Photo by Ralph Hensley.
The year was 1968. The county had established “road gangs” of high school students who needed summer jobs, and a few of my buddies and myself were among those. Typically, we were taken to some remote part of Johnson County and let out with brush hooks, swing blades and assorted other brush-cutting apparatus. We would walk the roads, most of which were dirt back in those days, and clear out any blind corners or spots where vegetation hindered the view of motorists.
One particular day we were working between Catalpa and Oark, two small communities in the northern part of the county. It’s still a remote area today, so you can imagine what it was like 40 years ago.
At one point, we passed an old barn, and there was a deer skull nailed to one end of it. As we worked along, every one of us, mostly “country” kids that grew up around stock and wildlife, were amazed at the size of that old rack, bleached white by the sun. Naturally, we tried to get a closer look, but it was nailed up high enough that we couldn’t reach it, so all we could do was stand there and stare.
I was a pretty stout lad in those days, and still my shoulders would easily have fit inside that old rack. It had 10 points, and even though time has likely allowed them to “grow” some, I would still say that the G-2s were 12 to 14 inches long, and the G-3s not much shorter. But it was the incredible main beams that riveted our attention; both of them long and massive, and even after all this time I would say that each was close to 30 inches, and that may be conservative!
Many years later, when the whitetail craze first started flowering, I went back and tried to find that old head. But the barn had fallen down, its remains covered by blackberry and honeysuckle, and the skull was gone. I asked several people from the area and they said that the family that lived there had just “moved on” sometime during the ’70s or early ’80s, and while most of them remembered seeing the head, no one that I talked to knew the story behind it.
I certainly can’t prove it, but today I’m about as certain as I was back then that the old head on the side of that barn was the biggest I’ve ever seen in Arkansas!
Last year, there were six Arkansas bucks taken that scored high enough to be eligible for entry into the all-time record book of the Boone and Crockett Club, the nation’s oldest records-keeping organization for big game.
Six “Booners” in one year is considerably above the state’s annual average for book deer, which has stood at around four per year since about 1990 or so. The reason for the increase? The most obvious is moderate weather, particularly during the late-summer period. Why is that most important? Because in Mother Nature’s scheme of things, the nutrition taken in through feeding goes first to build bone and body tissue, and only after that requirement is satisfied does the headgear somewhat receive preference. Since the body attains maximum growth by about mid-August, in years when dry weather cuts back on the quantity and quality of the food source, after that time antler size will suffer. That was not the case in 2006.
Today, the Natural State has 86 deer listed in the B&C all-time record book (not counting those bucks taken last fall), and that ranks us No. 17 nationwide. However, I will also point out that there are 34 more bucks, all of which have been scored at one time or another by official B&C personnel, that have not been entered, for a variety of reasons, at this time. If those deer were added, it would make the state’s total 120, and would raise Arkansas to No. 14 nationwide.
When you consider only the Southeastern region, it’s a different story. From a geographic or historical perspective, I’ve never really figured out if Kentucky is a Southeastern state, but since the Wildcats play in the SEC, I suppose we should give them the benefit of the doubt. So today, Arkansas ranks No. 2 in the region, behind only the blueblood state, in terms of B&C bucks produced.
Where’s the best place to kill a big buck in Arkansas?
Some years back, I coined the phrase “Arkansas Trophy Triangle.” Get an Arkansas map and draw a lop-sided triangle with its apex at Little Rock. Extend one arm northeast up through Jonesboro, the other southeast down more or less through Pine Bluff. Within those boundaries more than 70 percent of the state’s all-time B&C record-book bucks have been taken!
Need more proof? Take a look at the attached list of top Arkansas counties in terms of B&C buck production. You will see that every single one of those falls within my so-called “trophy triangle.” Big bucks have been there for decades; they are there now; and they will be there in the future.
Why, you ask? The answer is simple — food sources. If you take a look at the various national record books of B&C, Pope & Young (archery) and Buckmasters, you will find that a vast majority of the bucks being entered today are coming from agricultural regions. In states such as Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, all the way up to the windswept prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta, deer are what they eat. The same minerals and nutrients that go into the crops go into the deer that feed on those crops, and the more the better. The Arkansas delta, which lies roughly east of Little Rock, and all of which lies within the “triangle,” is just such a region.
Current trends are important when looking for “horns.” Deer killed 20, 30 or 40 years ago are certainly nice to look at, but they don’t tell you much about what is going on in the area where they were taken today.
