On the hallowed list of America's big-buck hotspots, Arkansas is considered a "sleeper" destination for hunters seeking trophy bucks.
Thanks to visionary management goals and practices established 20 years ago by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas' buck herd has a very good age structure, with ample representation among multiple age-classes.
Our statewide 3-point rule, which took effect in 1998, requires a legal buck to have at least 3 points on one antler. Some of our wildlife management areas have more rigid regulations, such as a 15-inch minimum inside spread and/or at least one 18-inch main beam.
The effect has been to protect young bucks and shift hunting pressure to bucks that are 2 1/2 years old or more.
Also, thanks to education, generous bag limits and liberal regulations, Arkansas hunters have embraced the idea of killing does to improve herd quality, and by extension, buck quality.
Granted, Arkansas does not produce as many Boone and Crockett bucks as some Midwest states, but we average about five entries to the Boone and Crockett All-Time Awards book annually.
We also produce some bucks that are nationally respected, like the state-record typical that Jacob Ayecock killed in Drew County in 2015. That rack scored 195 2/8 B&C. It is the largest typical ever killed in the South, excluding Texas, and it ranks 57th all-time.
Bucks of that quality roam the Natural State, and frankly, we kind of expect one to show up every year. That's why every season begins with high hopes that the next state record will walk in front of our stands.
THE 2016 CHAMPION
Alan Schales of Cave City killed the biggest buck recognized for the 2016 season at the Arkansas Big Buck Classic. The Classic is a venerable hunting exposition that takes place in January to honor the best bucks from the previous season.
Schales' giant non-typical rack netted 205 2/8 B&C. He killed it Nov. 12, 2016, at the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Woodruff County while hunting with Phillip Norton.
In 2014, Norton killed a 165 6/8 typical within a mile of where Schales got his buck. It was the state's largest muzzleloader kill that year.
The Cache River NWR encompasses low, swampy land in the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain with thick cover that borders cropland on both sides. The deer herd in the Delta has great genetics, and the soil is rich with minerals. Couple low hunting pressure with abundant food, and it's easy to see why the Delta produces most of our biggest bucks.
As is usually the case on public land, the pair did not pattern Schales' buck. He was simply in the right place at the right time.
Nov. 12 was opening day of the statewide modern gun season. It was unseasonably cold, with a biting north wind that did not abate until evening. Nevertheless, Schales was prepared to hunt all day. He passed on four small bucks, and the big one arrived at 9:30 a.m.
"He was running with the wind instead of against it," Schales said. "He came out of a big thicket, and I was in a willow brake."
The buck was in a hurry, and Schales had to act quickly.
"From the time I saw him to the time I pulled the trigger was about 4 seconds," Schales said. "The rut was going on pretty good, and he was trotting pretty fast."
Schales downed the deer with one shot at 40 yards from a rifle chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum.
"After I pulled the trigger, that's when reality set in," Schales said. "I was shaking pretty bad."
Schales said he shook even harder when he put his hands on the buck.
Luck, it is often said, is the result of preparation, and Norton said that was certainly the case with this buck. He and Schales did not hunt this buck specifically, but extensive scouting and experience has shown Norton that big bucks traverse the area he hunts as they travel to feeding and bedding areas.
"That week I walked 25 miles checking cameras and moving stands," Norton said. "There are a lot of crops down there, and they've got plenty of room to hide.
Norton said he wasn't surprised that Schales got such a giant.
"People said I was never going to top the one I got in 2014, but this deer was coming right to me from him," Schales said. "If Alan hadn't got him, I might have had a chance at him."
TOP MUZZLELOADER TYPICAL
It's almost gospel the importance of scent control and proper stand placement for hunting trophy bucks.
Jeremy Edgin of Lexa, who killed our state's largest typical buck with a muzzleloader last year, is evidence that those tenets might be overstated.
For scent, Edgin used a cold cut combo sandwich from Subway with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and jalapeno peppers. His "stand" was a collapsible lawn chair that he carried into the woods in a bag.
The hunt almost did not happen.
"I didn't really want to go hunting that morning," said Edgin, a tool and die maker. "My stomach felt kind of uneasy. My wife reminded me that it was a permit hunt, and that I needed to go. The Subway was in the fridge, so I put that in my backpack.
"I had to make a choice between deer or the Subway," Edgin continued. "Me being a big guy, well €¦"
The occasion was a permit-only muzzleloader hunt at Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge in Lee County. On Nov. 19, Edgin walked in to a spot that a friend told him about. Nearly two hours later, the buck appeared 20 yards away. Edgin shot it with what he called an "El Cheapo" muzzleloader from Wal-Mart, with a 250-grain Thompson/Center Shockwave sabot bullet powered by 90 grains of Triple-X powder.
The buck scored 157 6/8 typical and was the largest typical muzzleloader kill recorded at the Big Buck Classic. It missed the all-time B&C book by only 12 2/8 inches. Interestingly, our top non-typical muzzleloader buck (183 1/8, killed by Tim Hopper of Marion) missed the book by almost the same margin.
