In my short lifetime, I have seen deer hunting in Arkansas go from poor to great in a quantum leap.
I saw my first deer in 1974, while hunting ducks with my dad and two elderly uncles in Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. It was a big buck running from hounds in waist-deep water, and the sight of that big body and ivory-colored antlers transfixed me. I’d listened to my mentors talk about hunting deer, but to me, the animals verged on the mythical.
My uncle Demp was prepared for such an opportunity. He removed the duck loads from his shotgun, replaced them with buckshot and disappeared for the rest of the afternoon. He came back empty-handed, of course, because deer were relatively scarce in Bayou Meto, just as they were everywhere else.
A year later, I saw my first harvested deer, again at Bayou Meto. A couple of hunters dragged an 8-point buck across a small field near the Long Bell Access. I ran across the field to greet them, and I actually touched the deer. That was as close as I would get to one for 12 more years.
Fast forward to the mid-1980s, when a national hunting magazine rated Arkansas — with a deer population of about 500,000 — as one of the South’s top deer-hunting destinations. By then, deer were fairly common in many parts of the state. I finally got onboard in 1988, when I killed my first deer in Faulkner County.
In 2010, things are even better. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission estimates our deer herd to contain about 1 million animals. Almost every hunter expects to kill a deer these days, and it seems rare for hunters to kill just one. If you put in the time at a productive area, you stand a really good chance of filling a limit.
That’s been the story for at least 10 years, and 2010 should be no different. If you want to put some venison in the freezer, you can expect plenty of opportunities in any county.
As with any state, Arkansas contains many different types of habitat and land-use patterns. The Mississippi Alluvial Plain, or the Delta, in eastern Arkansas contains vast farms that shelter a lot of deer. Most of the area is privately owned, however, and access is limited. Access to public land, including AGFC-owned WMAs and the White River and Cache River national wildlife refuges, is tightly controlled during firearms seasons, and harvests are limited by quota. On the other hand, access usually is open for bowhunters, except during the muzzleloader and modern gun seasons, from Oct. 1 through Feb. 28.
The Gulf Coastal Plain encompasses most of southern Arkansas. That is where the greatest concentrations of deer live. Big timber and paper companies own most of the land, and hunting it usually requires membership in one of the many clubs that leases the land. Membership in those clubs ranges from about $150 to nearly $250,000 per year.
The Arkansas River Valley also has a lot of deer, but again, most of the land is privately owned. Bowhunters enjoy open access and ample opportunities at WMAs like Galla Creek and Petit Jean River.
Public access is most generous in the Ouachita Mountains and Ozark Mountains, mostly on the 3 million or so acres that comprise the Ozark and Ouachita national forests. Access is largely unrestricted, and while hunting pressure is intense in some areas of the national forests, it’s non-existent on others, especially in remote, hard-to-reach areas. Deer densities are lower per square mile in the mountains than in the rest of the state, but whitetails are plentiful for those willing to work for them.
According to the AGFC, hunters killed about 186,000 deer in 2009-10, compared to 184,800 in 2008-09. That includes a checked total of 170,517. The remainder came from property enrolled in the AGFC’s Deer Management Assistance Program. The overwhelming majority of those were does. Of deer that hunters checked, 83,087 deer were antlered bucks, and 14,048 were button bucks. The remainder, 73,382, were does.
New last year was the AGFC’s online and telephone-checking systems, which replaced the age-old practice of checking deer at authorized check stations. Brad Miller, the AGFC’s deer biologist, said he believes the harvest numbers, deer data and place of kill that hunters reported through the new system are more accurate than those reported at check stations.
David Goad, chief of the AGFC’s wildlife management division, said that many hunters who killed deer late in the day on their own land were more likely to check their deer by phone or online. Before last year, they probably didn’t bother to haul the deer to a check station, haul it back home, and then clean and skin the animal late at night.
Brad Carner, the AGFC’s regional wildlife supervisor in Russellville, took it a step further. He said harvest figures from WMAs were more accurate with online and telephone checking. “When someone took a deer to a check station, the person checking the deer a lot of times didn’t think to ask if the deer was taken on a WMA, and the hunter didn’t think to mention it,” Carner said. “With online and telephone checking, you’re asked if you took the deer on a WMA. The deer got reported in the past, but it wasn’t necessarily reported as being taken on a WMA. Now, we think the WMA harvest reports are more accurate.”
