Late is Great for Natural State Muzzleloading

Didn't get your buck during gun season? Have faith — one of the most enjoyable times of the entire year lies ahead!

By Kenn Young

Back in 1984 I was hunting during the late blackpowder season on Petit Jean Wildlife Management Area in Yell County.

I didn't have a tree stand in those days, so I merely climbed up into a big oak along the treeline of one of the openings that dot the area. There was a rub line that ran along the field edge, and I had found numerous scrapes in the same spot back during the gun season.

About a half-hour before dark I saw a tall sapling start whipping back and forth 200 yards away. At first I couldn't imagine what was going on, but then I realized that a buck was probably thrashing that tree, and my breathing got a little shorter.

Sure enough, 10 or 15 minutes later, a gray form approached through the small cedars and thickets within the field itself, heading in the direction of the scrapes.

There were no scopes in those days, and it was now dark enough that I could tell only that antlers adorned the top of the animal's head (there was no 3-point rule either). When he went behind a small group of trees, I got the little H&R Huntsman up and waited for him to step out the other side. He would be about 50 yards away at that point, so I centered the bead on the spot and waited. And waited. And waited.

The buck never showed, and it finally grew too dark to see. At that point, I climbed down and headed toward the truck, deciding along the way to see if there were tracks behind the trees that would tell me how the buck had disappeared.

As I walked around the edge of the trees a tremendous snort rang through the cool air, and one of the largest sets of antlers I have ever seen alive in the Natural State disappeared over a blowdown!

I'm one of those individuals who don't necessarily crave companionship when hunting. In fact, for most of my years afield I've hunted alone, with the exception of those too-few times when my son, Jeff, accompanies me.

I guess that, for that reason, I have always had a special affinity for the late blackpowder season, which the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has in recent years shortened nearly to extinction.

Here in the Ozarks, I've often hunted this entire season without seeing more than a handful of other hunters, and many of those times occurred while hunting in the same areas that crawled with orange-clad hoards in November.

Harvest figures put out by the AGFC illustrate that lack of pressure. A total of 18,797 deer were taken in 2002-03, the last year for which complete records are available. But only 1,236 of those were taken during what passes for late season these days.

Over a lifetime spent chasing whitetails I've come to understand that this late-season hunt offers more than just a chance to have the woods to yourself. The fact is that some quality hunting still exists long after most hunters have cleaned their deer rifles and put them away for the year! There are several reasons for this.

(1.) Without the hunting pressure common to the modern gun season, deer will be in more normal movement patterns. Since during the winter those pretty much revolve around the available food sources, the deer will be localized, especially in those areas where food sources are limited.

(2.) Without that same hunting pressure, even the bigger bucks are more likely to be on the move. If food is scarce, or an occasional doe comes into estrus around the New Year, even the old-timers may be visible during daylight hours. Since these mature bucks typically go nocturnal during November, moving only at night, your trophy chances can drastically improve around Christmas.

(3.) Deep winter weather is typically bad. While that may not sound like a plus to some, many serious hunters prefer rainy/wet/cold weather because it not only tends to put game on the move but also makes stalking quieter.

So there are actually a lot of reasons to be in the woods during late season!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

HEAD TO THE MOUNTAINS FOR LATE-SEASON SUCCESS

If you hunt public land, your options are somewhat limited during the late blackpowder season. You see, there are no state WMAs or federal national wildlife refuges located in the eastern half of the state that have open seasons during December. And since there are few such areas located in the Gulf Coastal Plain (GCP) to begin with, most late-season public lands hunting is confined to the mountain regions.

The good news is that plenty of public land exists west of Little Rock. In fact, together the Ouachita and Ozark National Forests total more than 2.5 million acres of open hunting. While herd numbers are down in some areas, in others they seem to be booming, so it's just a matter of locating one of the latter spots.

The two large WMAs within the Ozarks, Piney Creeks (located north of Russellville) and White Rock (located north of Interstate 40, primarily in Johnson, Franklin and Crawford counties) together comprise roughly 460,000 acres. I hunted Piney Creeks during the entire Christmas season last year and saw a total of six deer and three other hunters. Both numbers are low, but it's a fact you can't kill a deer 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 seclusion areas that one old buck migrated to as gun season raged.

The Buffalo National River WMA, which lies along the famed river and runs through Newton, Searcy, Marion and Baxter counties, offers a unique hunting opportunity. If you've ever floated the Buffalo, you've no doubt noticed that there are few roads into many of the shoreline areas. This means that a deer hunter, via boat or canoe, has access to some great hunting areas, most of which are likely to be underhunted!

Wilderness areas, where all vehicular travel is prohibited, offer the seclusion an old buck needs. There are many of these scattered throughout the Ozarks region. Richland Creek (11,822 acres), Hurricane Creek (15,177 acres), East Fork (10,777 acres), Leatherwood (16,956 acres) and the beautiful Upper Buffalo (11,094 acres) all are worth checking out. Most are underused, particularly during the deep winter. Maps showing the various locations are available from the Forest Service.

Two prime Ouachita areas, Muddy Creek WMA (160,000 acres in Montgomery, Yell a

nd Scott counties) and Winona WMA (145,000 acres in Perry county) are both in the same mold as Piney Creeks. They consist of rough, often remote terrain with limited access. The harder the site is to get to, the better your chances there are.

Another large area is Mt. Magazine WMA, which consists of 120,000 acres lying south of state Highway 22 in Logan and Yell counties. This is one of those areas where the November gun season is split into two segments: Dog hunting is allowed in one, not in the other.

