It was mid-December, and the area bordering the Tensas River was extremely inviting.
Active scrapes were seemingly everywhere, and everyone in my five-member cadre of hunters was excited over the prospects of scoring on more than one whitetail over the weekend. After all, we were hunting a southern parcel of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge, which lies in portions of Madison, Tensas and Franklin parishes.
Chosen for a two-day lottery gun hunt, my group had set up a stand line on a hardwoods ridge paralleling the Tensas River. At nearly 7:30 a.m., my brother’s gun spoke sharply. Little did I know that he’d just scored on a Boone and Crockett-class 8-pointer checking out a scrape near his stand.
As he walked up to the fallen buck, he grew somewhat worried at what he was seeing: the broken shaft of an arrow protruding from the muscle just below the backbone. He inspected the old wound, which had already healed, and the worry vanished. No infection was observed in the buck, and its weight of 210 pounds confirmed that this deer was a very healthy animal.
In my neck of the ridge, I sat comfortably on my ladder stand until 9:30 a.m. Shots rang around the area, and I was alerted to the possibility that deer were moving.
Immediately I spied walking on the deer trail a spike buck followed by a rather large doe. It was rather odd to be seeing a large doe following a spike, but the hunting pressure along the ridge was probably enough to make the unusual occur with regard to deer movement.
I made a management decision to aim at the doe instead of the spike, and shot the animal directly in the heart with my .30-06 at 45 yards. The ritual at the weigh station subsequently revealed the weight of my kill to be 150 pounds.
We all congratulated each other and headed back to our makeshift camp to begin skinning and preparing the deer for transportation. Next afternoon, we were again hunting in proximity to the ridge — but this time a little closer to the point at which our ATVs were parked on the trail. The day before we had observed that deer had actually come out on the trail right near the ATVs.
At approximately 1:30 p.m., one of our standers scored on another deer along a trail in a palmetto thicket. The trail was one used by whitetails in the area to reach the acorn ridge near the river. My friend’s buck was a solid 6-pointer weighing a respectable 170 pounds. We blood-trailed the wounded deer to an area just east of my stand location as it ran behind my setup into another dense thicket of palmettos.
Three deer for five hunters makes for a successful public-land lottery hunt in December by anyone’s standards. On our return to Opelousas, we portioned the venison out among ourselves. Of course, my brother retained the high-grade 8-pointer’s cape and rack, which now adorn our southwest Louisiana camp’s wall.
Truth be told, nothing else is like hunting whitetails during the rut in Louisiana. In areas of adequate deer concentration, signs of scrapes and fresh rubs indicate the elements of a possible successful hunt during any time of the day at the peak of the mating season.
While most of Louisiana’s whitetails breed during the month of November, deer rutting periods do occur later within the delta areas of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basins.
LOUISIANA’S LATE DELTA RUT
Regarding late breeding dates within these delta areas, studies conducted by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries indicate that whitetails residing in parishes along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers have a tendency to start pre-rut activities in mid-December, while the peak of the rut will often occur in mid-January. Therefore, the month of December and the few gun days remaining in January are choice times in Louisiana to be in the delta hunting white-tailed deer.
Why is the breeding season later in these areas of the state? “One possible explanation,” offered Scott Durham, deer study leader with the LDWF, “is that the historical backwater flooding experienced here in late spring and early summer from states to the north of Louisiana may have, over time, moved the deer into this late breeding schedule. This could be a biological adaptation geared toward survival, as fawns would be expected to drop when much of this flooding would be over.
“The Atchafalaya Basin to the south historically was the floodplain for several major river systems including the Red River, Ouachita River, Tensas River, Black River, Atchafalaya River and the Mississippi River,” Durham continued. “This floodplain served as a backwater area for these rivers and no doubt remained flooded long after the rivers had returned to normal water levels.
“If the does fawned in May or June, the fawn crop would have been eliminated by the flooding. The late breeding and subsequent late fawning may have developed in response to the flooding.”
According to the biologists, another factor is very favorable to hunters bent on finding and scoring on a top-quality delta buck during the months of December and January. “The deer will naturally be moving when the rut is on,” explained Durham, “and in the delta areas the annual rut takes place during the coldest months of the year. “Although we have had several consecutive warm winters, the odds are that does and bucks will be more readily up and about, since the weather is much cooler at this time of the year.”
One more real advantage for those chasing whitetails at this time of the year is that food availability is waning somewhat owing to cooler temperatures, thus encouraging more daytime deer movement. Also, deer trails are much more readily detected as dense foliage disappears from the ground. Hunters on private lands within the delta areas are often on the track of what they describe as “trailing deer” — whitetails venturing back to bedding areas from feeding sites.
