Photo by Keith Sutton
Savvy deer hunters know that one of the most important facets of late-season deer hunting is finding the right area. Arkansas encompasses a lot of varied hunting terrain. You can hunt mountains or swamps, pine woods or oak/hickory forests, dry rocky slopes or damp gumbo creek bottoms. All these areas have healthy populations of deer, but during the late part of the season, if it’s big deer you’re after, you’ll be most wise to hunt farmlands.
Many Arkansas sportsmen confine their hunting to wooded areas of the state year after year, drawn back to the forests by a strong sense of tradition. But the best deer hunting in Arkansas is often in easy-to-reach farm country, where whitetails stay fat and healthy by eating cultivated crops.
So why do these agricultural lands rate higher than other habitats? Several reasons come to mind.
First, those agricultural foods are very important in the deer’s diet, especially during the hard months of winter. A study conducted along the Mississippi River found that five of the 10 preferred deer foods were crops raised by farmers — winter wheat, corn, alfalfa, grass and lespedeza.
Farm crops also have a relatively high protein content and tend to produce deer that are bigger, healthier and fatter than woodland deer. A whitetail thriving on corn, soybeans, alfalfa and other farm crops can stay in good physical condition year ’round.
In wooded areas, deer primarily rely on hard mast and browse for food. There are fluctuations in mast crops from year to year, and in some years, shortages of acorns and other important mast crops can force deer from their normal home range to areas where food is more plentiful. As often as not, deer move into winter wheat fields or other farmlands, where food is plentiful.
I once counted over 100 deer on a 40-acre winter wheat field late one January afternoon. Most of these exceptional gatherings take place (at least during daylight hours) toward the end of hunting season when fewer hunters are in the field.
Studies have found that deer concentrations can be up to 10 times higher in the immediate vicinity of agricultural crops than in the more remote wooded areas; these same studies reveal that the deer disperse when the food is gone. But in many areas of Arkansas, winter wheat, waste grain and other farm foods are available to deer throughout the season. In farming areas, deer may remain concentrated on agricultural lands well past the end of February when hunting season is over.
Some of Arkansas’s all-time biggest bucks were taken in farm country:
• The George Hobson Buck, killed on a St. Francis County wheat farm in 1987, scored 208 5/8 points.
• The Clem Bilgisher Buck, picked up on a row-crop farm near Boydel in 1959, scored 206 1/8 points.
• The Roger Hansell Buck, killed on a farm in Arkansas County in 1992, scored 178 1/8 points.
• The Van Sturdivant Buck, killed on a Chicot County farm in 1951, scored 173 2/8 points.
• The Jimmy Brown Buck, killed adjacent to a Chicot County wheat field in 1991, scored 173 2/8 points.
Examine the results of the latest 16th Annual Big Buck Classic in Arkansas (visit www.ardeerhunting. com), and you’ll find many of the biggest deer killed were taken in predominantly agricultural counties such as Lonoke, Crittenden, Monroe, Lee, Cross, St. Francis and Prairie.
FINDING A FARM TO HUNT
The largest deer are almost always farm-raised — that is, they live near farms and visit the farmer’s fields. Quite often they join right in with the cows and feed alongside them to their heart’s content. The sweeter the grass, the more they eat, and the healthier they get.
This probably won’t bother the farmer too much, because, usually, there’s plenty of grass to go around. But the deer don’t stop there. Almost all other farm products appeal to deer, too. Soybeans and corn are big winners. Green vegetables are delights. Hay fields attract deer, as do patches of lespedeza and alfalfa. The pièce de résistance is fruit. Peach and apple orchards and grapevines may attract heavy concentrations of deer. Because damage caused by deer is often extensive and expensive, most farmers welcome hunters who exhibit responsible behavior.
When looking for farmland to hunt, check with your local wildlife officer. These professionals often know landowners who are experiencing serious crop damage caused by overabundant whitetails. On a farm I hunted in south Arkansas, the landowner once showed me 40 acres of freshly sprouted soybeans that had been nipped off close to the ground by feeding deer. Damage by deer was so great that the farmer received a deer depredation permit from the local wildlife officer that allowed him to shoot several deer to help minimize crop destruction. The owner, eager to reduce his financial losses, was more than happy to allow me to hunt deer on his land several days each season.
Orchard owners often experience similar problems. Deer can literally wipe out a grove of small fruit trees. Befriending farmers trying to reduce deer damage is one of the best ways to pinpoint farm-country whitetail hotspots.
ETIQUETTE IS IMPORTANT
Serious whitetail hunters know it’s best to start the search for a hunting area well before the season. When seeking private lands hunting opportunities, don’t drive up to the door on the first day and ask if you can hunt the woods behind a farmer’s house. Visit the landowner well in advance of the season. Quite often, if you can prove you’re a responsible hunter, you can get permission to hunt, perhaps even on land that is posted.
That visiting hunters should treat a farmer’s property with respect goes without saying, but don’t overlook other courtesies that will help assure you’ll be welcomed back when hunting season rolls around again. Time and time again, I’ve heard farmers complain that hunters never think of them until deer season. A Christmas gift, birthday card, some flowers for the wife, a present for the kids or an offer to help with farm work all do a great deal for cultivating good hunter-farmer relations.
Share your success with the farmer, too. Most landowners who welcome you on their property also take an interest in the hunt. Even if he doesn’t want any of the venison (make sure to offer a share anyway), he’s probably watched your deer while working his land. It’s part of the farm, and sharing your success wit
h the landowner makes him feel appreciated.
WHERE TO HUNT
Deer densities vary from region to region within Arkansas, and overall hunter success differs greatly, depending on the particular area hunted. The amount of farmland and type of farmland also differ considerably.
