Are These Your Best Bets for a Trophy?

The Angeline and Sunklands conservation areas aren't at the top of everyone's list for trophy production - but maybe they should be. Here's why!

By Marshall Ford

Oh, heck -- I can't do it: I can't say one area is the single best place in Missouri to kill a big buck. I'm sorry. I just can't. So I'll pick two - but only because the two I'm thinking about are contiguous. They have different names, but since they're connected, they can rightly be considered one area.

The one I'm thinking about is the vast area encompassed by the Angeline and Sunklands conservation areas in Shannon County.

I can hear many of you groaning in protest. Shannon County as a big-buck hotspot? What's this guy been smoking? But bear with me, and you'll see why this area is the best place in the state for a hunter to take a trophy buck on public land.

First, for the purposes of this article, let's define a trophy buck: It doesn't have to be Boone and Crockett- or Pope and Young-class animal to qualify as a trophy. Besides, that class of buck is comparatively rare - even in Missouri, which is famous for producing whoppers - and especially so on public property. Bucks of that size have wide-ranging territories, and they do move around quite a bit, so it would be presumptuous to say that a certain area shelters any bucks of a particular size.

Furthermore, the professional biologists who manage the Missouri Department of Conservation's public areas have no way of taking a census of individual bucks that live on its conservation areas from year to year. It's probably safe to assume that every public area has at least one or two monster bucks - but nobody knows for sure.

So for our purposes, a trophy is simply a big-racked deer, either typical or non-typical, including record book-class bucks.

Photo by Scott Steindorf

While it's true that the northern half of Missouri produces the greatest percentage of the state's trophy racks, most of those bucks are taken from private land. Public areas in the northern half are heavily hunted, and no one place stands out as a great trophy area.

Of course, I could take the easy way out and suggest one of the areas where only managed deer hunting is allowed as being the top trophy spot. At places like August A. Busch and Burr Oak Woods conservation areas and James A. Reed Wildlife Area, access is limited by a drawing system. Except in the case of youth-only firearms hunts, only bows and muzzleloaders are allowed. You can bet there are some huge bucks at those places, but only a few people are chosen to hunt there, and the chances of being drawn are slim. Picking those sites wouldn't benefit most of our readers, and this article is about pointing out a place to which anybody can go, at any time during the season, and walk in with a good chance of killing a big buck.

And from the evidence I've compiled, I'd say that place is the portion of Shannon County covered by Angeline and Sunklands conservation areas.

As I mentioned earlier, northern Missouri produces most of the state's big bucks, but when compared to individual northern counties, Shannon County comes out very favorably. Here's why.

To grow big antlers, bucks require three things: genes predisposed to big antlers, good nutrition, and the opportunity to live long enough to grow big antlers. Deer living in rugged, mountainous southern Missouri generally don't get very heavy, but a fair number do grow big antlers. According to the Missouri SHOW ME Big Bucks Club Records of Whitetail Deer, Shannon County has produced 25 entries in the typical division, including three B&C record-book bucks. The smallest of these bucks scored 140 3/8 B&C; killed in 1989, it ranks 2,935th statewide all-time. The largest, killed also in 1989, scored 179 5/8 and ranks 44th all-time. The No. 2 entry from Shannon County, killed in 1994, scored 174 6/8 and ranks 71st all-time. Obviously, there are some good gene lines among the deer herd in Shannon County.

As for diet, phosphorus is the primary mineral that promotes antler growth. Brad Hadley, conservation agent for the MDC in Shannon County, reports that phosphorus is plentiful throughout Missouri, including the Ozarks, which includes Shannon County.

"There's no shortage of phosphorus anywhere in the state," he said. "Deer are passing phosphorus even when they're putting on antler growth."

The last category, age, clearly favors southern Missouri. Shannon County has huge tracts of public land, including four large MDC conservation areas, a large portion of the Mark Twain National Forest, and considerable acreage within the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, which is owned by the National Park Service. Hadley described hunting pressure in these areas as light to moderate. The remote ridges and hollows of these tracts offer crucial refuge areas within which deer can escape hunting pressure. In fact, a deer could conceivably spend a lifetime in parts of these areas without ever encountering a hunter. In this environment, any buck can grow a set of antlers that any hunter would be proud to hang on the wall.

With those factors firmly in mind, we finally come to my Missouri big-buck hotspot: the Angeline and Sunklands CAs.

Forming a pincer around the north and west ends of Eminence, Angeline Conservation Area covers 38,820 acres in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. The main section is northwest of Eminence, and two other sections are due north of Eminence. Sunklands Conservation Area covers 37,440 acres and connects to Angeline on the western side. Together, these areas offer more than 76,000 acres of prime deer habitat.

The terrain in this area is extremely rugged, characterized by deep hollows, wide, flat ridges and steep, knobby ridges. The hollows drop off in all directions. Water follows the path of least resistance downhill, so there is no prevailing direction of water flow. On a map, the stream system here looks like the arterial system of a living body. The area has a large number of springs and small streams, all of which flow into the Jacks Fork and Current rivers. Angeline and Sunklands CAs lie squarely between these two famous, gorgeous rivers.

The MDC does not manage the habitat at either CA specifically to benefit deer. There are few, if any, supplemental food plots, but a number of wildlife ponds are scattered about the woods. Deer use those ponds to varying degrees, and a hunter could have a reasonable expectation of encountering a deer near them. Pre-season scouting could then make possible a determination as to whether any big bucks are using the ponds.

In north Missouri, deer have access to a variety of agricultural crops, including corn, soybeans and grain crops. In Shannon County, deer subsist primarily on acorns. In the creek and river bottoms y

ou might find lush grasses and other succulent green vegetation, but come fall, whitetails will most likely be running the ridgetops eating acorns. At Angeline and Sunklands, red oak and white oak are the dominant species, but deer seem to show a definite preference for white oak acorns whenever and wherever they are available.

In years when the mast crop is poor, deer concentrate wherever trees are most productive. By scouting in the preseason, a hunter can pinpoint such locations and pattern individual bucks that are using the area. The problem is that hunters also concentrate on those same few areas. To improve your chances of success, you need to identify escape routes, bedding areas and natural funnels, and then be in position for other hunters to move deer past you.

This year, however, Hadley believes that the mast crop should be plentiful throughout Shannon County. That means deer will be well distributed throughout the countryside. If you want to kill a big buck at Angeline-Sunklands, the key to success is to get in the woods early and often to find and pattern the buck you want. After you find him, you can further improve your chances of killing him by hunting during the archery season, which runs this year from Oct. 1 through Nov. 14. That will allow you to hunt bucks that are still in their late summer patterns before hunting pressure alters their movements.

An autumn trip to Angeline and Sunklands conservation areas will allow you to hunt in some of Missouri's prettiest country. It'll also give you an excellent shot at killing a trophy buck.

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