Carner also said it helped increase the doe harvest, especially in the Ozarks, when the AGFC opened doe days in various regions. For several years the AGFC issued doe quota permits for various zones.
For deer hunters, the biggest change in 2010-11 will be a bag limit increase in Zone 12, which encompasses most of the Gulf Coastal Plain, to five deer. Only two can be bucks. The AGFC made that change to encourage hunters to kill more does. Also, in the Ozarks, bowhunters will be able to take a doe at any time during modern gun season, even on days when gun hunters only take bucks.
Zone 12 harbors more deer than any other region in the state, but it also has the most hunters. Hence, it always produces the highest harvest totals. In 2009-10, hunters checked a total of 67,551 deer in Zone 12. As usual, hunters in Union County killed the most deer in Arkansas last year with a checked harvest of 7,427. Of those, 3,069 were antlered bucks, and 3,858 were does.
The rest were button bucks. Ashley County was a distant second with a checked harvest of 5,242, of which 2,019 were antlered bucks and 2,779 does. Close behind was Ouachita County, with a checked harvest of 4,929 — 1,995 antlered bucks and 2,509 does.
Notice the trend of hunters killing more does than antlered bucks? That was consistent among the top 12 counties in the GCP. And remember, the doe tally will go even higher when you include those killed on DMAP lands. The rest of the Top 12 in Zone 12 include, in fourth place, Drew County with 4,891 deer (2,058 antlered bucks, 2,423 does), Cleveland County, with 4,889 (1,857 antlered bucks, 2,537 does), Clark County (4,757; 2,021 bucks, 2,317 does), Dallas County (4,854; 1,885 antlered bucks, 2,469 does).
Bradley County reported 4,634 (1846 antlered bucks, 2,390 does), Pike County (3,904; 1,806 antlered bucks, 1,819 does), Hempstead County (3,104; 1,326 antlered bucks, 1,567 does), Nevada County (4,093; 1,607 antlered bucks, 2,138 does) and Grant County (3,859; 1,452 antlered bucks, 2,006 does). On my club in Grant County, hunters killed 50 deer last year, 29 does and 21 bucks.
Of those counties, Pike lies partially in the GCP and partially in the Ouachita Mountains. Also, a good deal of Hempstead County lies in the Blackland Prairie region that stretches into northeastern Texas.
“Our deer harvest will probably be up 5 to 10 percent over last year,” said Roger Milligan, the AGFC’s regional wildlife supervisor in Monticello. “From indications from our DMAP clubs, we’re up pretty significantly down here. We’re looking good for next year.”
Top public lands in the GCP were Casey Jones WMA (293 deer), Big Timber WMA (165 deer), Howard County WMA (161), Poison Springs WMA (100) and Felsenthal NWR (100). Flooding greatly limited hunting at Felsenthal, which gave up 464 deer in 2009-10.
Despite the high numbers of deer and corresponding hunting opportunities, the GCP has some problems, Milligan said. Most of the land in the region contains large pine plantations. Some major landowners are now spraying a herbicide that kills everything except pines, which leaves no browse for deer, quail, turkey or any other wildlife. In the short term, Milligan said that could cause deer to leave those areas and concentrate even more heavily in areas that do have food, which could lead to habitat degradation and disease. If the practices continue unabated, deer numbers will probably go down, perhaps precipitously.
“They’ll cut a place out, poison it and plant more pines,” Milligan said. “There’s nothing out there for deer to eat. The carrying capacity is being reduced in southeast Arkansas from days gone by, and that concerns me. It makes deer want to do a little migrating, and that tends to bunch deer up. Disease and all that seems to become prevalent when that happens.”
With the increased emphasis on killing does, Milligan added that deer herds are healthier in both the Delta and GCP than before. There are fewer bucks in areas with overpopulations of does, he explained, and reducing doe numbers is a major step to balancing sex ratios.
The best places to hunt in southeast Arkansas, Milligan added, are along the Arkansas River or the Mississippi River. The major hurdle for most hunters there, he said, is access.
“They’ve got scads of deer,” Milligan said. “The problem is getting invited to go to them because all that land is bought up or leased up.”
I can vouch for that assessment. I spend a lot of time on a private island between the levees in Zone 17, and it contains an astonishing number of deer. Likewise for the clubs bordering the Arkansas River and the White River NWR.
