When you look at all the factors that matter from 2013, Arkansas deer hunters should be able to expect another outstanding year in 2014. It might even be our best ever.
During the combined 2013-14 deer seasons, hunters checked 213,199 deer. That's only 288 fewer than the record harvest of 2012-13, when we killed 213,487. The difference is only about a tenth of a percent.
We killed 105,952 bucks last year, and 107,247 does. Take another look at those numbers. For the first time in the era of regulated sport hunting, we killed more does than bucks.
In addition, hunters killed 4 percent fewer bucks in 2013-14 than they did the previous year (110,448), but we also killed 4 percent more does than we did the previous year (103,039). That's an 8-percent swing, and that makes Cory Gray, the deer project leader for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, very happy.
"That's making progress," he said.
Gray also considers the overall deer kill progressive. If we never set another harvest record, Gray said, an annual harvest in the present range represents what he calls "maximum sustained yield." That keeps the statewide herd below the habitat's carrying capacity, or the number of deer the landscape can support. The deer herd is at its largest in the fall, but hunters trim it back, primarily during the modern gun season, which begins the second Saturday of November and runs almost to Christmas in some parts of the state.
It hasn't always been so good. Those who hunted in the 1970s or before remember when it was rare to kill a deer. In the mid-1980s, our deer herd hit a critical mass when the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission estimated its number at about 500,000 animals.
Deer had always been numerous in south Arkansas, but that's when they started spreading out and saturating other areas where deer densities traditionally had been fairly sparse. We started seeing more deer in more parts of the state. Greater opportunity meant that sportsmen got increasingly interested in hunting deer.
I killed my first deer in 1988, in Faulkner County. That was the first time the annual kill surpassed 100,000, to the tune of 106,392 deer. In 1987, by comparison, our statewide kill was 79,880. Since 1988, our annual kill has dipped below 100,000 only once — to 90,910 in 1990.
From 1991-94, hunters killed around 120,000 deer per year, but 1995 was another watershed because hunters checked a record 163,924 deer. It dipped to 152,460 in 1996, followed by three more consecutive record years. We set our last record in 1999 when hunters checked 194,687 deer. It dropped precipitously in 2003 to about 103,000 deer, but rebounded annually by about 20,000 animals until last year, when we topped 200,000 for the first time.
The reason we kill so many deer is simple. The animals are everywhere.
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 limited. Access to AGFC-owned WMAs is tightly controlled during firearms seasons. Harvests on WMAs are regulated by limiting the number of hunters who hunt with modern guns and muzzleloaders by way of a lottery-style draw for permits. Access usually is open for bowhunters, except during the muzzleloader and modern gun seasons, from Sept. 27 through Feb. 28.
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 such as 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.
The Gulf Coastal Plain, Zone 12, encompasses most of southern Arkansas. Timber and paper companies own most of the land, and hunting it usually requires membership in one of the many clubs that lease the land. Membership in those clubs ranges from about $150 to nearly $250,000 per year. That area traditionally supports the greatest concentrations of deer, and so that's where hunters traditionally kill the most deer.
That used to be where hunters killed almost all the deer, but that has changed. In 1990, the Gulf Coastal Plain contributed the overwhelming highest percentage of the state's overall deer harvest. That year, hunters in Dallas County killed 9 deer per square mile, the most in the state. In Cleveland County, directly to the east, hunters killed 8 deer per square mile. Most counties throughout the rest of the GCP yielded 5 to 6 deer per square mile. Howard, Lafayette and Columbia counties lagged with only 4, 3 and 3 deer per square mile, respectively, but they were still a lot better than anywhere else.
In the eastern Delta, for example, hunters "averaged" killing zero deer per square mile in 1990! Add Pulaski and Perry counties to that group, too. In the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, hunters killed about 1 deer per square mile.
By 1999, the harvest percentage skewed even heavier to Zone 12. Hunters killed 13 deer per square mile in Drew County, and 12 per square mile in Ashley and Cleveland counties. Kill rates per square mile increased slightly across the rest of the state, too, but not in proportion to those in the GCP.
