Don't put away your gear this year until you've tried these Arkansas hunting favorites.
With so many seasons still open, I don't understand why Arkansas hunters consider late December and January to be a "tween" time.
Maybe it's because we immersed ourselves in deer and duck hunting throughout October, November and December. We broke deer camp long ago, and half of duck season is behind us, and so some consider January to be an idle time between the peak of hunting season and the start of fishing season.
That's just plain silly. We still have some fine firearms deer hunting opportunities in late December, plus two entire months of archery deer hunting in January and February. Squirrel and rabbit seasons run through Feb. 28. Mid-winter is a fine time to listen to beagles chase rabbits, but it's the best time to hunt squirrels with dogs.
Quail season ends Feb. 4, and despite all the whining and moaning about quail being in short supply, we've got some of America's biggest populations of wild bobwhites in the Ouachita National Forest.
Duck season and all of our goose seasons run through Jan. 28, so don't warm up the couch just yet. There's enough hunting left to keep you busy almost until spring.
Here's a blueprint on how to make the best use of this time.
The glory days of autumn have passed, but you still have some unused deer tags. If you're not into archery, you can still end the year by hunting with modern firearms and muzzleloaders.
The Christmas Holiday Deer hunt runs Dec. 26-28. It's an either-sex hunt, so it gives you one more chance to bag a buck with a modern firearm, or to put a couple more does in the freezer.
In deer management zones 9 and 12, the second half of muzzleloader deer season runs Dec. 29-31. That covers 14 entire counties in south Arkansas and east Arkansas, and parts of 13 others.
The late muzzleloader season, as we call it in Arkansas, is a big deal among some of the members of my hunting club in Grant County. Most of the other club members have stopped hunting for the year, so we have the property to ourselves.
We convene at camp's burning barrel around noon for a hot bowl of Mike Romine's famous stew while we complain about the Arkansas Razorbacks football and basketball teams. About 90 minutes before dark, we filter out to our best late-season stands.
We mostly see does, but we seldom shoot them because our freezers are already full.
Last year was an exception for me because I needed to kill a deer with a muzzleloader to qualify for my first Triple Trophy Award. It's an honor the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission bestows on hunters that kill a deer with archery tackle, modern firearm and muzzleloader in one season.
I usually kill a deer with a muzzleloader in October, but not in 2016. I got my first bow kill early, but the muzzleloader success eluded me. Alas, I missed a "chip shot" in the waning light of Dec. 31.
Deer hunting with firearms on our state's best wildlife management areas is limited through a controlled permit system. The permits are awarded in a special draw, and believe me, they are highly coveted.
For archery hunting, though, access is unrestricted from the last weekend in September through Feb. 28.
Places like Wattensaw, Dagmar, Madison County, Gulf Mountain and a dozen other WMAs offer excellent chances to get a trophy buck with virtually no competition from other hunters.
January is a good time for an extended camp-and-hunt adventure. The weather usually is not oppressively cold in January, and the WMAs that don't have duck hunting are deserted. You can park a camper in one of many designated campsites, erect a canopy and run a generator or power inverter without disturbing other campers. That's because there won't be any.
You can do the same thing in the Ozark and Ouachita national forests.
In January, food is scarce in high elevations, which means deer are more likely to visit food plots that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission maintains. Since there's almost no hunting pressure, deer are more likely to visit food plots in the daytime than they were in November.
You can climb a tree, or you can erect a popup blind. I see a lot of deer on public ground in the winter while wearing a gillie suit and sitting in a ground chair.
You'll also see a lot of deer in the lowlands, especially in major creek and river bottoms where food is available.
This is an ideal time to hunt WMAs like Bayou Meto, Dagmar and Shirey Bay/Rainey Brake. These areas have extensive green tree reservoirs that are world famous for duck hunting, but large sections do not flood. Setting up on a dry trail leading to a soybean field on private property is a good way to encounter a buck of a lifetime.
While Bayou Meto WMA harbors some monster deer, it is world famous for its greentree duck hunting.
People come from everywhere to hunt there, but sometimes it's easy to take it for granted.
Hunting ducks in the timber is close to a spiritual experience. I stuff a half-dozen decoys in a backpack and walk as far into the Government Cypress Walk-In Hunting Area as necessary to outdistance other hunters. I find a hole in the oaks, scatter my decoys around the edges and sidle up to a big tree.
Seldom must I call aggressively. A few chuckles usually are enough to get the attention of low-flying mallards. If other hunters are near, I don't bother trying to work ducks because other hunters will shoot at them above the treetops on the swing.
A chuckle and a few kicks at the water will make them look at the decoys. A little wind helps to move the decoys, but a jerk string works, too.
They'll fall in almost silently, cackling softly as they careen through the trees in a rush of wind that sounds like a small jet engine. They'll plop down into the water all around you like big snowballs. Just remember that you can shoot only three!
