Now that most of Missouri's other deer seasons are over, it's time for smokepole enthusiasts to go in search of big bucks. (Dec 2006)
If you're a veteran deer hunter, you know that the whitetails become different animals once the modern firearms portion of Missouri's deer season is over. After trying to avoid the nearly half-million hunters who've spent 11 November days roaming across most of the Show-Me State's fields and forest, our deer are more nervous than a dog trying to pass a peach pit!
Deer hunters in Missouri have a two-day break between the end of the November portion of the state's firearms deer season and the opening of the much anticipated muzzleloader portion. Smokepole enthusiasts have from Nov. 24 through Dec. 3 -- just 10 days -- to chase whitetails.
If you haven't already done so, the first step is finding a decent-quality place to hunt; then, you need to adjust your strategies to match the habitat. Read on to learn about where to go in each region in the state from Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife personnel, and about how to bag your muzzleloader buck this season from Missouri resident and outdoor celebrity Alex Rutledge of Hunter's Specialties.
Ozark: White River Trace CA
"I'd say that the deer population here is good," said MDC wildlife regional supervisor Larry Rieken of White River Trace Conservation Area. Owned and managed by the MDC, this 2,044-acre area in Dent County is open for deer hunting by blackpowder and archery methods only. The habitat is mostly open, with lots of early-succession grasslands punctuated by small blocks of timber and wooded draws.
"In a lot of ways, it may be easier to hunt deer in this area since it is mostly open," Rieken offered. "The vast open area and the fact that this area is not open for deer hunting at all during the November firearms portion of deer season provides a unique hunting opportunity here."
White River Trace lies eight miles west of Salem on County Route H. For a map or more information, contact the MDC's Ozark regional office at (417) 256-7161.
Southwest: Bushwhacker Lake CA
Lying in both Vernon and Barton counties, this 4,749-acre conservation area boasts varied topography comprising prairie (34 percent), old fields (18 percent), forest (17 percent), cropland (14 percent), grassland (8 percent), savannah (5 percent) and flat water suitable for fishing (4 percent). It's open for deer hunting by blackpowder and archery methods only; all other statewide deer seasons and limits apply.
This is another public area that isn't getting bombarded by the mainstream crowd from the November portion of the deer season. "We have good-quality deer hunting on this area," said MDC wildlife regional supervisor Tim Russell. "Since hunters are restricted to muzzleloader and archery deer hunting methods only, this area receives only moderate hunting pressure."
Bushwhacker Lake CA was selected by the MDC's Resource Science Division to participate in a three-year deer hunter satisfaction survey. "After just looking through the hunter survey cards, it seems to me that most hunters are pretty satisfied on the numbers of deer they see here," Russell noted. "It seems that the deer population is staying in reasonable check with the new archery and muzzleloader restrictions here."
According to Russell, the CA, always a honeyhole for archers, is one of those hidden gems that few know about. Now that muzzleloading weapons are allowed there, Bushwhacker Lake feels a little more pressure -- but that doesn't seem to have affected deer numbers there!
Bushwhacker Lake CA is one mile east of state Highway 43 on Barton-Vernon County Road. For a map or more information, contact the MDC's Southwest regional office at (417) 895-6880.
St. Louis: River 'Round CA
True, this CA doesn't offer much room for hunting -- but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in the quality of the action.
This 330-acre public-use area in Franklin County is a roughly even mix of forest and old fields. Of River 'Round's entire area, actively cultivated fields cover only 18 acres. "This is one of the conservation areas that was changed from being opened under statewide regulations to just archery and muzzleloader hunting methods only for deer," said MDC wildlife regional supervisor Joel Porath. "This wasn't done because there weren't enough deer, but rather to provide a diverse hunting opportunity close to St. Louis."
River 'Round CA is in Franklin County, one of the counties in the MDC'S antler-point restriction program. Hunters out after bucks need to remember that only those animals with at least 4 antler points or better on one side of their rack are legal.
To get to River 'Round CA, take County Route TT east from St. Clair. Turn left on Mill Hill Road and then north on Old Cove Road. For a map or more information, contact the MDC's St. Louis regional office at (636) 441-4554.
