Bayou Bucks And Blackpowder

You're missing a good bet if you're not chasing whitetails with your muzzleloader on these central Arkansas hotspots. (December 2009)

Turner Earhart, Roger Turner's grandson, admires a tall-racked buck killed on his grandfather's farm in the "Bayou Country" east of Pine Bluff.
Photo by James K. Joslin.

Every year it's the same; in the days before the modern gun season opener, you can count on seeing the procession of trucks, RVs, trailered four-wheelers and campers. It's deer hunters making their pilgrimage from Arkansas' cities and towns to the whitetail woods. The majority of those hunters head north and west to the hills of the Ozarks or Ouachitas, or south to the piney woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain.

Well, that was back in November. Now, the woodlands are relatively emptied of the orange-clad army. Furthermore, while the crowds headed to south, north and west Arkansas, the deer herds just to the east of central Arkansas population centers like Little Rock and Pine Bluff are now busy easing back into their daily routines without having received the extensive hunter pressure of those other areas.

What does this mean for you? It's time to head to the region of Arkansas sometimes referred to as "Bayou Country" for a chance to bag a deer or two and finish filling your tags.

WHY BAYOU COUNTRY?
Loosely defined, the region of Arkansas some locals hail as Bayou Country is bounded by Searcy and Interstate 67/167 to the north, Cabot and the Little Rock/North Little Rock metropolitan area to the west, and communities like Pine Bluff and Star City to the south. To the east, you'll find some of Arkansas' major rivers, the White, Cache, St. Francis and Mississippi among them. In between, the land is a quilted mingling of bayous, hardwoods, occasional pines and vast tracts of rich farmland.

"Bayou Country is basically our Deer Zone 9, which falls in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain Deer Management Unit," explains Brad F. Miller, Ph.D. and deer program coordinator for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. "Our examination of hunter-harvested deer and deer we collect for herd health studies always demonstrates that deer from these fertile soils with access to quality forages have better body weights, antler quality and reproductive performance than many other areas across the state."

Miller further emphasized the late-season opportunities to harvest a good buck in Bayou Country by noting that deer breeding dates are later in the year closer to the Mississippi River. "This means that finding receptive does is still on the minds of bayou bucks, and should be on the minds of hunters as well," he said.

Arkansas County provides a prime example of that concept with its peak conception dates regularly coming in early December.

The possibility of finding rutting bucks in the region is further enhanced by the fact that yearling does and fawns typically breed a little later than adult does, and bucks may still be in hot pursuit of those females, Miller confirmed.

"Looking at harvest per square mile," said our deer program coordinator, "Bayou Country hunters are very successful. The harvest is somewhat less than that of the Gulf Coastal Plain; however, given the combination of nutritious agricultural forages and thick refuge areas along rivers, chances are good of harvesting a mature buck with high antler quality."

And, if you're looking to fill doe tags and your freezer, this still is a likely destination for you.

WHERE TO HEAD
There are several AGFC-managed wildlife management areas and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-managed national wildlife refuges in Arkansas' Bayou Country. But while larger public areas like Mike Freeze/Wattensaw WMA, Cache River NWR, and White River NWR get the majority of hunter attention, there are some smaller and lesser-known WMAs in the region that harbor quality whitetails in quantity.

First in our sights is Bayou Des Arc WMA. You can take advantage of a late muzzleloader season there in Prairie County on Dec. 29-31.

Bayou Des Arc WMA is located five miles north of the city of the same name, and is found just off of Arkansas Route 11. It encompasses 953 acres and was purchased in 1966 by the AGFC to construct the 320-acre public fishing lake, Lake Des Arc. Outside the levees of that impoundment, the WMA consists of prime White River bottom hardwoods.

"A portion of Bayou Des Arc WMA has mature hardwoods and is bordered by privately owned WRP (Wetlands Reserve Program land) and the bayou itself," said Garrick S. Dugger, the AGFC's assistant regional supervisor in the area. "I'm not sure about hunter pressure on this WMA, but I believe a hunter could have late-season success on this WMA. Access to this WMA is primarily by boat -- via Bayou Des Arc -- unless the bayou is low, and then it could be accessed by foot travel."

