.

While much of the hunting land within the GCP is private, as always a few public areas stand out.

FELSENTHAL NWR

I know many readers get tired of hearing me mention Felsenthal NWR, which lies at the confluence of the Ouachita and Saline Rivers in Union, Bradley and Ashley counties. Show me a better spot and I'll talk about it.

Felsenthal has great diversity in its terrain, the 65,000 acres ranging from pine ridges on the north to deep swamp on the south. When the refuge was formed in 1975, many thought it would become another White River NWR in terms of big-buck production. That hasn't happened unless the locals are keeping the news quiet.

The primary reason is soil quality. While part of the interior of Felsenthal could be described as bottomland, the area surrounding White River is blackland dirt, cultivated and covered with mineral-rich row crops.

But Felsenthal does offer opportunity for taking that buck above the norm. Gun hunting is limited to a pair of two-day seasons in November and a two-day muzzleloader season in October. If you're really serious about taking a good buck, take along a boat or at least chest waders, and get back in the swampy areas. Even in November, and especially if the days are warm, I'd take along a ThermaCELL unit!

LAFAYETTE COUNTY WMA

Over on our west, Lafayette County WMA was under the IPC deer management program for many years. Consisting of 35,000-plus mostly timbered acres, the area today operates under a 4-point antler restriction. Gun seasons pretty much follow state guidelines, and a $20 leased-lands permit is required to hunt there.

Charles Self, then the IPC biologist on the area, told me years ago, "Lafayette has good genetics where antler size is concerned. Deer in the 140 class are not all that uncommon, and even a 150 will show up from time to time." Charles said that if he were hunting Lafayette, he'd plan on the week after Thanksgiving, when the rut really kicks in.

THE OUACHITAS

Somewhat in spite of recent successes there, the lack of a consistent food source for deer keeps this region from being a consistent big-buck producer. Mountain soil is simply less fertile than flatland, and there are few croplands available. In years when the hardwoods don't produce mast, things can be lean for wildlife.

But all is not bleak. As in the Ozarks, there's public land to hunt in the Ouachitas. While it's true that a majority of book bucks being taken today come from private land, both of the state's mountain ranges have benefited from the 3-point rule. The topography of mountain ranges also means there are going to be remote spots where bucks can exist in relative safety, and thus grow older.

The Ouachita National Forest contains more than 1.8 million acres of public hunting lands. The key for big-buck chasers is to locate those spots that are remote and inaccessible. That's where an old buck might move to when hunting pressure is heavy. With that in mind, the various walk-in areas shine. Chinquapin Mountain, Fourche Mountain, and Deckard Mountain are examples of hunting spots with little human intrusion.

FORT CHAFFEE WMA

Of the OU-managed areas, several stand out. Fort Chaffee WMA is 66,000 acres of gently rolling terrain lying southeast of Fort Smith. Gun deer hunting there is limited to a two-day muzzleloader season (650 permits) and a two-day modern gun season (650 permits). While these may not be hunts where you have a legitimate shot at a Booner, deer taken on Chaffee typically fall into that above-average-for-the-area slot. With the area closed two seasons back because of military training, there should be a carryover of older bucks this season. Special restrictions apply here, including a mandatory orientation class and purchase of access permits.

POND CREEK NWR

Pond Creek NWR, a Sevier County area made up of 27,000 acres of rolling ridges and draws, burst onto the big-buck scene back in 2006 when Jerry Gennings took his 172 5/8 P&Y bow buck there. Improved timber harvest practices seem to be having a positive effect on the deer because it opens up new food sources. The same could be said for the long-term results of the major ice storm some years back. Today, Pond Creek is what amounts to a big thicket; most of the terrain looks the same, so if you decide to hunt there, invest in a GPS.

Gun hunting is limited, with a weeklong blackpowder hunt in October and a two-day gun hunt in November, both by permit only. State antler restrictions do not apply.

THE OZARKS

Because I live in Clarksville, the Ozarks are home. I've hunted them for more than four decades, and I've seen the changes, both good and bad.

The Ozarks, like the Ouachitas, offer a lot of public land to hunt. In fact, back in my younger days I could walk out my front door and have more than a million acres at my disposal, much of it spread over some of the most beautiful country in North America! Only in more recent times have I learned that same unlimited access and size, combined with the topography, pretty much dictates that no large-scale quality program can be effectively implemented.