By 2012-13, however, harvest rates balanced more equally across the state, and that appears now to be the norm. Bradley, Cleveland and Grant counties were most productive with 9 deer killed per square mile, but the Ozarks and the Arkansas River Valley compared favorably. Washington, Crawford and Saline counties, for example, yielded 6 deer per square mile. Even in the Ouachitas, hunters killed 3 to 4 deer per square mile last year. On the other hand, harvest rates have not increased significantly in the eastern Delta, where hunters still kill 1 deer per square mile.
As the data illustrates, hunters all over the state have a better chance of killing a deer than ever. Liberalized regulations reflect that premise as well. In 2011, the AGFC increased the statewide bag limit for deer to six, of which no more than two can be bucks. Many zones have smaller bag limits, but six is the aggregate. The increased bag limit encourages hunters to kill more does, especially in Zone 12, where deer densities are high and the season is long.
For 2014-15, the AGFC added a doe to the bag limit in seven zones in northwest Arkansas, except zones 1 and 1A.
Where are your best chances to kill a deer? Judging by the numbers, Zone 12 is still the best place to obtain meat. During the 2013-14 seasons, hunters killed 80,905 deer, or 38 percent of the statewide total. Compare that to 2012-13, when hunters in Zone 12 killed 74,660 deer, or 35 percent of the statewide total. A notable development because hunters killed more deer there last year even though the state total was virtually unchanged.
Keep in mind that Zone 12 encompasses nearly 35 percent of the state's landmass, but it also still has so many deer. Of last year's total, 46,319 were does — compared to 40,967 the previous year — and 28,619 were antlered bucks. That was a drop of just 50 antlered bucks from last year. Hunters killed 5,967 button bucks, compared to 5,024 buttons in 2012-13. That is an unhealthy development because that's nearly 1,000 bucks that didn't live to grow antlers. In all, 65 percent of the Zone 12 deer kill last year was antlerless, compared to 56 percent in 2012-13.
As usual, hunters in Union County led the state last year by checking 8,475 deer. Of those, 5,067 were does, 2,942 were antlered bucks, and 473 were button bucks. Drew County was a distant second (6,325 with 3,651 does, 2,163 antlered bucks), but second through fifth place clustered with comparable numbers. Hunters in Cleveland County killed 6,237 deer (3,640 does, 2,039 antlered bucks), followed by Bradley County with 6,114 total (3,546 does, 2,141 antlered bucks), and Ashley County with 5,915 total (3,596 does, 1,904 antlered bucks). It's noteworthy that in all those counties, hunters killed significantly more does than bucks.
The rest of the Top 10 in the GCP were Grant County with 5,787 deer (3,261 does, 2,049 antlered bucks), Columbia County with 5,742 (3,314 does, 2,051 antlered bucks), Clark County 5,559 (3,043 does, 2,109 antlered bucks), Calhoun County 5,469 (2,512 does, 1,689 antlered bucks), and Dallas County 5,456 (3,179 does, 1,808 antlered bucks).
Of those counties, Clark belongs partially in the GCP and partially in the Ouachita Mountain foothills. It is a transitional zone loaded with excellent deer habitat, including river bottoms and large tracts of hardwood forest.
Top public areas in the GCP were Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge (401 deer), Casey Jones WMA (280), Big Timber WMA (224), Moro Big Pine WMA (176), Howard County WMA (141) and Poison Springs WMA (107).
As we predicted in this space last year, land management practices affected the number of deer killed in the GCP. Many timber companies clearcut thousands of acres of pines in 2012-13. That greatly reduced the amount of sanctuary cover for deer and simply exposed more deer to hunters in 2013-14. It also opened vast acreage to sunlight, which increased the amount of green browsing forage for deer. As those clearcuts age in the next three years, they will provide excellent fawning habitat while continuing to provide excellent forage.
"The habitat's always changing," Gray said. "It's not going to be the same, and it's not going to be consistent. The benefit to south Arkansas' habitat is diversity. The habitat practices have changed over time, but they have a lot of diversity on the landscape as far as age structure of the forests and the amount of browse. It's not a mast producing forest, but it is a browse producing forest."
Because of generous public access and healthy deer populations, the Ozark region is always a good place to hunt and have a reasonable expectation of success. The Ozarks encompass Zones 1, 1A, 2-3, 6-6A, 8-8A. In those zones combined, hunters killed 60,868 deer in an area roughly as large as Zone 12. That's a decrease of 9,815 deer from 2012-13.