He noted that there is a large ditch and drain that must be traversed to reach the main portion of the WMA from Lake Des Arc.

Primitive camping is available at Lake Des Arc, as are electrical hook-ups. Food and some other essentials can be found at the restaurants, convenience stores and groceries just a short drive away in Des Arc.

Closer to central Arkansas, hunters can take advantage of Holland Bottoms WMA in Lonoke County. That WMA is appreciably larger than Bayou Des Arc WMA at 6,190 acres. But Holland Bottoms often gets overlooked by hunters heading to far reaches of the state. With 87 percent of its grounds being bottomland hardwoods, passing up that hotspot can be a big mistake.

Having property lines that run up against the city limits of Jacksonville, Holland Bottoms WMA offers a handful of camping areas, many of them located adjacent to Lake Tommy L. Sproles/Pickthorne. Access can be gained via Graham Road to the south or from the west on roads named Coffelt and Holland Bottoms. Further movement on the WMA, which was purchased in 1985 through a land trade with the Arkansas Forestry Commission, is limited to foot traffic.

Fuel, camping supplies and groceries can be found to the north in Cabot, in Jacksonville to the west, and at stores in Ward, Lonoke, Sherwood, North Little Rock and other neighboring communities.

A definite plus for hunters who want to head to Holland Bottoms is that the muzzleloader hunts, including the late one set for Dec. 19-21, are permit-only hunts. That means less hunting pressure, as does the fact that modern gun season is closed on this WMA. Of course, the permit application process for such hunts occurs in the summer. So, you'll either have to apply for next year's hunts or check w

ith the AGFC to see if there are any leftover permits available.

Also noteworthy, when asked how he would rank public hunting grounds in Bayou Country, Dugger listed Holland Bottoms behind only Cache River NWR as "great places to go in December with a muzzleloader."

A third location of interest is Departee Creek WMA, which provides a muzzleloader hunt on Dec. 29-31, and a modern gun hunt on the three preceding days. The WMA lies in White County and consists of 448 acres that butt up against the eastern edge of the Ozark Plateau where the landscape gives way to lower and flatter ground.

"This WMA is near Bradford, west of the White River, and is open for the late muzzleloader season," Dugger said, adding that this hunt is not a permit-only one. "The area is heavily hunted by the locals but does provide a late-season opportunity."

Named for a bottomland creek found running through part of the WMA's grounds, Departee Creek WMA is accessible via U.S. Route 367 by taking the Bradford exit and then following the service road for about two miles south. Established 1998, the WMA property was once used for farming and aquaculture.

Although there are no campsites, lodging is available nearby in Searcy and Bald Knob to the southwest, and Newport to the northeast. Those cities and small communities like Bradford provide anything a hunter could need.

POSTED: NO TRESPASSING
While there are several public-land areas to hunt in Bayou Country, thousands and thousands of acres are tied up in farming operations. So, knowing a friend of a friend, asking permission to hunt or securing a lease or club membership could be the way to go if you want to access the private lands of this region.

One such private farm is the Roger Turner farm located west of DeWitt and south of Almyra. As with many family farms, hunting is restricted to family, close friends and, if there is a guiding business operated there, paying clients.

Two bayous meander along the edges of Turner's acreage. Chris Earhart and Jay Bly, Turner's sons-in-law, manage the deer intensively, all the while knowing that over-pressuring or repeatedly bumping them could send the bucks and does up or down those bayous a mile or more -- and off their farm.

That's the way it can be in bayou settings. The deer may range up and down a bayou for miles and may only use certain parts of their range occasionally, all the while keeping close to their thin corridor of cover. Thus, the goal is a familiar one: Attract the deer to an area and keep them there.

While you may not be hunting the Turner farm, you can put into play some of the principles they practice on your own piece of Bayou Country.

