A few days after New Year’s in northeast Arkansas’ Cross County, Johnny Lockley grabbed a bow and a handful of arrows and walked 150 yards to a 40-acre soybean field bordering a patch of hardwoods behind his home.
He moved to the back of the soybean field and sat in a stand overlooking a hardwood creek draw. After about 30 minutes he saw two does and an enormous buck step into the bean field 60 yards away. A thick cedar tree protected him from their view as the deer fed slowly toward Johnny. For 30 minutes he watched the whitetails wander to within 30 yards of his stand. The temperature was dropping and wet snow was blowing hard out of the north. The deer were in bow range, but they were looking up and around, and Lockley knew he had to time the shot perfectly while the deer were looking away so as not to spook them when he drew the bow.
Finally, the chance to shoot arrived while the buck stood quartering-away from Lockley, who drew the 55-pound bow, aimed and loosed an arrow. He saw the arrow strike the deer in the rib cage and exit through the opposite shoulder. The buck kicked up his back legs and dashed off into the hardwoods with the does, only to die just out of the field within seconds of the shot.
The 250-pound, 6 1/2-year old buck had a 20-inch spread and a non-typical rack with 30 points. He measured 215 4/8 inches, easily qualifying for the Boone and Crockett Club record book, and claiming the top spot as the No. 1 archery buck taken in Arkansas — which ranks as one of America’s great, but largely overlooked, states for outsize whitetails.
With a deer population of around one million animals and an annual harvest approaching 200,000, Arkansas is a choice whitetail state by any measure. Deer management changes over the last decade or so have further improved the overall size of bucks harvested, with game managers increasing doe harvest to improve herd health. Bigger (though fewer) deer with older-age-class bucks is a recipe for trophy success that seems to be working in Arkansas.
Arkansas always has had some good deer, especially in the Delta or eastern region, because there’s good food and more farmland for quality animals. But today there also are good deer coming out of other areas of the state, and the herd is healthy and expanding. Arkansas hunters are now tagging high-quality animals with regularity.
The Arkansas deer season runs from October through early February. The choice time to hunt a trophy is during the rut, which runs off and on through November in various parts of the state. Also, access to private land is not as difficult as in some states, since much of Arkansas is still very rural. Some of the better public areas are the White River Refuge, Hurricane Lake, Wattensaw and the Holla Bend Refuge along the fertile Arkansas River. Dagmar WMA is another good bet. Many other smaller state-run hunting areas are open to deer hunters and offer excellent opportunities to collect a good buck.
Indiana is another outstanding “sleeper” deer state where hunters have an excellent chance of collecting a buster buck. These are corn-belt deer from the same gene pool and grain diet that produces bucks from more well-known whitetail states such as adjoining Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.
Indiana purposely reduced its deer herd starting about 1996. That was done to curb crop depredation and reduce vehicular accidents with animals, but it’s also the recipe for improving overall size of deer, including racks.
State game biologists report that hunters can go virtually anywhere in Indiana and find deer, and sportsmen can locate trophy-quality animals.
For example, Henry County only has a modest deer population, but there are some dandies taken every season there. The same is true in Adams and Jay counties. The northeast part of the state gets a lot of publicity for high deer counts, especially Ripley, Noble and Lagrange counties. But these areas also have considerable pressure, and that produces a notable number of nice bucks. Parke County is another good area for big-body “agri-deer,” which so many hunters want. Indiana doesn’t keep a tally of record-book animals, but bucks in the 160-inch class are collected almost annually from Parke County, and Ripley County is very good, too.
Indiana has special “Urban Deer Zones,” which might be the ultimate sites for hunters looking for better-than-average bucks. Such zones typically are found around large population areas like Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, and it’s all private-land hunting, though not necessarily bow-only. Getting permission to hunt isn’t easy, but hunters are more welcome by landowners than in some other more urban states. Also, plenty of urbanites have long lost their warm and fuzzy feelings toward the deer that have populated the area to the point of endangering lives on expressways, wrecking expensive yuppie mobiles and eating vegetable gardens and prized petunias. Knocking on enough landowner doors in Urban Deer Zones can reap big rewards.
Indiana deer seasons run from the third week in October to early January. The rut peaks in mid-November.
