Most folks I have talked to have never heard of the town in Arkansas called Banks. It’s simply not a well-known destination for many sportsmen.
Arkansas is known across the globe for prime sporting destinations with places like Stuttgart, the duck hunting capital of the world, and Cotter, which is the fabled trout fishing capital of the world.But few people know about a community in Southern Arkansas that has deer hunting embedded in its DNA. This small, non-discernible community of 120 people in Bradley County is transformed on opening weekend of deer season each year when hundreds of people converge to hunt whitetail deer and celebrate opening weekend.
Driving through Banks, you won’t notice much. There is only one small retail business, appropriately name of the “Grunt n Grill Grocery & Deli.” There is also a U.S. Post Office across the street.
Click the image for Banks, Ark., photos
During hunting season, you are just as likely to meet an ATV coming down the highway as you are a pickup truck or a car. A street sign in front of the “Grunt n Grill” notes the intersection of “Buck Fever Highway and Main Street.”
If you see someone who isn’t dressed in camo and/or hunter orange, you stop and stare. I stopped in the “Grunt n Grill” to grab a cup of coffee and was immediately asked, “Why aren’t you hunting?”Just up Main Street from the “Grunt n Grill” is an abandoned building with a sign hanging out front: “McFarland’s General Store & Merchandise.”
The McFarland family is well-known and still actively works in the community, including the festival. On the sidewalk out front are iron rings still attached to the concrete where horses were once tied as locals shopped for needed supplies.
Across the street is a dilapidated structure that once housed a bank and saloon in more profitable times. Townsfolk told me the community once had a two story hotel. However, times have changed and the community is not the same.
William T. “Jaker” Smith, 86, who has survived cancer, back surgery and a recent heart stint, shared the story of two mortal enemies who met one night at the local saloon. They both pulled guns and shot each other, resulting in their immediate deaths. The town folks buried these two enemies just down the road in the McFarland Cemetery side by side.
On this weekend the occasion is much brighter. Throngs of hunters, towns folk, visitors and relatives start arriving just after daylight to celebrate and reminisce of old times and deer hunting. This is the 27th year for this celebration, known as the “Banks Buck Fever Festival.”
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The Buck Fever Festival takes place every year on opening weekend with food, pageants, cake walks, talent shows, fresh kill contest and entertainment. The highlight of the festival is the parade at noon.A large crowd gathers along main street as the festival chairman leads the parade down Buck Fever Highway for a couple of blocks and then turns right onto Main street for two more blocks. It is a short parade, but about 500-700 people gathered to watch it.
Floats with young kids, small town high school bands, ATVs, horses and pageant queens travel the short route, throwing candy to the kids and waving to family and friends.
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One of the crowd favorites is the “Fresh Kill” contest, where any buck that is harvested on opening morning can be entered for a cash prize. The largest buck checked into the contest was a 157 5/8 harvested by Danny Brown of Jacksonville, Texas.
The buck was aged at 8.5 years old. I overheard other members of the club say that the deer was the focus of many club members for several years. One young bow hunter had missed him last year when the buck’s antlers were actually larger.
The second-place buck scored just over 110 and was harvested by Larry Reppond of Warren, Ark. Both bucks were taken on the Hooks Moro Hunting Club. It’s a large club which borders the city limits of Banks.
Deer are frequent visitors in the city limit. Deer tracks were in the mud of a ditch line along Main Street. One local hunter was hunting a large buck that ranged within the city limits of Banks.
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I visited another local hunting club called The Raven Hunting Club, which has been around for more than 30 years. The members hunt more than 700 acres just north of Banks. It was just a short drive out of town and a couple of miles down a county dirt road.
The club house was built by members right behind the home of Joe Bradford, a highly esteemed and respected member of the club. All Joe has to do is step off his back porch and walk about 20 steps to get to the club.
Joe had cooked all day Friday for the club’s meal on the evening before opening day. He had ribs and pork butt on the smoker under a shed behind the house.
These folks were a joy to be around and showed considerable hospitality, welcoming me up to their campfire and into their club house for this traditional evening together. Relatives, wives, children, grandchildren and friends made up the group.
However, Joe referred to all of them as family. Hunting stories were shared during the meal and hopes for the coming hunt. I was so impressed by these folks. I never heard a foul word said among them, which is uncommon in this day and age. They all gathered around the table and prayed before the meal. I couldn’t help but notice Joe putting his arm about Thomas Perryman as Thomas led the group in prayer.
One of the members is Hershel Tillman, who is a deputy sheriff in Bradley County. He did a lot of the carpentry work on the club house. Hershel’s 7-year-old son John David has been groomed to love deer hunting. He has already harvested several deer in his young hunting life, including a 204-yard shot on a nice 10-point last year on club property.
John David Tillman with last year’s deer kill (left) and this year’s. (Courtesy Hersel Tillman)
He also harvested a smaller buck this year during the early youth hunt. In this part of the country kids start early building a hunting legacy.
Go to 2013 Deer Camp