Also, a variety of opportunities for taking deer in mid-December and January are available, among them modern gun hunts that extend into late January in the Atchafalaya Basin. Hunters using primitive firearms also enjoy a late muzzleloader week in late January in Area 6, and bowhunting continues into February during the secondary rut in the Atchafalaya Basin. Please check regulations and dates available for hunting delta areas in the 2008-09 edition of the Louisiana Hunting Regulations pamphlet.
Thousands of private and public delta acres await the hunter seeking Louisiana’s delta bucks in mid-December and January. W
hich areas contain the best of those?
WHERE TO FIND LOUISIANA’S LATE-RUTTING WHITETAILS
Ranking among choice public lands is the above-mentioned Tensas River NWR, which regularly delivers hunters a substantial number of high-quality whitetails. Some 68,000 acres in size and consisting mainly of bottomland hardwoods habitat, this area in northeastern Louisiana is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Between 700 and 800 whitetails are taken here by a combination of lottery (gun), blackpowder, physically challenged and archery efforts each season. Efforts-per-harvest ratios tend to run in the range of 5:1 to 8:1.
The second lottery hunt here usually occurs in mid-December, with the muzzleloader week scheduled in early January. At press time, however, these dates were unavailable. The lottery gun hunts here were scheduled during the first and third weekends of December in 2007, and dates are still unavailable for 2008. The muzzleloader segment is usually slated for early January, with the balance of the season remaining for archery-only pursuits.
Tips and tactics here involve hunting where the does are in hopes of scoring on a high-tined, wide-racked whitetail buck. Does will be visiting acorn ridges where season acorns are still dropping following the first season’s acorns in early fall. If cold temperatures are right in December and January, expect a few wallhangers to drop during the second lottery gun hunt and the following muzzleloader segment.
Natural funnels for whitetails stretch along the Tensas River, and hunters who set up in relation to these can score on a first-quality buck. Note that human disturbance in the woods is a big factor in bucks here tending to hold back for a while in trailing does.
For more information, contact Tensas River NWR, 2312 Quebec Road, Tallulah, LA 71282; (318) 574-2664.
Just south of Tensas River NWR, Big Lake Wildlife Management Area offers the same type of terrain and hunting. This WMA’s 19,231 acres lie in Franklin, Madison and Tensas parishes and sits adjacent to the NWR. The habitat here consists chiefly of bottomland hardwoods with an understory that includes rattan, grapevine, dewberry, blackberry, deciduous holly, swamp dogwood and elderberry.
In 2007-08, LDWF-managed hunts at Big Lake resulted in 122 whitetails from 720 hunting efforts or 5.9 efforts per deer.
A later bucks-only season is slated for late December to early January — just in time to score on a quality or trophy whitetail buck. A primitive weapons hunt follows the bucks-only season in January.
This WMA is responsible for delivering the top state-record non-typical whitetail to be taken by gun in Louisiana; a 31-pointer scoring a whopping 281 6/8 B&C points, it was taken by James McMurray in 1994.
For more information regarding maps, dates and regulations, read the current regulations pamphlet, or contact the LDWF at its Ferriday office, P.O. Box 1640, Ferriday, LA; (318) 757-4571. More information is also available at the LDWF Web site, www.wlf.louisiana.gov.
Farther south, Concordia Parish is home to both Three Rivers and Red River WMAs, which combined offer the deer hunter 70,000 acres of poorly drained bottomland hardwoods habitat to probe for deer.
Three Rivers WMA’s name derives from its proximity to the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya rivers. In fact, the Black, Red, Atchafalaya and Mississippi rivers converge near this area in Avoyelles Parish. Newly-retired wildlife chief and biologist David Moreland, who is also the current chairman of the Louisiana Big Game Records, calls this region the apex of the “Fertile Crescent,” as the river systems in the area deposit alluvium during flood events.
In 2007-08, managed hunts on both WMAs resulted in 253 whitetails taken by 1,538 hunting efforts, or 6.1 efforts per deer. Close to 400 whitetails are taken by all hunting methods on these lands every season.
On these combined tracts, deer numbers are above average, and hunters usually score on high-end bucks ranging from 8 to 10 points during late-season hunting in December and January if the area is accessible. Bucks-only opportunities are available here annually in late December and early January. The primitive weapons season follows the late-season bucks-only modern gun segment.
