Louisiana's Riverbottom Bucks
September 28, 2010
Older bucks love to head for thick river bottoms when the pressure mounts. And the Pelican State has no shortage of that type of terrain to challenge hunters! (December 2007)
A key to bagging older bucks: getting into places that other hunters avoid.
Photo by John E. Phillips.
Some of the state's biggest bucks live in river bottoms: Most hunters in the Bayou State recognize this -- and many of them probably wish it weren't so.
From the Pearl in the east to the Sabine in the west and the Atchafalaya Basin in the middle, the state's swamps are some of the most daunting areas in North America -- hugely difficult to traverse and infested with mosquitoes, alligators and poisonous snakes. Which is why many big bucks live and die from natural causes within their confines.
"Your really big bucks live in locations very few hunters tread," said Alexandria's Jason Robicheaux. "Everyone has heard the saying that a buck does not get big being stupid. And they also don't get big hanging out in the open. The swamps of the state do hold some monster bucks, because they are hard to get into. Hunting these areas can be tricky, and if you can learn the little details that are important for river-bottom hunting, you can be successful."
Let's look at the techniques and hotspots for river-bottom whitetail hunting.
After Hurricane Rita ravaged the Sabine River bottoms, my corn feeder was leaning a bit, but still standing, and still dispensing corn and drawing in deer. All of the trees of the right size within shooting distance of my feeder had been either knocked over or snapped off at about 10 feet -- and I like to hunt at least 15 feet up. That left me with no alternative but to go to the ground, which is a situation many hunters have found themselves in over the last two seasons because of storm damage.
Over the last few years I've used portable ground blinds like the Double Bull, Taj Mahal and others to hunt hogs and turkeys by means of bow and arrow, and now I find myself hunting whitetails on the ground, especially in the bottoms.
During the first weekend of bow season I set up a portable shoot-through ground blind called the Wig Wam between two big fallen pines 17 yards away from the feeder. Saturday evening I passed a shot on a fork-horned buck, as lease rules stipulate we can only take 6-point bucks or better, and then saw a fawn doe slipping through the damage. These deer never saw me although I was at eye level with them and very close. I later ended up taking a nice 8-pointer.
The key is that I was able to set the blind up where the wind favored me. A deer's most useful survival tool is its nose, which is far more sensitive than a human's. By using portable ground blinds, which you can set up in less than five minutes, you can beat the wind and greatly increase your odds of scoring on a wary whitetail.
There are dozens of portable blinds on the market; you just have to figure out which one best suits your needs. Happily, most of them are affordable and might help give you a chance to hunt in areas that Rita rendered seemingly unhuntable. In many areas in the southern half of the state, forests still look like wastelands thanks to Rita and Katrina, so ground blinds are a great option. Moreover, hunting on the ground can be quite exciting.
Admittedly, drawing back a bow or raising a rifle at the eye level of an animal is a bit challenging, but if you play your cards right and pay attention to wind direction, you might just have more success than ever.
According to Jason Robicheaux, still-hunting is another good option for river bottoms. "One of the things you want to be mindful of when hunting down in the swamps is that deer are not afraid to go in the water," he said. But it's usually not their first means of travel."
Robicheaux recommended that hunters look for ridges in the swamps that cut across ponds and low areas and go to protected islands. "By 'island' I do not mean a big thing in the river," he explained. "I'm talking about an area of high ground with some cover, out in the middle of water that might just be a foot deep or even less. Big bucks lie up in these spots and then move around when there's little pressure. If you know this habitat of deer, you can slowly creep into these areas and push the deer out."
Creeping onto the islands and jumping the deer is Robicheaux's preferred method of still-hunting these spots. He's had quite a bit of success this way, because the deer aren't used to being hunted in their "safe" zone. "Most people will not go the extra mile to get this done," he said, "so the deer will sometimes not break until the last second. I shot a buck once that was just sitting there amongst the brush, thinking it was hidden -- and I was only 15 yards away."
Decoys are tools that can make things easier for hunters in specific situations in river bottoms, drawing big bucks out in open areas in which deer can see a long way. But you have to realize that decoys are only tools, not magic bullets that enable you to make your quarry appear out of nowhere. If you keep this in mind, it can greatly aid your hunting.
Decoys tend to work best during the rut, when they can spark sexual and territorial instincts. A buck will come out to fight a buck decoy, and even mount a doe just as if she were the real thing, so you can make a move without the distracted animal noticing. With big, mature bucks that is usually difficult -- but during the rut, using decoys can make it quite easy.
The proper use of decoys begins with scent elimination according to expert deer decoyer and outdoor writer Lou Marullo. "Use gloves when you are carrying and setting up the decoy," he said, "and spray it with a good cover scent or sexual attractant. The nose is a deer's first line of defense so you have to get past that to get into the visual realm."
The rest pretty much has to do with location. It's all about location. "For one thing, if you are using one of the bedded decoys, do not set it up near a trail," Marullo noted. "Deer do not bed up on trails so they should not be set up there. I like to use standing decoys, and always place them upwind of where I expect the deer to come from. Remember that bucks -- most of the time -- are going to be approaching with the wind in their faces, and if they catch a whiff of doe in estrus and then see what they think is a doe, you have a good chance of getting a shot."
He recommended setting up doe decoys with their rear ends toward you, because bucks approach does from the side or the rear and this gives the best angle for a good shot. For buck decoys, try the opposite approach, with the head toward you. Bucks usually
approach each other cautiously from the front vantage point.