Central: Rocky Fork Lakes CA
Deer hunting at this 2,200-acre property in Boone County is restricted to archery and muzzleloader methods. The 4-points-or-better rule (see River 'Round CA above) is in force in this county.
"This area is an old strip coal mining operation," explained MDC wildlife biologist Tim James. "It's a relatively tough area to hunt because of the spoil piles and very brushy cover. But we do have respectable deer numbers here."
The CA is primarily forested; some open fields and a few food plots are present, but poor topsoil conditions resulting from the long-suspended mining operations make planting food plots difficult.
Rocky Fork Lakes CA is seven miles north of Columbia on state Highway 63 and one mile east on Peabody Road. For an area map or more information, contact the MDC's Central regional office at (573) 884-6861.
Northeast: Frost Island CA
Muzzleloader enthusiasts will find 1,200 acres' worth of serious buck hunting potential on Frost Island CA's 900 acres of Clark County bottomland.
"It's a tough area to hunt because it is so open," remarked MDC wildlife management biologist Darlene Hoffman. "It's difficult to find a good place to hang a stand, and I think that is why this area is where I see some of the bigger bucks."
Frost Island's 150 acres of crops include alfalfa and some corn. On arriving each year you'll find a fresh crop of corn and one that's been standing for two years. The old standing corn grows up into a thick blanket, offering the deer here some valuable food and shelter. Almost all of what little timber is present at this are
a -- pin oaks and regenerating willows for the most part -- will be found along the corridor of the Des Moines River.
"Although Frost Island might be far inferior to private property, it is some of the best public hunting land that we have to offer for deer," Hoffman said. "I'm not saying there are gobs of deer here, but we think it will only get better as time goes on with muzzleloader-and-archery-only methods allowed for deer hunting."
To get to Frost Island CA, go four miles north of Wayland on County Route B and then one mile east on an unnamed gravel road. For an area map and more information, contact the MDC's Northeast regional office at (660) 785-2420.
PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
The conservation areas surveyed above make some very promising opportunities for taking bucks and does alike available during Missouri's muzzleloader season this year. However, some of the hottest smokepole deer hunting can be had in the state's managed muzzleloader deer hunts, plenty of which are scattered across the state. Apart from giving you a crack at some really big bucks, they enable you to play a truly significant role in managing the Show-Me State herd by harvesting antlerless deer.
Hunters are selected to participate in these hunts by random drawing. The application period has always been July 1 through Aug. 15 of each year. Although it's too late to get in on any of this year's managed muzzleloader hunts, it's not too early to begin planning to submit your application for next year: Go online to www.missouriconservation.org/hunt/ deer/mgndeer for a list of managed hunts, a summary of the number applying for each hunt and a tally of deer taken. You can also refer to the 2006 edition of the Fall Deer & Turkey Hunting Regulations and Information booklet to see a list of hunts held this year. Most of them are annual affairs -- so you can get ready now for next year's hunt!
If you're drawn for a managed deer hunt, you'll have to purchase a Managed Deer Hunting Permit (available after Sept. 11 wherever permits are sold). Some of these managed deer hunts allow the taking of one deer, others two, still others three; one held this year permits the harvest of four. And note this: Deer taken with Managed Deer Hunting Permits do not count toward your regular deer hunting season permits.
Another wrinkle: You may apply as an individual or as a party of up to six hunters -- but whether as an individual or as part of a party, you yourself may apply only once for one managed deer hunt each year. If you or your party should apply for more than one hunt, you'll be disqualified from that year's drawing.
You can apply for a managed deer hunt by calling the MDC's interactive phone system at 1-800-829-2956 or online at www.missouriconservation. org/hunt/deer. From Sept. 11 through Dec. 31, call the above number or go online to find out if you've been selected. And: If you're lucky enough to be drawn but at the last minute find out that you can't participate, make sure to avoid being disqualified from next year's managed hunt lottery by calling the hunt location to cancel.
"If you're going to apply for a managed deer hunt and do get drawn, make sure you're going to hunt," said MDC urban wildlife biologist, Deb Burns. "Some people apply, get drawn, and then just don't show up to hunt. They are actually taking a spot from someone who really does want to hunt."
