So how did Natural State hunters fare during the 2009 deer season, and how will that impact our hunting this fall? Here are some answers. (July 2010)
With deer populations hovering at a consistently high level, Arkansas deer hunters expected a banner season in 2009-10. And they got it.
Although the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission had not tabulated final numbers at press time, it appears that the 2009-10 deer season might have equaled, if not exceeded, our kill of 184,991 deer in 2008-09.
According to preliminary numbers compiled by the AGFC, hunters checked a total of 170,724 deer. Of those, 83,351 were antlered bucks, and 13,948 were button bucks. Hunters also checked 73,427 does. Those numbers do not include deer killed on state-owned wildlife management areas or on properties enrolled in the AGFC's Deer Management Assistance Program, said Brad Miller, the AGFC's deer program coordinator. Those numbers, he added, might boost the preliminary total by as much as 10 percent.
"It was a really good year," Miller said. "It seems like we've been fighting with Mother Nature a little the last couple of years. We had the ice storm that caused a lot of damage, and then we had all the flooding. Those two things may have affected the deer harvest here and there, but generally the state had a good year."
At the beginning of the season, that didn't appear to be possible. Record rainfall in early autumn caused severe and extended flooding in eastern Arkansas that closed much of the modern gun deer season in bottomland areas in that part of the state. Those areas typically account for a generous percentage of Arkansas' annual deer kill, but hunters there were mostly forced to watch the game from the sidelines.
Floodwaters drove deer out of the bottomland forests into crop fields and onto levees, where they were exposed for weeks. Many hunters were frustrated to see huge herds containing potential record-book bucks milling about in the open in broad daylight. To their great credit, hunters largely resisted the temptation and left those deer alone. Had the season remained open in those areas, hunters might have killed too many deer, possibly reducing the population to a level from which it might take years to recover.
However, that experience prompted the AGFC to revisit its regulations for its eight primary flood-prone zones along the White and Black rivers. The main areas of dispute are flood-prone zones E, F and B. Flood-prone Zone F is on the shipping canal that connects the White and Mississippi rivers, but the water level that triggers its closure is on the upper end, at St. Charles. David Goad, chief of the AGFC's wildlife management division, said falling water on the Mississippi River sucks water out of Zone F quickly. The St. Charles river gauge is at a bottleneck on the White River and more accurately represents water levels in Flood-prone Zone E. Though E might be flooded, F could be dry, but it remains closed because of the reading at the St. Charles gauge. That unfairly shut out a lot of Flood Zone F hunters last year, Goad said, and the AGFC is considering removing the St. Charles gauge as a criterion for closing hunting in Zone F, and that's good news for hunters!
As always, hunters killed the most deer on opening weekend of the modern gun season. For the 2009 season, those dates were Nov. 14-15. Hunters bagged 18,788 deer on opening day, including 11,151 antlered bucks, and 6,082 does. The rest were button bucks. Hunters killed 11,913 deer on Nov. 15, including 6,406 antlered bucks and 4,607 does. The tally for opening weekend of modern gun season was 29,939, or about 18 percent of the total annual kill.
After that, hunters took significantly fewer deer per day, but there was another small spike on Nov. 27-28. On Friday Nov. 27, hunters bagged 4,588 deer (2,308 antlered bucks, 1,905 does), and on Saturday Nov. 28 they killed 4,087 (2,024 antlered bucks, 1,692 does).
Daily numbers dropped dramatically in December, excluding the three-day Christmas Holiday Gun Hunt, which was held Dec. 26-28. For 28 days in December, hunters killed 23,694 deer, an average of about 846 deer per day. During the Christmas hunt, however, they killed 12,910 deer. Of those, 8,560 were does.
Many hunters complained that they didn't see as many deer in 2009 as they did in 2008, and that deer didn't move as well. That could have been because of high water in the lowlands. It also could have been partly because of the full moon we had at the beginning of the modern gun season, which might have caused deer to move and eat mostly at night. Or, it might have been a combination of both. Whatever the reason, I did not see a legal deer, buck or doe, during modern gun season until Dec. 26. For much of the modern gun season, however, the area around my primary spot in Grant County was either under water or very swampy. I killed two does on Dec. 26 at a different spot in Grant County, on high ground above Hurricane Creek, where high water had forced deer out of the bottoms. I killed my only buck, a large, Arkansas County 9-point, on Dec. 28. All three kills were during the waning minutes of legal shooting hours.
It also didn't seem to be a great season for trophy bucks. Dave Corley -- owner of Fin, Feather and Fur Taxidermy in Jacksonville -- is also the longtime emcee at the Arkansas Big Buck Classic, the state's biggest and most famous deer hunting festival. He said the number of entries was down considerably at the 2010 edition of the Big Buck Classic, and that fewer customers brought Arkansas deer heads into his shop for mounting.
Starting in the 2009-10 deer season, hunters also used a different procedure for checking their deer. Early in 2009, the AGFC eliminated its traditional method of checking deer at game check stations. Instead, hunters checked their deer by telephone or on the Internet. That was a significant change that bucked generations of tradition. Critics of the system claimed that many hunters wouldn't check their deer, but Goad said that was not the case. In fact, he added, the new system might have been responsible for hunters checking more deer.
"In the past, if somebody killed a deer on their property, especially late in the evening, after field dressing the deer they had to load it up and take it to a check station," Goad said. "A lot of those deer probably went straight to the freezer and never got checked. This new system made it a lot easier for folks to check their deer, and we think it served its intended purpose."