In the 1990s, Cross County, located along Crowley’s Ridge in the eastern part of the state, was the “hot” place for big deer. In that single decade, eight deer were either taken or found (B&C accepts “pick-up” deer) there large enough to make the all-time record book!
Today, Cross has cooled off slightly, and Monroe and White counties are probably the “hot” place to be for big deer. Last fall, Daniel Baxter of Biscoe continued Monroe’s upward march on the records lists when he took a 197 5/8 non-typical there during gun season, while Eric Jones added to White County’s state-leading numbers with a 195 4/8 non-typical, also a gun kill. If I had the opportunity to hunt both, my nod would probably go to Monroe, since five of its seven B&C bucks have been taken since 2000.
Now while figures can be helpful, big bucks are still where you find them. To find proof of that, look no farther than Thomas Sparks’ state-record typical, taken near his home up in Natural Dam (Crawford County) back in 1975. Sparks’ buck, one of the largest ever taken in the en
tire Southeastern Region, is still today the only buck from Crawford large enough to make the Arkansas Trophy Club, which requires a minimum of 150 B&C points for typicals and 170 for non-typicals!
Where would I go if I had unlimited time, too much cash, and a wife that didn’t think I should spend at least a few hours at home during deer season?
As it was in last month’s best hunting areas article, Felsenthal NWR is listed here in the trophy article, but for different reasons. The primary one is that the backside of this 65,000-acre refuge consists of marsh turning to deep swamp, which is the one of the prime types of cover old bucks will move to when guns start booming in other areas. In wet years, there are hillocks within this swamp that are virtually surrounded by water, which makes access both difficult and noisy. But wearing hip waders and slowly easing from spot to spot can pay big dividends, particularly late in the season. Watch for the occasional black holes, especially if the weather is nippy!
Another reason I mention Felsenthal is because it is a large block of managed-public land lying in Ashley, Union and Bradley counties, and if you read last month’s forecast, you know that all of those annually rank among the state’s leaders in overall kill. Good numbers mean increased opportunity, but even better news is that even in the midst of quantity, Union County especially has shown a trend in recent years toward producing bigger bucks.
Gun hunting on Felsenthal is limited to a two-day muzzleloader season in mid-October, and a pair of two-day modern gun seasons in November, with permits required. Since this is a federal facility, antler restrictions do not follow state guidelines. State Highway 82, running between Strong and Crossett, provides access. For more information on hunting Felsenthal, contact the refuge office at (870) 364-3167.
Over on the western end of the GCP lies Pond Creek NWR, a Sevier County area that consists of 27,000 acres of rolling ridges and draws, some of them steep. A few years back, I listed this area as being a “sleeper” for big bucks, and thanks to Jerry Gennings taking his tremendous 172 5/8 typical bow kill (the state’s No. 3 typical archery buck of all time) there last fall, it’s not a sleeper anymore!
However, before you head that way, I’ll interject a word of caution. Several years back, Scott Montgomery and I hunted Pond Creek, and being the superior deer hunters we are we didn’t bother to do any advance scouting, other than what we could work in on the Friday afternoon after we arrived.
That next day, which happened to be overcast, I’ve never been closer to being lost in my life! Naturally, I didn’t take my GPS unit, and if it hadn’t been for one of those tiny pin-on compasses, I’d probably still be there! Pond Creek is truly land that all looks the same, so if you do decide to give it a shot, take the time to do some serious scouting . . . and don’t forget your GPS!
Improved timber harvest practices seem to be having a positive effect on the deer herd, opening up new food areas, and the same could be said for the long-term effects of the major ice storm some years back. But the limited gun hunting is what helps Pond Creek the most. Muzzleloader season consists of three days in October; gun season is just a two-day youth hunt, followed by a three-day quota gun hunt. The “slot limit” antler restriction that has been used there (deer must have 4 points on one side/or less than 4 points total) also seems to have had a positive effect. Primary access to the area is by State Highway 71 between Lockesburg and Ashdown. The number to contact for information and to obtain permits is (870) 364-3167, which by the way is the same number for Felsenthal NWR.
