Blackpowder Hotspots Of The Natural State

If your favorite kind of deer hunting involves blackpowder and muzzleloaders, we've got the spots for you. (December 2007)

Hunters have the option of a warm chair in front of the fireplace when things turn frigid and nasty -- not so the creatures of the wild. The combination of low temps with precipitation and/or high winds will often see deer lie up in the thickest cover that they can find.
Photo by Tim Black.

Last year I hunted the last three days of the December muzzleloader season inside White Rock Wildlife Management Area, the huge parcel of public hunting land lying roughly between Clarksville and Fayetteville in the northwest part of Arkansas.

On the second morning, I was waiting for daylight when I became aware of something moving along the trail I was watching. About 75 yards away, the early-morning fog still swirling, I could tell it was a deer, but that was about all. A few minutes later the trail cam flashed from where I had set it up over some nearby deer scrapes. Whatever was walking along the trail unknowingly posed for the camera.

I didn't think much more about it that morning until I climbed down from my stand about 10:30. I was hunting a remote area and hadn't checked the game cam in a while, so I headed down the ridge in the camera's direction -- the same direction in which the deer had gone earlier.

When I plugged in the viewer and started scrolling through the images, I found mostly does, along with a ton of immature bucks -- mostly fork-horns and 3x3s -- until, that is, I came to picture No. 41. Standing just beyond the camera's lens was a buck much like some that I'd seen in Kansas a few days earlier: a burly 8-pointer with the shoulders and neck of a bull, signaling this was the monarch of the woods and undoubtedly the same buck that had been leaving huge tracks in the area for more than a month.

I know near-misses don't count, especially in deer hunting. But just the opportunity to see a buck like that in the Arkansas Ozarks, where food sources limit the trophy potential of our whitetails, was more than worth the five fruitless hours that I'd just spent in a tree stand.

During that same three-day period I saw only one other hunter, and he was sitting in his truck drinking coffee from a vacuum flask. That's not unusual at this time of year. In fact, I find this situation to be about par for the December seasons. Whatever the reasons -- NFL football, honey-do lists, the call of the couch -- armed humans become scarce in the deer woods when Arkansas' modern-gun hunting season closes.

If you enjoy deer hunting in solitude (which I do), this is a good thing. The overwhelming presence of hunters reduced to nearly nothing, resident deer quickly return to basic travel patterns, which at this time of year revolve primarily around food and cover. By late season the acorns are largely gone, pastures bare and crop fields harvested; thus, deer foods are at a premium, and virtually anything green can become a deer magnet.

Whatever the reasons -- NFL football, honey-do lists, the call of the couch -- armed humans become scarce in the deer woods when Arkansas' modern-gun hunting season closes.

In the Ozark uplands, where I hunt, honeysuckle thickets, spots of greenbrier, young clearcuts and the occasional planted field and food plots become deer magnets. If you hunt southern Arkansas or the Mississippi Delta, deer foods may well differ from those in the northeast Arkansas, but the same rule applies: Any patch of vegetation palatable to deer can lure in your quarry.

At year's end, Mother Nature plays a dirty trick on deer, particularly the bucks. They have just come through the dual rigors of the breeding period and the hunting season, and their physical condition is at its lowest ebb of the entire year. Compounding the problem, the dead of winter looms, and deer foods are not only diminished but also unlikely to regenerate for a couple of months.

FIND THE FOOD,FIND THE DEER

Wherever you hunt during the late season in Arkansas, finding the food almost unfailingly means that you've found the deer. And that statement could well be truer this season than most, at least here in the Ozarks.

The late-spring cold spell that gripped the state in April killed a large percentage of the oak blooms. Deer will suffer from the loss of the acorns that those blooms might have produced -- and that could bode well for late-season hunters. First, deer will have to forage over more land than usual to find food. Second, deer numbers will be high in the vicinity of those food sources. During the last couple of years, the reverse has been true: Heavy acorn crops tended to concentrate deer in one place to feed.

Ozark deer hunters also tend to overlook another factor that can benefit their late-season deer hunting efforts. The period termed the "rut" is universally accepted as being the best time of the deer season to take a good buck, simply because the whitetail's desire to breed injects a variable into its life that can lead it to neglect its usual wariness toward humans and thus jeopardize its safety. Here in the mountains, I've frequently run across fresh rubs and scrapes around the turn of the year. I initially believed wildlife biologists were completely off base with their predicted November breeding dates, until my common sense kicked in.

Two primary factors affect deer breeding activity among individual deer herds in Arkansas. The first is an unbalanced buck-to-doe ratio. In areas in which does are too many, the bucks simply don't have time to get the job done the first time around. As a result, not all does get bred in November.

Wildlife biologists generally agree that the peak deer breeding date occurs on or about Nov. 15, but as with all things natural, Mother Nature has a contingency plan. Does not bred during their initial estrous cycle aren't through for the year. Until they're bred, does come in to estrus again and again on a 28-day schedule for at least a couple of months. Relatively few does go unbred from one year to the next, and late-season breeding extends the rut.

