Clint Cheatham is a third-generation member of the Spotsville Deer Camp, located along the Union and Columbia county lines in southern Arkansas.
Many things concerning the camp and the hunting in the area are as they’ve always been, he says, but there also are changes – not all of them for the better.
As a 10-year Navy veteran who now prepares Navy Seal teams for the toughest tasks faced by the men and women of our military, Cheatham has been around the world. But he says there is no place he would rather be than the rolling hills and woods near the Arkansas-Louisiana border where he has hunted since his boyhood years.
“I’ve been around the world twice and I’ve talked to everybody once,” Cheatham, 47, said prior to the opening of Arkansas’ modern gun deer season. “As soon as these first nine days of the season are over, I start jockeying my schedule around to be off next year.
“I know there’s going to be three days … that grunt call and rattling horns, it’s like magic. I don’t know what three days it is. But there’s going to be three days there where it’s one of the best places on earth to be.”
Cheatham’s grandfather was one of the founding members of the camp in 1964, and for the past 50 years the camp has provided hunting and fellowship for its members.
“I mean, I’ve got land at my house that I can hunt for free and probably have nicer deer than I can kill at Spotsville,” said Doug Dickson, an oil field worker from nearby Magnolia, Ark., whose father was also one of the camp’s founding members. “But I guess I’m never going to give up the tradition of going down there and spending the week, getting a little time off and away from the house, hanging out with my buddies. We all look forward to it.”
Cheatham said the camp was officially established when a fourth cousin deeded an acre of land to his grandfather. The camp continues to sit on that block of land today.
“They had been hanging their hat on some tents down the road about a quarter of a mile, but this acre of land was deeded over to them,” said Cheatham, who was raised in Magnolia but now lives in Bentonville, which is about 350 miles away in northwest Arkansas.
The Spotsville hunting leases, now totaling about 3,200 acres, sit along a former 10,000-acre game refuge the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission created in the 1940s during its efforts to bulk up the severely depleted deer populations in the state.
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In the early days of the camp, the hunting strategies circulated around the border with the game refuge and the use of dogs to funnel deer toward the hunters.
“Everybody would stand along the red line, which was the northern boundary of the game refuge,” Cheatham said. “Every time the dogs would jump a deer, it would go back to the refuge.”
“My dad and Clint’s dad rode horses, and they would run dogs with the horses,” Dickson said. “There was even one man who had an old tractor that he rode to his stand. Those were different times, for sure.”
Even in the parts of Arkansas where the use of dogs is still allowed for deer hunting, they are rarely used since a law was established about 20 years ago that only allows deer to be taken if they have at least three scoreable points on each side.
“I may be the only one, but I miss hunting with the dogs a little,” Dickson said. “I’ve always had dogs, whether it was for deer hunting or competition coon hunting or Labs for duck hunting. I always enjoyed listening to my dogs and having people kill deer in front of them.”
One particular beagle was like money in the bank, Dickson said, for the camp’s daily “buck pot.”
“Once they got to running, you would almost always hear her split from the rest of them,” he said. “When that would happen, I would always take off after her, because every time she would split off, she was running a buck. It wasn’t just one time or one year, it happened again and again until she died. When we had a little buck pot for fun, she was guaranteed money. When she broke off, I was like, ‘See you guys later.’ ”
The property also furnishes quality turkey and squirrel hunting. A couple of wooded sloughs offer good duck hunting.
“I remember as a kid seeing a covey of quail cross the road, and then going down to the camp and getting my dad and Clint’s dad,” Dickson said. “They would get the dogs and we would go hunt those quail I had just seen. We might get 20 or 30 out of a couple covey for supper that night at the camp.”
Feral hogs have been prominent in the region and have provided excellent hunting for decades. However, those numbers are dwindling.
“In the last couple of years, we haven’t had that many hogs on our lease proper,” Cheatham said. “I think that’s due to my father getting away from feeding corn year round.”
Dickson said he also attributes it to more and more hardwood timber being removed from the area and replaced with pine by the timber and paper companies.
“When I was a kid, there hardly weren’t any hogs,” he said. “If you saw a track, you had done something. Then it got to be there was more hogs than anybody could take care of, you know, trapping and hunting. Now there’s no hardwood and the hogs have moved on. They’ve got to eat something.”
The Spotsville members are in a period of transition as they adjust to large tracts of newly clear-cut land. Among the cleared land is a 428-acre block of hardwood bottomland where Cheatham said his grandmother’s family once raised cotton.
“My father always said that’s just like money in the bank to (the timber companies), so they’ll never cut it,” Cheatham said. “But they got out of the hardwood business. They sold it to a company and they cut it for railroad ties.”