More on Arkansas Hunting & Fishing
If you'd rather boat in to some of the more remote areas, you can find good places to hunt that aren't heavily pressured. Just follow rising water. The sweet spots are where the water is knee-deep or less.
That's the depth at which mallards and other puddle ducks can dabble for acorns and other goodies, and those areas are often away from the Blue Line and other traditional Bayou Meto hotspots.
If it gets cold enough to freeze the woods, ducks will flock out to the Arkansas River. There you can enjoy some spectacular hunting when Bayou Meto and other greentree reservoirs are ice-bound.
Lake Dardanelle is my favorite spot for deep-freeze duck hunting in January. The shallow coves, sloughs, inlets and bays among islands fringed with cattails and tules offer food and shelter from cold winds in bitter weather.
Unlike Bayou Meto, which draws almost entirely mallards and wood ducks, Lake Dardanelle and the rest of the Arkansas River attracts every duck species that migrates to Arkansas.
You can get a limit composed of different species, including mallards, pintails, gadwalls, green-winged teal, shovelers, canvasbacks, widgeons, buffleheads and goldeneyes.
The best places to access Lake Dardanelle are between Russellville and Clarksville at Spadra, Cabin Creek and Knoxville.
To sweeten the pot, Lake Dardanelle's isolated islands and thickets teem with deer. They are natural refuge areas that harbor some impressive bucks. The foliage is very dense, but most of the islands have trees that are big enough to hang a stand.
If you are successful, it's a short drag to your boat.
All Arkansas WMAs, national forests and national wildlife refuges are open for squirrel hunting until the end of the season. You'll have little if any company, and the hunting can be superb.
Madison County WMA is one of my favorites. I bowhunt early in the mornings and late in the evenings, but I often spend a couple of hours squirrel hunting in the afternoons.
It's the easiest hunting I've ever done because squirrels on this area are not pressured and tend to be bold. That's a dangerous combination for them when the trees are bare.
I can get garishly close to them, and my 16-gauge puts them on the ground with no resistance.
Hunting squirrels over dogs is one of the most fun ways to spend a crisp January morning.
Circuit Judge Tim Weaver of Melbourne introduced me to this style of hunting several years ago in the Ozarks of Izard County. The date was Dec. 28, 2014, and the conditions were perfect.
The previous night's rain had moistened the forest floor for silent walking, and the still air made it easier to see squirrels in the trees.
Weaver's mountain curs, Roxie and Bella, are silent when trailing squirrels, but when they bark treed, you can hear them from a long way away.
When we reached the tree, the dogs tried to climb it, and they chewed at the bark. The squirrels hunkered down in the crooks of the highest branches, so flat and still that sometimes we only saw their ears.
If they remained still, I popped them with a .22. If they bolted, Weaver took them down with his Remington 1100 20-gauge.
We ended the hunt at 10:15 a.m. with eight squirrels in the bag. It was a modest take, but I can't remember a hunt that I enjoyed more.
OUACHITA MOUNTAIN QUAIL
While quail struggle in much of Arkansas, they thrive in the western portion of the Ouachita National Forest near Waldron and Mena.
The reason has nothing to do with quail, but with efforts to restore native pine/bluestem habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker on about 200,000 acres of this mountainous country.
This entails selective, uneven-aged timber harvest and aggressive use of prescribed burning, but quail respond very favorably to these manipulations.
It's probably the only place in Arkansas where you can move four to six big coveys of wild birds in a day.
Make no mistake, though, this is some of the hardest hunting you'll ever experience. The terrain is steep, rugged, uneven and rocky. Quail seek refuge in blackberry brambles and greenbrier thickets that will shred clothing and unprotected skin.
Still, it's thrilling to follow a bird dog up a rocky ravine and watch it lock up on a brushpile. You know what's about to happen, but you're never really prepared when 15 to 25 birds thunder out from beneath your feet.
You only have a second or two before they duck behind the pines, but with experience, you'll get snappy enough to bag a bird or two.
Bottom line? Don't stash your hunting gear just yet. There's plenty of game still waiting in the hills, woods and fields of Arkansas right now. Why not get out and give them a shot?
FAVORITE ARKANSAS EATS
Eating well is important to the traveling hunter, and I've discovered some great places to recharge after a successful outing.
When hunting at Galla Creek WMA or Lake Dardanelle, I always stop at the South Park Cafe in Clarksville. I love their breakfasts, but their cheeseburgers and homemade pies are outstanding. It's neutral territory where bikers, farmers and lawyers can unwind amid the din of clinking flatware and jovial conversation.
After a weekend of quail hunting at the Ouachita National Forest, I treat myself to one good breakfast at The Egg and I in Fort Smith, one of few chain establishments that outdoes home cooking by a country mile.
In east Arkansas, I will go miles out of my way to get a chopped brisket sandwich at Craig's BBQ in DeValls Bluff. I know the secret to Craig's slaw. They let me in before they opened one morning, and I saw them make it, but I'm sworn to secrecy.