When you only have a short time to hunt, these public areas near major population centers may be just the spots you're looking for.
Time is always in short supply these days. We have kids that must to be ferried to sports practices, we have civic club meetings to attend, and we have all those jobs to do -- both for the home and for the office. None of that matters, though, when you know that your big gobbler is only a short drive away.
Mike Widner is the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Turkey Program coordinator and a 22-year veteran of fisheries and wildlife management. As such, he knows public turkey-hunting destinations -- both state and federal -- are plentiful near cities like Little Rock, Fort Smith and West Memphis.
Admittedly, Arkansas turkey hunting has not been in its heydays in recent years. Nevertheless, Widner painted a less-than-gloomy picture of what turkey hunters can expect.
"There's not much change for 2010 from recent years. Turkey harvest should continue at depressed levels for at least two more years. My guess is that we may be down 5 to 10 percent this spring, but weather could influence that prediction," he acknowledged.
The problem is poor reproduction. "Arkansas experienced five above-average years in a row of turkey reproduction from 1997-2001, but we have now experienced seven -- and 2009 makes eight -- years in a row of below-average reproduction."
The upside to this? "Fortunately, the conservative turkey seasons now in place are compatible with recent trends in reproductive success and overall turkey numbers. The AGFC has been able to stabilize spring harvest for the past three years," he said.
With that in mind, here are Widner's and his AGFC coworkers' thoughts on where you'll have the best chances at bagging a gobbler.
"Time was when all a Little Rock turkey hunter had to do was head to Winona Wildlife Management Area, but most of the large U.S. Forest Service co-op WMAs have been hit relatively hard by the recent downturn in turkey numbers," Widner lamented. Then he pointed out that spring 2009 harvest at Winona had actually gone up from 2008.
While "the good old days" of Winona are limited because of depressed turkey populations, there are at least three spots where turkey hunters might find above-average action.
Farther to the west than Winona, hunters will find Petit Jean River and Galla Creek WMAs. These two AGFC areas provide unlimited public hunting. Meanwhile, and closer to Little Rock, Camp Robinson WMA is worthy of mention for those lucky enough to draw a permit.
Petit Jean River WMA, in Yell County, provides a mix of bottomlands and uplands encompassing roughly 15,000 acres, and can be accessed from Arkansas Route 154, 10 or 7. That trio of highways enters the WMA from the north, the south and the middle.
Generally found north of the Arkansas River is Galla Creek WMA in Pope County. The WMA is accessible via Arkansas 324 or 105 from the north and east. With 3,329 total acres, Galla Creek's lands range from backwater bottomlands around the river to rolling ground that rises toward the Ozark Plateaus to the north. In between, hunters will find wildlife openings that provide spots to hunt turkeys as well as doves in season.
Finally, Camp Robinson WMA lies in Pulaski and Faulkner counties. Of the military installation's roughly 40,000 acres, about 26,000 are open to hunting. The terrain is diverse, ranging from swampy sloughs to rocky formations that mark the southern terminus of the Ozarks. Access requires an agreement-to-hold-harmless permit that can be picked up at the Camp Robinson Fire Station. Also, wartime restrictions may mean that the main gate on North Little Rock's Camp Robinson Road provides the only entry point, so be sure to check with officials before heading out the door.
"Two 'sleeper' areas you might want to check on are Greers Ferry Lake WMA in Cleburne County -- one of the best harvest counties in the state -- and Cypress Bayou WMA along the Lonoke/White County line, where turkeys have increased in number and distribution in recent years," the biologist noted.
Owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and leased by the AGFC, Greers Ferry Lake WMA in Van Buren and Cleburne counties covers some 40,000 acres. Hunting is limited to lands outside the Corps' public use areas. Hardwoods, evergreens and grasslands highlight the area, which is found at the foothills of the Ozarks' Boston Mountain chain.
Cypress Bayou WMA's 1,503 acres lie in southern White and northern Lonoke counties. Arkansas Route 31, Charlie Olds Road and Cocklebur Road provide access along the east, south and west sides of the WMA. Land ranges from hardwoods to shrubby and grassy lowlands along the Cypress Bayou.
Near the Arkansas River Valley's Fort Smith, Widner asserted, the turkey-hunting picture is a mixed bag.
"White Rock WMA and USFS lands in the western Ozarks have been hit by poor reproduction as hard as any area in Arkansas, and turkey numbers are down," he began. "On the other hand, better reproduction in the northern Ouachitas has kept turkey numbers more stable on Fort Chaffee and Mount Magazine WMAs, and on USFS lands in proximity to Fort Smith."
In Sebastian and Franklin counties, Fort Chaffee WMA provides roughly 66,000 acres of hunting opportunity southeast of Fort Smith. The rolling terrain is covered by hardwood timber, heavy brush and AGFC-maintained food plots.
"Military training may restrict Fort Chaffee areas open to hunting, but the birds are there," Widner added.
Mount Magazine WMA contains about 120,000 acres and is found in Logan and Yell counties. Entry points to the WMA include roads off state routes 22 to the north, 10 to the south and 27 to the southeast.
While the Delta region of the state to the west of West Memphis produces bumper crops of soybeans, corn, rice and cotton, the land there generally sees the lowest turkey numbers in Arkansas. Still, as in other portions of the state, all is not lost for those wishing to bag a bird here.
A few areas along the Mississippi River and on or near Crowley's Ridge have better turkey numbers than the rest of the Delta, said Widner. "And it is on the south end of Crowley's Ridge where West Memphis hunters will probably find their best opportunities at public-land turkeys. The St. Francis National Forest WMA traditionally has good turkey numbers."
St. Francis National For
est WMA, lies within the USFS' forest by the same name. The area totals 20,946 acres and is bisected by Arkansas Route 44. Arkansas 1 and 242 will allow access from Helena-West Helena, while 44 will get you to your destination from Marianna. Upland hardwoods along Crowley's Ridge mix with bottomland hardwoods adjacent to the neighboring St. Francis and Mississippi rivers. Plus, about 150 acres of ground are annually rotated in a food plot program.
ELSEWHERE IN ARKANSAS
Didn't see your home city in those already covered? Here are a few more suggestions from Widner on public grounds for turkey hunting near other Arkansas cities.
Pine Bluff: Bayou Meto WMA, White River NWR, Trusten Holder WMA, Choctaw Island WMA.
Fayetteville/Springdale/Rogers: Buffalo National River WMA, Gene Rush WMA.
Jonesboro: Sylamore WMA, Norfork Lake WMA, Buffalo National River WMA, Harold E. Alexander WMA, Shirey Bay/Rainey Brake WMA.
Texarkana: Dr. Lester E. Sitzes III/Bois D'Arc WMA, Pond Creek WMA, Lafayette County WMA, Lake Greeson WMA, Big Timbers WMA.
El Dorado: Felsenthal NWR.