It was a cold December day back in 1972. In those days Arkansas had a two-part deer season, with one weeklong segment in November and another in December.
The "old-timers" (most of them only in their 40s, but already ancient to my 20-year-old way of thinking) had hunted that morning along a thick creekbottom on "government land" inside the Ozark National Forest. With noontime approaching they had gathered around a warming fire, their battered pickups parked to block off the stiff north wind. It was colder back in those days, and even with the weak winter sun approaching its zenith the temperature wasn't that far above freezing.
It had been a good day. A visitor up from Little Rock, I think his name might have been Lane, had killed a nice 6-point buck just after daybreak. In addition, several of the boys had seen deer slipping along the stream in front of the dogs.
It would also turn out to be a good year. By the end of the season seven members of our group (typically about 12 in all) had killed deer. Keeping up the tradition of the day, all were bucks — the largest a big 9-point that Junior Day killed on opening morning.
How good was that season? Consider that in a 1974 article in a national outdoor magazine, noted writer John Cartier wrote that the state of Arkansas had a deer population of "around 300,000 animals," a figure that ranked us No. 17 nationwide. The same article went on to say that the state's hunter success rate annually ran about 11 per cent, which ranked only No. 38 nationally.
Things have changed. Today, published estimates put our deer herd in the 1 million range, and according to Arkansas Game and Fish Commission figures our statewide kill last season totaled 186,166 animals! If we use the 275,000 figure seen from time to time for our total number of hunters, that translates to a success ratio of 67.8 percent. Naturally some hunters take more than one deer per year, but by whatever yardstick you choose to use, today's hunter success is at an all-time high.
The really good news is that today it's hard to find a "bad" place to hunt deer in Arkansas. But even in this day of plenty, some spots are better than others. And so the focus of this article will be to look at what numbers and experience tell us should be the "hotspots" for the current season.
Before we begin, there are some terminology guidelines that I should mention. Today there are three types of land in our state.
Public land is just that, totally open to the public with no special permits required. In most cases the hunting regulations also follow statewide guidelines. The two prime examples of that type of land are the huge Ozark and Ouachita National Forests in the western and northwestern regions of the state.
Managed public lands are state or federally controlled properties where hunting is allowed, but with special restrictions in place. Access is typically controlled, harvest quotas are in effect, and permits are required. Examples of these are the various wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges scattered throughout the state.
Private land belongs to individual landowners who may or may not allow hunting on their property. Some private lands are open to hunting for a fee. The timber-company lands of southern Arkansas are the most common example, via leases to hunting clubs.
Keep these definitions in mind as we continue through this article.
There also is a truism where Arkansas deer hunting is concerned. If you're looking for the most deer, head south; if you're looking for the biggest deer, then head east. It was that way when I was a kid, it's that way now, and it will be that way in the future.
Take a look at the list of top counties it terms of overall kill. The top five are from the Gulf Coastal Plain, that endless sea of green timberlands lying south of Little Rock. Union County (down around El Dorado) has led the state in overall kill for pretty much the past decade, while the others are all perennial top producers.
Each of those also falls within Arkansas Deer Zone 12, which takes in all or part of 22 counties, and where deer seemingly lurk behind every bush. Last year that single zone accounted for 75,598 animals harvested, or more than 40 percent of the state's entire total!
Why is that? On their vast properties, timber companies raise two things — timber and deer. In most cases it's not by design, but in others it is. You see, deer today are a cash crop, and just about anyone who owns large tracts of land understands that. So timber cutters leave hardwoods along creeks, and the openings that occur as the timber is harvested turn into food sources. Throw in the fact that many of the clubs build food plots and mineral licks, along with feeding stations, and it's no surprise that the whitetails flourish.
The downside? Since the land is private, in order to hunt there you have to join one of the clubs that lease hunting rights. In this day of high gas prices and economic setbacks, hunters are feeling the pinch.
