December Bow Bucks Off The Beaten Path
September 24, 2010
Here and there in the Natural State, a late-season hunter can leave civilization behind and pursue truly wild whitetails. Put your outdoor skills to the test in one of these untamed places! (December 2008)
I don't really know how much I believe in global warming, the Greenhouse Effect or any of the other theories surrounding the fact that the world is getting warmer. I just know that when I was a kid it got colder during the winter months than it does today. One of my jobs on our family farm was to build fences, which in those days you did with posthole diggers and muscle. In November, the ground froze, and would stay frozen until February or March -- which meant that I didn't have to build fences for two or three months.
Late-season bowhunts can provide plenty of prospects for encountering trophy-grade bucks in recovery from the stress of the primary gun season and the rut. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
I thought about that as I bowhunted last December in shirtsleeves, sometimes wearing only a light jacket even in the early mornings. I typically do my deepest thinking during late-season bowhunting -- usually about some old buck that gave me the slip somewhere, but occasionally about such meaningless things as the national debt, worldwide political chaos, old age or global warming.
During December 2007, I was fortunate to put in some serious hunting time. By my notes, I hunted 11 mornings and 10 afternoons, and even had two all-day hunts. During that same period, I saw 34 deer, including five bucks, one of them a nice one. Typical for the deep winter period, the deer were on food sources, a habit that makes them more visible, if not more killable.
I've always loved deep winter hunting. If I had to choose, the pre-rut "frenzy" that takes place during early November would be my favorite time to be afield. But for a variety of reasons, the time from just before Christmas until the middle of January runs a close second.
The first reason: fewer bugs. (I'm tempted to make that reasons number two, three and four also -- and I probably would if my wife hadn't given me a ThermaCell for my birthday last year.) Since I'm one of those who crave solitude when I hunt, my second reason is that the woods are just about empty during this time. Last year during that period I saw one other hunter, not counting the four I saw during the Christmas holiday modern gun hunt. Under the lighter pressure, the deer return to more "normal" movement patterns, which revolve around food sources.
Mother Nature plays a dirty trick on deer, especially the bucks, at this time. They've just come through the dual rigors of the hunting season and breeding period -- the two most traumatically stressful times of the entire year for the animals -- and are at their lowest physical point. To compound the problems, they're in need of sustenance in the dead of winter, when the availability of food is at its lowest.
This can certainly work in favor of the knowledgeable hunter. Generally, deer try to avoid traveling long distances to reach food sources at this time of year, owing to the crucial energy supplies expended during movement. So when you find preferred food sources, look for good bedding cover nearby. In the Arkansas mountains, where I hunt, deer will even lie up inside the same clearcuts they use for food sources, using the honeysuckle, greenbrier and other vines as both food and cover.
If you've read my other deer articles in Arkansas Sportsman, you have already heard about prime spots such as Holla Bend, Fort Chaffee, White River, Camp Robinson and dozens more. Truth is, those spots -- at least the ones still open -- are just as good in late season as they were earlier in the fall. But to keep from being redundant, this article will be a look at some of those spots that were overlooked earlier in the fall.
HOBBS CONSERVATION AREA
Ever heard of this area? Its 11,644 acres lie along the southern shore of popular Beaver Lake up in Madison, Benton and Carroll counties, not that far from the craft center of War Eagle. Unlike some of the spots we'll discuss, it's not even hard to get to, being easily accessible from Rogers via state Route 12 east.
But it's overlooked -- because of its proximity to Beaver Lake, I suppose. Fishermen and boaters flock to this area during the summer, and the camping trailers and RVs are so numerous that you "can't stir them with a stick," as my grandmother would have said. But during the cold-weather months, relatively little activity takes place around the waterway, and deer hunters from the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers triplex have a unique opportunity close to home.
I first became aware of Hobbs about 10 years ago, when Gary Selman, a young man attending the University of Arkansas at the time, sent me a photo of a big buck that he'd taken there by means of archery gear. The 5x5 rack scored in the 150 range for Pope & Young, if I remember correctly -- and with a 22-inch inside spread it looked even bigger than that!
