Is this the year you finally bag the biggest buck of your deer-hunting life? We've compiled this information to help you achieve that very goal.
Every deer hunter wants to kill a noteworthy buck. By noteworthy, we mean a buck with an awe-inspiring rack, a conversation piece, a buck you'd be proud to display on your living room wall.
It goes deeper than that, though. We all want to best a buck that is known to be the king of his neck of the woods, a cagey old veteran that we outsmarted with a combination of guile, skill and a little bit of luck. You know, a buck we can call a trophy.
When we talk about "trophy" bucks, we usually mean mature bucks with antlers that are larger than average for their home area. Naturally, that standard differs among deer from the piney woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain, those from the lower White River bottoms, or those from the Ozarks or Ouachita Mountains. There's no escaping the fact that some parts of the state typically produce deer with bigger antlers and heavier bodies than other regions. However, even hunters who frequently kill giant bucks in the Mississippi River Delta appreciate an exceptional buck from other parts of the state. Magnificence is relative, but we know trophies when we see 'em.
Of course, the gold standard definition for a trophy buck is one with antlers large enough to qualify for the Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young record books. While hunters do kill a few B&C bucks in Arkansas every year, deer of that caliber are very rare and borderline mythical. We seldom see racks that big, even on properties in the Delta that are managed specifically to grow them.
For example, Freddie Black of Lake Village, who served on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission from 2003 to 2009, hunts at two such clubs. One requires a legal buck to have a minimum inside spread of 17 inches or one main beam of at least 21 inches. A 10-point buck must have a 20-inch minimum inside spread and a 24-inch main beam. At the other club, called "Island 82," a legal buck must have a 16-inch minimum inside spread and a 20-inch main beam. Such strict requirements are designed to allow bucks to reach full maturity before they're eligible for harvest. Even so, in more than 40 years of hunting prime property along the Mississippi River, Black has never killed a Boone and Crockett buck.
Another famous club located between the levees near Elaine and known as Jackson Point has similar requirements. Hunters there never kill record-book bucks, either.
"Anybody that gets into trophy deer management has unrealistic expectations in Arkansas," Black said. "We want to think if we let all our deer grow to 6 years old and kill a lot of does, that we're going to have Boone and Crockett deer, but you probably will not. There hasn't been a Boone and Crockett deer killed on the properties I hunt in living memory. Some people have gone as long as six years without killing a buck. You won't have many deer over 150 (B&C)."
Black considers a 150-class whitetail in Arkansas a superlative specimen that any hunter should be proud to take. I agree. Defining trophy bucks solely by B&C standards dishonors magnificent bucks that just won't make that lofty grade. In fact, the interviews I've done with hunters who have killed B&C bucks over the years reveal that they almost always lucked into chance encounters, often while hunting on the fly. From observation and use of trail cameras, you might know that a B&C contender at least visits your property, but planning an encounter with that particular deer is akin to planning an encounter with a ghost.
Exhibit A is the case of Sean Longnecker of Stuttgart, who killed this year's Big Buck Classic winner during the 2009-10 season. The Arkansas County giant had a typical rack that scored 181 6/8. Longnecker, a farmer, had just gotten into his stand on opening day of modern firearms season when his cell phone rang. It was Mrs. Longnecker. She was driving her daughter to a modeling competition in Little Rock, but she left the daughter's photo portfolio at home. Longnecker left his stand, went home to fetch the portfolio and delivered it to them halfway between Little Rock and Stuttgart. It was late in the afternoon when Longnecker returned to his stand, but this buck stepped out and rewarded his sacrifice. Longnecker was not aware that buck lived anywhere on his property.
Exhibit B is the case of Davis Smith, whose 209 0/8 Phillips County non-typical was the state's biggest buck for 2008-09. Smith was a new member of his hunt club and was looking for a place to hunt. A fellow member directed him to a deserted corner of the property. Smith encountered the buck while walking and looking for a place to put a stand.
In Arkansas, we have two authoritative entities that recognize trophy bucks. One, the Arkansas Trophy Hunters, recognizes typical bucks with minimum net scores of 150 B&C, and non-typicals that net at least 175 B&C.
