Late Is Great For Arkansas Muzzleloaders

Didn't you get your buck during gun season? Have faith. Maybe just maybe ... the best time of the entire season is at hand.

Far ahead of the hunter slipping through the woods was just a hint of movement among the bare limbs. As his breath rose in clouds in the cold mountain air, the man paused, his body resting against the base of a large oak.

Around him was a thick carpet of brown leaves made doubly brittle by a thin layer of frost. It would be another hour before the sun peeked over the ridgetop behind him, laying its warming hand on the chilly landscape.

Sure enough, the movement slowly turned into a brownish-gray shape. A deer . . . the glow of antlers . . . a buck! The hunter raised his rifle, steadied it against the tree and then centered the sight behind the moving animal's shoulder. Just a few more yards. Take a deep breath, let it half out; squeeze the trigger gently instead of jerking it . . .


The sounds of the shot echoed away through the valleys. As the billowing blue smoke slowly drifted upward on the morning thermal, the smiling hunter could make out a patch of white lying motionless some 50 yards ahead: a nice Ozarks 8-pointer with long, arching tines! Leaning his rifle against a fallen log, the man took out his knife and began a ritual as old as humankind.

I'm one of those individuals who neither requires nor craves companionship while hunting. In fact, for most of my years afield I've hunted alone, with the exception of those times, all too few, when I'm accompanied by my son, Jeff.

For that reason, I have a special affinity for the late blackpowder season, which this year runs from Dec. 22 through Jan. 5 pretty much statewide. Here in the Ozarks, I've often hunted this entire season without seeing more than a handful of other hunters - and, many times, in the same areas that crawl with orange-clad hordes in November.

Photo by Bill Lea

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's harvest figures for 2000-01 back this up. In total, 25,607 deer were taken with frontstuffers that year, but only 3,468 of those were killed during the late season.

Nevertheless, a lifetime spent chasing whitetails has enabled me to understand that this late-season hunt offers more than just a chance to have the woods to yourself. The fact is that some high-quality action is still available long after most deer hunters have cleaned their rifles and put them away for the year. There are several reasons for this.

First of all, deer stick to more "normal" movement patterns when they're free of the hunting pressure typical of the modern-gun season. During the winter, those patterns largely reflect the deer's relation to available food sources and - especially in areas containing few such sources - will thus be localized. Second, even the bigger bucks are more likely to be on the move when that same pressure abates. If food is scarce, or when the occasional doe comes into estrus around the turn of the year, even the old-timers may be visible during daylight hours. Since these mature bucks generally become nocturnal during November and move only at night, your trophy prospects can improve drastically after Christmas. Finally, early-winter weather is for the most part bad. That may not sound like a plus to some, but many serious hunters prefer rainy, wet or cold weather, which not only tends to get game on the move but also makes stalking quieter.

So the late season isn't necessarily what you'd expect. Rather than being full of the liabilities that you might associate with the end of something, it actually offers a lot of reasons to be in the woods!

If you hunt on public land during the late blackpowder season, your options are somewhat limited, as no state wildlife management areas or federal national wildlife refuges in the eastern half of the state have open seasons during December. And since there are few such areas in the Gulf Coastal Plain to begin with, most late-season public hunting is necessarily confined to the mountain regions.

The good news is that there's plenty of public land west of Little Rock. In fact, the Ouachita and Ozark national forests combine to make more than 2.5 million acres of open hunting available to you.

More good news: Overall herd numbers in both areas are - at least, according to AGFC biologists - stable or expanding. When you add in evidence that the desired impact of the 3-point rule seems more obvious in the uplands than in other regions, prospects have never looked better.

The two large WMAs within the Ozarks - Piney Creeks (north of Russellville) and White Rock (north of Interstate 40, primarily in Johnson, Franklin and Crawford counties) - together comprise roughly 460,000 acres. During the late season last year, 53 deer were taken at Piney Creeks and 47 at White Rock. Not a very high total if you factor in the ratio of deer taken per acre, true - but, on the other hand, I saw three other hunters altogether when I was afield at Piney Creeks for four days after Christmas. Whether that was carryover from the numerous nimrods who quitted the field during November's heat or just typical of late-season numbers is hard to say, but you can't kill a deer while lying on your couch.