Washington County, which contains the cities of Fayetteville and Springdale, was tops with 5,588 deer, including 2,592 does and 2,623 antlered bucks. Next was Benton County (4,310 with 2,090 antlered bucks and 1,909 does), which contains the cities of Rogers and Bentonville, followed by Sharp County (3,887; 1,814 does, 2,721 antlered bucks), Fulton County (3,591; 1,563 does, 1,731 antlered bucks), Madison County (3,322; 1,509 does, 1,632 antlered bucks), Baxter County (3,035; 1,411 does, 1,402 antlered bucks), Marion County (2,842; 1,155 does, 1,495 antlered bucks), Crawford County (2,760; 1,318 does, 1,218 antlered bucks), Izard County (2,513; 1,018 does, 1,343 antlered bucks) and Van Buren County (2,496; 1,178 does, 1,120 antlered bucks).
Unlike last year, hunters in Baxter County killed more does than bucks. Hunters in neighboring Marion County killed almost the same number of deer as the year before.
Again, the AGFC increased the season bag limit in the region for 2014-15 to five deer. The limit did not increase in zones 1 and 1A.
Top public areas in the Ozarks were Ozark National Forest WMA (565 deer), Sylamore WMA (539), White Rock WMA (276), Piney Creeks WMA (242), Buffalo National River WMA (141), Gulf Mountain WMA (87), and Gene Rush WMA (84). Hobbs State Park (71), Wedington WMA (64) and Norfork Lake WMA (61). Hunters killed one less deer in White Rock WMA last year than in 2012-13, but Piney Creeks contributed an increase of 42 deer. The take at Gene Rush WMA was exactly the same as in 2012-13.
In the Ouachita Mountains, primarily zones 11 and 13, hunters killed about 21,801 deer. The top county was Saline County (4,382; 2,360 does, 1,731 antlered bucks), followed by Pike County (3,787; 1,920 does, 1,637 antlered bucks), Hot Spring County (3,529; 1,838 does, 1,397 antlered bucks), Garland County (2,764; 1,366 does, 1,171 antlered bucks), and Yell County (2,404; 1,055 does, 1,177 antlered bucks). Of those, Pike and Hot Spring counties take in parts of the Ouachita foothills and the GCP. Yell County takes in part of the Ouachitas and the Arkansas River Valley.
Top WMAs in the Ouachitas were Winona (456), Mount Magazine (392), Muddy Creek (173), Lake Greeson (157), Howard County (141), and DeGray Lake (110).
It is hard to quantify how many deer hunters actually kill in the Arkansas River Valley because it's such a narrow area, and its counties also encompass large areas of the Ozarks and Ouachitas. However, Zone 7 takes in much of the valley and is a good indicator. Hunters killed 5,146 deer in Zone 7 last year — 2,549 bucks and 2,234 does.
The best WMAs in the Arkansas River Valley were Fort Chaffee (409), Petit Jean River (106), Dardanelle (86), Ed Gordon Point Remove (81), Holla Bend NWR (78), and Galla Creek (27). Hunters took 48 in Russellville's Urban Zone.
The Delta encompasses 10 management zones (4, 4A, 4B, 5, 5A, 5B, 9, 16, 16A, 17) where hunters killed 24,305 deer last year. That's an increase of 2,862 deer from 2012-13. This area includes the White River and Cache River NWRs. Zone 17 takes in the game-rich lands between the levees on the Mississippi River.
Arkansas County led that region with 5,513 deer, including 2,501 antlered bucks and 2,744 does.
Top public areas last year were Cache River NWR (568), White River NWR (1,061), Wattensaw WMA (214), Trusten Holder WMA (170), and Bayou Meto WMA (135).
As the numbers illustrate, these are golden years for Arkansas deer hunters. Deer have never been more plentiful, and so if you are hungry for venison, 2014-15 should be an excellent time to fill your freezer.
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'good luck tree. '
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell's giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it's just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost's wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail's Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'chip-shot. ' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it's a good thing he didn't.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson's persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp's Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'I've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to. '
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran's Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who'd spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won't forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'Big Daddy ' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he'd squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he'd hit, but couldn't find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand. '