From St. Louis to Springfield, you can't find a better public bowhunting spot than the Mark Twain National Forest. Here's why. (September 2009)
The Mark Twain National Forest just might be Missouri's best public bowhunt. The forest covers a million and a half acres with habitat suitable for any type of bowhunting. If you're looking for a wilderness experience with the chance at a big buck, the Mark Twain undoubtedly is the place for you.
United States Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist Larry Furniff keeps his finger on the pulse of the Mark Twain's deer herd. He knows the deer both from his on-duty wildlife management responsibilities and from the hunts he's made in pursuit of his own bucks.
The Ozarks produce some trophy animals every year, said Furniff, but as a rule, the racks in this part of the state aren't considered large. An 8-pointer is a nice buck, but the rack is usually smaller than what a similar-sized deer would sport above the Missouri River floodplains. The reason is that the region's soil quality is poor and not conducive to growing a lot of nutritious vegetation for the deer. Here, a 120-incher is considered a trophy.
But even with that said, the deer are healthy and weigh in well, and a big rack or two does come off the forest each year. The herd numbers are hard to determine, but they're usually on the high end. The mast crop last year was a good one and should have allowed huge numbers of button bucks to make it through the winter.
Are there real trophy deer on the forest? You bet there are.
According to Furniff, archers looking for the older bucks should start in the fertile river bottom hardwoods and along the streams running through the area. Last year's mast crop exploded, and the whitetails will be in among the hardwoods taking advantage if it happens again this fall.
The deer in these fertile sections tend to run larger than do those on the drier parts of the forest. In line with the theory that the whitetails follow their stomachs, the next spots to check are public spots bordered by corn fields and other crops. Bucks that frequent those fields tend to pick up more weight and antler size than those who don't. During years of good mast production, which has been the case the past few years, bucks tend to use the farm fields less than they do during years of poor acorn production.
Even though hunting the Mark Twain is a much quieter experience than hunting many of Missouri's other public properties, it still pays to get off the beaten path. Way off.
One of Furniff's favorite ways to look for big bucks is to scout the borders between public and private property. Many hunters won't walk this far back in, a fact that doesn't escape the deer's notice. The farther off the traveled portions of the forest you can get, the better. An aerial map is one of the best ways to pick a few of those spots.
The Mark Twain is made up of seven separate districts scattered across southeastern Missouri and is the state's only national forest. Two of the best districts for archery hunting are the Petosi/Fredericktown Ranger District toward St. Louis, and the Ava/Cassville/Willow Springs Ranger District nearer Springfield. Petosi lies in Iron, Madison and Washington counties, and Ava spreads out across Barry, Christian, Douglas, Howell, Stone and Ozark counties.
Both districts are a patchwork quilt of private and public land ownership. As a result, the forest boundaries are poorly marked. Private landowners generally mark trees on their property with purple paint and many of the smaller sections have been fenced off. Red paint means forest personnel have marked the trees and they're on public property.
Even though the Petosi and Ava districts are close to metro areas, they're wide open and full of excellent bowhunting opportunities. The areas are so vast that a hunter may never see other hunters all day. Because of the lack of pressure, deer can be patterned for the archery season, whereas when gun and muzzleloader seasons come in, the deer are forced off their daily routines.
In Furniff's opinion, bowhunting on the Mark Twain equals the private land bowhunting anywhere in the state, but success still goes to those willing to work for it.
Whitetails quickly learn to avoid hunters by moving into the deep, thick stuff. Archers are going to have to go in after them.
Large stands of hickory and oak predominate the landscape and so the hunting can be physically demanding. Ridges, hollows, hills and steep ravines create routes into and out of feeding, bedding and resting areas. There are 16 lakes and myriad of streams in the forest and stands of white pine, elm, hemlock and poplar to round out the offerings. Finding deer is a challenge.
Look for food in areas of this tangled cover. Deer eat smorgasbord style and they'll walk along and take a bite of this and a bite of that and eat whatever is available. If the mast crop is good, they'll eat that. If the mast crop isn't good, the deer will be looking for agricultural fields and the underbrush that's growing where there's an opening in the forest canopy. These spots in the woods where the sunlight stimulates new growth down where the deer can reach it draw plenty of deer, the more thorny and thick the undergrowth, the better.
Look for clearings that have filled with saplings, brambles and sprouting stumps. No one knows how, but a big rack can navigate the thickets where hunters spend more of their time untangling themselves than hunting.
Never underestimate the whitetail's mastery of concealment in areas like those. You might step on a buck before you see him, and if he's well hidden he'll come close to letting it happen.
Archers lose their bearings in this kind of terrain and definitely are giving up some of their advantage. When it's tough to draw, much less to aim, the playing field is a lot more even than a lot of bowhunters like it. That's where woodsmanship, stealth, and sign reading can produce results.
Trophy hunters know that scrapes are a good indicator of buck size and activity. The rubs, scrapes, big tracks and big beds in the grass or brush should give you a reasonable picture of the size of animal that's making them. Scrapes especially are a good indicator of buck size and activity. How high rubs are up on the tree is another good indicator.
Many archers make the mistake of forgetting that there may be some big bucks moving through or living on some of the smaller areas. Hunters typically don't associate big bucks with smaller sections of the woods and can easily overlook some of the Mark Twain's biggest bucks.
Those areas likely would have limited access points, maybe a road along the outskirts with a lot of tangle inside. The fewer the access points, the better. If there are sections of big cottonwoods, old growth or bottomland trees, it's even better.
The western section of the national forest receives less rain than the eastern parts and tends to be somewhat arid with an abundance of scrub plants. The eastern reaches of the forest have more fertile soil, outcroppings and more timbered, wild country -- and that's where the deer numbers are greatest.
The Mark Twain is a multi-use forest; bowhunters should be aware of the hunting restrictions. There's no shooting of any sort within 150 yards of a building or occupied space, across a roadway, or if there's a chance of damaging property or injuring someone. You'll need a special permit to hunt the Fort Leonard Wood section. That can be obtained from the Outdoor Recreation Center, Building 1652, Fort Leonard Wood, MO 65473; or call (573) 596-4223. Vehicles are prohibited on areas designated as wilderness, non-motorized or semi-primitive recreation management areas or walk-in turkey areas. All MDC hunting rules and regulations apply.
The camping and access rules on the open land are fairly liberal. Archers can bring in a trailer or a tent and set up along the road wherever they can find a spot. The time limit is 14 days on the property, and it's free. Not a bad deal. Plus, there are no restrictions on campfires like there are on MDC properties.
Portable deer stands are allowed on Mark Twain lands. Stands can be placed two weeks before the deer season and must be removed within two weeks following the archery season. Make sure contact information is clearly displayed.
For additional information, contact the Mark Twain NF supervisor's office at (573) 364-4621 or the MDC in Columbia at (573) 882-9909. To order maps, go to www.fs.fed.us/r9/ forests/marktwain/maps/. Contact the Missouri Division of Tourism at (573) 751-4133, or go to www. visitmo.com for information on lodging or travel assistance.