Arkansas' Bow Season Preview

A five-month season, lots of public land and an expanding deer herd make Arkansas the land of opportunity for any bowhunter.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Kenn Young

When it comes to bowhunting, there's no state anywhere that has more to offer than Arkansas. Our season opens Oct. 1 and continues through the end of February, the longest season in the entire nation. Throughout most of that period, the weather will be bearable. Last season I hunted many days in January and early February with only a light coat, and, even in the frigid months, December through February, there are few days when conditions are so bad that you can't spend time afield. The new "miracle" fabrics pretty much make being cold and wet a thing of the past, and modern archery equipment is pretty much impervious to anything Mother Nature can throw at it.

Several years ago in Arkansas Sportsman, I made the statement that the best way to find a good bowhunting spot in the Natural State was simple: Take a state map, hang it on the wall, and toss a dart at it. There'd be a good chance of finding prime whitetail territory anywhere the missile might land. That's about as true today as it was then, but I offer one postscript.

The very best bowhunting in our state today is taking place on state or federally owned facilities, wildlife management areas or national wildlife refuges. This is "public" land, if you choose that description, but it's public of a controlled-access and controlled-harvest nature. On these areas, gun hunting is typically quota permit-only, and the number of days it is allowed is drastically limited.

The real key is that on those same facilities the bow season often follows state guidelines. This means that archers have considerable time to pursue their craft, and on land where there is relatively little hunting pressure. What more can we ask for?

So with that good thought in mind, this article will take a look at what should be some of the very best bowhunting spots for the coming year.

Even when I was a kid (too many years ago) the pinelands south of Little Rock were the place to go in this state if you merely wanted to harvest a deer. That's still true today.

But a majority of that land consists of vast tracts of commercial timberlands leased to clubs, so public land is at a premium. That said, there are still two places within this region any bowhunter should consider.

Felsenthal NWR is mentioned in every article I do on deer hunting that focuses on where to go. The reason for that is that this 65,000-acre facility (located just west of Crossett with parts in Bradley, Union and Ashley counties) has most of the same rules in place that White River NWR enjoys. Either-sex harvest is a staple and has been for years, and gun hunting is controlled by the aforementioned quota permit system. The terrain consists of a little of everything: pine ridges, hardwood bottoms, and a vast system of lakes, sloughs and bayous. Many of the locals use boats to reach some of the better spots. For information and maps call (870) 364-3167.

Over on the opposite side of the state, Pond Creek NWR (27,000 acres in Sevier County) is a relatively new area I'm hearing a lot of good things about. The only gun hunting allowed there is of the muzzleloader variety, and the dates follow state guidelines. That means deer move onto the area when modern gun season is in full swing. Several local hunters tell me that late November is about as good as it gets for archers! A signed permit is required to hunt there, and it must be carried at all times. For more info, contact the USFWS office at (870) 364-3167.

As far as public land goes, the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas, along with the Ouachitas in the southwest, offer more than 2,000,000 acres of opportunity. But deer numbers, especially in the Ozarks, seem to have declined dramatically in recent years, with the most likely culprit being the high doe harvest that has taken place there. The Ouachitas went through a similar scenario a decade ago, but doe hunting was cut back, and deer numbers there are now on the upswing.

Other drawbacks are that throughout both the Ozarks and Ouachitas, gun seasons are long, and the lease-land woes in the south are pushing substantial numbers of "outsiders" onto this public land to hunt. As a result, the deer herd is under intense pressure from the muzzleloader opener in October through the end of the late black powder season.

These same problems exist on the two major Ozark management areas, White Rock WMA and Piney Creeks WMA, that have been highlighted in various articles in the past. Both are huge - 280,000 and 180,000 acres respectively - and their very size dictates that an occasional old buck may be found back in some remote hollow. But even though I hunt there, I would not classify either as topnotch.

The staple for the Fort Smith area is Fort Chaffee WMA, the 66,000 acres lying southeast of that city. Like all military bases, Chaffee has some unusual restrictions (especially in time of war), including a required on-base "orientation," but the deer herd there is as good as anywhere in the state. Last season, 294 deer, of which 127 were bucks, were taken by archery or crossbow. Gun hunting is limited to four days. For information call 1-877-478-1043.

Bowhunting, for the most part, requires solitude, and that's not always easy to come by in our day and time. But the various wilderness areas that dot the Ozarks (and Ouachitas) offer the hunter a chance to pattern deer under more-normal conditions. There are five of those within the Ozarks region: East Fork (10,688 acres in eastern Pope County); Hurricane Creek (15,427 acres in Newton County); Leatherwood (16,980 acres in Baxter County); and the Upper Buffalo (12,035 acres in Newton County), which is part of the Buffalo National River (34,933 acres) system, lying along the banks of this most scenic river. All of these areas give the bowhunter the opportunity to leave the crowds behind. You can get additional information and maps by contacting the Ozark National Forest office in Russellville at (479) 968-2354.