I’ve hunted these lands on several occasions, and the use of grunt calls near thick areas along acorn ridges has been able to lure white-tailed bucks out of cutover thickets. Certain trails are usually associated with bucks holed up in these thickets. Expect good deer movement here if December rains and cold weather combine to foster conditions favorable to deer movement.
For more, check out the LDWF Web site, or contact the LDWF at its Ferriday office, P.O. Box 1640, Ferriday, LA; (318) 757-4571.
Thistlethwaite WMA’s 11,000 acres lie just four and a half miles north of Washington on state Route 10. Although this WMA is far from any river, the genes of the whitetails here hail from the Chicago Mills area — in a location within what’s now called Tensas River NWR. Therefore, visiting hunters will find good late rutting bucks during the bucks-only modern gun segment scheduled in late December and early January.
“If we have a cold winter, I am looking for the effects of management here to take root,” said Tony Vidrine with the LDWF District VI headquarters in Opelousas. “It’s not uncommon to have a few bucks taken that score in the 140 B&C-class range at Thistlethwaite, and we have bucks in our records there weighing 250 to 275 pounds every year.”
Thistlethwaite is entering year four of a 10-year experiment aimed at producing top-quality whitetail bucks on public lands. Quality management prescriptions here mandate that hunters take only spikes or bucks with at least 4 antler points at least 1 inch long on one side.
“We may see a few older bucks come out in 2008-09 at Thistlethwaite, but I give the experiment about five years at least to begin showing signs that it may be working,” said Vidrine.
At Thistlethwaite, a bucks-only segment is offered in late December through January, and the muzzleloader segment follows the bucks-only hunt. Archery pursuits make up the balance of the season. “If you don’t put in the time, you won’t even see a deer,” warned Opelousas’ Ryan Hooks. The 55-year-old principal of Opelousas Junior High has over a 20-year span wrested 30 whitetails from Thistlethwaite, including a prized 250-pounds 9-pointer. Two seasons ago, he also killed two other bucks at Thistlethwaite — another 9-pointer and an 8-pointer.
December and January are months during which the rut occurs at Thistlethwaite, so hunters are advised to take advantage of the bucks-only and muzzleloader segments.
In the Cajun country of the Atchafalaya Basin, both Sherburne WMA and the Atchafalay
a NWR provide some 44,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods and swamps to hunters pursuing book-grade whitetails. Both of these public parcels are in portions of Pointe Coupee, St. Martin and Iberville parishes.
“Since Hurricane Andrew, we have observed the quality of bucks increase here,” said Vidrine, “mainly (owing) to the effects of an open forest floor, due to much downed timber in the area. We are encouraging as much as possible to increase hunting pressure here, as we have seen less hunters on these lands than in seasons past.”
There is an either-sex gun season in mid-December as well as a bucks-only season scheduled in late December through mid-January. A seven-day primitive weapons segment is scheduled in mid-January. Bowhunting here extends into mid-February.
Last season, hunters harvested 256 whitetails here for approximately 10.5 hunter efforts (combined hunts) in managed either-sex hunts. For more information regarding maps or for any other concerns, contact the LDWF Region 6 office, 105 Avenue of the Acadians, Opelousas, LA 70570; (337) 948-0255.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Indian Bayou Area is another south-central Louisiana parcel managed for good-quality whitetails. Its 28,480 acres are in St. Landry and St. Martin parishes in the Atchafalaya Basin. This tract is mainly a bottomland hardwoods tract with inland swamp areas.
In 1999, Corps personnel initiated a 6-points-or-better rule defining legal whitetail bucks in the area. Then, according to natural resource specialist Neil Lalonde, buck management prescriptions changed, mandating in 2007 the taking of spikes or bucks with at least 4 antler points (at least 1 inch long) on one side. The taking of any buck not meeting these restrictions was prohibited.
According to Lalonde, approximately 30 to 40 percent more bucks have entered the 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-year-old age-classes since 1999-2000.
A primitive weapons gun hunt is usually scheduled for nine days in December, with a bucks-only modern firearms season taking place in January. Permits necessary for hunting at the Indian Bayou Area can be found on bulletin boards at the tract. Tips and tactics here for success are similar to those you’d use across the Atchafalaya River at Sherburne WMA.
Maps and permits can be obtained by contacting the Corps office at Atchafalaya Basin Floodway System Project Office, 112 Speck Lane, Port Barre, LA 70577; (337) 585-0853.
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There you have it — locations, tips and tactics for hunting Louisiana’s late delta rut. For more, see the LDWF Web site, www.wlf.louisiana.gov.