Edgin's rack sported 10 typical points, minus deductions for 2 sticker points and unequal main beams. The inside spread was 20 4/8 inches. The right beam was 24 2/8 inches, and the left 23 6/8 inches.
Covering 5,484 acres, Wapanocca NWR is overshadowed by the much larger White River and Cache River national wildlife refuges. Only four miles from the Mississippi River, its habitat is largely composed of lowland bald cypress and willow-oak forest that remains flooded year 'round. It is one of the last remaining stands of this type of forest in the Delta.
Like the Cache and White River refuges, Wapanocca NWR is surrounded by vast acreages of crop fields that grow mostly rice and soybeans. Thus, Waponocca is basically a big refuge for genetically superior deer with easy access to excellent nutrition.
Low ridges transect the lowlands, and deer use them as feeding and travel corridors between their refuge areas in the swamps.
Deer hunting is controlled by randomly drawn permits, and because of its size, remoteness and proximity to bigger, more popular areas, Waponocca doesn't get much publicity.
Because permanent stands aren't allowed on national wildlife refuges or state wildlife management areas, public-land hunters actually have more flexibility to move around than do hunters with fixed stands on private land.
Edgin had eight trail cameras on a ridge that he had scouted, but none of the cameras ever photographed this buck. On the day of the hunt, he went about 200 yards deeper into the woods than where he had been scouting.
The spot was an old load-out area for loggers. It was enclosed by very thick cover, but Edgin sat in a spot that gave him a concealed view of a small opening. Amazingly, that's where the buck appeared. At 8 a.m., it stepped into the clearing and offered a close, unobstructed shot. "I was shaking like a leaf," Edgin said.
In hopes of bagging an even bigger buck, Edgin carried a Subway sandwich on all of his subsequent hunts. "It didn't work," he said.
TOP ARCHERY NON-TYPICAL
Matt Bingham of West Memphis considers himself a casual deer hunter, but he bagged a serious buck in 2016.
He used a compound bow to kill a non-typical in St. Francis County that netted 198 3/8, which enshrined it firmly in Boone and Crockett's All-Time awards book. It was also the biggest buck taken in Arkansas with
archery tackle in 2016.
Bingham's hunting partner, Josh Doyle of Marion, is a dedicated hunter who emphasizes selective management practices. Bingham said he owes much of his success to the things that Doyle has taught him, such as the importance of scouting and surveillance.
Bingham and Doyle use remote cameras to inventory the bucks in the area they hunt, and they first photographed Bingham's buck in 2014. The buck's most distinctive features were its split G-3 tines, which earned it the nickname "Split G-3."
Split G-3 was almost always photographed at night. He appeared only twice in daytime photos, but Bingham and Doyle at least knew the buck was still alive when the 2016 season started.
On Oct. 29, Bingham ascended a lock-on stand at a pinch point between a couple of large oaks that were dropping a lot of acorns.
The morning was warm enough to make Bingham sweat when he settled into the stand. Mosquitoes swarmed, and so he fired up his ThermaCell repellant device.
Seconds later, Bingham heard footfalls in the leaves directly beneath the stand. Believing it was a raccoon, Bingham peered through the thick foliage and glimpsed a single tine through a hole in the leaves. Unfortunately, his bow was dangling from a hanger nearby.
"I knew any movement might cause a creak in the stand and give me away, but he was in no hurry," Bingham said. "He was so close that I could hear him eating acorns and actually licking his lips. But he just stayed right there, hardly moving."
After several minutes, Bingham slowly stood and grasped his bow with a shaky hand. He heard the buck move, but he still couldn't see it. He knew that the buck was moving in a direction to require a shot from Bingham's off-side position, which would require Bingham to swivel.
"He stopped, and I froze and hoped with all my might that he would change directions," Bingham said. "After several more seconds, I heard him take a few steps again, and it sounded like he was moving back to the left."
Through a narrow space in the foliage, Bingham saw that it was a wide-racked buck. Its head was down, so Bingham drew his bow.
"When he hit my opening, he was only 7 yards from the base of my tree," Bingham said. "Trying to control my shaking, I put my only pin just below his upper back, hoping the downward angle would penetrate his vitals."
The arrow struck true, and the buck plunged into a thicket. Bingham heard the buck fall and take its final breaths.
"As I sat there waiting, I thought, 'Did I see a split G-3 when I released?'"
Bingham waited for 30 minutes, which was plenty of time for doubt to play its tricks. He descended slowly from his stand, and then nocked an arrow after his feet touched the ground.
He didn't search long. The buck lay 20 yards from the stand. Bingham saw the rack and believed the deer was propped up by a log.
"When I got to him, I saw that he was not propped up by a log," Bingham said. "He was propped up only by his antlers. Then I saw that he had the two split G-3s!"