Arkansas' Big-Buck Roundup

Did you get your trophy last season? Well, these hunters certainly did. Here are the stories of some of the biggest deer taken in the Natural State last year.

Dennis Needham poses with his 171 4/8 trophy -- an impressive buck under any circumstances. Photo courtesy of Dennis Needham

By Kenn Young

Several years ago, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission approved several measures designed to improve overall quality in the state's deer herd. This was done because those men believed that bigger deer, as opposed to more deer, was what a majority of Arkansas hunters wanted. As a result, the so-called "3-point rule" (a buck must have at least three points on one side) came about, and doe harvest was greatly increased.

According to recent figures released by the AGFC, the Natural State's overall deer harvest was down by roughly 25 per cent during the 2002-03 season. I'll certainly discuss that trend more at length in upcoming articles, but for the time being, the one thought that keeps running through my mind is the old truism: "Seldom do high deer numbers and trophy deer mix."

That fact seems to be borne out by the results. During a year in which overall kill was reduced by one-quarter, Arkansas hunters still harvested four potential Boone and Crockett bucks, slightly above the annual average over the last decade. In addition, and perhaps more graphically, overall antler size of the bucks entered into the big buck contests at the Arkansas Big Buck Classic (Little Rock) and the Arkansas Sportshow (Jonesboro) was also at an all-time high.

Being "old school," I find this trend amazing. You see, I was brought up in a generation when killing a deer was a major undertaking, let alone killing a large one. In fact, I lived during the 25-year period, 1965-87, when this state did not have one single buck entered into the prestigious Boone and Crockett Club record book, the "bible" of trophy hunters nationwide. During those times, numerous "outside" writers questioned whether Arkansas was even capable of producing a record-book head.

We know now that we are. In the Southeastern region today, in fact, Arkansas is second only to Kentucky in terms of record-book entries. So without further ado, let's take a look at the "Class of 2002."

Jerry Griggs of Brinkley is a 38-year-old U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement officer in charge of the Cache River and Bald Knob national wildlife refuges. His job certainly gives him an opportunity to locate big-buck areas within a facility known for them. Bill Dooley's current state record non-typical, a monster that netted 238 3/8 B&C points, came off the edge of the Cache back in 1999.

But being an enforcement officer means that you have to grab what moments you can to hunt yourself.

Thus, on the afternoon of Nov. 11, Jerry found a brief period to hunt an area of river-bottom hardwoods interspersed with thick brush.

"It was a little before 5 o'clock when I saw a deer about 60 yards away," Jerry said, "but it was in an area of real thick cover, and I couldn't even tell if it was a buck or doe. I was watching an overcup flat, but the deer turned and disappeared back into the thick stuff.

"A little while later I caught a glimpse of the buck. I could see horns this time, working a scrape almost behind me. He had made a half-circle, and the bad news was that he was now almost directly downwind of where I was sitting on the ground."

Jerry's fears were confirmed when the buck threw up its head and began testing the breeze, then abruptly turned and started walking directly away from the hunter.

"I didn't want to shoot while he was walking directly away from me," Jerry said, "but when he was about 75 yards away he turned broadside. I got my Remington 7400 up and shot, and the buck just plain disappeared!

"I got up and walked to the place he had been standing. There was no blood, and all I could find was a torn-up place in the leaves. The spot was where a little ridge broke into a slough, so I just started working my way in the direction I thought he had gone.

"After several minutes, and still no blood, I heard a thrashing in the woods some distance away. Sure enough, it was him, and he had points sticking out in every direction!"

Jerry tried to weigh the buck, but the scales he had bottomed out at 250 pounds. Today he "guesstimates" that the monster would have gone 265-275 pounds on the hoof - big even for the delta region.

Officially scored for B&C by Clinton Latham of Wynne, the 28-point Monroe County buck netted 201 4/8 non-typical points. That total was enough to win Jerry Griggs the Bombardier ATV given to the overall winner of the big buck contest held as part of the Arkansas Big Buck Classic in January!

Southwest Arkansas is a region not known as a big-buck producer. However, that perception has changed somewhat as a result of deer that have been taken there in recent years. Last season young Daniel Boyd of Waldron took a 220 0/8 non-typical in Scott County that was the state's largest buck of 2001.

Opening weekend of the 2002-03 season was warm and windy, reminding deer hunters of the terrible weather they endured for most of the previous season. That certainly had to be on the mind of 40-year-old Lonnie Cecil of Cove, a small community south of Mena, as he hunted at the Teakettle Hunt Club that Sunday morning.

"There's not really much story to it," Lonnie said when I asked him about the taking of his buck. "My brother Neil and I had hung stands the day before in an area of rolling hills beside a small creek. It just looked like a good spot. I certainly had no idea that a buck like this was anywhere in the area.

"I got on stand before daylight and just kind of dozed as the sun came up. About 8:30 I looked up, and there was a buck standing there looking at me. He was no more than 50 yards away, so I got my Winchester 30-30 up and fired!"

At the blast the buck whirled and ran across a small creek. Lonnie followed the blood trail and found him lying in the dry leaves, dark, heavy horns clearly visible.

