Arkansas' 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Our Trophy Buck Areas
September 24, 2010
Your search for a true Arkansas giant begins with two questions: Where do the big bucks roam? And how do I find them? Here, Arkansas Sportsman delivers inside details that can get you the answers. (November 2008)
On the second day of the 2007 Zone 4 shotgun hunt, Michael Hardin, of Pollard, was deer hunting on private property just north of town. He spent the morning still-hunting, and then, with noontime approaching, returned to his truck, intending to drive to a nearby friend's house for lunch.
He was crossing a bridge spanning a wide ditch when he glanced down and saw two sets of large tracks side by side in the soft mud along the bottom. They were heading in a northerly direction, toward a thick stand of timber some distance away.
"The year before I had been doing some bowhunting in that same general area," Hardin recalled. "One day I rattled in a pretty nice 10-point, but couldn't quite get him is position for a shot. When I finally gave up I turned around and saw this buck standing there staring in my direction, maybe 100 yards away."
Hardin continued on to Brian Dunlap's house, and asked if Dunlap wanted to accompany him for a hunt that afternoon. Dunlap couldn't go, but another friend, Jack Cooper, went to get his gun and then followed Hardin back to the spot where he had seen the tracks. After getting out of their trucks, the two planned to make a drive through the tract of woods.
"We flipped a coin twice to see who would take which side of the timber," he recalled. "I wanted to hunt next to the ditch, but Jack won both times. Then he decided to work through the opposite side from the ditch.
"After he disappeared into the woods I eased along an old access road, and the buck come out of the woods some distance ahead of me. I was carrying my Browning Light 12, and I got it up and fired, then he disappeared into the ditch. I ran to a spot where I could see down into it, and he was standing with his head up about 70 yards away. I fired again, and this time he went down on the spot."
The animal's body wasn't that large for an area covered in row crops, but that only made the beautiful 6x5 rack atop his head seem larger. In February, Hardin carried the antlers to the big buck contest held as part of the Arkansas Sportshow in Jonesboro, where it was officially scored at 170 4/8 net typical points.
Stories like this one are being heard more frequently in the Natural State. In 2006-07, Arkansas hunters tagged six bucks that were big enough to make the all-time list of the Boone and Crockett Club, the unofficial "bible" of big-game hunters. In 2007-08 that number rose to seven, with a couple of more still pending. That latter number is second only to the eight all-timers taken back in 1996. The 13 Booners taken in the last two years is unprecedented in our state. Make no mistake: When it comes to big Arkansas deer, the "good old days" are taking place right now.
The 89 Natural State deer listed in the B&C all-time record book -- not counting those bucks taken last fall -- puts our state in 17th place nationwide. However, 41 more bucks, all of which have been scored at one time or another by official B&C personnel, have not been entered into the book at this time. If those deer were added, it would make the state's total 130 and would raise Arkansas to 13th nationwide.
Even more good news: Today, bigger deer are being taken in virtually every region of the state. Of course, no area is ever going to compare consistently with the Arkansas Delta -- but it's becoming increasingly evident that big deer live throughout our state.
Why? I believe that part of the explanation lies in education. Today hunters are fascinated by bigger antlers, and while there's certainly a good side and a bad side to that fascination, it's only human nature to want to know more about anything that captures our interest. Today, landowners are planting nutritious food sources, clubs are selectively harvesting deer and hunters are letting younger bucks walk. All of those measures are designed to improve the quality of the deer herd.
Where would I go today if I wanted my best chance to take a trophy buck? I'd still head to the delta. The same minerals and nutrients that go into those miles upon miles of crops go into the deer that feed on those crops, and it's an old management truism that deer are what they eat.
But as I said earlier, big deer are popping up in just about every region of the state, and hunters have some prime opportunities available at the various state wildlife management areas and federal-controlled national wildlife refuges.
So with that in mind, let's take a look at some of the spots where big bucks roam in Arkansas.
POND CREEK NWR
The southwest region of the state is coming on as far as big bucks are concerned. A total of six B&C bucks have been taken there in the past six years, with the state's largest typical of 2007-08 killed near Cove by Andy Butler. Considering that there wasn't a single book buck listed from the region prior to 2001, it's safe to describe what is taking place in the southwest as a big-buck trend.
Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge, which lies in Sevier County, is a 27,000-acre mess. The cover is, for the most part, dense brush and re-growth timber with very few created or natural openings, all of it scattered over rolling hills and ridges. The first time I hunted there was in 2003, and I spent the first two days pretty much lost -- and I'm not a person who loses his way easily. Especially on cloudy days, very few landmarks are to be seen, so a GPS unit is not a luxury, but a necessity. Also, those who prefer to hunt over food plots can pretty much forget this one.
Gun hunting is controlled here, which is one of the keys to identifying big-buck possibilities. Last season saw a two-day modern gun season (permit only) just before Thanksgiving, a two-day youth hunt (also by permit) in late October, and a nine-day blackpowder season, also in October; that's all the gun hunting allowed. Bow season opens Oct. 1 and closes Jan. 31.
During the November modern gun season Pond Creek becomes what amounts to a "security zone" where deer can avoid hunters. The same thing happens on virtually any WMA or NWR that does not allow gun hunting when the firearms season is open on surrounding areas.
Again, you have to be able to read the terrain to be successful on Pond Creek. Travel corridors, bedding areas, breeding zones -- all can come into play, particularly during the mid-November rut. As I said, because of its difficulty, the area is not heavily hunted. You can reach it easiest by taking state Route 71 north from Ashdown or south from Lockesburg. Numerous county roads transect the area, but the upper northw
est section is fairly remote.
FORT CHAFFEE WMA
When Chaffee was closed down last fall for training on the military base, I thought that some of my buddies from the Ft. Smith area were going to slit their wrists. I hope that none did -- because the deer have had a year to get older and bigger.
Chaffee consists of 66,000 acres southeast of Fort Smith along state Route 22. The terrain is mostly gently rolling, and even though some food plots have been planted in recent years, the forage is limited. During late October and November, the oak fingers along the small creeks are both travel routes and food sources, while the impact area provides a lot of graze for a lot of deer.
Gun hunting is limited to a pair of two-day modern gun and muzzleloader hunts in late November; bowhunting follows state guidelines. Needless to say, the area's bowhunters have a decided advantage when it comes to patterning deer at Chaffee. I once drove up the day before one of the gun hunts to do some scouting, only to find the gate to the area that I wanted to hunt closed. That's not unusual.
While Chaffee has produced some good bucks over the years, limited food sources normally bar it from the status of a prime trophy area. But because the facility was closed during 2007, this coming fall offers a unique possibility. An orientation class is required, along with a $20 consumptive user permit. Class schedules are available by calling (479) 484-3995, ext 2.
Unusual circumstances bring about unusual results. Wedington WMA is a 16,000-acre area 15 miles west of Fayetteville along state Route 16. For years the area was overrun with ATV traffic, and the hunting was about nonexistent. All hunting was closed back in 1998 for an eight-year period, and off-road vehicles were prohibited in the interior.
In 2006 the WMA was reopened to limited bowhunting, and a two-day December modern gun season has now been added. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that some bucks walking around on this facility have some age on them, and harvest results have shown that. Last fall, Mike Franks took his 170 0/8 B&C archery buck there, and several other good bucks were taken during rifle season.
The diverse terrain of Wedington ranges from fields in the south to rolling hills covered with pine and hardwoods in the north. Plenty of security cover is present, and the old logging roads are especially attractive to bucks during the rut. With few openings and food plots available, the oak belts guarantee deer during years of good mast crop.
The entire northwestern region of the state is one of those hotspots mentioned earlier. For decades, Thomas Sparks' state-record typical was the only one from this entire region listed in the B&C book, but we've seen that change in recent years. Last fall, Ron Harp of Siloam Springs took a book non-typical near his home up in Benton County; and as mentioned, Mike Franks of Fayetteville took a B&C archery buck at Wedington. So while the mountains (either the Ozarks or Ouachitas) may not be the consistent big-buck producers that the flatland regions are, they still yield a good buck now and then. When you consider that many "experts" thought it virtually impossible to produce big deer in the uplands, you'll readily admit that change is good.
Nevertheless, a majority of the bigger deer will always come from the delta. In fact, a few years ago I came up with a simple graph that I call the "Arkansas Trophy Triangle": Take a map of our state and draw a straight line from Little Rock up through Jonesboro and extend it all the way to the Missouri line; then draw another from the state's capital down through Pine Bluff all the way to the Louisiana line. The percentage isn't as high as it used to be, but even today, roughly 75 percent of the biggest Arkansas deer ever taken fall within that triangle. Big deer have been there in the past, are there now, and will be there in the future.
