Archery season represents one of the first opportunities of the year to bag a trophy -- not least because fewer hunters haunt the woods then. Here's where you should bend a bow this month.
Photo by Dave N. Richards
As I sat down to write this article, I realized that I'd have to admit something right up front. My assignment was to write an article previewing the upcoming archery season in Louisiana. If I'm truthful, I have to admit that bowhunting is something I've never done.
Had my assignment been to preview turkey season, or muzzleloader deer hunting, or squirrel hunting, or duck hunting, I'd have been in my element, because these are sports in which I have been involved for decades.
Perhaps I never hunted deer with bow and arrow because of my unhappy efforts at mastering the bow. My "mastering" was more a disaster, reminding me of my ineptitude at horseback riding. My two cousins, with whom I grew up, had a horse, and they looked so at ease galloping bareback down the gravel road or across the pasture. Every time I crawled on the back of old Sapphire, she'd start out at a slow trot and I'd end up sliding off and landing beneath her belly. Fortunately, Sapphire came to know that when it was I who got on her back, she had to be ready to skid to a halt in a hurry to keep from stepping on her hapless rider.
My horseback riding episodes were not unlike my introduction to shooting a bow. My friend the late Sterling Harrell was a skilled bowman who hunted exclusively with his longbow. While I was visiting him one day to do a story on traditional archery, he invited me to shoot his bow. I obliged, but came away after my first and only shot with an ugly bruise that ran from my elbow to my wrist. The problem, it seemed, was that Harrell was a left-handed archer, and when he put the forearm protector on me, a right-handed shooter, he unwittingly put it on my left arm, leaving my right arm vulnerable.
Fortunately, I have quite a few friends and acquaintances who are accomplished archers. By picking their brains, I've gained a wealth of knowledge about bowhunting to the point that I don't feel handicapped when I sit down to write. One of those experts: Ruston's Larry Pyle.
When Pyle began bowhunting more than two decades ago, he was fascinated with the possibility of bagging deer by means of stick and string. Finding equipment, however, was another matter. "I began bowhunting in 1976 after hunting with guns all my life," he said. "I can't help but laugh when I think of the equipment I used when I started out.
"I bought my first bow at the old Gibson's Discount store in Ruston. Those first compound bows to come on the market were '¦ well -- you could hurt yourself with them. They'd get arrows in from time to time, and every time they did, I'd go buy a dozen. No dozen were ever alike in length or weight. It's a wonder anybody killed a deer with the equipment we had back then."
According to Pyle, bowhunters' high success rates today have two basic causes. "First, we have lots more deer than we did in the 1970s, and second, the equipment today is light-years ahead of what was available twenty years ago," he said. "If hunters today had to use the equipment I started out with, I guarantee the success rate wouldn't be nearly as high."
Once he began bowhunting, Pyle laid his deer rifle aside and elected to do all his deer hunting with his bow. "Bowhunting is so different from hunting with firearms," he said. "You have to totally rethink what you're trying to accomplish. Like a golfer who wins tournaments with his putter, it's the short game that puts bowhunting in a class by itself.
"For example: A typical gun hunter sits on a stand overlooking a pipeline or power line right of way. There's a crossing down there a couple of hundred yards. If it's a good spot, chances are he'll eventually see a deer step across the opening. If it's a buck, or the doe he wants, he shoots: That's it.
"The bowhunter, on the other hand, has to get his quarry in close for the shot. The things you learn when deer are this close can't be learned from a magazine or a video. Their behavior, the way they move, their body language -- all this you learn by observing. All of these things serve to make you a more knowledgeable hunter, and that's what makes a better bowhunter."
Pyle formerly operated his own sporting goods store just north of Ruston. The store is often a meeting place for hunters who want to talk bowhunting.
"Bowhunters knew that when they came in here, they'd get to talk bowhunting," Pyle said. "To me, that's important -- being able to listen to what other hunters have experienced. I also belong to Bayou State Bowhunters and the D'Arbonne Bowmen Archery Club in Ruston. There is no substitute for being around other bowhunters, because you can learn so much."