Both these areas are rough and rugged, with lots of up-and-down hunting. Get out a topo map and look for spots over a mile from roads and ATV trails. Those may well be the secluded areas that one old buck migrated to as gun season raged.

Consisting of rough, often remote terrain to which access is limited, Muddy Creek WMA (160,000 acres in Montgomery, Yell and Scott counties) and Winona WMA (145,000 acres in Perry county) are two prime Ouachita areas cast in the same mold as Piney Creeks'. The harder a place is to get to, the better are your chances there, so these are good bets by that measure.

Another large area is Mt. Magazine WMA, whose 120,000 acres lie south of state Highway 22 in Logan and Yell counties. Here, the November gun season is split into two segments; dog hunting is allowed in one segment, but not the other. (While that probably has no bearing on late-season blackpowder season - which is, by the way, no-dog - it's interesting to note.)

Down in extreme southwestern Arkansas, just east of Bradley and only a few miles from the Louisiana border, is Lafayette County WMA, a 39,000-acre area that now operates under the 4-point antler restriction. According to former resident International Paper biologist Charles Self, Lafayette annually yields up deer exhibiting better

antler development and body size than are seen in the surrounding area. It's necessary to purchase a $20 leased-land permit in order to hunt there.

The mountain regions' current trophy potential is exemplified by the case of Waldron's Daniel Boyd, who took the state's only hunter-harvested Boone and Crockett buck of 2001 just up the road from Muddy Creek WMA. That animal scored 220 0/8 as a non-typical - and Daniel believes that there's another, bigger one in there!

Wherever you decide to hunt, it's always better to have a plan before you actually park the truck. That's especially true in the late season, when fewer hunters and fewer deer mean that it's much less likely that someone will merely spook one in your general direction.

"Find the food, find the deer": That old adage is never truer than at this time of year. But you also have to know what the deer are feeding on and when they're eating it.

Several years ago, the acorn crop here in the mountains was the heaviest in memory; even old-timers couldn't recall a year in which the deer candy fell in such profusion. Not coincidentally, that was probably the worst late-season hunting I have ever experienced. With so much food available at so late a date, the deer enacted a scenario not at all typical of the depths of winter: They could feed just about anywhere they chose and as a result weren't concentrated in any one area or focused on any one food.

Last winter was exactly the opposite. The acorn crop was spotty, even nonexistent in many areas, so the deer were feeding on secondary food sources such as honeysuckle and greenbrier by Thanksgiving. It was bad enough that by the time January rolled around you could see a definite browse line in many spots, and it was common to see deer feeding beside domestic livestock in food lots. Accordingly, the hunting was great! I hit on one particular greenfield along the edge of a brush-covered ridge in which I saw more deer in a single day than I would normally encounter in the course of the entire season.

Prime examples of late-season upland feeding spots: remote honeysuckle or greenbrier thickets; a particular oak belt whose acorn fall was heavy enough to last into the deep winter; a low-growing sapling grove; a green cropfield or planted food plot. Every area will have some spot that attracts and holds the deer.

Once you identify such an area, try to find the access trails that lead to and from it. Deer - and especially bucks - will have been conditioned by the experiences of the past hunting season to avoid openings during daylight, so any dense area in the vicinity is likely to be a security zone to which the resident deer have resorted since rifle season; trails should connect the two. Deer also sense that, with the leaves off the trees, they're more visible, so these trails will by and large wind through thicker cover.

Actually, a lot more deer are killed during this late season than most hunters realize - a fact borne out by AGFC harvest figures from the 1998-99 season. Some 11,641 deer were taken during the late season, which compares favorably with the 24,793 harvested during the early blackpowder season in October. I say "favorably" because I guesstimate that overall hunter numbers are probably about 50-75 percent lower in the late season. Doe kill is also high (8,391), indicating that a lot of hunters make use the late season to fill freezers for the coming winter.

Rutting does indeed take place at this point late in the season, but it's a hit-or-miss proposition. In many areas today, buck:doe ratios are far out of kilter; there are simply too many does for the bucks to get the job done on the first go-round.

