Arkansas Whitetails By Stick And String

You've tuned your bow, tweaked your sight, sharpened your blades and slung dozens of arrows at a foam target. The only question that remains: Where, exactly, will you arrow your buck this season? (September 2008)

Natural State bowhunters looking to fill the freezer would do well to test the Gulf Coastal Plain. Trophy hunters might prefer the Arkansas deltas
Photo by Michael H. Francis.

Being a serious bowhunter (my wife, Connie, prefers the term "fanatic"), I hold in my mind what I suppose is a somewhat unusual idea of what heaven must be like.

First, the deer season in heaven should be a long one -- running from, say, about the first of October through to the end of February. Second, heaven should have a growing deer herd -- about 1 million animals -- including some big bucks. Finally, since we're talking about the perfect place, a decent portion of heaven's best land must be open to public hunting.

Well -- surprise! Heaven sounds a lot like Arkansas.

Several years ago, while researching another bowhunting forecast for Arkansas Sportsman, I jokingly wrote that the best way to find a good bowhunting spot here in the Natural State was to take a dart and throw it at a map of the state. Where that dart stuck, except for smack dab in the middle of the Arkansas River, there was likely to be good bowhunting.

That's as true today as it was back then, maybe even more so. According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, there are more deer in our state today than at any point in the past, and the deer herd is either at or nearing carrying capacity in virtually every region of the state! It's entirely possible that a good buck is walking around on a 40-acre farm in the mountains; or on a 2,000-acre lease in the Gulf Coastal Plain, or even inside the city limits of many municipalities around the state.

How can we identify those best places for bowhunters? First, we must define our preferences.

If you're merely looking for venison, it's a no-brainer: Head for the flatlands south of Little Rock. The deer-per-acre figure for the area inside the Gulf Coastal Plain is higher than that anywhere else in the state.

If your focus is on headgear, hunt our deltas, those rolling seas of green running east from Little Rock all the way to the Mississippi River. Food sources, age, good genes -- all there.

All parcels of Arkansas land fall into one of three categories. Private land comprises that which you can hunt only with the owner's written permission. Public land, completely open as long as you follow statewide harvest guidelines, includes the Ozark and Ouachita national forests as well as a handful of smaller acreages across the state. Last, what I term "semi-private land" is technically public land controlled by state and federal agencies. These are our wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges.

Some of the very best bowhunting available today, particularly in terms of quality, exists on these semi-private areas. That's due, in part, to limited and controlled access, but more important is the lessened gun hunting that is typically allowed on these areas.

A total of 10,614 deer were taken with archery tackle during 2006-07, the most recent year for which statistics were available. Add in another 4,608 taken by crossbow hunters, and you have a total of 15,222 whitetails resting in freezers around the state. That figure is an increase of 3,581 animals, or 31 percent over the preceding season, when 11,631 deer were taken.

With the guidelines in place, let's take a look at some of the areas around our state that stand out as bowhunting hotspots.

Arkansas Deer Zone 4
When discussing the delta, the best bowhunting probably occurs not in a particular place, but within a particular region. In the 1980s, the AGFC shut down all hunting in Arkansas Deer Zone 4 due to low herd numbers. While the direct effects of that hiatus are long gone, the down-range effects are not. For roughly a decade, the bigger, older bucks did much of the breeding there, thanks to a lack of hunting pressure. Today, the following generations of those deer are still roaming the croplands of Arkansas Deer Zone 4.

Two decades later, gun hunting is still limited throughout the entire region. The two-day youth hunt in early November; a two-day firearms season in mid-November and the Christmas Holiday Hunt comprise the only firearms opportunities in Zone 4. Bow season, however, follows state guidelines, running from Oct. 1-Feb. 29.

Thanks to these regulations, Zone 4 has become a bowhunting paradise. Every year, numerous Pope & Young bucks are taken in this relatively small part of the state. But, as is often the case, much of the best Zone 4 hunting occurs on private property. When it comes to public areas, there are only one or two that stand out in Zone 4.

"Virtually all hunting throughout this part of the state is controlled by water levels," said James DeSpain, a long-time Pope & Young scorer and avid bowhunter. "We're a low-water area, and during rainy periods everything up in Missouri runs down on us. So, about every winter our season is closed at times due to high water.

"Big Lake Wildlife Management Area and Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Mississippi County) lie side-by-side and together total about 24,000 acres. They're not overrun with deer, but if you hunt hard and put in your time, you have a chance of taking a good buck there. I would also consider the St. Francis Sunken Lands down between Lake City and Marked Tree. That entire area -- I would guess about 25,000 acres -- was completely clear-cut some years ago. Today it's a grown-up mess, so thick you can't walk through it in a lot of places. That definitely makes it another good big buck area."