As Gary and I visited, he told me of another large buck wandering Hobbs, and of lots of big-buck sign present on the area. His tales piqued my interest -- enough that one Sunday afternoon I drove up that way and met him in a parking lot in Rogers. We didn't see a single deer on our little two-hour excursion, but we did see the sign he'd described. At one spot in particular he showed me a line of rubs running alongside an opening; one of the rubbed trees was roughly the size of a telephone pole. If big bucks do in fact make big rubs (as most "experts" believe), the deer that made that one must have been huge.
Like most mountain areas, Hobbs is made up of hills and ridges cut by draws, feeder creeks and small streams. Gary having long ago graduated and moved back to his home in Texas, I'd want to start my scouting along the ridges around Blackburn Creek, on the west side of Route 12, if I were going to hunt there. Hunters who have access to boats can use them to get back into remote spots along the lake arms.
EAST FORK WILDERNESS
Numerous Natural State wilderness areas are scattered throughout the Ozarks and Ouachitas. No motorized vehicles are allowed on these tracts, many of which are underhunted as a result -- especially during late season. Several times I've spent the day inside East Fork without seeing another soul.
The easily accessible area lies about 10 miles due north of Hector (Pope County), close to the small mountain communities of Tilly and Witts Springs. Take Scenic Route 7 north from Russellville to Dover and then switch onto state Route 27; you'll see the signs.
For the most part, East Fork is typical of the surrounding mountains, with lots of ridges and draws. The tops of those ridges often function as travel routes for deer, which move along them between feeding and bed
ding areas. Many of the sides are almost sheer, which serves to further funnel movement.
Apart from the effect of a noticeable lack of hunting pressure, this area's unique character stems in great part from the presence of three upland ponds that attract a variety of wildlife, in dry years particularly. The area is also dotted with numerous old homeplaces and other overgrown openings, most covered in greenbrier and honeysuckle. Putting up a stand between such openings and the nearest heavy cover, or even within the openings themselves, can pay big dividends.
LOWER BUFFALO WILDERNESS AREA
Literally thousands of outdoorsmen "float the Buffalo" during the spring and summer -- and with good reason. This picturesque river winds through some of the most beautiful country that this state has to offer. But during the winter those crowds largely disappear, leaving this expanse of wilderness virtually devoid of humans. Where do deer go when hunting pressure is highest? Where human contact is the lowest.
So one chilly December day I arranged for a canoe (the owner of which looked at me like I might be just a little bit crazy) and spent the day floating and looking. Such a float can be challenging -- the river within the wilderness area flows slower and shallower than it does upstream -- and since I only had the one day, I didn't actually hunt. But I did find a lot of hunting opportunity.
The Buffalo itself is basically the only means of accessing the WA's interior, so you can forget about 4x4s and ATVs. As I paddled along (the water was low), I would simply stop to put ashore at spots that looked good; at several of these I found sign enough to set my heart beating faster.
This one falls under the "adventure" category -- but isn't that what all outdoorsmen crave? So take two or three days and make your camp somewhere along the river itself. From your camp, hunt the flat spots, not forgetting the tops of those higher ridges mentioned earlier. If nothing else, you'll likely find the solitude that all hunters seek -- and maybe some backstrap to go along with it.
PINEY CREEKS WMA & WHITE ROCK WMA
Now why would you put these two areas in an article about out-of-the-way hunting spots? After all, both are well known to hunters statewide, and have been highlighted in numerous go-to articles over the years.
But keep in mind that these two tracts' areas together total nearly a half-million acres of hunting possibility. Piney Creeks lies north of Russellville and, along its western edge, reaches to within shouting distance of White Rock, north of Interstate 40 in Johnson, Franklin and Crawford counties. To put these dimensions into perspective: If you so desired, you could park your truck on Scenic Route 7 somewhere between Dover and Jasper and walk the 100 miles to Fayetteville, remaining within the boundaries of one of these two areas for the better part of your trek.