Also contributing to deer breeding activity is the fact that the Arkansas gun-hunting season opens in the middle of the primary breeding period. Despite their sex drive, old bucks don't get that way by being stupid. When they sense human presence -- which of course spikes dramatically upward early in deer season -- bucks substantially curtail movement during daylight hours.

Generally, state wildlife biologists concur, the second breeding period for whitetails in the Arkansas Ozarks occurs sometime around Dec. 10 to 12 and a week or so later in the southern parts of the state. In areas whose deer herds contain a lot of does, have few

males and/or feature a diverse age structure, this period may seem almost continuous from late October through January or even into February. So, you see, even in December Arkansas deer hunters can encounter rut hunting at what most of them would regard as an unusual time of year. That's a key ingredient in the success of blackpowder hunters, who, by regulation, enjoy a late-season hunting period this year between Dec. 15 and Dec. 31, depending on the zone.

Other factors increase daytime rut activity among Arkansas whitetail herds late in the season: a shrunken human presence, fewer bucks to do the breeding, and cooler -- even downright cold -- weather.

THE DOWNSIDE TO DEEP-WINTER DEER HUNTING

Not all of the elements of late-season deer hunting in Arkansas are positive ones. Certainly, far fewer bucks will range the woods than did in October, and those that remain will be far more cautious.

Arkansas' weather also grows more unpredictable. Even in years with normal weather patterns, temperatures may range from intensely cold to balmy, with high winds and precipitation also common.

Even in December Arkansas deer hunters may encounter rut hunting at what most of them would regard as an unusual time of year. That's a key ingredient in the success of blackpowder hunters, who, by regulation, enjoy a late-season hunting period this year between Dec. 15 and Dec. 31, depending on the zone.

While weather may seem a hindrance in such situations, it can also confer some advantages on the hunter. Any combination of cold with precipitation or high winds will tend to drive deer into the thickest cover that they can find, there to lie up until the elements relent. So at such times you have at least a general notion of where your quarry may be. And as most trees are bare in December (conifers excepted), the deer's hideaways are much easier for pursuers to find, especially when located near food sources.

I find aerial photos to be invaluable aids for deep-winter deer hunting. It's not hard to use these photos for identifying areas of dense cover. Among the most obvious are overgrown clearcuts, old homeplaces whose old orchards and high grasses often offer cover, and thick pine groves. Look especially for any spots in which deer can lie down secluded from the wind but open to absorbing any available sunlight on hillsides or in small openings inside pine thickets. And don't forget those food sources!

GETTING THROUGH WINTER WEATHER

Even during the worst winter weather, deer hunters can dress today in the new "miracle" fabrics that make being cold almost a thing of the past. The various fleece-type fabrics were seemingly designed with the still-hunter in mind. Fleece garments are quiet and warm, and many are water-repellent. Most of my deer hunting takes place from tree stands, but occasionally (I still like to think) I can sneak up on deer. Soft clothing combined with wet or windy weather can certainly make this more possible.

Layering garments of varied weights in extremely cold weather traps warm air between the various garments. But I never wear heavy clothing when hiking in to my stand or hunting area. Moisture, in the form of sweat, is among the worst enemies a cold-weather hunter can face.

Boots are an especially personal focus of my creature-comfort concerns afield. When my feet get cold, the rest of me gets cold, so I fork over the big bucks for top-quality footwear. Not only do rubber boots equipped with Gore-Tex or Thinsulate liners keep your feet warm, but the rubber outer covers eliminate leaving scent on the ground as well. For the wetness of winter, I personally like those with lug soles for mountain hunting and flat-soled duck-boot footwear for the flatlands.

LEAVE YOUR BLACKPOWDER WORRIES BEHIND

Sometimes when I'm muzzleloader hunting in the bad weather of the late season, I think back to the days when blackpowder firearms featured exposed side hammers and ignition systems that always left me unsure as to whether my weapon would work in the rain.

In fact, one of my worst memories is of one rainy day on Petit Jean Wildlife Management Area when the cap on my old T/C Hawken didn't snap. About as large a buck as I've ever seen in Arkansas stood there, less than 20 yards away, looking up into the tree I was sitting in. I'm sure he wondered what that funny noise was!

Today, in-line blackpowder firearms feature closed-breech ignition systems that make my sleepless nights of worrying about misfires a thing of the past. The market offers dozens of these firearms. Pick one of the good ones and learn to shoot it well.

Today, in-line blackpowder firearms feature closed-breech ignition systems that make my sleepless nights of worrying about misfires a thing of the past. The market offers dozens of these firearms. Pick one of the good ones and learn to shoot it well. When I hear these days about a muzzleloader hunter who shot and lost a good buck, I cringe. For sure: The modern blackpowder gun is no longer a valid excuse for losing a deer in this day and age.

While your buddies are all involved in other pursuits this winter, load up and head for your favorite Arkansas deer-hunting area. You'll likely find deep-winter hunting with primitive firearms is the best hunting of the deer season!

Good hunting!

(Editor's Note: Kenn Young is an outdoors writer/photographer living in Clarksville. Order his definitive two-volume guide to Natural State deer hunting, Arkansas' Biggest Bucks of All Time, directly from his Web site, the address for which is www.ardeerhunting.com.)

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

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