In May, I visited a little pizza joint in Fayetteville called Giraldi's. The NCAA West Preliminary Track and Field Championships were in progress at the University of Arkansas, and across from me sat a couple wearing North Dakota State University garb.
Their son was competing in the steeplechase event. I mentioned my lifelong desire to hunt grouse and pheasants in North Dakota, which prompted a long discussion about hunting.
"What do you consider a big buck here, Boone and Crockett-wise?" the man asked.
"Our biggest non-typical last year was 212 and change," I replied.
"That's a nice buck," he said, nodding his head approvingly. "Yeah. We get at least one big non-typical like that every year. We usually get at least one typical to make book, but generally speaking, we consider a 140 typical to be a really nice buck here."
He was impressed, and surprised.
Arkansas simply isn't widely known as a place that produces trophy whitetails, but in reality, it's a great place to hunt deer with big antlers, and that hunting gets better every year. To get a complete picture of buck quality in Arkansas, visit the Arkansas Big Buck Classic. It is the state's premier deer hunting show, held annually in January at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds in Little Rock. The highlights are the Wall of Honor and the awards ceremony.
The best racks are displayed on the Wall of Honor, which forms a giant arc around the south grandstands of Barton Coliseum. The awards ceremony honors the Top 10 bucks in each category. It is always impressive, and both attractions demonstrate the quality of bucks that can be found from one corner of Arkansas to the other.
The Past & Present
It wasn't always that way, but for two decades, Arkansas has been a place where big-buck dreams can and do come true. 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.
Some hunters criticized the regulation at that time because they believed the AGFC was veering into trophy management. 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 years. Bigger antlers were a consequence 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. Along with the 3-point rule, the AGFC also 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. As we noted in Part 1 of this series, in the October issue of Arkansas Sportsman, hunters in 2013 killed more does than bucks for the first time in the era of regulated sport hunting.
After a few years, hunters began noticing 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. Justin Spring, assistant director of big game records for the Boone and Crockett Club, said the national perception of Arkansas is starting to change.
"It never was considered a trophy state," Spring said. "It was known for quantity, not necessarily quality, but every year we see some very nice bucks coming out of there. It's starting to get more and more on the radar as a trophy destination."
For entries into B&C's all-time awards program, Arkansas has slipped over the last two years. Hunters usually submit three to five qualified applications per year that meet the 170-inch minimum for typical racks and the 195 minimum for non-typicals.
Our biggest buck last year was a 212 1/8 non-typical killed by Ryan Sullivan of Burdette. Sullivan, a student at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, killed the buck with a compound bow in Mississippi County on Nov. 15, 2013. Impressively, Sullivan began chronicling and patterning that buck four years before, and passed on an opportunity to kill it in 2012 because he wasn't comfortable with the shot. He later found the buck's shed antlers and scored them at 193. The extra year's growth certainly made the wait worthwhile.
Scott May of Parkin killed a non-typical in Cross County with a modern gun that earned all-time recognition with a score of 205 7/8. The state's largest typical of 2013-14 came from Cross County and scored 165 5/8. Phillip Norton of McCrory killed that deer with a muzzleloader in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Woodruff County.
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. Ten of our Top 12 bucks came from the region. The Ozark Mountains produced two.
"The Delta has historically grown good deer," Cory Gray said. "A lot of it is the soil fertility and the food sources there. The soils are very rich, very fertile. Coupled with the amount of food you have there, you can't help but have good deer. And access is controlled."
Because of its history of producing big bucks, landowners in the Delta are more progressive and proactive in managing for big bucks. It is also worth noting that 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 also applies to most of the WMAs in the region.
"There is a lot of interest in the Delta for increased quality antlers," Gray said. "You don't see that in other parts of the state. There's not a lot of public land. The biggest thing is they see what's being taken off. A 130-class buck is fairly typical in the Delta. They know that area can produce that kind of deer."
Along with the Sullivan, May and Norton bucks, the Delta also produced a 189 4/8 non-typical from Lincoln County, a 164 7/8 typical from Phillips County, a 164 5/8 typical from St. Francis County, a 162 2/8 typical from Jefferson County and a 161 5/8 typical from Phillips County. In addition to Sullivan's buck, one other top Delta buck was taken with archery equipment. It was a 161 5/8 typical killed by Blake Robbins of Helena in Phillips County. The others were killed with modern weapons.