We've already touched on the primary reason for that: food sources. Throw in the fact that deer numbers are lower throughout the region, along with somewhat better buck-to-doe ratios and genes, and you have all the ingredients for big bucks in place.
When enumerating the best places to hit in the delta, it soon becomes clear the list is long. Facilities like Dagmar WMA, Wattensaw WMA, Cache River NWR and Felsenthal NWR, all are known as big-buck producers. But up in the northeastern corner of the delta, lying south of Corning and east of Pocahontas, is what I believe to be a real sleeper in terms of big-buck potential.
DAVE DONALDSON/BLACK RIVER WMA
Remember back a couple of decades ago when vast parts of what became Arkansas Deer Zone 4 were completely closed to hunting? Even today, gun hunting is very limited throughout this area, consisting of either a single or a pair of two-day shotgun/muzzleloader seasons. While that lack of gun hunting is a boon to the area's bowhunters, it also means that some bucks up in the northeast live relatively pressure-free lives.
Dave Donaldson/Black River is a 21,000-acre facility that allows only three days of gun hunting; this brief interlude takes the form of a single blackpowder permit-only hunt in mid-October that opens 400 slots. Like just about every other part of the delta, this is a low-water region, so in that still-warm time of year, the mosquitoes too are trophy-sized.
"Most of Black River is bottomland hardwoods: nuttall, overcup, pin and water oaks. We have an active timber harvest program in effect, but a lot of the hardwoods here fall into the 90-year-old category," said Paul Provence, the area manager. "There are also croplands along the sides, so we have good food source for the deer. In addition, a lot of the interior is really hard to get to, so that pretty much guarantees we have some good bucks here."
With such limited gun hunting, the real potential for Black River lies with the bowhunter. The archery season runs through the end of January, and after a few hard freezes, the mosquitoes are somewhat easier to overcome.
WHITE RIVER NWR
I've saved the best for last. The famed White River NWR lies, naturally enough, along the White River in southeastern Arkansas, its approximately 160,000 acres running through Monroe, Arkansas, Phillips and Desha counties.
I listed the facility as the area in the state with the best trophy potential back in 1998; that's still true today. Decades of virtually 50-50 buck-doe harvests dating all the way back into the 1960s have led to a buck:doe ratio that few spots can match. Big-woods hardwoods surrounded by numerous row crops, dense security cover along with limited hunting pressure, especially from gunners, also factor into the equation and combine to guarantee that big deer live there.
All gun hunting on the refuge is by permit. Both the modern gun and muzzleloader hunts consist of a pair of three-day segments: blackpowder in October and modern gun in November, with a youth hunt and a mobility-impaired hunt in December at the Cook's Lake unit. The refuge is divided for these hunts, with state Route 1 being the dividing line between the north and south units.
Naturally bowhunting is popular, and more so since the season was extended until Jan. 31 on the north unit (it closes Dec. 31 on the south unit) several years back. Wayne Lindsey of Harrisburg took the current state-record typical bow kill, a 177 7/8 10-pointer, there in 1998.
Because of its size and flat topography, White River can be an intimidating place for the first-timer. Take along a GPS unit, pick up a map at the refuge office, and don't be afraid to wear out a little shoe leather. Start along the edges early in the fall, especially close to standing row crops, then look for interior security spots later in the year.
I live in Clarksville, which is about as far as you can get from White River and still be in the same state. But even with all that distance involved, I still hate the years when I can't make the trip.
So that's a look at some of the "best" places for harvesting your buck of a lifetime this fall. But always keep in mind the gradual shift taking place in those areas where big bucks are coming from today.
Some years back, Keith Burrow, who owns Burrow Taxidermy in Brinkley and who sees a lot of the biggest deer from that area, and I discussed the fact that at that time Monroe County had no bucks listed in the B&C rankings. It made no sense to either of us, since in land fertility and usage, Monroe virtually mirrors such well-known buck counties as Arkansas, Cross and Prairie.
Check out the list showing the top B&C-producing counties since the year 2000. Monroe leads the entire state with five, and has had seven B&C taken there in the last decade. Just as Cross County led the state for the 1990s, Monroe is now annually the hot producer .
But after the last two seasons, which saw B&C bucks come from virtually every corner of the state, I'm no longer surprised to hear about one taken from just about anywhere deer are present.
And isn't that a great thing!