The 3-point antler restriction, along with increased doe harvest, probably has had more of a positive influence on the Ozarks than any other region. Whatever your personal thoughts on the matter, data shows that age of harvested bucks is on the increase, along with body and antler size.

HAROLD ALEXANDER WMA

Harold Alexander WMA consists of some 13,858 acres located in Sharp County, and is an area where the bucks killed are of above-average age, structure and antler size. Raymond King of Searcy took a beautiful 167 2/8 buck there last season, so the area does have big-buck potential. Like most of the mountains, it is rolling terrain cut by deeper gullies where oaks drop their mast. Five days of muzzleloader hunting in October and five days of gun hunting in early November means the area deer aren't that pressed. Permits are by drawing.

WEDINGTON WMA

Wedington WMA is a 16,000-acre area located 15 miles west of Fayetteville along State Highway 16. For years the area was overrun with ATV traffic, and as a result, hunting suffered. Through co-operation between the U.S. Forest Service and the AGFC, all hunting was closed for an eight-year period beginning in 1998. A regulation prohibiting off-road vehicles was also put into effect. In 2006, the WMA re-opened to very limited bowhunting; a two-day December gun season was added in 2007.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out there are some aged bucks walking around on Wedington. The 170 0/8 bow buck taken there in 2007 by Mike Franks is graphic proof. The terrain on Wedington ranges from fields in the south to rolling hills of pine and hardwood in the north. Plenty of security cover and a myriad of old logging roads are especially attractive to rutting bucks. With relatively few openings and food plots on the area, the oak belts almost guarantee deer during years of good mast.

In reality, the entire northwestern corner of the state has become one of those hotspots where big deer are appearing more often than at any point in the past. For decades, the Thomas Sparks state-record typical was the only B&C buck from the region. But Ron Harp of Siloam Springs took a book non-typical in Benton County in 2007.

BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER WMA

Consisting of some 95,000 acres in Newton, Searcy, Marion and Baxter counties, Buffalo National River WMA is both rugged and awe-inspiring. Vehicles are prohibited, and so the interior of the WMA is largely underhunted. When the weather is nice, consider taking a canoe and floating the river, and then hiking back into some remote spot where you won't have to listen to the sounds of vehicles while you hunt.

THE DELTA

"Crème de la crème," "ultimate," "Valhalla." Those are all words that I've used to describe the Delta over the last 15 years. I wasn't over-stating. If you want to hunt where the most big bucks are, head to the Delta!

Enough said.

WHITE RIVER NWR

The 160,000 acres of the refuge proper stretch, naturally enough, along the White River in parts of four southeastern counties: Arkansas, Monroe, Phillips and Desha. Even back in the 1970s and '80s, the area was spoken of almost reverently when big bucks were discussed. The reason for that was simple; virtually from its creation back in the 1950s White River has produced big bucks.

There were sound reasons for it. The refuge is composed of bottomland hardwood habitat, but there are row crops that parallel the refuge boundaries. In addition, there has been systematic doe harvest there virtually since the first gun season. The result is that the buck:doe ratio on White River is closer to that magical 1:1 than at any other spot.

During gun seasons, the refuge is split into north and south units, divided by State Highway 1. A pair of permit muzzleloader seasons on the North Unit run in October, followed by a pair of permit gun hunts in November. On the South Unit, there is a single three-day hunt for both muzzleloader and modern gun. As on all NWRs, the state-imposed

3-point rule is not in effect.

CACHE RIVER NWR

The Cache River NWR consists of 67,000 acres located primarily south of SH 70 in Prairie, Monroe, Jackson and Woodruff counties. It is a newer facility, formed in 1986, and lies just north of White River NWR, with much of the refuge lands located upriver of the confluence of the Cache and White rivers. The NWR gained big-buck notoriety in 1999 when Bill Dooley took the current state-record non-typical, a 238 3/8 B&C giant!

A boat is almost a necessity unless you can gain access by crossing private farmlands. A boat also allows you to access the numerous dense hardwood pockets back along the numerous feeder creeks and bayous.

There are two blackpowder hunts, one five-day in October and a three-day in December, plus a pair of four-day gun hunts in November. All are quota hunts; permits can be picked up at the refuge office in Augusta.

FINALLY

Arkansas Deer Zone 4 consists of all or parts of 12 northeast Arkansas counties. The entire region, the northeast corner of the Delta, is prime big-deer country, but there is virtually no public hunting available. Gun hunting is limited to a two-day shotgun or muzzleloader season, and so the best hunting is by bow.

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