Not only that, but the data from online and telephone checking is probably more accurate because it eliminates errors that arise from simple anomalies, like bad penmanship.
"Previously, the way it worked with the paper check sheet, we had computers that would scan the check sheet and try to interpret the date, sex and name of the county," Miller said. "We had to g
o in and visually verify what the computer determined those letters or numbers to be, and that's a very labor-intensive process. There's an opportunity for errors in interpreting numbers or letters, like for a deer zone number or county number."
Also, some check stations were more diligent than others about recording a hunter's kill. Many check stations, for example, were convenience stores with only one or two employees. If a hunter tried to check a deer during the lunch or dinner rush, with people standing in line to buy food or gas, an employee might have recorded the data without inspecting the carcass or simply let the hunter complete his own check sheet.
I personally experienced this during the 2008-09 season when I visited a check station in Grant County. I killed two deer, a buck and a doe, late in the evening during the second week of the modern gun season and arrived at the check station after dark. The store was not crowded, but the girl running the counter didn't know the difference between a buck and a doe, nor how to count antler points. She might also have been reluctant to go outside to inspect the carcasses because it was so cold. Whatever the reason, she handed me the check sheet, but I insisted she do it. Actually seeing and touching the deer intrigued her, however, and she really seemed to appreciate the brief "orientation" session.
Even though I kind of missed the camaraderie of swapping stories with other hunters at the check station, checking deer online for me was a lot easier and much more convenient.
Furthermore, old harvest reports listed an "unknown" category for the kill method, and the deer sex was sometimes unclear. A check station inspector might have left a field blank or checked a deer as having been killed by both modern gun and muzzleloader.
"I would say that a lot of check stations were going on information the hunter provided rather than inspecting the carcass themselves," Miller said. "It's no different now, but with the online and telephone checking, there's less room for scanning errors and handwriting legibility issues.
"The way we're doing it now, that won't be the case," he added. "Our data's a little bit cleaner."
It's encouraging to see that landowners and hunt clubs in the DMAP program seem to be achieving their goals. Individual goals are variable, Miller said, as some clubs manage their land to grow bucks with trophy-class antlers, while others work to balance their buck-to-doe ratios. The AGFC offers technical assistance to its DMAP participants and provides the means to achieve their goals, such as giving sufficient numbers of tags to remove surplus does from a property. The rest is up to the clubs, and goals are sometimes hard to meet.
"Taking does off a property year after year is a lot of work," Miller said. "It may sound like fun, but when you hear of a club having to take 150 does off a property year after year, it's pretty tough to do. That's a lot of time hunting and gutting. It takes a lot of dedication to try to reach an optimal herd density year after year."
Statewide, however, Miller said the buck-to-doe ratio is pretty good. According to the AGFC's annual bowhunter observation survey, conducted with about 1,000 bowhunters across the state, participants see an average of 1 adult buck for every 1.8 to 2.9 does they see.
"That's not bad," Miller said. "Now, that's spread out across the regions. There may be certain places where on a local level buck harvest is high every year and doe harvest is low every year. If fawn survival is low, sex ratios can become a little out of balance."
The two clubs I belong to in south-central Arkansas are in similar piney wood habitat on land owned by paper companies, but they have different management goals. Both are in Deer Zone 12, where deer are so plentiful that the AGFC is considering increasing the annual bag limit to five deer in 2010-11. The club where I killed the two does has no formal management objectives. Most of the deer taken from that club are bucks.
The other club observes a 6x12 rule, meaning a legal buck must have at least 6 points and at least a 12-inch inside spread. Hunters kill mostly bucks there, too, but the 6x12 rule influences the number and quality of bucks taken. Members of both clubs still seem reluctant to shoot does, despite liberal doe limits in Zone 12.
Another club in Arkansas County gets plenty of doe tags from the AGFC every year, but again, its members usually fall well short of the quota. Because that club is in Flood-prone Zone E, that club didn't hunt much last year, so it didn't come close to meeting any of its goals.
Of course, hunters are always interested in the best places to kill mature, trophy-class bucks. In 2009-10, hunters killed three bucks that qualified for the Boone and Crockett All-Time record book. However, the two biggest bucks came from Arkansas County. Sean Longnecker of Stuttgart killed the buck with the state's biggest rack last year. It sported a typical rack that scored 181 6/8 B&C. Mike Dobson killed a huge non-typical buck that scored 209 3/8. Dean Davis also killed an Arkansas County non-typical with a bow that scored 186 7/8, and Sharon Podbieldski killed a typical buck in Arkansas County that scored 144 3/4.
White County was an unheralded hotspot for big bucks last year. Thomas Richards bagged a typical that scored 163 7/8, and Jeff Brimer got a non-typical that scored 158 3/4. Patrick Hambrick's White County typical scored 141.
Many hunters who kill big bucks credit the AGFC's 3-point rule for the profusion of big bucks. Miller said the 3-point rule might be a contributing factor, but it alone is not responsible for producing deer with bigger antlers.
"I hear all opinions on that," Miller said. "The goal of the 3-point rule is to take harvest pressure off yearling bucks and shift that pressure to bucks that are 2.5 years and older. The 3-point rule does not make antlers larger. It just increases the average age of harvested bucks across the state. The older a buck gets, the bigger its antlers are."
Hunters also have become more knowledgeable about deer and deer management than they were 25 or 30 years ago, too. Couple that with the AGFC's progressive management, and it's easy to see why we are living the golden days of Arkansas deer hunting.