Bow season at Big Lake NWR runs Nov. 1-Dec. 31, and since the land here is federally owned, the state-imposed 3-point restriction is not in effect. On the WMA side of Big Lake, and also on the Sunken Lands, the season runs Oct. 1 through the end of February, and the 3-point rule is in effect.

White River NWR
The other delta hotspot is the famed White River National Wildlife Refuge, 160,000 acres of bottomland wilderness lying in Arkansas, Monroe, Phillips and Desha Counties. Several years ago, I highlighted this area as hosting the best big-buck hunting in the state; that's probably still true today. The prime reason? Genes. Big bucks have been there virtually since the refuge's opening in the 1960s, are there now, and will be there in the future. The AGFC area biolog

ist, Richard Hines, pointed out that over the last 40 years, the buck-to-doe harvest ratio has been virtually 1:1, and that has served to ensure a buck-to-doe herd ratio most areas do not even approach. Throw in the nutrition supplied by the row crops that ring the unit's perimeter, and you have everything a buck needs.

In 2007-08, archers at White River took 252 deer -- 129 bucks and 123 does. Archery season runs from Oct. 1 through Jan. 31 in the north unit and Dec. 31 on the south unit. The locals say that hunting, particularly for trophy bucks, is best during December and into January, after the gun season.

There are numerous other prime spots within this region, such as Wattensaw WMA (19,184 acres in Prairie County), which is now called Mike Freeze Wattensaw WMA; Dagmar WMA (9,720 acres in Monroe County), which will soon be known as Sheffield Nelson Dagmar; and the University of Arkansas Pine Tree Experimental Station Wildlife Demonstration Area in St. Francis County (11,850 acres).

Holla Bend NWR

"The Bend," as it is known locally, lies along the south shore of the Arkansas River southeast of Dardanelle. This facility's 9,000-plus acres have long been bowhunting only, but last fall a one-day youth gun hunt was held. That hunt took place on Dec. 15, after the refuge bow season, which runs Oct. 1-Dec. 10.

Since its heyday in the 80s and 90s, Holla Bend has been known for the quality of its bucks. The largest documented buck taken there was Danny Reed's 208 4/8-inch non-typical in 1999. Holla Bend exists primarily as a waterfowl resting station. For years most of the acreage was farmed cooperatively by locals, who would leave part of their crop in the fields in lieu of rent. Today, a substantial portion of that cropland -- as much as 40 to 50 percent -- has become part of a bottomland hardwood restoration program. The days of 140-175 deer being taken in a season are gone, but biologists tell me that the quality remains high.

Last fall, a total of 45 deer fell to archers -- 29 bucks and 16 does. A special $12.50 permit is required to hunt the area. The best time to hunt "The Bend" is after gun season opens in November, when pressure on surrounding lands moves deer to the refuge.

Fort Chaffee WMA
One of the ill effects of the Iraq war manifested itself last fall, when the 39th Infantry Battalion was activated and sent to Fort Chaffee for training. That resulted in Chaffee being closed to the many area hunters who use this 66,000-acre facility southeast of Fort Smith.

But there's an upside: There should be more deer on Chaffee this fall -- many with an additional year of age on them!

The topography of this WMA consists of gently rolling terrain cut by several fairly steep ridges. Aside from the hardwood bottoms, food sources are limited, and more food plots have been built in recent years. Deer have also been known to feed on the openings created as impact areas, where no hunting is allowed.

As with about all premier bow areas, Chaffee's desirability is enhanced by its ban on gun hunting. Typically, only a two-day permit muzzleloader hunt and two-day modern gun hunt take place in late November. Bow season follows statewide guidelines. All hunters are required to attend an orientation class to secure a permit, which costs $20 for two years. Class schedules and locations can be obtained by calling (479) 484-3995.

In both the Ouachitas and the Ozarks, there are other prime areas for bowhunters. Since deer, especially older bucks, tend to avoid human contact, bowhunters should naturally look for spots where that contact will be lessened. The various walk-in turkey areas and wilderness areas scattered throughout the two regions fill that criteria perfectly. Since vehicle traffic is forbidden inside these areas, many are under-hunted. The National Forest Service ban on 4-wheelers, particularly in the Ozarks, has also helped create areas where hunters willing to burn some shoe leather can find buck security zones.

Across the Arkansas River rest the towering Ozarks, within which the Ozark National Forest WMA sprawls over some 678,878 acres located in 10 different counties, all lying north of Interstate 40. When you throw in two other mega-size WMAs -- White Rock (280,000 acres) and Piney Creeks (180,000 acres) -- you're talking about more than 1.1 million acres of public hunting opportunity!

While there are deep hollows and timber cuts on these public areas that might harbor an old buck and overall deer numbers are on the rise, as always, your best opportunity is on Arkansas' semi-private areas.