Down in extreme southwestern Arkansas, just east of Bradley and only a few miles from the Louisiana border, Lafayette County WMA is 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 produces better antler and body size than the surrounding area. Hunters are required to purchase a leased land permit ($20) to hunt there.

Over in the Arkansas delta, it may seem odd to some that the state's No. 1 region in terms of big buck production has very little public land available to hunt. But if you look at a majority of the biggest bucks being killed today, you'll find that they also reside on lands where access is limited.

That problem is compounded during the late blackpowder season. Virtually all of the larger WMAs within the delta (Wattensaw, Dagmar, Bayou Meto, etc.) are closed to all gun hunting, primitive or otherwise, at this time of year. This essentially eliminates public hunting opportunity in the state's foremost big buck area.

Bayou Des Arc WMA (953 acres along state Highway 11 due north of Des Arc) and Cypress Bayou WMA (1,503 acres just east of Ward) are both small areas that are largely overlooked. The same could be said for Ethel WMA (176 acres), over in Arkansas County. But all of these are surrounded by croplands, so the food source is there.

HAVE A PLAN

Wherever you decide to hunt, it's always better to have a plan before you actually park the truck. That's especially true in late-season hunting.

"Find the food source, find the deer": an old hunter's adage that's never more apt than at this time of year. But you also have to know what the deer are feeding on and when.

For the past few years the acorn crop here in the mountains has been heavy. Not coincidentally, late-season hunting was hit or miss at best. With so much food available, even at that late date, the deer could feed just about anywhere they chose. As a result, they weren't concentrated in any one area, or on any one food, which is a far more typical scenario during the deep winter period.

When the acorn crop is spotty, or even nonexistent, the deer will be feeding on secondary food sources, such as honeysuckle and greenbrier. In such years, the hunting will often be great! Several years ago, I located one particular greenfield along the edge of a brush-covered ridge, and saw more deer in one day than I normally would in the entire season.

Prime examples of late-season upland feeding spots are: remote honeysuckle or greenbrier thickets; a particular oak belt where the acorn fall was heavy enough to last into the deep winter; a low-growing sapling grove; or a green crop field or planted food plot. The key is that in any area there will be some spot that attracts and holds the deer.

Once you locate that area, try to locate the access trails leading to and from the location. Remembering the past hunting season, deer - and especially bucks - will tend to avoid openings during daylight. So if an area of dense cover is in the vicinity, it's likely that a security zone that the resident deer have used since rifle season. There should be trails connecting the two. Deer also understand that with the leaves now off the trees they are more visible, so these trails will typically move through thicker cover.

IS THERE REALLY

RUT ACTIVITY?

The answer to this question is: Yes, but it's pretty hit-or-miss. In quite a few areas today, buck-to-doe ratios are still far out of kilter. There are simply too many does for the bucks to get the job done on the first go-round. The good news is that all females not bred during the November primary period will "come in" again and again on a 28-day schedule. Biologists tell me that very few does actually go unbred from one year to the next. So the numbers game dictates that there will be a few does still unbred in late December.

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

CLOTHING IS IMPORTANT

Weather was different when I was a kid, which is more years ago than I care to remember. My father ran the agricultural farm for what is now University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, and one of my jobs was building fence on the 400-acre facility.

What I remember is that about the middle of November the ground froze, and I didn't have to build fence anymore! After the first freeze it would generally stay that way until February.

For whatever reason, that type of bone-chilling cold doesn't exist anymore, at least not for long spells. But deep winter in Arkansas can still be about as unpredictable as weather can be. It can snow on Monday, rain on Tuesday, and be in the 70s by Wednesday.

The good news is that in this day and time there is really no reason for the modern hunter to ever be cold or wet, even during extreme periods. The past decade has brought us new words such as Thermax, Gore-Tex, Thinsulate and polypropylene. These "miracle" fabrics have 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, but there are many good ones.

Good footwear is vital wherever you hunt. Nothing is 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.

BETTER GUNS

AND EQUIPMENT

No hunting weapon has evolved more than the muzzleloading rifle. When modern blackpowder hunting first started back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, only a couple of companies took the frontstuffer hunting arena seriously. My first muzzleloader was made from a kit. It came unblued and with the stock roughly inletted; you did the rest yourself. With a .50 caliber round ball the gun was accurate to about 50-60 yards. Naturally, weather had a drastic effect on reliability, and misfires were common. One of the largest Natural State bucks I have ever seen lived for

another day because that first muzzleloader did that very thing one day in a steady rain.

Today I have a .45-caliber inline in my gun case that will consistently shoot 1.5-inch groups at 100 yards. Topped with a variable scope, it's a gun with which I'd unhesitatingly try to take any shot out to 200 yards under the right conditions. In addition, the fully enclosed disc system combines with sabots and Pyrodex pellets to make the weapon 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 being carried into the woods today with the ones that Native Americans toted when Europeans arrived, either. Modern inlines are considered legal under the present hunting regulations, so the choice of whether or not you use one is entirely up to you.

Whatever you decide to use, make sure you become familiar with it before heading afield. New or old, in-line or flintlock, with a muzzleloader 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.

MENTAL ATTITUDE

IS THE KEY

Your mental approach to the task is never more vital than during late-season hunting. If you approach your time in the woods as being "wasted" or "hopeless," your hunting will certainly reflect that attitude. To make things worse, many hunters have already put in countless hours in a deer stand - maybe with little or no success - so their attention span will be far less. I fell victim to those two maladies many times as a youngster.

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 typically depends on your age and how many deer you've killed 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.

So to sum up, late-season muzzleloading is for the hunter who's afield because he wants to be, and that's as good a reason as there is.



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