The Arkansas Big Buck Classic, a big-buck festival held every January in Little Rock, honors all bucks entered from Arkansas. It's the only place in Arkansas where the state's biggest racks for the season are under one roof at one time.
Going back to 1923, the Arkansas Trophy Club recognizes 789 deer, including 643 typicals and 145 non-typicals. That list does not include Longnecker's buck, Mike Dobson's 209 3/8 Arkansas County non-typical or Michael Chapman's 170 1/8 Newton County typical. Those were the state's three B&C qualifiers recognized at the 2010 Arkansas Big Buck Classic. As I write this, only Longnecker has submitted his buck to Boone and Crockett for recognition.
In 2009-10, Arkansas County was our state's capital for monster bucks. It produced our top two -- killed by Longnecker and Dobson -- but it also produced our biggest non-typical killed by a bowhunter, and our third-largest typical killed by a woman. Dean Davis got the biggest non-typical bow kill, which scored 186 7/8, and Sharon Podbielski killed a typical that scored 144 3/8.
Why does Arkansas County produce such big bucks? It lies in the fertile and remote White River watershed, in the heart of the Delta. It contains mostly agricultural land laced with countless sloughs, ditches and oxbows, as well as the White River. These waterways and their wooded corridors provide excellent whitetail habitat. Deer hunting with firearms is regulated at the two biggest public hunting areas -- the White River National Wildlife Refug
e, and Bayou Meto WMA -- so hunting pressure is limited to a degree.
However, the other counties along the White River also produce big bucks. Young Andrew France killed a 164 0/8 typical 8-point in Prairie County last year, and Thomas Richards killed a 163 7/8 typical in White County. Those bucks ranked No. 9 and 10, respectively. Jeff Brimer also killed the state's third-largest non-typical bow buck in White County last year. It scored 158 3/8.
In addition, Tommy Gerlach logged the state's largest typical bow kill in Prairie Co., last year with a buck that scored 145 7/8. Darlene Rogers registered the state's largest typical killed with a bow from Prairie Co., as well. It scored 154 2/8. Scott Hilburn rounded out the Prairie County parade with the state's fifth largest typical killed with a muzzleloader. It scored 140 0/8.
From there, last year's stats get really intriguing. Three of our top 10 came from the mountain counties of Newton, Montgomery and Garland, respectively. Chapman's B&C typical (No. 3) was an Ozark Mountain deer killed in Newton County. George Lynch killed a 191 4/8 non-typical (No. 6) in Montgomery County, and David Bedell's 165 2/8 typical (No. 8) came from Garland County. Those came from the Ouachita Mountains.
Furthermore, Kelly Davis killed a 162 7/8 typical in Pope County, which ranked No. 2 in its class among bow kills. We don't know if that deer came from the northern portion of the county in the Ozarks, in the central foothills portion or in the southern, Arkansas River Valley portion.
The mountains were good places to kill non-typicals with a muzzleloader last year. William Hargett bagged a 179 7/8 buck in Izard County (Ozarks) that ranked No. 3 in the non-typical/muzzleloader category, and Kevin Poor killed a 169 1/8 non-typical in Polk County, in the western portion of the Ouachitas, which ranked No. 5 in that class.
How about Faulkner County, which produced three bucks recognized by the Big Buck Classic? Clay Forsberg's 141 0/8 typical was last year's fifth-largest bow-killed typical, and Steve Sprviell's 131 6/8 typical was the largest killed with a crossbow. Dennis Holloway's 129 1/8 buck ranked No. 3 among typicals killed with a crossbow.
Sean Longnecker, left, and Mike Dobson show the massive racks from bucks they killed last season. Longnecker's typical scored 181 6/8 while Dobson's non-typical racked up 209 3/8 points. Photo by Marshall Ford.
Nestled in the Ozark foothills and home to the burgeoning town of Conway, Faulkner County is a rapidly growing bedroom community for commuters who work in Little Rock. Big farms are being chopped up into housing developments and ranchettes, and deer are thriving in new edge habitat where hunting pressure is very limited. Expect to see a lot more bucks come from that county in the near future, especially bow kills.