What are some of the things that Pyle has learned? "When it comes to archery, less is more. My equipment, although of high quality, is fairly simple. I use only one sight pin. It can get confusing when in the heat of the moment as a deer comes into range trying to decide which pin to use."
Another mistake many bowhunters make, according to Pyle, is using too much power. "I don't know if it's a macho thing or not, but some bowhunters believe that if a bow with 60-pound pull will kill a deer dead, one with 75 pounds will kill him real dead," he remarked. "Overpowering your bow can lead to accuracy problems -- and this is a lesson I learned from watching my wife when she began bowhunting. She could pull only 38 pounds, but the first two deer she shot, the arrow went completely through the deer. That got me to thinking: Why grunt and strain at 75 pounds when less weight will do the same job?
"As a result, I have backed down to 60 pounds now, and this offers several advantages. One, I can pick up my bow even after a week or so of inactivity and can pull it back with ease. Two, my draw and hold are much steadier, giving me more accuracy every time. And with bowhunting, that's the key."
Obviously, Larry Pyle knows how the bowhunting game is played. And increasing numbers of hunters around the state have, like Pyle, basically laid aside their firearms, choosing instead to play the stick-and-string game with deer.
Those hunters are the beneficiaries of the horn of plenty that is Louisiana's lengthy archery hunting season. Some areas of the state open archery season during September, and in most areas, bow season lasts through the month of January. This means that over an almost five-month period in fall and winter each year, you can bowhunt deer somewhere in Louisiana. Let's look at those areas of the state where bow hunting is expected to be the best during the 2005-06 archery
season in Louisiana.
When this article was written, the season dates had not been set in stone -- you'll have to consult your hunting regulations brochure when it comes out -- but chances are good that bowhunters will have the first crack at downing a deer in mid-September in the southwest portion of the state.
David Moreland, formerly the state's deer study leader, is now the chief of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' Wildlife Division. We asked Moreland about the arguably unique bowhunting opportunities in the southwest corner of the state.
"The department established Area 8, a small section along the Sabine River in portions of Calcasieu, Allen and Beauregard parishes, a couple of years ago," he responded. "Hunters had been complaining about seeing bucks chasing does before the season opened in this area, so the LDWF agreed to establish this area to allow hunters to take advantage of this early rut. The archery season opens around Sept. 15 and runs through mid-January."
Deer making their homes in the south Louisiana marsh generally run smaller in size than do deer in other parts of the state, reports wildlife biologist John Robinette. "A 2 1/2-year-old buck that weighs 130 pounds is a big deer for this part of the state," he observed. "Last season, we had a buck that scored 128 on the Boone and Crockett scale -- a buck that wouldn't get a second look elsewhere in the state, but a real trophy down here."
Moreland says that southwest Louisiana has several good-quality areas that should favor bowhunters. "In this area, bowhunters like the Boise Vernon and West Bay wildlife management areas," he offered. "Also, there is the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, which has lots of deer. It's a bowhunt-only area, but because of the terrain, it's hard to get around in there.
"The rut down there generally peaks in early October. You'll find scrapes in September. These deer are programmed for an early rut, probably to get the fawns on the ground before hurricane season hits. By the time the rut occurs in northwest and western Louisiana, around Thanksgiving, it's long been over down in the southwestern parishes.
"Quality hunts down there in the southwest part of the state really depend on the weather," Moreland added. "For the past few seasons, it has been so warm during bow season that the deer didn't move much during daylight hours. If you get some cold weather during bow season, the hunting can be quite good."
Another area of the state that gets plenty of attention during bow season is the area along the Mississippi Delta. The timing of the rut in this part of the state is just the opposite of that in southwest Louisiana, says Moreland.
