It's time for the smokepole enthusiasts to go in search of big bucks. (December 2006)
I've always had a special affinity for the late blackpowder season, which in recent years the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has shortened almost to nonexistence.
Here in the Ozarks I often hunt this entire season without seeing another hunter, even when hunting areas that crawl with orange-clad hordes in November.
AGFC harvest figures pretty much illustrate that lack of pressure. In total, 13,827 deer were taken with muzzleloaders in 2005-06, but only around 2,700 of those were taken during the late-season period.
But over a lifetime spent chasing whitetails, I've come to understand that other reasons exist for hunting at a time when most hunters have retired to the couch for their annual hibernation. Let's consider both some of those positives and, to balance out the view, a few negatives.
€¢ Without heavy hunter pressure, deer are more likely to be in "normal" movement patterns, which at this time of year pretty much revolve around food sources. That theoretically makes deer easier to find, because you know where they'll be.
€¢ Deep-winter hunting is likely to be attended by rough weather. While this may not sound like a plus on the surface, I think hunter and hunted both enjoy cold weather more than the hot conditions often present during the November gun season. Throw in the fact that bad weather often means rain, which makes game less wary and stalking quieter, and there are far more good things surrounding bad weather periods than bad.
€¢ Without that same heavy hunting pressure mentioned above even older bucks are more likely to be on the move.
€¢ Throw in the occasional flurry of daytime rut activity cold weather may bring, and your chances of seeing a big boy go up.
€¢ Fewer bucks are available than were earlier in the year — there's no denying that.
€¢ Even though there is lessened hunter pressure, it takes a while for the deer to sense that fact and to revert to daylight movement. How close your rifle season runs to the opening of late muzzleloader will certainly have an effect in this area, along with the intensity of hunting pressure in any given area.
HEAD TO THE MOUNTAINS FOR LATE-SEASON SUCCESS
To my knowledge, no large state wildlife management areas or federal national wildlife refuges in the eastern half of the state allow blackpowder hunting in December. Since relatively few such public areas lie in the Gulf Coastal Plain to begin with, most late-season public-land hunting is confined to the mountain regions.
In the past that may have been bad news, because of lower deer numbers in the uplands, but AGFC personnel tell me that the herd seems to be rebounding in most areas. Most of that is due to the one-buck limit (which is no longer in effect), and the quota doe harvest.
Together the Ouachita and Ozark national forests total more than 2.5 million acres of open hunting.
The two large WMAs within the Ozarks, Piney Creeks (north of Russellville) and White Rock (north of Interstate 40, primarily in Johnson, Franklin and Crawford counties) comprise roughly 460,000 acres alone. Both offer mountain hunting at its best. The landscape is rough and rugged, with lots of up-and-down to go with the fantastic beauty. Get out a topo map and look for spots over a mile from roads and ATV trails, those may well be the security areas that one old buck migrated to back during gun season. He's likely still there.
Buffalo National River WMA, which lies along the famed river and runs through Newton, Searcy, Marion and Baxter counties, offers not only unbelievable scenery but also some unique hunting opportunities. If you've ever floated the river during the spring or summer, you've no doubt noted that there are few roads into many of the shoreline areas. This means that a hunter, via boat or canoe, has access to some fine hunting areas, most of which are likely to be underhunted.
Over on the other side of the Arkansas River, two prime Ouachita areas, Muddy Creek WMA (160,000 acres in Montgomery, Yell and Scott counties) and Winona WMA (160,000 acres in Perry County), both fit the same mold as the large areas within the Ozarks. They consist of rough, often remote terrain with limited access, which translates to above-average big-buck possibility.
Another large area is Mt. Magazine WMA, which consists of 120,000 acres lying south of state Highway 22 in Logan and Yell counties. This is one of those areas whose gun season is split into two segments: one allowing hunting with dogs, the other not. While that probably has no relation at all to late-season blackpowder season, which does not allow dogs, it's still interesting to note.
I've already stated that down in the Arkansas delta, very little public land is available to hunt at this time of year. I used to say "none," but someone apparently read my statement and called me on it — so now I say that all of the larger WMAs within the delta (Wattensaw, Dagmar, Bayou Meto, etc.) are closed to late-season gun hunting, primitive or otherwise.
But I've come to understand that one area is open in December. Bayou Des Arc WMA (953 acres along state Highway 11 due north of Des Arc in Prairie County) remains open from Dec. 30 to Jan 1.
The same is true down in the Gulf Coastal Plain, where there are a few places. Beryl Anthony WMA (7,020 acres southwest of Crossett) has a late season, as does Poison Springs WMA (17,604 acres south of Bluff City in Ouachita and Nevada counties) and Seven Devils WMA (5,032 acres west of Dermott). In addition, the entire 56,908 acres of Casey Jones WMA down in Drew County are open. All of these GCP areas exist in a region that annually produces the highest deer kill for the entire state, so opportunity does exist there.
Earlier I mentioned the attitude typical of bucks at the time of year. During December, the male whitetail has just gone through the two most traumatic periods of his entire year, that being the rut and the modern gun-hunting season. His body condition is at its poorest level, and in addition he is looking the deep winter period, the time of lowest food availability, right in the face. What he wants most is to rest, and to recoup what body fat he can in a short period.
