2015 Trophy Deer Forecast: Arkansas
October 21, 2015
I'm not sure I would have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself, and in the presence of witnesses.
One was outdoor writer Bill Heavey who joined me for a hunt at Old Belfast Hunting Club in northern Grant County. He came primarily to get human-interest material. The actual hunting was a bit of an afterthought because the Pineywoods in our part of Arkansas aren't known for the kind of bucks for which a big-time writer might travel to see and feature in a major magazine.
Of course, quality is relative to location. A good buck for us is generally a 12-inch 8-pointer. The rack of a mature buck in the northern part of the Gulf Coastal Plain typically isn't very long or very wide, but it usually has thick mass.
When somebody shoots a 4- or 5-year-old buck with those qualities, we recognize it as a "nice Grant County buck."
An experienced hunter probably wouldn't shoot a buck like that in southeast Arkansas because racks can be so much bigger there. That figures into the Bill Heavey story, as well.
Heavey and I didn't see much that first morning in Grant County, so I tried to rattle one up. The biggest buck I'd ever seen in Grant County answered the summons. It refused to provide a clear shot, but my friend Mike Romine killed it several days afterward.
Heavey and I hunted two more days on private property bordering the White River National Wildlife Refuge in Monroe County. That's big-buck country, as evidenced by the 140-class whitetail draped across the back of a campmate's four-wheeler the evening we arrived.
That evening, as I sat in a stand overlooking a food plot, a decent 3-year-old buck stopped directly beneath me. It would have been a dandy Grant County buck, but it was a borderline shooter on this property so I let it walk.
I would have killed that buck 10 years ago, but experience has taught me to be more patient and more discriminating. And, it wasn't so long ago that the buck would have been a green-lighter.
They've gotten bigger because we've let them. That's a vital component in deer management, and that's why we kill more mature bucks than ever in Arkansas.
It's also why we now see the quality of bucks that Romine killed in Grant County. In time, we'll see more.
Our golden era began in 1998, when the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission passed a statewide regulation that required a legal buck to have at least 3 points on one antler.
Cory Gray, the AGFC's deer program coordinator, said the regulation was designed to improve the age structure of the state's deer herd. It worked, by shifting the brunt of the annual buck kill from 1 1/2-year-old bucks to 2 1/2-year-olds.
Bigger antlers were a result, because a 2-year-old buck naturally has bigger antlers than a yearling. By virtue of experience and greater maturity, a 2-year-old buck also has a better chance of living to age 3 and beyond. At age 3, antlers start to get interesting.
Also, the AGFC aggressively encouraged hunters to kill does. The intent was to balance sex ratios, which were wildly skewed in much of the state.
"You can't harvest 70 percent bucks and 30 percent does and be in the deer business very long," Gray said. "Our goal was to get them to 50-50."
We're getting closer. For the second straight year, Arkansas hunters killed more does than bucks — for the first time in the era of regulated sport hunting. That includes antlered and antlerless bucks.
After a few years, hunters noticed positive changes. Private landowners started protecting young bucks and willed themselves to shoot only mature ones.
They started killing large numbers of does. Clubs and landowners on the AGFC's Deer Management Assistance Program invited children and women to fill surplus doe tags.
From a trophy standpoint, Arkansas still is not in the same league with some other whitetail states, but we're getting better.
Justin Spring, assistant director of big game records for the Boone and Crockett Club in Missoula Montana said that Arkansas is starting to gain respect as a place that produces trophy antlers.
For bucks that qualify for B&C recognition, Arkansas experienced a significant spike last year. Seven Natural State bucks met the minimum 160-inch requirement for typicals and the 185-inch requirement for non-typicals.
But applications for several others that would qualify had not yet been submitted at press time. The total, unofficially, is 19.
Hunters killed seven B&C qualifiers in 2013, five in 2012, six in 2011 and nine in 2010.
Of last year's 19 B&C qualifiers, six would qualify for all-time B&C recognition. All-time qualifiers scored 170 for typicals and 195 for non-typicals.
Our biggest buck last year was a 207 7/8 non-typical killed in Prairie County by Don Kittler of Carlisle during the modern gun season.
Leonard Rohrscheib of Lexa killed the state's largest typical in Phillips County, also with a modern gun. It scored 1812/8. Both bucks were killed in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, which we call simply "The Delta."
ARKANSAS TROPHY REGIONS
As usual, the Delta produced the largest number of trophy bucks. You can delineate this region on a map by making a point at Little Rock, in central Pulaski County, and drawing a line northeast to the Missouri border that bisects White County, follows the western edge of Jackson County, bisects Lawrence County and takes in Greene and Clay counties.
Again from Little Rock, draw another line roughly to the southeast that roughly follows the Arkansas and White rivers through Jefferson and Lincoln counties, and takes in Desha and Chicot counties.
Nine of our top 12 bucks came from this region. The Ozark Region produced two, and the Ouachita Region produced one.
Because of its history of producing big bucks, landowners in the Delta are more progressive and more proactive in managing for big bucks.