"I knew he was a good buck, certainly the best I had ever killed," Lonnie said, "but I didn't really know that much about scoring. Some buddies finally talked me into taking him to the Big Buck Classic in Little Rock."

There the rack of the Polk County 6x6, which Lonnie gu

esses weighed well over 200 pounds, was officially scored at 172 4/8 net typical points, a total which placed it in first place in the typical division! It is also the first B&C ever registered from that county.

Nathan Driver, 23, works on the family farm near Columbus, a small community southwest of Hope, located along the southern edge of the GCP. A serious bowhunter, Nathan has probably ruined himself for life with the events that took place on Oct. 30.

"At the end of October I had located an area of buck sign on some public land not all that far from my house," Nathan said. "I eased in and put up a stand overlooking a trail leading to some nearby scrapes.

"The next morning, Oct. 30, I climbed into my stand before daylight. My dad Bob was hunting with me, and his stand was about a half-mile away. As the sun came up the wind switched and started coming out of the east. It wasn't blowing hard, and I could actually catch the scent of buck urine from the direction of another trail not far away.

"A little after 8 o'clock I decided to get down and move to that trail. I was on the ground, just easing along, when I saw a doe heading my way. I crouched down by a bush and she just kept coming.

"All of a sudden she broke into a run, passing right by me! I looked behind her and saw a buck, running hard in my direction. I knew he would pass right by me, just like the doe had done, so I got my Mathews U2 up, ready to shoot."

Now, running bowshots at whitetails are iffy at best, but Nathan got a break. When the buck reached a small opening some 30 steps away, he slid to a stop just long enough for the waiting hunter to send a gold-tipped carbon winging on its way!

"I actually hit him a little high, up close to the spine," Nathan recalled, "but he ran less than 40 yards before going down! I counted 24 points sticking up in every direction!

"I went to get Dad, and together we managed to wrestle him to the truck. He weighed 165 pounds field-dressed, so he was quite a handful even for the two of us."

The big bow kill, which turned out to be the first-ever B&C registered from Hempstead County, was officially scored at the Arkansas Big Buck Classic. It netted 199 5/8 non-typical points, making it the No. 4 Natural State bow kill of all time!

Just when I think the world has pretty much gone to heck in a handbasket, the Good Lord chooses to show me otherwise.

On Nov. 20, Dennis Needham of Bald Knob was hunting an area located just behind his home, close by the border of Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA. He was watching a spot where a dense pine thicket butted up against a fairly good-sized oak flat.

"With all the hunting pressure the deer had been moving late," Dennis pointed out, "so I've been going out later in the morning. A little after 8 o'clock I saw a doe cross through an opening about 100-125 yards away, just meandering along. Some time later I thought I saw her in the same spot, heading back into the thick stuff. But when I put my rifle up it was a buck - a good one!

"I got my Savage 110 up, and shot just as he stepped into the tangle. He didn't go down, and I couldn't really be sure at the distance, but I thought I saw him flinch."

Dennis drove down to the spot where the buck had disappeared. Not one drop of blood.

"Finally I found a trail inside the tangle where the leaves were all torn up, as if something had run or staggered through. I pushed my way deeper and deeper into the interior and finally came out into a cleared area on the other side. I still hadn't found any blood, and that was worrying me.

"I started making half-circles around the spot where the trail entered the opening, small at first, but then wider and wider. A couple of duck hunters saw me and came over to help. Together we looked for quite a while, and could never find anything.

"I just about gave up, but I kept remembering how the buck had flinched when I shot. Even without finding any blood, I didn't really think that I had missed him. By that time I had been looking for more than two hours, and was about give out, but I decided to take one more look along the edge of the thickest cover."

At one point there was a small knoll that blocked the view in that direction. As Dennis stepped to the top of it he saw a patch of white in a small depression only a few yards away. Without the added height of the knoll, the spot was virtually invisible.

"My buck was right there," Needham said with a twinkle in his eye, "he had been all along. I had hit him a little high and that explains why there was no blood. We had probably walked within yards of him several times."

And what a buck it turned out to be! The White County monster is a 6x7 typical, with heavy mass carried all the way out the main beams. Scored by Clinton Latham, the rack nets 171 4/8 B&C points.

And now, as Paul Harvey says, for the rest of the story: Mr. Dennis Needham is a handicapped hunter, a polio victim since the age of 1. His legs are paralyzed, and the disease is now spreading into his arms. Certainly he encounters problems during his hunting that you and I can only imagine. All those hours he spent looking for "his" buck was done on crutches, and I'm sure that only dogged determination kept him going!

Four B&C bucks, in a state where three has been the annual average for more than a decade. Two (Griggs and Needham) came from the fertile delta, one (Cecil) from the southern Ouachitas, and one (Driver) from the Gulf Coastal Plain.

What does that mean? While it's not unusual for outsize deer to be found in the delta region, where food availability and fertility assure that body size and antler size will be high, recent years have seen an increasing of number of bigger deer taken in other parts of the state. This is particularly true in the Ouachitas area, which for decades was considered to be the least likely region to produce big deer.

That fact bodes well for those of us who covet big racks. Big bucks are truly where you find them!

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