The Delta Region, or Mississippi Alluvial Plain, in eastern Arkansas contains a higher percentage of farm acres than other regions of the state. Soybeans, corn, winter wheat and other deer foods are abundant here, and most of the larger Arkansas bucks reported by hunters during the last decade have come from this region.
In their book Monster Whitetails of Arkansas, Kenn Young and Dan Doughty explain the link between Delta farmlands and big Natural State deer: “Much of this area is agricultural, so row crops provide ample food high in mineral content . . . the same minerals put into the soil to grow crops, and transferred to the plants, are the same ones that grow superior deer. Also, a majority of the land within the area consists of large farming operations. This means the land is private, and access is limited at best. While frustrating to hunters, it serves to give the resident bucks time to gain that part of the big buck equation most often missing: age. With that addition, all the factors in big buck production are present, and the Delta becomes the one section of Arkansas where all the big buck equation elements (genetics, food and age) are most common.”
Young and Doughty also note that “a plat map, good manners and planning ahead will still go a long ways toward finding you a place to hunt” in the Delta.
The rugged parts of the Ozark Mountains are ill-suited to row-crop farming. Fruits, particularly grapes and apples, are important in some areas, and pasture acreage usually exceeds cropland. In winter, deer depend heavily on acorns and other hard mast for food, but if nut crops are sub-par, they yard up on every small patch of farm food they can find. Successful hunters look for out-of-the-way food plots, cornfields, lespedeza patches and other winter food sources where deer are likely to be gathered.
Woodlands are extensive and cropland limited in the Ouachita Mountain Region. A large portion of this region lies within the Ouachita National Forest or is owned by private timber interests. Much of the remaining land is in pasture, and hay is the major crop, followed by corn. This is a region of few deer and very few trophy deer, but a hunter who scouts and finds a small grain field or other bit of farmland can increase the odds for killing a nice animal.
Arkansas River Valley
The Arkansas River Valley supports a large agriculture industry. Soybeans, corn, winter wheat, oats and other favored deer foods are abundant in the lower lands, and there is considerable emphasis on commercial, sometimes winter-grown, vegetables like spinach and green beans in the western part of the region. There’s excellent trophy deer potential on private farmlands within the region, and on Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge near Russellville, where approximately 2,500 acres are planted in crops each year. Whitetails consume the farm foods produced and find refuge in the cover of bottomland woods. This area supports a thriving, healthy deer population.
Gulf Costal Plain
The Gulf Coastal Plain in south Arkansas is known as the state’s “deer factory.” Overall deer numbers are far higher here than in other areas of the state, so if your focus is simply on killing a deer, any deer, then the GCP is the way to go. An out-of-balance buck-doe ratio and widespread overpopulation limit chances of bagging a trophy here, but amidst the large commercial pine plantations are thousands of acres of farmland where deer are abundant.
HOW TO HUNT
In January after the rut, bucks regain their strength by resting long hours and feeding on food sources convenient to their bedding areas. But winter is coming on, and the bucks feel the need to nourish themselves in preparation for the hard times ahead. Gradually, their daily routine shifts. They venture out farther and farther from their core areas in search of quality food. If preferred agricultural crops are in the area, you can be sure that most bucks eventually will end up feeding there.
In pressured areas, emphasis should be placed on hunting trails between bedding areas and crop fields. To determine the location of bedding areas, look for and follow well-used trails leading away from the perimeter of a crop field. It’s best to enter these areas alone and quietly. When you begin to hit really dense cover, you’re probably entering the bedding areas, especially if you jump some deer while scouting. It’s not a good idea to push the deer, because it might spook them from the area. So when you have jumped a deer, back up and leave.
How close you set up to a bedding area should be determined by when you’ll be hunting. If you plan to hunt mornings only, stay close to the bedding area. That way you can catch deer when they are coming back from the feeding areas. If you set up too close to the feeding areas in the morning, you will only see deer when it’s too dark to shoot.
If you plan to hunt only in the late afternoon, stay a little closer to the feeding areas. Don’t hunt right on the edge of the field, though, because then you’ll probably only see deer after shooting hours are over. Set up somewhere between the bedding and feeding areas, and you can catch the deer when they are coming out for their evening meal.
If, like many hunters, you prefer to hunt on the edge of a farm field rather than in the woods, select a spot for your stand that is near a main deer route to or from the field. Your first scouting trip around the edge of a grain or alfalfa field may reveal enough deer tracks to give you the shakes. But don’t let this confuse you: Careful scouting will reveal a main route for entering and leaving the field.
It also is best to choose a stand that offers good cover going to and from your stand, so farmland deer won’t be as likely to notice your entry and exit.
Still-hunting can be effective as well, if conditions are right, but deer are spooky late in the season and difficult to sneak up on. Hunt to the last legal minute of the day, and be in position in the morning before first light. Try to find bottlenecks or other physical features that help funnel a buck your way. Things are tough during the late season, so use every advantage you can.
When you do find an area to hunt, it’s a mistake to think that taking farmland deer is easy. In fact, whitetails haunting agricultural areas are sometimes much harder to collect than their cousins in wilder territory. Nevertheless, hunters who invest heavily in pre-season scouting to learn the day-to-day habits of their quarry can enjoy a bountiful harvest on these often overlooked deer lands.
Woodland hunting will probably always be the mainstay for most whitetail fans, but if you are seeking a new tack to spice up your outings this year, give farmland deer hunting a try. Prime farm country offers some of Arkansas’ best hunting for big, healthy deer.
or’s Note: For a limited time, autographed copies of Keith Sutton’s book Hunting Arkansas: The Sportsman’s Guide to Natural State Game — regularly $24.95 — can be purchased by readers of Arkansas Sportsman for $12.95 plus $3.00 shipping. Send a check or money order to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002.)