The key is that all females not bred during the primary rut in November will come into estrus again and again on a 28-day schedule. Biologists say that very few does fail to mate from one year to the next, so the numbers game dictates that at least a few does will still be receptive to bucks' advances in late December and early January. In addition, a few younger does may go into estrus for the first time after the turn of the new year.

Finding an estrous doe at this time of year is about as close to a sure thing as you will ever meet with in deer hunting. If you happen on one, especially in a remote location, she may well attract every buck in that area!

It seems that our weather today is different from what it was when I was a kid (which was more years ago than I care to remember). My father ran the agricultural farm for what is now the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, and one of my jobs was working on fences at the 400-acre facility. I remember that the ground would freeze about the middle of November - after which I'd be done with the fencing! - and stay that way, generally, until February.

For whatever reason, that bone-chilling cold doesn't set in anymore - at least not for long spells. But deep winter in Arkansas can still be about as unpredictable as a season can be: snow on Monday, rain on Tuesday, temperatures in the 70s by Wednesday.

The good news is that the modern hunter need never get cold or wet, even during periods of extreme inclemency. The past decade has brought us Thermax, Gore-Tex, Thinsulate, and polypropylene - "miracle" fabric combinations that signaled an end to the days of freezing on a deer stand.

Personally, I prefer the various fleece outfits for hunting because they are quieter. Choice of camouflage pattern is pretty much up to the individual - there are many good ones. The trick to staying warm is layering: putting on several different layers of clothing rather than depending on one heavy garment. As the day warms, you shed layers; as the air cools in the evenings, you reverse the process.

Good footwear is vital. Nothing's more irritating than a pair of boots that cause blisters or leak. Because I was taught that rubber doesn't let your scent through to the ground, I prefer the pac boot variety for colder weather, and often even wear insulated chest waders. Cleated soles work best in the mountains, where the ground cover typically consists of slick pine needles. If you decide to buy a new pair of boots, particularly leather ones, break them in before the season begins.

No hunting weapon has advanced more than has the muzzleloading rifle. When modern blackpowder hunting first started back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, only a couple of manufacturers took the frontstuffer hunting arena seriously. My first muzzleloader was accurate to about 50-60 yards. Naturally, weather had a drastic effect on the weapon's reliability; misfires were common, and one such, which occurred amid a steady rain, bought one of the largest bucks I've ever seen another day of life.

Things have changed. In my gun case today is a new .45-caliber in-line, topped with a variable scope, that will consistently shoot 1.5-inch groups at 100 yards. Un

der the right conditions, I wouldn't hesitate to take any shot out to 200 yards with that gun. In addition, the fully-enclosed disc system, combined with sabots and Pyrodex pellets, make it just about weatherproof.

I won't get into the never-ending argument about whether these guns are actually "primitive" arms. The answer is obvious: They aren't. But no one would confuse the compound bows carried into the woods today with the bows Native Americans toted when the Pilgrims landed, either. Modern in-lines are legal under current hunting regulations, so the choice of whether or not you use one is up to you.

Whatever you decide to use, make sure that you thoroughly familiarize yourself with it before heading afield. With any muzzleloader, new or old, in-line or flintlock, you only have one chance when the moment of truth arrives. A few hours spent at the local rifle range can go a long way toward improving your chances.

Your mental approach to the task at hand is never more central than during late-season hunting. If you approach your time in the woods as being wasted, or think the mission hopeless, the effectiveness of your hunting will certainly reflect that. Aggravating any such tendency to pessimism is the fact that many hunters will already have put in countless hours in a deer stand, perhaps meeting with little or no success, so their attention span will be greatly shortened. As a youngster, I fell victim to those two maladies many times.

But as the years have slid by, I've come to understand that, to true outdoorsmen, the actual act of killing a deer is only a part of the overall experience. How much of a part? That, arguably, will depend on your age and on how many deer you've taken before.

Today, I view late-season muzzleloader hunting as my last chance to deer hunt with a gun for an entire year. I still take it seriously, but the slower pace offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the successes and failures I've had during this and past seasons.

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