When you consider the mountain ranges of the Natural State, the Ozarks and the Ouachitas, you think first of their beauty, along with the millions of acres of open public hunting available there. But since upland food sources are limited, because of the generally thinner and less nutritious soil, and since genetics, even though on the upswing, are still below average, age has to be the primary variable when a big buck occurs here. The sheer size of the two regions dictate that there are remote pockets where deer live out their lives pretty much free of human intrusion, and if you hunt bigger bucks, you have to find those spots.
One method I use is to take topographic maps and aerial photos, then look for spots that are more than a mile from roads and even trails. Since ATV use has been pretty much banned in the Ozarks, and may well be headed that way in the Ouachitas, that may become easier in the future. If you can locate remote spots, they may well be an old buck’s sanctuary. If the cover there is thick, and a stable food source nearby, he may just stay there. One place I always look is within the designated wilderness areas, which prohibit motorized travel, and are thus pretty much ignored by a vast majority of the hunting masses.
The high doe harvest of a few years back, which many believe almost wiped out the herd in some areas, still brought buck-to-doe ratios more into line than at any time in my memory. That is a good thing for buck hunters, since it creates more competition among the bucks for breeding rights.
Located east by southeast of Fort Smith, Fort Chaffee WMA is a staple for the area’s bowhunting crowd. The sprawling 66,000-acre area differs from most in this part of the state in that it is relatively flat, consisting mostly of gently rolling hills covered with a variety of trees. Openings created by the military provide feeding locations, and more food plots are now being planted. Locals tell me that the resident deer have come to understand the various ins and outs of troop movements, and more than one hunter mentions that good bucks are often seen inside the impact areas, leaving when the firing starts and returning as soon as it is over. Since those spots are off-limits to hunters, it does make you wonder just how smart deer really are. Gun hunting is limited to a two-day muzzleloader hunt and a two-day modern gun hunt, with 650 permits for each day. Since this is a military base, myriad of special rules apply, including the purchase of a $15 bi-annual sportsmen’s permit and attendance of an on-base orientation class. Call (877) 478-1043 from more information.
The famed White River NWR lies, naturally enough, along the White River in Arkansas, Monroe, Phillips and Desha counties. Year after year, this 160,000-acre facility has the best trophy potential of any private-public spot in the entire state. Decades of virtually 50/50 buck-to-doe harvests, dating all the way back into the 1960s, has led to a buck-to-doe ratio that few spots, even those on private ground, can duplicate. Big woods hardwood timber surrounded by numerous row crops, along with limited hunting pressure, especially by gun, are the other factors that combine to guarantee that big deer live here.
Gun hunting is by permit only, and both modern gun and muzzleloader hunts consist of a pair of three-day segments, along with a youth hunt in December on the Cook’s Lake unit, and a mobility-impaired hunt one week later. Bowhunting has become more popular on the refuge since the season was extended until Jan. 31. Wayne Lindsey of Harrisburg took the current state-record typical bow kill, a 177 7/8 5×5, the
re back in 1998. Access can be somewhat limited, especially during times of high water, with State Highway 1 west from DeWitt being the best bet, along with 17 down from Holly Grove. You can contact the refuge office at (870) 282-8200 for information.
A relatively new facility is Choctaw Island WMA, which was purchased back in 2001. The area is unique in that its 7,676 acres lie inside the levee of the Mississippi River, located southeast of McGehee down in Desha County. Even before its purchase, only select-cut timber harvest was done on Choctaw, and thus most of the mast-producing trees there were spared. It is designated by the AGFC as a deer research facility.
Gun hunting is by permit only, with a three-day muzzleloader segment in October and a pair of three-day gun segments, one for mobility-impaired hunters in early November, another for youth in late November. Only 50 permits are available for each of those hunts, and they are hard to get.
Because of the limited opportunity, I probably don’t give this facility the respect it is due as a potential big-buck area. In reality, Choctaw is about as close to a trophy-managed area as you will find operated by the state. Access is easiest by taking State 159 southeast out of McGehee, then turning due east onto State 4 at Trippe Junction. That will take you to Arkansas City and the WMA itself just east of town. Call (877) 945-2543 for more complete info.
Even though White River and Choctaw are my favorites from the state’s prime trophy-producing area, I certainly wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to hunt any managed area within the delta, either public or private. Such spots as Cache River NWR, Henry Gray/Hurricane WMA, Dagmar WMA and even Bald Knob NWR are all places where your chances of taking an outsize buck are above the state average.
Find more about Arkansas fishing and hunting at:ArkansasSportsmanMag.com