Surprisingly, the Gulf Coastal Plain produced its share of big bucks last year, including 13 recognized in various categories at the Big Buck Classic. The kills were distributed throughout the region, but Hot Spring County, produced two bucks that scored 140 3/8 and 157 4/8, respectively. It is not known if those bucks came from the portion of the county that lies in the Ouachita foothills or in the Gulf Coastal Plain. However, the GCP area between Malvern, Poyen and Glen Rose has some great habitat and some very large bucks.
Because of aggressive management, the Gulf Coastal Plain might produce even more big bucks in the future. It lies in Deer Management Zone 12, Arkansas' largest by far. It holds the state's largest deer populations, but hunters killed more does than bucks there last year, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission made it possible to kill even more does in 2010-11 by increasing the bag limit in Zone 12 to five deer. Poor soil and monocultural pine plantation habitat limit antler production in the region, so the only tool left is for hunters to be selective about the bucks they shoot. Many clubs in the region are adopting antler-point requirements stricter than the statewide 3-point rule, and/or inside spread requirements for their members.
In 2008, I bagged a mature buck in Grant County with an inside spread of 18 3/4 inches. One antler had 4 perfect points. The other side had 2 points, with two breakoffs. As is common for deer in that part of the state, the rack had little mass, but was exceptional for that county. It is the second largest buck I've killed in Arkansas. The largest was a 130-class typical that I killed last year in -- surprise -- Arkansas County.
WHERE TO FIND A GIANT
Obviously, the best chances of encountering big bucks are on private land in southeast Arkansas, especially adjacent to the White, Cache, Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. However, you can kill awe-inspiring bucks on public land, as well, especially if you bowhunt. Top recommendations are Bayou Meto WMA, Trusten Holder WMA, Mike Freeze/Wattensaw WMA, Sheffield Nelson/Dagmar WMA and, of course, the White River and Cache River national wildlife refuges.
In the past, the AGFC issued 900 modern gun permits for Bayou Meto WMA, but it reduced that number to 600 this year. Hunting with firearms is limited by permit, as well. There is no antler-point restriction for bucks in the national wildlife refuges.
It's a myth that the Ouachita Mountains don't produce big deer. The western edge of the Ouachita National Forest is a good place to start, between Waldron and Mena. The U.S. Forest Service manages a large swath of that area with controlled burning. As a result, the forest floor is covered with high-quality browse. Poaching limits the area's potential, but if you don't mind a long hike and camping in isolated backcountry, you can increase your chances of finding a big buck. The Caney Creek Wilderness and Black Fork Wilderness are two excellent areas, and to a lesser degree, the Flatside Wilderness. The latter is close to Little Rock and bounded on all sides by well-traveled roads, but the interior is worth a visit.
The same situation exists there as in the Ouachitas, except the USFS doesn't manage land in the Ozark National Forest as aggressively as in the Ouachita NF. For unlimited walk-in access, try the Hurricane Creek Wilderness, the Richland Creek Wilderness or the East Fork Wilderness.
Keep in mind that this is rugged, unforgiving terrain, and you must prepare as you would if you were hunting elk or bighorns in the Rockies. It's a long, hard walk into these areas, and you'll have to pack out your kill on your back, or by mule or by horse; vehicles are not allowed.
The AGFC also has two excellent public hunting areas, the McIlroy Madison County WMA, north of Huntsville, and Harold E. Alexander WMA. Permits, which the AGFC distributes randomly in the summer, are required to hunt with firearms, but not for archery or crossbow hunters outside the controlled firearms hunts.
Thanks to the combined efforts of the AGFC and citizen volunteers, habitat at Harold Alexander is continually improving, and it produces some nice bucks every year.
Gulf Coastal Plain
Most of the land in the GCP is leased from timber companies by long-established hunt clubs. One notable exception is the Moro Big Pine WMA, in Calhoun County. The AGFC and Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission manage this 16,000-acre area cooperatively with the Potlatch Corporation. A randomly drawn permit is required to hunt with firearms. Bowhunting is allowed without permits outside the controlled hunt dates.
You can also hunt along the banks of Lake Greeson, in the Lake Greeson WMA, but be aware of property boundaries. Hunt clubs lease much of the land beyond the WMA.
Finally, keep your expectations reasonable. Encountering big bucks is chancy in the most controlled environments, and it's a lot less likely on public land. You can improve your chances if you're willing to work, ache and sweat. Enjoy yourself, and be proud of any buck you kill in that environment.