We say it every year, but this could be our best deer season ever. Deer hunting in Arkansas has settled into a consistent pattern that suggests another great year awaits us in 2015. Unless our deer suffer a catastrophic disease outbreak, or some other unforeseen tragic event, that trend should continue indefinitely.
During the combined 2014-15 deer seasons, hunters checked 208,075 deer. That's a mere 2 percent decrease from 2013-14, when hunters killed 213,199 deer, but it was also the third consecutive year that hunters killed more than 200,000 deer.
Cory Gray, the deer program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said Arkansas deer hunting is about as good as it gets.
"When you look at harvest trends in other states, it's been a downward trend," Gray said. "Ours is either flat-lined or climbing."
Hunters killed 2 percent fewer antlered bucks last year than the year before, but they also killed 3 percent fewer button bucks. Discounting all other mortality factors, that should translate to more antlered bucks in the herd next fall.
A 2 percent dip in the buck kill is not encouraging at first glance, not until you consider that the 2014-15 buck kill exceeded Gray's projections by 13 percent. Gray projected that hunters would take 90,860 bucks, but they actually killed 104,023. Hunters also killed a near-identical number of does, 104,052.
"It wasn't too many years ago that we were harvesting a 70-30 buck-to-doe ratio," Gray said. Some places needed that, he added. In the Ozarks, for example, the AGFC discouraged killing does while it tried to increase deer numbers.
"Now we're trying to maintain or stabilize the herd, and we can withstand a 50-50 harvest," Gray said. "In some zones, like 12 and 17, we're actually taking more females."
The age structure of the male and female segments are better than ever, too, Gray said. Antler-point restrictions that went into effect for the 1998 season shifted hunter pressure away from bucks ages 1.5 years and younger to ages 2.5 years and older.
The 3-point rule, which requires a legal buck to have at least 3 points on one beam, was controversial in 1998, especially when the buck harvest plummeted. Since 2006, hunters kill older bucks than they did before 1998, but there also are more of the older bucks available.
"Prior to 1998, a large potion of buck harvest was yearlings," Gray said. "Two-and-a-half-year-olds were in there a little, but 3 1/2- to 5 1/2- year-olds were absent. When the 3-point rule came in, the buck harvest dropped for a couple of years because legal bucks were not in the population to be had. They started showing up when we got some age on bucks, and now the age structure is becoming even more diverse.
Arkansas hunters kill a lot of does nowadays, but Gray's data suggests we are killing the "right" does, too. Gray said that 72 percent of the Arkansas doe herd is age 2.5 years or older compared to 1981 when 59 percent were in that range. Older does, Gray said, are more productive than younger does.
"Our data suggests that fetal counts are 1.7 for an adult doe versus 1.1 in a yearling doe, and that lactation rates are 65 percent for adult does vs. 15 percent in a yearling doe," Gray said.
Lactation rates, he added, correspond to fawn recruitment into the general population. According to the data, 2.5-year-old and older does give birth to more fawns than yearling does, and they take care of them better.
"You've got 70 percent of the doe population producing 1.7 fawns, and 65 percent of those fawns are being recruited into the population," Gray said. "That data is showing a structure that's continuing to expand."
Consequently, the deer herd should remain stable under current regulations, Gray said. Hunters knock them back in the fall, and the deer recover those numbers in the spring for a sustaining cycle.
Like most states, 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 is limited. Access to AGFC-owned WMAs is tightly controlled during firearms seasons. Harvests on WMAs are regulated by limiting the number of hunters who can hunt with modern guns and muzzleloaders, by way of a lottery-style draw for permits. On the other hand, access usually is open for bowhunters, except during the muzzleloader and modern gun seasons, from Sept. 27 and on through February 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.
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 2014-145 seasons, hunters killed 72,503 deer, or 35 percent of the statewide total. Compare that to 2013-14, when hunters in Zone 12 killed 80,905 deer, or 38 percent of the statewide total.
In Cleveland County, hunters killed 9 deer per square mile, the most in the state. In neighboring Grant, Dallas and Bradley counties, hunters killed 8 deer per square mile. Columbia, Drew, Nevada and Pike counties yielded 7 deer per square mile. Most of the other counties in the Gulf Coastal Plain yielded 5 to 6 deer per square mile. For the second straight year, Lafayette County yielded 4 deer per square mile.
Keep in mind that Zone 12 encompasses nearly 35 percent of the state's land mass, but it's also because that area still has so many deer. Of last year's total, 40,584 were does — compared to 46,319 does the previous year — and 26,540 were antlered bucks. That's a drop of 2,079 antlered bucks from the previous year. Hunters killed 5,379 button bucks, compared to 5,967 button bucks in 2013-14.