The AGFC has given three zones in the Delta — 16, 16A and 17 — a more aggressive antler regulation than the 3-point rule. In these zones a legal buck must have at least a 15-inch inside spread and one main beam of at least 18 inches. That regulation also applies to most of the WMAs in the region.
While public land is not plentiful in the Delta, there are some potentially rewarding places to hunt. The Cache River NWR is a good destination, as is the much larger White River NWR.
The White River NWR covers 160,000 acres along the White River from Clarendon to the Arkansas Post Canal near Tichnor. The Cache River NWR covers 56,000 acres bracketing the Cache River from Clarendon north to McCrory.
Trusten Holder WMA (17,587 acres), which borders the southwest end of the White River NWR, is an excellent place, as are Wattensaw (18,702 acres), Dagmar (7,976 acres), and Bayou Meto (33,832 acres) WMAs.
They are open to anyone for bowhunting, but access during modern gun and muzzleloader seasons is regulated by a lottery-style permit process.
The Ouachita Mountain region produced our No.6 biggest buck last year. A youth, Bradley Creekmore of Mena, killed the 1700/8 typical in Polk County. A youth, Eli Whitworth, of Ola, also killed a 1602/8 typical in Yell County.
The Ouachitas produced our No. 5 muzzleloader typical (1456/8). Jimmy Pickering of Jessieville killed it in Garland County. Our No. 3 bow kill came from Saline County (1537/8, by Nate Smith of Benton).
Our No. 3 and No. 4 crossbow kills came from Yell and Hot Spring counties, respectively, by Alvey Taylor of Danville and Maurice Bradford of Hot Springs. Their bucks scored 143 5/8, and 141 0/8, respectively.
When we think of the Ouachitas, hunters naturally gravitate to the 1.5 million acre Ouachita National Forest.
Two of the Top 12 bucks from 2012-13 came from the Ozarks, including a 190 7/8 non-typical killed in Benton County by Drew Weir of Gentry and a 164 3/8 typical killed in Fulton County by Rex Ogle of Melbourne.
Thomas Hussman of Rosebud killed a 186 3/8 non-typical in Cleburne County, and Clark Massey of Marshall killed a 183 3/8 typical in Searcy County, both with modern guns.
Crockett Murphy of Jonesboro killed a 160 2/8-inch non-typical in Fulton County, and Kaelin Richesin of Van Buren killed a 158 3/8 typical in Crawford County.
Cale Vandeman of Siloam Springs killed a 165 3/8 non-typical in Benton County.
The Ozark region has plenty of public land in the form of the 1.5 million acre Ozark National Forest. It has remote areas, like the Richland Creek and Hurricane Creek wilderness areas, to grow big bucks.
It also has walk-in turkey hunting areas where motor vehicles aren't allowed, and also the Buffalo National River, which spans nearly the entire breadth of the Ozarks from Boxley to the White River.
There are some great state-owned WMAs too, like the Harold Alexander Spring River WMA (12,787 acres) in Sharp and Fulton counties, Madison County WMA 13,672 acres), and Gene Rush Buffalo River WMA (17,652 acres).
White Rock Mountain WMA and Piney Creeks WMA are also great places. The AGFC and the U.S. Forest Service have done extensive habitat improvements in Piney Creeks WMA over the last few years, and it's a much better place to hunt because of it.
Gulf Coastal Plain
Covering nearly a third of the state, the GCP is famous for producing a lot of deer, but not for big bucks. It quietly churns out its fair share, and it's getting better as the big hunting clubs in the region get more serious about deer management.
A shining example is the 161 6/8-inch typical buck that Eric Westfall of Murfressboro killed in Hempstead County with a bow. Or the 149-inch typical that Van Meeler of Stamps killed in Lafayette County.
For a host of reasons, 2013-14 was one of the best years in recent memory to kill mature bucks in the GCP. We attribute our success mostly to the widespread clearcutting conducted over the last two years by the timber companies that own most of the land in the region.
Before this particular round of logging, trophy deer could hide all day in an unlimited amount of refuge cover.
The clearcutting eliminated a huge amount of refuge cover and made bucks more accessible. Also, a lot of green and succulent forage grew in the clearcuts, which immensely improved the amount and quality of nutrition for deer.
Also, we observed a much more intense rut last year than we have in recent times. We saw more bucks in the open during daylight, and we saw a lot more chasing. That, we believe, was partly due to the unusually cold winter that started much earlier.
The balancing of buck-to-doe ratios probably contributed to it, as well.
OUR SWEET 16
For the best chance of killing a big buck on public land, consider the AGFC's Sweet 16 WMAs. These 16 WMAs are managed so that the peak harvest will consist of 3 1/2-year old bucks. They have antler requirements that are more demanding than the 3-point rule.
Modern gun and muzzleloader hunting is controlled through a lottery-style permit system, for which the application period is from June 1 to July 1.
The so-called Sweet 16 WMAs are Ed Gordon/Point Remove, Hope Upland, Wattensaw, Bayou Meto, Choctaw Island, Harold Alexander/Spring River, Shirey Bay Rainey Brake, Bois d'Arc, Dagmar, Grandview Prairie, Gulf Mountain, Trusten Holder, Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake, Black River, Madison County and Moro Big Pine Natural Area.