Camp Robinson WMA
Camp Robinson is a 26,675-acre military facility lying roughly north of North Little Rock. With good public hunting land at a premium in the central part of the state, Robinson serves as an oasis for bowhunters from both North Little Rock and Little Rock. Having hunted the area several times, I would classify overall herd numbers as average. In trophy terms, a buck in the 130-140 class is possible but not all that likely.

The topography of Robinson is somewhat typified by grown-over fields and narrow hardwood bottoms, cut by sharp ridges and interspersed with planted pine. There are no row crops within the interior, so in the years when acorns are present the resident deer live pretty well; in other years, the quality of available food sources is lower.

Last season, there were only six days of gun hunting allowed on the facility -- a two-day muzzleloader season and a pair of two-day modern gun hunts. Meanwhile, the bow season follows statewide guidelines.

The only requirement for archers here is that they purchase a $10 Sportsman's Pass and carry a signed "To Hold Harmless" brochure. These are available at the Camp Robinson Police/Fire Station Building 7200. Information is available by calling (501) 212-5280 or (501) 212-5282.

<b<wedington WMA
I'm going to jump on the bandwagon for this 16,000-acre area lying up in Benton and Washington counties. After all, Mike Franks took his 170-class buck (featured in this issue of Arkansas Sportsman) there last season, and numerous other hunters I met at the Mountain Man Big Buck Challenge in Fayetteville in January spoke of it in almost reverent terms.

Gun hunting here is limited to a two-day rifle season held the first week in December. Pictures appearing in a local paper suggest that very nice bucks have been taken. Archery season runs Oct. 1 through the end of November, and there is a one-buck limit. The topography is typical of mountain areas, mostly up and down with some bottomland hardwoods along the Illinois River. There are also numerous openings, both natural and man-made; look for rut signs around those during November.

The primary draw of the Ozarks, much like the Ouachitas, is the amount of public land available for hunting. In a day when rising lease prices are causing more and more hunters to look for other options, the pressure on public areas continues to grow. One of the goals put forth in the 2007 Arkansas Deer Management Plan was to more effectively manage the

se public lands through interaction between the AGFC and the agencies and individuals who control them. Only the future will tell if that is a workable approach.

Felsenthal NWR

It's been 10 years since I've had the opportunity to hunt this 64,000-acre facility, which is east of Crossett and sprawls over parts of Ashley, Union and Bradley counties, but it's about time to go back. Everything that a bowhunter could want is there.

First of all, gun hunting is regulated. Last year, a two-day blackpowder permit hunt was held in October and a pair of two-day modern gun permit hunts took place in November -- and that was it. Meanwhile, the bow season runs from Oct. 1 through the end of January.

Likewise, the three counties in which Felsenthal is located are among the state's leaders in overall kill almost every year, and each has, at one time or another, produced a B&C buck. It's not often that higher numbers and quality coexist, but they do in this part of the state.

The thing that I like most is that this refuge has great diversity of terrain. There are ridges on the north, hardwood feeding areas in the bottoms and deep swamps farther south. Many of the best hunting areas, particularly after the gun seasons take place, lie within the swamps and require at least hip waders and preferably a boat for access. This is definitely mosquito country, so if you hunt there early in the fall, a ThermaCell will keep you from being eaten alive.

Pond Creek NWR</b.
In the western part of the Gulf Coastal Plain lies Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge, some 27,000 acres of grown-up thicket lying north of Ashdown and south of DeQueen. The area gained quite a bit of celebrity two years ago, when Jerry Gennings took his huge Pope & Young bow kill here, and there have been quite a few other good bucks taken over the years.

Again -- a recurring theme here --gun hunting is limited. A week of blackpowder action in October, a two-day youth hunt a week later and a two-day gun hunt just before Thanksgiving make up the firearms options here. Like Felsenthal, the bow season runs Oct. 1 through the end of January, and no antler restrictions are in place.

I've hunted Pond Creek several times. The first time I spent about the entire three days I was there lost. This is moderately rolling country, most of it over-grown with brush and vegetation, and on cloudy days there are very few landmarks. The second time I went, I took along my GPS and fared much better. Hunting is good around openings (if you can find any), and if there are acorns, the deer migrate to them. Hunting funnels and travel routes is the preferred method among the locals, along with setting up over rut sign.

The refuge requires that you kill does, which is a sign that their male-to-female ratio is a bit skewed. It also means that if you're looking to fill your freezer, your chances are good.* * *And that's a look at some (obviously, not all) of our prime bowhunts for the coming season. Remember: It's hard to find a bad bowhunting spot in Arkansas. When in doubt, toss a dart at a state map -- chances are good that you'll find deer there.

Arkansas' 75,000 or so bowhunters really are among the luckiest in the country. A long season, lots of deer, more big bucks -- what else could we ask for?

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