Virtually none of the areas opened to managed deer hunts allow deer hunting during the regular portions of the deer season, and many accordingly harbor both numerous deer and trophy-class bucks. "We have managed hunts to, basically, manage the population," Burns explained. "Most of the time we are looking to reduce deer numbers on these areas."
To give you an idea of how many deer you might find during a managed hunt at such an area, consider that the deer density at Fleming Park West in the Kansas City region averages about 76 deer per square mile!
"The possibility of killing a really big buck does exist on some of these areas as long as you put the time and effort in," Burns said. "In several of our hunts we have a couple of guys who shoot really big bucks, but these guys spend the time scouting ahead of time and then hunt all day."
As a youngster born and raised in the Ozarks of southeast Missouri, Alex Rutledge hunted to put food on the table. But necessity turned into passion, and he has since made a career as a member of the Pro Staff of Hunter's Specialties. Rutledge has appeared on many outdoor TV shows and made many entertaining, instructional tapes and DVDs on which he demonstrates to thousands of hunters his methods for success as a deer hunter. He was kind enough to share his vast knowledge on muzzleloader deer hunting with Missouri Game & Fish.
"Pay close attention to heavy cover during the muzzleloader season," Rutledge advised. "Thickets, clearcuts, slash areas -- wherever heavy cover is available is where the big bucks feel safe at this time of year."
Aside from heavy cover, Rutledge concentrates his efforts on food sources, bedding areas and travel corridors. "Hunting is as complicated as you make it," observed Rutledge. "The guy who goes the extra mile and creates his own success by scouting, hanging trail cams or whatever is the guy I try to be. I think that successful hunters have to make things happen."
Rutledge does a lot of his deer hunting in Missouri in the southeast region. He reports that the rut starts later there, and is very sporadic. The second rut is one that Rutledge really focuses on late in the season -- provided he's lucky enough to catch it.
"The second rut is a much slower rut," he stated. "The bucks will still be active and respond to calls, scents and decoys. The buck sign will also still be active, and I like to try and find the freshest buck sign available."
Rutledge believes that the more mature, aggressive bucks will still use rubs and scrapes made earlier in the season, and even make new ones. One of his favorite ways of bagging a late-season muzzleloader buck is to freshen a scrape with scent, thus piquing territorial instincts.
"I really like to reactivate ground scrapes at this time of year," he said. "I first make certain that I'm as human-scent-free as possible by using scent elimination products and wearing rubber gloves and boots, And then I douse that old ground scrape with some dominant-buck urine."
Rutledge's well-corroborated theory: Territorial whitetails find the fresh dominant buck urine in their ground scrapes and come in to investigate the new buck in the area.
"It's pertinent to get some topo maps and learn the lay of the land wherever you are hunting," he advised. "Use the maps to find pinch points, travel corridors, buck sign, bedding and feeding areas and then put it all together by connecting the dots. I try to solve the crime, so to speak, by putting all of the evidence together like a detective would -- and then solving the crime by bagging that big buck!"
hunters have to keep in mind that they're chasing well-educated whitetails. Close to 200,000 deer will be harvested during the firearms portion of the deer season; the three-quarters of a million or so deer left will be gun-shy, and will likely be holding close to thick cover.
The conservation areas described in this article compose a unique group, in that at each, only muzzleloading and archery methods are legal means of deer hunting. This fact alone increases the smokepoler's odds of harvesting a deer this season. Why? First off, none of the nearly 500,000 participants in the November portion of the modern firearms deer season hunted these CAs and put their deer on high alert. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that those modern-firearms guys weren't hunting these lands, so they didn't kill the deer there. Further, these areas may act as sanctuaries for deer fleeing surrounding private lands, which were under heavily pressure during the November portion of the firearms deer season.
If you love deer hunting, and like spending quality time in the outdoors, the 10-day muzzleloader season is just what the doctor ordered. There are no guarantees that you'll harvest a buck from these areas, but if you use some good commonsense hunting tactics like those proposed by Alex Rutledge, you'll be one step closer to bagging your muzzleloader buck this season!
(Editor's Note: The author is editor of Missouri Deer Hunter magazine. Contact him through the publication's Web site, www.modeerhunter. com).