Wilderness areas, where all vehicular travel is prohibited, offer just the seclusion that an old buck needs, and many of these are scattered throughout the mountain regions. Richland Creek (11,822 acres), Hurricane Creek (15,177), East Fork (10,777), Leatherwood (16,956), and the beautiful Upper Buffalo (11,094) are Ozarks areas worth checking out. Over on the Ouachita side, Poteau Mountain (10,884 acres), Dry Creek (6,300), Fla
tside (10,105), Black Fork (7,568), and Caney Creek (14,460) are all areas where an old buck may be found. Maps showing the various locations of each of these are available from the U.S. Forest Service, or via the Internet.
HAVE A PLAN BEFORE HEADING AFIELD
Find the food source and you'll find the deer: That old hunter's adage is never truer than at this time of year. But you must know what the deer are feeding on when. For the past few years the acorn crop here in the mountains has been heavy. Not coincidentally, late-season hunting has also been hit or miss. With so much food available the deer could feed just about anywhere they chose. As a result they weren't concentrated on any one food, which is a more typical scenario during the deep winter period.
As I write this in July, this year's acorn crop is beginning to be affected by dry conditions. When the acorn crop is spotty or nonexistent, the deer will be feeding on secondary preferred food sources such as honeysuckle and greenbrier, and in such years the hunting can be vastly improved.
Prime examples of late-season upland feeding spots are remote honeysuckle or greenbrier thickets, a particular oak belt whose acorn fall was heavy enough to last into the deep winter, a low-growing sapling grove, or a green cropfield or planted food plot. The real key here is that in virtually any area there will be some spot that attracts and holds the deer.
Once you find that area, locate the access trails leading to and from the location. Remember that deer, bucks especially, will still tend to avoid openings during daylight. So if there is an area of dense cover in the vicinity of the food source it is likely a "security zone," which deer may use, and there should be trails connecting the two. Deer also understand that with the leaves now off the trees they are more visible, so these trails may be through thicker cover.
IS THERE REALLY RUT ACTIVITY?
Yes, but it can be hit or miss. In areas whose buck:doe ratios are out of kilter, with too many does for the bucks to get the job done on the first go-round, all females not bred during the November primary period will "come in" again and again on a 28-day schedule. Finding a ready doe at this time of year is about as close to a "sure thing" as you will ever have in deer hunting. If you happen on one of those, especially in a remote location, she may well attract every buck in the area!
STAYING WARM AND DRY
Deep winter in Arkansas can be about as unpredictable as weather can possibly be. The good news is that in this day and time there's really no reason for the modern hunter ever to be cold or wet, even during extreme periods. The past decade has brought us new words such as Thermax, Gore-Tex, Thinsulate and polypropylene. These are all "miracle" fabrics, or combinations thereof, that pretty much have ended the days of freezing on a deer stand. I prefer the various "fleece" outfits for hunting, because they are quieter. Choice of camouflage pattern is pretty much up to the individual, since there are many good ones. The key to effective use is "layering": putting on several different layers of clothing rather than depending on one heavy garment. As the day warms, you can shed layers and remain comfortable, adding them in the evenings as the air cools.
Good footwear is vital wherever you hunt, but particularly if you head to the mountains. Nothing is more irritating than boots that cause blisters, or leak. Because I was taught that rubber doesn't let your scent through to the ground, I prefer the "pac boot" variety for colder weather, and often even wear insulated chest waders. Cleated soles work best in the mountains, where the ground cover typically consists of slick pine needles. If you decide to buy a new pair of boots, particularly leather ones, break them in before the season begins.
No advances in the field of hunting can match the pace of the muzzleloading rifle's evolution. When blackpowder hunting first started back in the late 1970s, Thompson-Center and Connecticut Valley Arms were about the only companies that took the frontstuffer seriously. My first muzzleloader was a T/C Seneca, made from one of the kits offered back in those days. It came unblued and with the stock roughly inletted; you did the rest yourself. With a .50 caliber round ball, the gun was accurate out to a maximum of about 60 yards, and weather had a drastic effect on reliability. Misfires were common, and I quickly learned why it was common for old-time mountain men to use the phrase "Keep your powder dry!" as a warning for their buddies.
Today I have a gun that in my case will consistently shoot 1-inch groups at 100 yards. Topped with a good scope, with that gun I would not hesitate to take any shot out to 250 yards under the right conditions. In addition, the fully enclosed ignition system has made the weapon just about weatherproof.
I won't get into the never-ending argument about whether these guns are actually "primitive" arms. They aren't. But in-lines are considered legal under current hunting regulations, so the choice of whether or not you use one is entirely up to you.
Whatever you decide to use, make sure you become familiar with it before heading afield. New or old, in-line or flintlock, a muzzleloader affords you only one chance when the moment of truth arrives. A few hours spent at the local range can go a long way toward improving your chances.
MENTAL ATTITUDE IS KEY
Your mental approach is vital at this time of year. If you approach late-season hunting as being just about hopeless, your results will naturally tend to reflect that attitude. Many hunters have already put in countless hours in a deer stand, so their attention span may be far less than it was back in November. Either of those two maladies may let an old buck walk to be hunted another day!
I view late-season muzzleloader hunting mostly as my last chance to hunt deer by gun for an entire year. I still take it seriously, but the slower pace offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the wonderful opportunity we have to enjoy and experience God's greatest creation — the natural beauty here in the Natural State!