Saline Valley CA: Best For Late-Season Bucks?

If you're looking for a place offering lots of room and a decent chance of encountering a big whitetail, Saline Valley CA could well be the place for you.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Marshall Ford

With so many great conservation areas in Missouri, fingering just one place to take a late-season trophy buck in Missouri is risky. The biggest risk is funneling every deer hunter who reads Missouri Game & Fish to a specific area that's too small to handle a flood of pressure. The easy way out would simply be to suggest a really large area, such as the Mark Twain National Forest. Of course, would be a cop-out. You don't read this magazine for political correctness; you read it for legitimate and useful hunting information.

With that in mind, I'm going to make the ultimate sacrifice and pick one of my favorite hunting spots, Saline Valley Conservation Area. It's a calculated risk based on the fact that many of our readers hunt private land, and those who don't favor public areas they know well close to where they live. Finally, a late-season buck means hunting with archery equipment or muzzleloading rifles. If you hunt with those methods and don't already have a place to hunt, then Saline Valley CA might just be the perfect place for you to kill the buck of a lifetime.

Located in Miller County, Saline County CA covers nearly 4,800 acres of excellent whitetail deer habitat near Tuscumbia. The terrain is typical of what you'll find in the northern Ozarks - long, flat-topped ridges interspersed with several deep, narrow valleys. Flowing through these valleys is an assortment of creeks, including Jim Henry Creek, Big Saline Creek, Little Saline Creek and Jack Buster Creek. The Osage River forms the south boundary for the eastern part of the area. State Highway 17 bisects the area and defines the south boundary for the western third. Route M also fronts the northern section.

Once you get there, you'll find ridges and hillsides forested primarily with oak hickory and black walnut. There's also some pine and elm in the uplands, as well as sycamores and other assorted hardwoods in the creek bottoms. Also in the bottoms are large fields that are annually planted in various crops such as corn and soybeans. Other fields that aren't cropped are overgrown with grass. Many of the fields are separated by brushy fencerows.

While access to the area is generous, the terrain is rugged, and much of it is remote and accessible only by foot. To get deep into the backcountry, you have to be in shape, you have to know the area well, and you have to be prepared to drag a deer a long way over hill and dale, though rocks, briers, brambles and other thick vegetation.

On the other hand, Saline Valley CA supports good numbers of deer, and it has a lot of deep crags, nooks and crannies where bucks can hide, wait out the season and grow their antlers a little bigger. I've never killed a big buck on Saline Valley, but I've seen them there outside of hunting seasons. On the last day of the 2003 modern firearms season, I found a skull with a tall, non-typical 9-point rack on a farm just a few miles from there. It was perfectly intact, and it typified the middle range of what you might expect to find in the area in terms of quality.

Does this sound like your kind of place? If so, then let's explore a little farther.

A CLOSER LOOK

During modern firearms season, Saline Valley CA attracts a great multitude of hunters. The parking lots are full, and if you arrive late, you'll walk a long way before you get away from the crowds. Traffic is lighter during the muzzleloader season, and virtually nonexistent during the late archery season. On the other hand, bird hunters and rabbit hunters use the area a fair amount, so the deer remain somewhat disturbed for most of the fall and early winter.

Hunting such a place requires extensive pre-season scouting. Along with looking for deer sign, you'll also be looking for subtle corridors that lead to remote ridges, draws or valleys. It's also important to find a food source in the late season, such as acorns. Once you find a promising bedding area near the groceries, you can set up along a travel route or a natural funnel and enjoy a good shot at success.

I like to hunt two different areas on Saline Valley CA on the eastern and western thirds. Essentially, they are the deepest, widest parts of the area with the most difficult access.

From Tuscumbia, drive east on Highway 17 for about six miles. Cross the bridge over Little Saline Creek and turn left on Rd. 17-10. Go to the first creek crossing and pull into the parking area to the right. A small memorial is erected there remembering some children who were swept away and drowned in their tent during a flash flood some years ago. A trail leads through the brushy border to a field on the other side that's usually planted in corn or soybeans. Walk to the north end of the field and you'll find a gap in the brushy fencerow that leads to another field and a tall hill to the right. Atop that hill are the remains of an old home place. From there you have a commanding view of everything below, including the fields, fencerows and entry points. I've spent many an afternoon sitting against a big tree just downhill from the home place with a .308 listening to the tin on the barn banging in the wind, and I've never encountered another hunter there.

Atop the hill behind the home place, you can go farther back until you reach the boundary of the conservation area. There is a good stand of woods back there. It's tucked pretty tight between private property and the access road, but in the late archery season, I suspect it could be a good place to hunt.

From the parking area, you can also walk along the creek and hunt the wood line between the two big fields on either side.

If you want to go farther in, cross the creek and turn left at the "T." Drive over the ridge until you reach the old church. Park there and then walk to the power line, which traverses a series of latitudinal ridges. This will lead you into some deep, mature woods with excellent sightlines. This is one of my favorite areas because I can sit against a big tree and have a clear view of the deep draw below for about 75-80 yards in either direction. Another reason I like it is because the draws are sheltered from the wind, which makes it a comfortable place to sit in the cold weather we usually have late in the season. The lack of wind noise also helps you hear.

WANT MORE?

Other good places are where the wooded draws and power line intersect. If you follow the draw about 300-400 yards to the right, it'll take you into a deep, thickly wooded valley that continues farther than I've ever walked. If I were looking for a really big buck late in the season, this jungle-like hollow would be a prime spot.

To hunt another fine area, continue east on Highway 17 and drive up the mountain. To your right, at the edge of the conservation area is a parking lot. Pull in there and then walk through the yellow gate to the trail. This will take you along the top of a ridge and across a power line to the top of a tall hill overlooking the Osage River Valley. Thick woods are on both sides, but if you go right, you'll descend into another deep bottom where I always see bowhunters early in the fall.

If you continue along the trail, it will take you down into the broad fields along the river. Canebrakes and thick brush line the edge of the bluff along the river, and the amount of deer tracks in that moist, sandy dirt suggest that it gets a lot of deer traffic.

Or instead of going to the river, you can go left, cross the dry creekbed and enter a mature hardwood forest that's full of oaks and hickories. This area contains a number of draws that feed the valley like small arteries, and they are natural travel corridors for deer coming into the valley from the highlands. I hunt along the draws and benches in this area a lot during squirrel season, and I always see rub lines almost everywhere I go. Set up a stand along any of these small draws, and you should have an excellent chance of encountering a nice buck.

Finally, there's one other place on the area. It's my favorite, so I'm not going to say much about it other than to give you one clue: KBA. Hey, I can't tell all of my secrets! Just remember this, that if you kill a deer in any of these areas, you're going to have to lug it a long way to get it back to your vehicle. If you're up to it, perhaps we'll see each other there.



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