Best Big Buck States for 2014: Louisiana
October 31, 2014
I've always identified myself as a meat hunter first, attempting to put a doe or two in the freezer before turning my sights on gleaming, white antlers. If you are lucky and have filled your freezer by the beginning of November, you now have a few weeks to prepare for the rut.
A discussion of a region's potential for supporting big bucks cannot be undertaken without understanding the basic tenants of deer biology and a brief review of a simple formula. Growing a crop of big bucks year after year requires the proper combination of three important variables — genetics, nutrition and age. By removing one of these factors, property owners, managers and other land stewards decrease their buck-growing potential.
The genetic factor of the formula is the hardest to control, and total control is next to impossible. Among white-tailed deer, sexual selection is pretty straightforward: the biggest, toughest buck will have increased opportunities to secure mates and breed. Additionally, antler size can be considered an indicator for health, as shown through recent research on deer reproduction. The genetic component of the formula lays the groundwork for a healthy buck.
Even if a buck comes from good stock, those genetics must be fed. Deer are generally identified as browsers, though its diet is composed of variety of plants. As a ruminant, deer have a digestive system designed to make the most of hard-to-digest plant material. A deer needs to feed daily to provide all of its biological functions with a basic helping of calories and nutrients. Optimal antler quality is determined in large part by the availability of easily digestible protein, as well as calcium, phosphorus and other minerals.
A deer with plenty of palatable and highly digestible browse will satisfy its nutritive needs and have enough material left over to grow B&C or P&Y class antlers. Think of this process as a balancing a checkbook: a paycheck (browse) minus bills and savings (nutritive requirements) leaves "leftovers" in your account as spending money (antler growth) at the end of the month.
Of course, a buck's nutritional needs change throughout the year. When habitat can support year-round feeding on mast, annual and perennial grasses, fruits, forbs and agricultural crops, healthy bucks with big racks will start showing up.
Now, adding up good genes with ample, high-quality nutrition only goes so far, and only satisfies 2/3 of the requirements for a bumper crop of bucks. The final variable in the equation is age, the easiest of the variables to control. Antler size among white-tailed deer increases with age and often peaks when the buck is between 3.5 and 5.5 years of age. Properly managing a deer herd influences this final factor the most. For example, if yearlings or 1.5-year olds are killed on sight, and this is repeated for several generations, large antlered deer will be few since genetically superior, well-fed deer will not be allowed to mature.
At the end of the day, a genetically superior buck, which has been allowed to reach maturity, with access to nutritious browse throughout its development, will, in theory, yield outstanding results.
RECOGNITION PROGRAM OVERVIEW
The Louisiana Deer Study Program is administered by biologists in Baton Rouge. The program is delivered by the Office of Wildlife and implemented through several regional offices where wildlife biologists and technicians perform year-round research and management activities on public and private lands.
Louisiana's Big Game Recognition Program has been in place since the 1960s. As with similar national programs (think Pope & Young or Boone & Crockett), deer entered into the program are met with different entry requirements based on the method of take. In Louisiana, the program is broken into three categories: firearms, bows and muzzleloaders. Each category has a different minimum entry score. To enter, a deer must be scored by certified state measurers and an application form must be filled out. The Louisiana Big Game Record's annual recognition list included 61 entries for 2012-13 and 33 entries 2013-14.
Likely, there are big deer in every parish in the state, with a few exceptions along the coast parishes. Chad Wallace, manager of Spotted Dog Sporting Goods in Columbia, La., has been operating a big buck contest out of his store for the last five seasons.
"We've seen bucks from multiple parishes entered in our contest," Wallace said. "Most of the 150-inch and better deer seem to come from Catahoula and Concordia parishes."
During the course of the 2013-14 season, Wallace said, "Hunters entered a number of 170- and 160-class deer taken from the parishes along the river. My brother tagged a 187-inch deer here in Caldwell Parish, which just goes to show you that having a bit of luck on your side and being in the right place at the right time plays into tagging a big deer."
As evidenced in anecdotes and harvest summaries, the parishes in Louisiana generally relied upon to produce big bucks have been doing so for many years. The buck-producing parishes are found within the Mississippi Delta, set in the rich black soil created over eons of flooding and sediment deposits. Palatable plants thrive in this soil and pass nutritional content to browsing deer. Additionally, agriculture and land/habitat conservation activities in the region provide plenty of habitat to support a healthy deer herd.
Outlining the best bets in the Bayou State is tough, and is based on a review of Deer Recognition Program summaries available in early summer. Additionally, public access was considered in each parish. Some parishes with no public land did not make the list since successful hunting would require leases or permission from landowners, making these parishes less accessible to the hunters.
Centered around the confluence of two big rivers and their associated river valleys, Avoyelles Parish is named alongside nearly 60 bucks in the Big Game All-Time Records. Three additional trophy bucks were recognized in 2013-14, including a 164 6/8-inch non-typical deer. Based on land use patterns and available habitat, Avoyelles Parish is likely to produce big deer for many seasons.