In all, 63 percent of the deer killed in Zone 12 last year were antlerless, compared to 65 percent in 2013-14.
As usual, hunters in Union County led the state last year by checking 6,750 deer. Of those, 3,927 were does, 2,405 were antlered bucks, and 418 were button bucks. Drew County was a distant second (5,784 with 3,151 does, 2,182 antlered bucks), but second through fifth places clustered with comparable numbers. Hunters in Clark County killed 5,714 deer (3,062 does, 2,074 antlered bucks), followed by Cleveland County with 5,608 deer (3,122 does, 1,971 antlered bucks), and Bradley County with 5,443 total (2,968 does, 2,075 antlered bucks).
Again, it's noteworthy that in all those counties, hunters killed significantly more does than antlered bucks.
The rest of the Top 10 in the GCP were Dallas County with 5,113 total (2,841 does and 1,826 antlered bucks), Columbia County (5,108; 2,983 does, 1,804 antlered bucks), Grant County deer (5,027; 2,859 does, 1,796 antlered bucks), Ouachita County (4,614; 2,541 does, 1,726 antlered bucks) and Ashley County (4,459; 2,669 does, 1,564 antlered bucks).
Of those counties, Clark lies partially in the GCP and partially in the Ouachita Mountain foothills. It is a transitional zone loaded with excellent deer habitat, including large river bottoms and large tracts of hardwood forest.
Top public areas in the GCP were Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge (416 deer), Casey Jones WMA (296), Big Timber WMA (285), Howard County WMA (148), Poison Springs WMA (147), Moro Big Pine WMA (137), and Lafayette County WMA (122).
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 62,416 deer in an area roughly as large as Zone 12. That's also a increase of 1,548 deer killed from 2013-14.
Washington County, which contains the cities of Fayetteville and Springdale, was tops with 4,500 deer, including 2,592 does and 2,623 antlered bucks. Next was Benton County (4,398 with 2,090 antlered bucks and 1,909 does), which contains the cities of Rogers and Bentonville, followed by Sharp County (4,021; 1,814 does, 2,721 antlered bucks), Independence County (3,417; 1,563 does, 1,731 antlered bucks), Madison County (3,521; 1,509 does, 1,632 antlered bucks), Fulton County (3,294; 1,595 does, 1,420 antlered bucks), Crawford County (2,941; 1,300 does, 1,419 antlered bucks), Cleburne County (2,850; 1,257 does, 1,125 antlered bucks), Randolph County (2,800; 1,394 does, 1,129 antlered bucks) and Izard County (2,727; 1,270 does, 1,262 antlered bucks).
Hunters in Crawford County killed only one less antlered buck last year than they had the previous season.
Top public areas in the Ozarks were Ozark National Forest WMA (620 deer), Sylamore WMA (451), White Rock WMA (315), Piney Creeks WMA (286), Buffalo National River WMA (189), Gene Rush WMA (99), Madison County WMA (84), Harold E. Alexander Spring River WMA (83) and Gulf Mountain WMA (73). Hobbs State Park and Wedington WMA tied for 10th place with 71 deer apiece.
In the Ouachita Mountains, primarily Zones 11 and 13, hunters killed about 23,500 deer. Saline County was best, (3,968; 2,164 does, 1,566 antlered bucks), followed by Hot Spring County (3,586; 1,907 does, 1,414 antlered bucks), Garland County (2,997; 1,433 does, 1,363 antlered bucks), Pike County (2,676; 2,159 does, 1,747 antlered bucks), and Yell County (2,192; 878 does, 1,162 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 with 433 deer killed, Mount Magazine (372), Muddy Creek (181), Lake Greeson (180), Howard County (148), and Caney Creek (117).
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 5,122 deer in Zone 7 last year, including 2,625 antlered bucks and 2,177 does.
The best WMAs in the Arkansas River Valley were Fort Chaffee (424), Dardanelle (94), Petit Jean River (76), Ed Gordon Point Remove (82), Holla Bend NWR (66), and Galla Creek WMA (25). Hunters killed 49 deer in the Russellville Urban Deer Zone.
The Delta area encompasses 10 management zones (4, 4A, 4B, 5, 5A, 5B, 9, 16, 16A, 17) in which hunters killed 21,567 deer last year. That's a decrease of 2,738, which is very close to the region's 2012-13 deer kill. 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 White River NWR (1,064), Cache River NWR (570), Wattensaw WMA (184), Trusten Holder WMA (173), and Bayou Meto WMA (133).
As the data illustrates, hunters all over the state have a better chance of killing a deer than ever. These truly are golden years for Arkansas deer hunters.