Bly said the family's deer hunting philosophy can be summed up in a handful of words: stealth, selectivity, persistence, availability, malleability and awareness. Here's how he explained the various facets of that six-pronged attack.

"We just try to give the deer as much room as we can," Bly began, noting that it is important to get in and out of the stand without creating much disturbance. "The woods along the bayous are in strips. So, we give the deer their space. We know where they want to be, and we do not go in there at all. Otherwise, they'd just leave the property. While we hunt as much as we can, we try to choose the right times to hunt. This means being mindful of the wind and the weather and being able to hunt without spooking or pushing the deer."

While the whitetails take full advantage of the row crops on the farm, in particular the soybeans and the winter wheat, the Turner farm hunters make sure there are more food sources to attract and hold the deer.

"We try to plant wheat or oats for them along the edges of the timber in high-traffic deer areas," stated Bly. "We like to provide the things they need and do it as naturally as possible. For instance, we'll plant a pea patch and then just let it grow. We want the deer to have as easy a life as possible where they don't have to travel far for food, or for cover."

He added that the Turner farm also supplements the forages with food plots and corn feeders.

Although Bly and his relatives do all they can to assist the deer, Mother Nature can sometimes be less kind, providing drought or flood conditions that can stress the herd. When either of those events occurs, Bly said, the family responds by tweaking its hunting tactics.

"Years of high water mean the deer get pushed to the edges of the timber. Then, we have to be extra careful to provide them areas of sanctuary where they have no pressure," Bly explained. "Meanwhile, in dry years, we know that the deer will stay farther back in the bottoms. So, we have to be more patient than usual and hope that the rains will eventually come and get the deer working closer to the edges. We may go farther in the woods, but we still won't go back in those places where we know the deer will be bedding."

Not many days go by without someone sitting a stand, Bly said, so the family's hunters become highly knowledgeable of their herd.

"Seeing the deer over and over allows us to know them. This means we can be highly selective in what animals we want to take out of the herd or leave in it. If we're waiting for a mature buck or an older doe, we know that continuing to wait usually will pay off.

"Keeping notes from season to season -- whether mentally or in a logbook -- means we can reasonably know what certain deer are going to do and where they are going to be based on the weather, the stand location, the wind and the day. You can pretty much mark it on the calendar."

If you get to hunt a Bayou Country farm, you can learn a lot from asking the farmer or his workers about what they've seen to figure out something about how to hunt deer there, Bly said. Also, pay attention to where old stands are placed to provide some clues as to where to hunt. Chances are, the fellow who put that stand there years ago knew a little bit about how to hunt the property.

A FINAL PIECE OF ADVICE
Regarding deer hunting after the season-opening rush, Miller said, "My advice to a late-season hunter is that December is a great time to be in the woods. The bugs are gone and many of the hunters are home, too."

Referring to an AGFC chart, he illustrated this point by showing that 83.2 percent of the average annual deer harvest in Arkansas occurs in October and November. "This means less competition in the woods," during December, Miller concluded.

While not all of the following Bayou Country WMAs and NWRs offer a late-season muzzleloader hunt, Miller and Dugger felt they were definitely worthy of mention for those deer hunters still seeking time in the woods and more opportunities to fill a tag -- even if restricted to bowhunting. Those areas include: Bayou Meto, Cypress Bayou, Ethel, Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake, Mike Freeze/Wattensaw, Prairi

e Bayou, Rex Hancock/Black Swamp, Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek Bottoms and Trusten Holder WMAs. The NWRs in the area are Bald Knob, Cache River and White River.

For more information on the WMAs, visit www.agfc.com and click on the "Public Land" link under "Data, Facts and Maps." From there, you'll click on "Wildlife Management Areas" and scroll down the alphabetized list. Further information on the NWRs can be found the same way by following the links.

Before heading out, remember to check the 2009-2010 AGFC Hunting Regulation Guidebook. Deer hunting rules vary by zone, and some of the public lands have further restrictive regulations in place.

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