Luckily, public lands are numerous in Avoyelles Parish, including the newly minted Richard K. Yancy WMA (formerly Red Rivers/Three Rivers WMAs). Yancy WMA is dark, soggy and muddy, and is dominated by bottomland hardwoods made up of various oaks, hickories, gum and other woody browse. Bound by agriculture land, the WMA offers plenty of places to hang a stand. At 40,000 acres, complete with several miles of all-weather roads and ATV trails, the WMA offers plenty of acreage to explore. It is best to spend some quality time scouting before attempting to hunt.
Lake Ophelia NWR is also located in Avoyelles Parish and has been making a stir among hunters over the last few years. Lake Ophelia has quietly become a destination for bowhunters and muzzleloader hunters alike. According to the all-time records, muzzleloader hunters have taken several 150-class deer.
Tensas, with its famed black soil, deep woods and big deer, shares many things with its adjoining parish to the north, Madison. Similarities include the same habitat, land use patterns, weather and topography. Additionally, Tensas/Madison encompasses the entire Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and share the Judd Brake Unit and the Fool River Unit of the federal land.
In all, Madison/Tensas have contributed more than 100 entries in the all-time records. At the end of the 2013-14 season, two additional deer were recognized and added to the books. Tensas is upstream of Avoyelles Parish, but is just as flat, fertile and soggy. Tensas offers deer a bit more agricultural land than Avoyelles, increasing CRP occurrence. Big bucks taken in Tensas/Madison over the years include massive non-typical bucks and beautifully symmetrical typical bucks. With easy access to plenty of public land, chances of rattling in a bruiser are good.
In total, Tensas NWR includes approximately 80,000 acres of land. Historically, bowhunting is legal all season, and lottery hunts generally occur twice per year. Due to its size complexity and popularity, scouting the deep portions of the refuge is required. Coupling a squirrel hunt with a scouting trip or two should lead to an area marked with scrapes and rubs. Focus efforts along creeks and sloughs. For season dates and additional information visit www.fws.gov/tensasriver. Be sure to review refuge specific details and regulations before scouting trips and hunts as federal rules may differ from state rules.
A quick look at the records, and one will see numerous Concordia Parish deer listed under both bow and firearms. According to the all-time numbers, bow and gun hunters have entered nearly 60 deer in the recognition program. This is not unexpected since the parish is found downstream of Madison and Tensas and upstream from Avoyelles, basically centered between three of the best record book, buck-producing parishes in the state. Set in the same Mississippi alluvium as its neighbors to the north and south, and sharing the same types of habitat, including agricultural land, CRP stands and bottomland hardwoods, Concordia Parish enjoys a long history of producing quality whitetails.
Two public properties are accessible — Bayou Cocodrie NWR and the northern portion of Richard K. Yancy WMA. Bayou Cocodrie NWR has been making a name for itself over the last few years. Historically, a November through January bow season is interrupted briefly for youth, firearms, muzzleloader and special access hunts. A number of regulations, including the purchase of an annual permit are required to Hunt Bayou Cocodrie NWR.
The 2013-14 Big Game Records annual recognition list includes the names of three St. Landry Parish hunters. During this timeframe, two 130-class deer and a non-typical 193-inch bruiser were added to the record books. The all-time records include numerous deer, several of which were taken on public land.
In Saint Landry Parish, hunters have access to Thistlethwaite WMA, located in north-central St. Landry Parish, off Louisiana Highway 10. Miles of all-weather roads are maintained within the area, allowing convenient access to virtually the entire tract. Approximately 11 miles of trails are also maintained for the convenience of hunters. Though Thistlethwaite WMA is the only WMA located within the parish, it's had quite a run producing recognized bucks.
In the all-time records, more than 50 big deer have been recognized from West Feliciana. During the 2013-14 entry period, four additional bucks were recognized. Contributing to its good numbers of bucks are the hilly woods around the west side of the parish, which are rich in mast and browse plants. Additionally, agricultural land and edges, created near developed areas on the east side of the parish, provide nutrients and cover.
Two separate tracts make up Tunica Hills WMA, which is owned by the state. The North Tract (2,346 acres) lies immediately adjacent to Angola, the state penitentiary. The South Tract (3,560 acres) has several access points
Terrain at the WMA area is best described as "rugged hills," "escarpments," "forested ravines" and "steep bluffs." The WMA is located at the southern end of, what the state describes as the "loess blufflands" escarpment, an area that parallels the east bank of the Mississippi River south from its confluence with the Ohio River. Bowhunting and a two-week long muzzleloader season were offered in 2013-14.
Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, along with St. Catherine Creek NWR and Bayou Cocodrie NWR, make up the Lower Mississippi River Refuge Complex. Cat Island was established relatively recently (in 2000) to, as stated in the official refuge brochure, "conserve, restore and manage native forested wetland habitats for migratory birds, aquatic resources and endangered and threatened plants and animals." The 10,500-acre refuge is located along the east bank of the Mississippi north of Baton Rouge. Prime buck habitat includes areas of bottomland hardwoods that are flooded by the Mississippi River annually, and access to the refuge may be limited during late winter/spring due to flooding. Again, study the refuge specific rules and regulations before planning a trip.
Bodacau, Clear Creek and Dewey Wills, along with Ouachita and Bayou Macon, also provide areas of prime habitat to grow trophy bucks. The climate, habitat and game managers are primed to help produce big bucks seasons after season for years to come.
Hopefully, this is the year our names (yours and mine) will be the added to the books.