The alternative for hunters fed up with rising lease prices often lies in hunting managed public lands. The good news is that there's lots of it. Today we have more than 80 Wildlife Management Areas and National Wildlife Refuges scattered throughout our state. More good news is that some of the very best hunting, both for quantity and quality of deer, is available on these facilities.
Why? The answer is simply management and controlled access. Gun hunting is typically either by permit or quota, with the numbers available based on the number of animals to be harvested.
One disclaimer before we start talking about individual spots. I occasionally have people tell me that my various forecasts always seem to highlight the same places. That's true. But if you think about it, the best spots are the best for a reason, and those reasons don't typically change from year to year.
Felsenthal NWR is the classic example. This 65,000-acre facility lies within the GCP, where public land is almost non-existent. So it's not only the best, but it's also pretty much the only public spot in that part of the state!
But there are other reasons I choose it. Felsenthal lies in Ashley, Union and Bradley counties. Union and Bradley are listed in this year's Top 5 counties, Ashley very well could be next year. To be successful you need to hunt where the most deer are.
The refuge also offers diversity of terrain, with the topography ranging from pine ridges on the north to deep swamps on the south. The lower portion is swamp hunting at its best, so either a boat or at least hip waders are required. A word to the wise: When the weather is warm, mosquitoes are a real problem, so take along bug-proof clothing or a good ThermaCell.
Gun hunting on Felsenthal is limited to a two-day muzzleloader season (Oct. 16-17), and a pair of two-day modern gun hunts (Nov. 13-14 and 18-19). A permit is required; you can call (870) 364-3167 for more information. The refuge itself is located about 5 miles west of Crossett along US Highway 82.
Camp Robinson WMA is a staple for Little Rock/North Little Rock hunters. The terrain of this 19,648-acre facility is gently rolling ridges cut by wide, flat-bottomed draws, which in good mast years are the prime hunting spots. There are also quite a few fields scattered throughout the facility, and checking the edges of those for rubs and scrapes as the rut approaches can be productive. Hunters took 155 deer there last season.
Gun hunting typically consists of a two-day muzzleloader hunt (Nov. 20-21) followed by a pair of two-day gun hunts (Nov. 25-26 and 27-28). These are permit hunts available during the AGFC drawing process.
Access to Robinson can be either by SH 89 east off Interstate 40 near Mayflower, or by SH 176 out of North Little Rock. Because Robinson is an army base, there are special rules in effect. All hunters must present a sportsman's pass upon entry. Obtain a sportsman's pass by calling (501) 212-5232; they also are available Tuesdays and Thursdays at the main gate in the visitors center. The pass is $10 annually and you need to have your drivers license, insurance, and proof of registration at the time of purchase.
The 66,000-acre Fort Chaffee WMA lies just east of Ft. Smith, along State Highway 22. This low-use base has long been a staple of deer hunters from the area, particularly bowhunters. Hunters took 509 deer there during the 2010-11 season, a fairly high number considering the shortness of the gun seasons. There is a pair of single-day modern gun hunts scheduled for this year (Nov. 20-21), and the same for muzzleloaders (Nov. 27-28). That's good timing for the hunter, with the rut generally in full swing during the gun hunts.
The terrain is gently rolling hills, with quite a few hardwoods still standing along the numerous streams. In years of low mast production, food can be a problem; there are relatively few maintained food plots.
As with all military bases, there are special rules and regulations. All hunters must attend a Sportsman's Orientation class. The class schedule and locations are available by calling (479) 484-3995, extension 2. Hunters must purchase a $20 biannual sportsman's permit, and those are available at the class. Area closures may occur on a day-to-day basis, so you must check the maps at the various entry points to make sure the area you want to hunt is open. Call (877) 478-1043 for more information.
I'll discuss the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests together because both have pretty much the same plusses and minuses where deer hunting is concerned. Both are huge areas, the Ouachitas comprising 1.7 million acres, the Ozarks 1.2 million. Both are towering and majestic. Both have stable deer populations that are in line with the available browse.