Make sure not to set up the decoy so that it invites the deer to approach with a direct path to you. You do not want to give them a chance to see you or smell if they cross your line of scent. Set it up off to the side of your stand position to focus the animals' attention on the decoy, not on you. Being elevated above the decoy is also important, as it definitely keeps you out of the line of sight. Getting up above 15 feet or so is best, and is a safety factor as well. If someone creeps in and ends up shooting your decoy because they thought it was real, your chances of being shot decrease the farther up you get.
To increase your chances of getting a buck to look at your decoy, use a piece of white tape on the tail to blow in the wind to give it some motion. Some hunters use monofilament fishing line to pull the tail when wind is absent; others use the new decoys with battery-operated tails. Also, trying a bit of rattling or a grunt call to add to the effect.
"What you're trying to do is mimic nature, and in a rut situation in particular you have bucks fighting, grunting and does smelling of estrus. If you can present those elements in a decoy situation you have successfully mimicked nature to the extent it seems real to the deer and that's the key," Marullo said.
Grunt calls can help you score on bucks. They are finally getting their due for the deer-luring tools they are. Using a grunt with a decoy has helped me bag a few nice bucks. The key is not to overcall. You don't hear deer grunting out there as if they were ducks quacking. The key lies in keeping it all true to nature.
By the way: I don't recommend using decoys oat public hunting areas during the first two weeks of the season, when hunters are everywhere. In addition, using them at large hunting clubs could be a bit dangerous if you do not know where everyone is hunting. Use decoys outlined with blaze orange or have them covered in that color when transporting them by foot, boat or four-wheeler.
ACORNS AND THE HOG FACTOR
Locating acorns is an important part of river-bottom hunting in Louisiana. They are a rich source of protein and carbohydrates for deer, and when they begin falling, deer flock to those spots and ignore other food sources. I've personally experienced having corn pile up under my feeder while deer were feeding less than 50 yards away under a big red oak. Deer know that the corn is going to be there because hunters always supply it, but acorns are fleeting, and they must get them while they can.
The kinds of mast crops best to hunt over are going to depend on your location. Red oaks are the hot tickets in some areas, while white oaks are like addictive drugs for deer in others. Nowadays, however, it's impossible to mention acorns without mentioning feral hogs.
Deer and hogs do not mix. If you are hunting over a feeder and you have hogs regularly hitting it, chances are good that the deer are dodging it. In fact, during the hunting season that is the primary complaint I hear from hunters calling into my outdoors radio show. Hogs also can drive deer away from natural food sources like acorns. This creates a situation in which scouting can pay off big-time.
Hogs are like deer in that they have their preferences. If you can determine which mast crops hogs are targeting and then find a secondary source nearby, your chances of bagging a big buck increase dramatically.
Nearly all of the river bottom systems in the state are loaded with hogs and their population growth shows no signs of slowing down.
WHERE TO GO
According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, many bottomland areas are available to public hunters throughout the state.
The LDWF points to Sherburne Wildlife Management Area as a good site. It's in the Morganza Flood Way system of the Atchafalaya Basin in the lower and upper portions of Pointe Coupee, St. Martin, and Iberville parishes between the Atchafalaya River and the East Protection Guide Levee.
Officials from the LDWF report the Sherburne WMA, Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands combine to form a 44,000-acre tract. The LDWF owns 11,780 acres, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 15,220; the Corps owns the remaining 17,000.
As is described on the LDWF Web site, access to the area is via State Route 975, which connects with U.S. Highway 190 at Krotz Springs on the north, and Interstate 10 at Whiskey Bay on the south. Entrance to the interior of the area is possible through a series of all-weather roads, ATV trails, and Big and Little Alabama bayous. There are two private boat launches on the northern portion of Big Alabama Bayou, one public launch of the northern portion of Little Alabama Bayou, and one public launch on the southern portion of Big Alabama Bayou.
To the west, Sabine Island WMA is located in west-central Calcasieu Parish between Vinton and Starks and is home to some nice bucks.
The LDWF describes access as most viable by taking SR 109 north from Vinton or south from Starks and then taking the Nibblets Bluff Park Road to the west. The area is surrounded by water and access can only be gained by boat.
The ownership of 8,743-acre Sabine Island is divided between the State Land Office and the Calcasieu Parish School Board. The WMA's topography varies from low terrain subject to annual flooding for prolonged periods to winding ridges laced throughout the tract. Access within is made possible via numerous bayous and sloughs. The Sabine River forms the southern and western boundaries; Old River and Big Bayou border the east and north.
The forest cover is composed of two major timber types. A cypress and tupelo mix covers approximately 85 percent, with the remainder classed as pine and hardwood. In the pine-hardwood portions, white oaks, willow oak and sweetgum are found mixed with loblolly pine."
The Pearl River WMA is located approximately six miles east of Slidell and one mile east of the town of Pearl River. Access is available via car from Old U.S. 11 or by boat.
The LDWF, which owns the tract, puts the Pearl River WMA size at 35,031 acres.
This is a soggy area with flat terrain, poor drainage, and subject to annual flooding. The forest cover varies from mixed age hardwood stands in the northern 60 percent, to cypress and tupelo on 25 percent to the south and an intermediate type marsh on the extreme southern 15 percent.
Because of the difficulties and dangers involved, few deer hunters visit these three areas. However, those who learn the ins and outs of these dark, damp bottoms more often than not bring home bucks worthy of hanging on the wall.