One of the state's most deer-rich regions is the area along Louisiana's eastern boundary. Low-lying lands along the Mississippi River delta are some of the most fertile lands in the state. Fortunately for deer hunters, there are several areas open to public hunting located in this region. "The rut normally occurs in this part of the state in late December on into January," Moreland noted.
The area between I-20 down to the southern end of Concordia Parish contains several public areas, some managed by the state, others by the federal government. State-owned areas include the Three Rivers, Red River, Big Lake, Sicily Island Hills and Buckhorn wildlife management areas. Federal areas are the Tensas and Bayou Cocodrie national wildlife refuges.
This area is known not only for the number of deer but also for the quality of the animals taken there. It is not all that uncommon for hunters to bring out bucks that rival in weight those of the northern states. Several bucks weighing in the neighborhood of 300 pounds have been weighed at check stations in the area.
This area's capacity for producing such high-quality animals has to do with the fertility of the region. Nutritious deer foods are readily available as a result of the rich soils in the area. Coupled with this are robust genetic material and a situation that enables deer to get some age on them. As a result, bowhunters have the potential to take some top-quality bucks from this region of the state.
While bow season opens over most of western and northwestern Louisiana around Oct. 1, the peak of the rut does not occur until mid to late November. Moreland believes that several wild-life management areas in this portion of the state should offer highly promising bowhunting opportunities.
"The Fort Polk area along with Jackson-Bienville, Sherburne and Ouachita should all be good this coming season," he said. "One reason for this is the fact that the deer harvest on these areas was somewhat down last year. This means there should be a significant carryover of deer into the coming season. Add to that the abundance of forage and hard mast and there should be plenty for bow hunters to smile about this next season."
Reflection on last year's growing season makes Moreland optimistic that bowhunters around the state should see some good deer this coming hunting season. "Over most of the state, the mast crop has been good," he stated, "and with the abundance of rain throughout winter and into early spring, there should be plenty of succulent forage for the deer. As a result, fawn production should be good over the majority of the state."
Another prime public area for bowhunters is often overlooked. While most hunters head for smaller hotspots to hunt deer, there is a gigantic public area, the Kisatchie National Forest, covering a big part of north and central Louisiana that doesn't get as much hunting pressure.
The U.S. Forest Service breaks this huge 600,000-acre area up into five ranger districts. The northern-most Caney Ranger District comprises three units: the Middle Fork the Corney Lake, and Caney Lakes. The three units of the Caney District cover an area of some 33,000 acres.
In addition to the Caney Ranger District, other districts, scattered from central Louisiana to the northernmost part of the state include the Catahoula, Calcasieu (which consists of the Evangeline and Vernon units), Winn and Kisatchie Ranger Districts. More specifically, the Calcasieu District is the farthest south; the Vernon unit is located near Leesville, and the Evangeline lies south of Alexandria. The Kisatchie District sits just south of Natchitoches, with Winnfield serving as the virtual southern boundary of the Catahoula district and the western boundary of the Winn District.
Bowhunters looking for variety in habitat types might want to give the Kisatchie National Forest a closer look. Hilly, rocky terrain; cypress sloughs; hardwood bottomlands; red clay pine hills: Kisatchie has it all.
With so much land available to bowhunters, those who go after deer with archery equipment have an excellent chance to hunt without being crowded by other hunters. Ideally, those planning to hunt Kisatchie NF will have done their homework by scouting areas they plan to hunt well before season opens.
The opportunity to sit undisturbed i
n a climbing stand overlooking a hardwood bottom, ridge or cypress brake is a plus for those who hunt this special national forest. When you stop to think about it, the people who came up with the nickname "Sportsman's Paradise" for the state of Louisiana knew what they were talking about. When it comes to premier bowhunting opportunities, our state has them from border to border. Add to that the diversity of peak breeding dates around Louisiana, and any serious archer who doesn't mind logging some miles around the state will be able to hunt with a bow virtually non-stop from mid-September through the end of January.