I have a hard time putting Holla Bend NWR in the Ouachita region, since all that divides it from the Ozarks is the Arkansas River. "The Bend," which consists of some 9,000 acres split between cropland and dense hardwood cover, is bowhunting-only. Over the years there have been some notable bucks taken there, including Glen Jolly's 162 3/8 typical in 1976 (No. 8 among state typical bow kills), and Danny Reed's 208 4/8 non-typical in 1997 (No. 2 among state non-typical bow kills). Sixty-two deer were taken there last season, of which 36 were bucks. Typically, the season opens Oct. 1 and runs through the end of November. The period after gun season opens on surrounding lands is probably the best time to hunt there. A $12.50 refuge deer permit is required, and additional information is available by calling the refuge office at (479) 229-4300.

As in the Ozarks, numerous wilderness areas dot the Ouachitas: Black Fork Mountain (8,430 acres in northern Polk County); Caney Creek (14,460 acres in Polk County); Dry Creek (6,310 acres in southeast Logan County); Flatside (9,507 acres in Perry County); and Poteau Mountain (11,299 acres in southeast Sebastian County). For more information and maps, contact the Ouachita NF office in Hot Springs at (501) 321-5202.

The mountains are the region I know best, having now lived and hunted there for more than 30 years. Because there is so much ground, scouting is probably always the key to success. Look for concentrations of sign, rubs, tracks, scrapes, and then try to figure out how to connect those with the primary food source in that area.

The flatland region lying roughly east of Little Rock, running all the way to the Mississippi River, annually produces big deer. What's the primary reason for this? Food. Overall herd numbers may not be as high as in other areas, but the chance to harvest a wall full of horns offsets that.

For my list of best places, I'll start with the White River NWR, 160,000 acres of bottomland located down in the southeastern part of the state (Arkansas, Monroe, Phillips and Desha counties). This facility is the most storied, and the most consistent, of Arkansas big buck areas.

Back in January 1996, Donald Ray Sweetin of Tichnor took a 172 0/8 buck that was the state's first bow kill large enough to meet Boone and Crockett minimums. He was hunting within shouting distance of the refuge boundaries. Wayne Lindsey of Harrisburg next took the current state record typical, a big 5x5 that nets 177 7/8 points, on the refuge in 1998. Every year numerous good bucks are taken there, particularly later in the year. The short gun season combines with the area's overall inaccessibility to guarantee that bucks there have some age on them. But even more important, buck-to-doe harvest ratios on White River have been virtually 1-to-1 since back in the '60s. The resulting competition dictates that more breeding is done by the bigger bucks, which elevates genetics. The surrounding croplands provide a nutritious food source. In short, everything a buck needs to achieve his maximum growth potential (age, food and genetics) is in place. For more information, contact the refuge office at (870) 946-1468.

There are numerous other opportunities in the delta, the more well-known ones being: Bayou Meto WMA (33,832 acres in Arkansas and Jefferson counties); Dagmar WMA (9,720 acres in Monroe County); Wattensaw WMA (19,184 acres in Prairie County); and the Cache River NWR (55,000 acres stretching across Jackson, Woodruff, Prairie and Monroe counties).

That brings us to an interesting point. When hunting the delta it's important to understand that these are not high deer density areas. You will not see 10-25 deer a day. You may, however, have an opportunity to see, and take, a real good 'un.

Good deer have been evident in Arkansas Deer Zone 4 - which pretty much comprises the northeast corner of the state - virtually since the days when all hunting was closed there back in the 1980s. Great food sources in the form of endless row crops, low overall numbers, both combined with very limited gun hunting, make this entire region an archer's paradise.

That fact has been borne out graphically since the big-buck contest was initiated four years ago at the Arkansas Sportshow held in Jonesboro. Since then, 34 of the region's bucks that were large enough to be entered into the Pope and Young Club record book have been brought to that contest. In addition, Johnny Lockley's current state record non-typical bow kill, which scores 215 4/8, was taken near Cherry Valley (Cross County) in 1997.

The downside of all this is that there is virtually no public land available in Zone 4. I'll mention Big Lake NWR and Big Lake WMA (Mississippi County), which together total about 24,000 acres, and St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA (27,244 acres in Craighead and Poinsett counties) largely because they're virtually all the public hunting land there is. Seven deer were taken on Big Lake NWR/WMA last season, and five on the St. Francis.

In addition to the lack of open land, the area has other drawbacks. P&Y scorer James DeSpain of Manila, himself a longtime bowhunter with several P&Y bucks to his credit, told me several years ago just how frustrating the hunting can be in Zone 4.

"Virtually all hunting in this region is controlled by water levels," James said. "This is a low-water area, and, in times of even moderate rainfall, the run-off from up in Missouri can cover a lot of good hunting property. When that happens the herds will actually move, sometimes for considerable distances, to avoid the water. That makes hunting difficult."

So that's a look at just a few of the better public spots for the coming fall. Arkansas bowhunters are indeed fortunate in that no matter what part of the state you live in, there is a good hunting spot close by.

For information about most of the WMAs listed here contact the AGFC in Little Rock at 1-800-364-GAME. Maps for some areas are also available via the department's Web site at

(Editor's Note: Kenn Young is the editor of Arkansas' Biggest Bucks, Vol. II. To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $21.95 to Kenn Young Outdoors, P.O. Box 301, Clarksville, AR 72830.)

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