But therein lies the problem, if that's how you choose to view it. Mountain soil is thinner and thus less fertile than the bottomland variety. So not only is the ground cover/forage in shorter supply, but it is also less mineral rich and nutritious.
What about all the acorns, you ask? Any biologist will tell you that oak trees, especially the white oak variety, are notoriously cyclic. That means they produce a good mast crop one year, and then maybe none at all for the next two or three. In the years when the "deer candy" doesn't fall, times can be hard for wildlife.
That's why I don't spend too much time talking about the oaks in terms of being among the better hunting areas. As examples: there were 160 deer killed last season in White Rock WMA, which consists of 280,000 acres. There were 187 killed on Muddy Creek WMA, which encompasses 146,000 acres. When you consider the acres per deer harvested, that figures out to 1 deer per 1,750 acres in White Rock, 1 deer per 781 in Muddy Creek. Those ratios pretty much hold true throughout both mountain ranges, so there are simply other locations where your chances are better.
What makes Ed Gordon/Point Remove WMA, which lies northwest of Morrilton, unique is great diversity of terrain over a fairly small area (8,694 acres). Along both sides of Point Remove Creek lie typical bottomland agricultural fields, with a few old oaks along the various tributaries. Much of the cropland is farmed by locals, under a co-operative agreement to leave a part of the crops in the field for wildlife.
To the northwest are mountains, or more appropriately rounded hills, covered with various types of timber. These ridges are also the spots deer will move to when high water floods the bottoms, which it does periodically during the rainy season. Some 600 acres of the WMA was re-planted in pines a few years back, so no matter what type of terrain you prefer to hunt, this WMA has it.
Gun hunting on Ed Gordon is by permit only, with a two-day hunt in late October (30-31) and another in November (13-14). Only 100 permits are available for each, and during gun hunts the hunter must take a doe before he can take a buck. That is also an area where the statewide 3-point rule is not in effect.
The facility itself is located north of I-40 at the 101-mile marker. Information is available by calling (877) 967-7577.
I'm almost loath to mention White River NWR in this part of the deer forecast, since it is the cream of the state's trophy-production areas. But the plain truth is that in many ways it is No. 1 destination in terms of opportunity as well.
Comprised of 160,000 acres of bottomland habitat along the White River in Arkansas, Desha, Monroe and Phillips counties, this vast area is a spot every Arkansas hunter should visit at least once in their lifetime. Hunters killed 1,130 deer there last season, and refuge personnel tell me the number could be even higher this year! Good food in the form of croplands that lie on both sides of the White River and limited gun hunting are the primary reasons.
Gun season consists of a pair of muzzleloader permit hunts (Oct. 16-18 and 19-22) on the north unit and a single hunt (Oct. 16-18) on the south. The two units are divided by State Highway 1, by the way. Modern gun hunting follows the same criteria, with a pair of hunts (Nov. 13-15 and 16-18) on the north, and one (Nov. 13-15) on the south.
With the mid-November rut in full swing, modern gun permits are the hot ticket. All are either-sex with no antler restrictions. Special hunts are also available for both youth and handicapped hunters. Contact the refuge headquarters at (870) 282-8200 for complete information.
Not too often does the hunter have a good chance to take his venison along with an equally good chance to harvest a good buck. But that's the case today on White River!
So that's a look at some of the better hunting spots in a state where prospects are limitless. Are there any problems that could affect the upcoming season? I put that question to Brad Miller, the deer program coordinator for the AGFC.
"At this point everything looks to be in place for another good season in 2011-12." Brad told me last summer. "There's no disease problems with the herd, and the winter has been mild. Naturally, weather is always a factor, particularly drought in the summer and fall, but right now the herd is in fine condition."
So with all the positives in place, it's no wonder that today's old-timers, myself included, say that these are the good old days of Arkansas deer hunting!