Leading the “hit” parade in the Delta last year was Arkansas County, where hunters killed 3,322 deer, including 1,795 bucks and 1,328 does. One of those bucks was mine. Runner-up was White County, with 2,759 deer (1,379 bucks, 1,128 does), followed by Lawrence County (1,351; 704 antlered bucks, 535 does), Lonoke County (1,235; 601 antlered bucks, 554 does) and Prairie County (1,610; 849 antlered bucks, 671 does).
Those numbers are impressive because a large chunk of the Delta experienced widespread flooding last year, which prompted the AGFC to close the season in several flood-prone zones.
Also, notice the harvest trend reversal compared to the GCP. Without DMAP numbers, hunters actually killed more bucks.
Again, access to public land for hunting with firearms is limited in the Delta, and it will be even more limited in 2010-11. Last year, the AGFC issued 1,000 permits for the five-day modern gun and muzzleloader seasons in Bayou Meto WMA. This year, Milligan said, the number of permits will be 600. One reason is because of a huge buck killed there last year. A photo of that buck was widely circulated on the Internet, and the extra attention attracted a lot of additional hunters into the area.
“I’ve got a problem with that, and the problem is safety,” Milligan said. “But bow season will still be wide open.” Last year, hunters checked 140 deer from Bayou Meto.
Milligan said Trusten Holder WMA is also an excellent place to hunt deer. Hunters checked 105 deer from Trusten Holder last year. It allows only five days for gun hunting, but bowhunters are welcome throughout the season. Bowhunters who win a coveted modern firearms permit for Trusten Holder usually pay the fee and then throw away the permit to further minimize gun hunting in the area. Same for Mike Freeze/Wattensaw WMA, where hunters checked 62 deer last year.
Hunters also checked 207 deer from the White River NWR North Unit and 116 deer from the White River NWR South Unit. The Cache River NWR yielded 89 deer.
Deer hunting was excellent in the Ozarks last year. Hunters checked 3,976 deer from Washington County, which contains the region’s two largest towns, Fayetteville and Springdale. Of those, 2,303 were antlered bucks and 1,445 does. Close behind was Sharp County, on the other side of the Ozark Plateau, where hunters checked 3,909 deer (1,821 antlered bucks and 1,619 does). In third place was Madison County, which is adjacent to Washington County, with 3,429 deer (2,041 antlered bucks, 1,189 does), followed by Fulton County (3,073; 1,614 antlered bucks, 1,171 does) and Independence County (3,018; 1,638 antlered bucks, 1,154 does).
Carner said the Arkansas River Vall
ey has the most deer in his region, but it would benefit from a higher doe harvest. He also said that hunters should reduce the buck harvest throughout western Arkansas, but said any effort to do so would have to be voluntary.
Honorable mention status goes to Benton County (2,944; 1,576 antlered bucks, 1,132 does), Izard County (2,777; 1,574 antlered bucks, 984 does) and Cleburne County (1,364 antlered bucks, 1,087 does).
The top WMA in the Arkansas River Valley was Fort Chaffee (184), followed by Ozark Lake WMA (100), Lake Dardanelle WMA (48) and Galla Creek WMA (32).
Top WMAs in the Ozarks were Sylamore WMA (245), Ozark National Forest WMA (235) Piney Creeks WMA (224) and Buffalo National River WMA (157).
Though rugged and dominated by pine, the Ouachita Mountains are surprisingly productive for deer, especially in the foothill regions. Saline County, a good chunk of which lies in the greater Little Rock area, led the region with 3,078 deer (1,358 antlered bucks, 1,478 does), followed by neighboring Hot Spring County (2,469; 1,043 antlered bucks, 1,150 does), Garland County (2,430; 1,241 antlered bucks, 999 does), Polk County (2,085; 1,090 antlered bucks, 826 does) and Yell County (1,743; 1,065 antlered bucks, 518 does).
Top WMAs were Mount Magazine, which might also be considered part of the Arkansas River Valley, with 369 deer, followed by Winona WMA with 323. Winona WMA is less than one hour’s drive west of Little Rock and less than one hour north of Hot Springs, so it is heavily hunted. Hunters checked 194 deer from Muddy Creek WMA and 169 from Lake Greeson WMA.
As the numbers illustrate, Arkansas hunters killed a lot of deer last year, and this season promises more of the same. Opportunities have never been more plentiful, so if you’re hungry for venison, 2010-11 will be an excellent time to fill your freezer.