“The biologists say that (the cutover) is one of the best food sources there is for the deer, when everything starts regrowing,” Dickson said. “But it’s a lot different hunting it.”
There are a few small blocks of privately-owned land filled mostly with hardwood. But recent years of severe drought also had an indirect influence on additional logging in the area.
“In the Cornie Creek bottoms, for years they never could cut it because it was so low and it stayed wet,” Dickson said. “Then three or four years ago when it got so dry, they got to go in there and cut what they wanted to. And when they did, they really worked on it.”
Still, the Spotsville Camp is full and bustling throughout most of the modern gun season. In recent years, some members have started bringing and staying in campers, but the centerpiece of the camp remains the large bunkhouse where most members reside during their stay.
It features 15 bunk beds, two 16-foot tables for meals, showers, restrooms and a large kitchen with two refrigerators and a cooler room.
“It’ll keep you dry, but it’ll also keep you cold unless you’ve got an electric blanket. It’s a little drafty,” Cheatham said. “We do have a large fireplace in there.”
The social interaction among the camp members takes place mostly in the bunkhouse and generally features a variety of topics.
“There’s a lot of fertilizer that gets thrown around in there,” Dickson said, laughing. “Usually, we’re watching a little football, talking by the fire, eating peanuts. I usually sharpen my knives.”
And likely just as big of a draw as the hunting is the food. During the opening nine days of the modern gun season, cooks are hired to provide meals for the members.
“Oh, man. I gain about 10 or 15 pounds every year down there,” Dickson said. “They cook deer steak, fried chicken, chicken and spaghetti, meatloaf, banana pudding, peach cobbler. It beats all you’ve ever seen.”
Camp members will fix the morning breakfast. After the hunters hit the woods, the cooks will arrive mid-morning to clean up after breakfast and start to prepare lunch and supper.
“When we come down there on Friday night before the first weekend of the season, we usually have a fish fry,” Dickson said. “I’ll bring a bunch of crappie or bass or catfish that I’ve caught. Then one night we’ll let the cooks off and we might cooks steaks. Other than that, they just cook good, homemade soul food.”
Camp traditions come and go for the most part, both men said – although Dickson said he and others were hung by their belt loops on a nail for acting up when they were younger. Daily buck pots remain a big part of the evening fireside chatter today.
“One thing, when I was kid, there wasn’t any sleeping in, that’s for sure,” Dickson said. “If you stayed up late the night before or you went out to do something else, there wasn’t any sleeping in. You got up every morning and went hunting. If you didn’t, you had to get out there and find an oak tree and lay under it.
“But now with everybody having to lease land and pay money, you can’t hardly tell a guy that he can’t sleep in when he’s had to pay $1,200 or whatever to hunt. Now you kind of have to let him do what he wants to.”
As far as the hunting goes, the deer population in the area is quite healthy and thriving. However, Cheatham said monster trophy bucks are few and far between.
“We don’t have really big deer,” he said. “We’ve got some bad genetics, I think. They’ve gotten better. I’ve seen some nice deer, but we’ve never killed over a 144-inch deer. Usually a big deer for us is 120-, 122-inch deer.”
Both men said rising costs – both for hunting and maintaining the camp – are a struggle, and Cheatham said he especially fears for the worst.
“I just see the deer camp sort of fading away before my eyes now,” he said. “I think that has a lot to do with the multiple opportunities to hunt. With the youth season, doe season, muzzleloading season and six weeks of modern gun season, it gives people the opportunity to hunt on the weekends and not give up their vacations.
“I think it’s also harder for people to justify spending, what, $1,000 or $1,500 a year on something that maybe their wife’s not that fond of. If you don’t take advantage of it for turkey hunting and squirrel hunting and deer hunting and hog hunting, I can understand why people have heartburn with that justification.”
Dickson said his justification is with his 13-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter.
“My son started hunting a few years ago, and my daughter thinks she can do anything her big brother can do, so she’s started doing a little hunting,” Dickson said. “My son has started having a few buddies down there. They all like to ride four-wheelers when they’re not hunting or hanging out, passing the football around. It’s something for him to do. My philosophy is if he is the woods or hunting, he can usually stay out of trouble.
“I plan on staying, at least until it gets to where you can’t afford to hunt or if you don’t have enough members to pay for it all.”
And with 50 years of family history connected to Spotsville, Cheatham said it is worth the struggle.
“Anymore, people are so squeezed with life that they don’t take time to smell the roses, in my opinion,” he said. “I just see part of our history fading away due to technology. I love change and I embrace it, but that’s what I’m struggling with. But (Spotsville) remains a place I look forward to returning to every year.”