What does this example suggest about unhunted spots? Well, the human being is a lazy animal, and one, apparently, quite intimidated by unfamiliar country. Consequently, very few hunters ever stray more than a mile from their vehicles.
Get out a topo map and mark off those spots more than a mile from any road or trail. Once you're done, you'll be amazed at the amount of territory out beyond that limit, much of which is, for just that reason, underhunted. Take along your GPS, leave behind all the other junk you've accumulated and set out on an experience that few hunters today have a chance to enjoy.
CHINQUAPIN MOUNTAIN WALK-IN TURKEY AREA
I'm highlighting Chinquapin for this particular article, but in reality the plusses for this area 40 miles or so west of Little Rock along state Route 10 are about the same as those for every other walk-in area in this state: solitude and beauty combined with an opportunity to hunt within the deer's natural element, free from pressure and other outside influences.
As is typical for the Ouachitas, Chinquapin is actually a series of steep mountains. These higher "peaks" are divided by deep draws along the bottoms of which often flow streams such as Narrow Creek and Trace Creek. It's beautiful country, rough and rugged. The walk-in area abuts the Flatside Wilderness on the western edge, so any hunter fit enough to brave the terrain can range across literally thousands of acres without being bothered by any other hunters to speak of.
Along the sides of the steeper elevations, such as Chinquapin and Wildcat mountains, lie numerous benches. Over the years I've occasionally heard deer referred to as lazy, but they're really logical, exploiting these flatter avenues -- especially those located along the mid-sides of the mountain -- as travel routes. Why? The deer have learned that their human predators generally confine their movements to the tops and bottoms of hillsides. If you can find a particular bench featuring stands of white oaks dropping mast, you may have located a deer magnet.
DAVE DONALDSON/BLACK RIVER WMA
I mention this one occasionally in my other articles, but I still consider it somewhat out of the way in a region virtually free of "public" land. In Clay, Randolph and Greene counties, inside Arkansas Deer Zone 4, this 21,150-acre area is mostly bottomland that's punctuated by hardwood flats cut by numerous sloughs. To access it, take state Route 62/67 northeast from Pocahontas toward Corning; then, turn off onto any of the various access roads leading to the WMA itself.
The high desirability of this spot, at least from a big-buck perspective, has everything to do with its being practically surrounded by cropland. Thus, even late in the winter, the deer here have a prime food source readily available to them.
I include Dave Donaldson/Black River in an off-the-beaten-path article because many spots within its interior are cut off by water during the late season. Like much of this part of the state, the area lies within a floodplain. If rains up north are heavy, the entire WMA may be under water at various times.
In normal years, about 7,000 acres of Black River are flooded in October to attract and hold ducks. Though the pressure on surrounding areas isn't what you'd call heavy, the flooding creates a safety zone for deer during hunting seasons. Take along waders and/or a small boat and ease back into these unhunted spots within the interior for deep-swamp hunting at its best. Always keep safety in mind, since water and cold are a potentially hazardous combination.
Here in Arkansas, we're truly blessed, as hundreds of spots just like those I've mentioned here will be found in the state -- and most of them hold deer.
When looking for promising hunting spots, topographical maps and aerial photos can save a lot of legwork, and both are aids that can give you a feel for the terrain before you leave the truck. As you scout, look for things that will influence deer movement at this time of year, such as an especially heavily producing oak grove, a thick bedding area or deep draws that funnel deer movement.
Too, the difference between success and failure deep in winter may well lie in yo
ur mental outlook. If you view hunting at this time of year as wasted effort, your hunting will reflect that; if you view it as a chance to be in the woods when both the bugs and other hunters are far fewer, that's a step in the right direction. But if -- for all the reasons that we've mentioned in this article -- you view it as one of the best times of the entire year, you've made the transition to being the complete deer hunter.