While public land is not plentiful in the Delta, there are some potentially rewarding places to hunt. As mentioned before, 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. They are heavily hunted at times, but their remote sloughs and ridges provide ample territory for bucks to grow old and big.
Trusten Holder WMA (17,587 acres), which borders the southwest end of the White River NWR, is an excellent place for killing big bucks, 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.
A former deer project leader for the AGFC, once remarked that it was a miracle there were any deer in the Ouachita Mountains because of its poor soil, low carrying capacity, and the tendencies of hunters in certain locales to hunt all year and all night. Cory Gray remembers that comment too, and he laughed it off.
"Don't ever underestimate a deer," Gray cautioned.
They make the best of it wherever they are, and the Ouachita Mountains area holds its own. It grows some big bucks, too. Regrettably, last year wasn't as good in the Ouachitas as was 2012-13, when it produced two of our Top 12, but it did produce our No. 9 typical. That buck scored 158 7/8 and was killed in Hot Spring County by Tim Gardner of Ward. The Ouachitas also produced our No. 3 muzzleloader non-typical (Zack Abernathy, 161 5/8), as well as our No. 4 and No. 5 muzzleloader typicals.
The latter two bucks were killed in Garland County by Alan Abbott and Jason Smith, both of Hot Springs. Their bucks scored 146 7/8, and 145 6/8, respectively. In addition, Lindsay Spivey of Little Rock killed a 144 2/8 typical, also in Montgomery County. The biggest non-typical killed by a youth last year came from Pike County. It scored 166 5/8 and was killed by Kane O'Neil. Muzzleloader season is a good time to kill big bucks in the Ouachitas. That's when Abernathy, Abbott and Smith bagged their trophies When we think of the Ouachitas, hunters naturally gravitate to the 1.5-million-acre Ouachita National Forest.
With that much territory, there's always a chance of encountering a once-in-a-lifetime buck, especially in places like the Chinquapin Mountain, Hogan Mountain and Sharptop Mountain Walk-in Turkey Hunting Areas. The Dry Creek and Flatside areas are good places to go because they are closed to motor vehicles. Perhaps the best areas are in the pine-bluestem restoration areas between Waldron and Mena.
That's a wide swath of forest the U.S. Forest Service manages to restore the native pine-bluestem savannas that once dominated the region. The timber is large, and the forest floor is rich in native grasses, forbs and legumes. It is some of the best highland deer habitat in the South.
Two of the Top 12 bucks from 2012-13 came from the Ozarks, including a 165 1/8 typical killed in Benton County by Sean Warmack of Springdale and a 189 5/8 non-typical killed in Randolph County by Jarrod Hart of Benton. Charles Dodson of Little Rock killed a 152 7/8 non-typical in Sharp County, and Jean Mullory of Stuttgart killed a 144 3/8 typical in Newton County. Seth Tucker of Concord killed a 168 7/8-inch non-typical in Cleburne County, and Billy John Harris of Marshall killed a 142 6/8 typical in Searcy 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 to grow big bucks, like the Richland Creek and Hurricane Creek wilderness areas. 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 WMAs are also great places. The AGFC and the U.S. Forest Service have done extensive habitat improvements in Piney Creeks WMA, and it's a much better place to hunt.
Gulf Coastal Plain
Covering nearly one-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 is getting better as the big hunting clubs in the region get more serious about deer management.
A shining example is the 161 3/8 typical that Wesley Reeves of Wilmar killed in Drew County with a rifle, or the 147 0/8 typical that Evan Lamb killed in Hempstead 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 this region. Before this particular round of logging, mature bucks 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.
We observed a much more intense rut last year than we have in recent times. Sweet 16 For the best chance of killing a big buck on public land, consider the AGFC's Sweet 16 WMAs. They are managed so the peak harvest will consist of 3 1/2-year-old bucks. Antler requirements there are more demanding than the 3-point rule. Modern gun and muzzleloader hunting is controlled through a lottery-style permit system, with the application period June 1 to July 1.
The 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.
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 'œgood 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 'œchip-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.
'œI'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 'œBig 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.'