There are many public hunting areas spotted around the state, and plenty offer good chances at great bucks. Notable spots include the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, the adjoining Hoosier National Forest and Monroe Reservoir in Monroe County, and the Tri-County Fish and Wildlife Area in Kosciusko County.
Much of West Virginia is rugged, full of rolling mountains, dense fertile forests and places far from roads. It also has some unique deer-hunting areas that annually give up giant record-book bucks.
One year, for example, the state big-buck contest was won by a deer taken in McDowell County. It was a bow-killed buck shot during the rut on Nov. 16 by Ronnie McCoy. It had a typical rack with an official score of 174 5/8, earning a spot in the Boone and Crockett book.
A 170 7/8 B&C typical buck was taken in November by an archer from Mercer County. In addition, two non-typicals scoring over 172 inches and eight other bucks each scoring over 150-inches were taken that year by West Virginia hunters. It was just another good year for the state’s deer hunters.
Four southern West Virginia counties around the city of Charleston have bow-only hunting for deer. It’s traditional that no gun hunting is allowed there, and that allows for some tremendous bucks, because the age structure is so outstanding. Every year some B&C bucks are taken from those counties. Animal quality is astounding, and getting permission to hunt isn’t too bad if you knock on enough doors.
There also are good deer-hunting opportunities on public hunting areas. The R.D. Bailey WMA (17,000 acres) in Mingo and Wyoming counties is a highly recommended one, as well as the 10,000-acre Panther State Forest in McDowell County. The Monongahela National Forest in the rugged eastern mountains is remote, doesn’t receive much pressure, and vehicular access is limited. So there are some giant, old bucks in the Monongahela.
The state deer population is approaching one million, with hunters annually harvesting nearly 250,000 animals. Deer seasons run from mid-October to the end of December, with a liberal limit. Traditionally, the rut runs the week before Thanksgiving, which is the best time to collect a West Virginia trophy.
While heartland farm-belt states such as Kansas, Iowa and Illinois seem to get much of the press for giant whitetails, Nebraska goes somewhat unnoticed. It shouldn’t, considering some of the biggest bucks taken in America annually come from this Great Plains state. A good example of how large Nebraska bucks run is that about one out of every 1,000 deer taken by Nebraska bowmen is large enough to make the Pope and Young bowhunting record book. Compare that to Pennsylvania, where an average of only one buck in nearly 7,000 makes P&Y.
There are plenty of public places in Nebraska, too. Some of the best are on small, often neglected public hunting lands. Some such property is primarily waterfowl habitat, but enough high ground remains in these wetland areas to attract deer, which grow huge as they usually wander out to feed in adjacent corn and soybean fields. The 70,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is a good spot for Nebraska whitetails. Other recommended WMAs include Thomas Creek, Bobcat, Pine Glen and Long Pine. The Niobrara Valley Preserve is also a prime spot for heavy bucks. It’s owned by the Nature Conservancy and sprawls over 12 miles of the Niobrara River.
The bottom hardwoods and farm lands of east-central Mississippi are nicknamed the “black belt” because it’s so fertile that deer growth is phenomenal. In addition, unlike some other top deer states, hunting pressure is comparatively light in Mississippi. This combination of prime soil and food for proper deer nutrition and a good survival rate of mature bucks from one hunting season to the next produces massive whitetails, many of record-book proportions.
The Mississippi state record typical (Noxubee County) and non-typical (Lowndes County) whitetail bucks were taken in the black belt. In recent years there have been well over a dozen Boone-and-Crockett bucks killed in the region. Prime Mississippi counties for giant black belt bucks include Clay, Monroe, Lowndes, Noxubee, Winston and Oktibbeha.
For public black-belt buck hunting, the 47,000-acre Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge and the nearby 40,000-acre Ackerman Unit of the Tombigbee National Forest are choice. The two public areas are hunted hard (mid-week is best for less pressure), but there are abundant deer. The Tombigbee doesn’t get as much pressure or publicity, and there are some areas far from roads offering good, quality, walk-in hunting. Mountain bikes are a smart way to reach some of the more inaccessible areas of the Tombigbee National Forest, especially in the well-managed Choctaw WMA, which is contained within the forest boundaries. At Noxubee, hunters should concentrate efforts around clear-cuts and timber harvest burns, which attract deer.
Several other good public hunting spots to try outside the black belt region are Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, Panther’s Swamp NWR and the half-million acre DeSoto National Forest.
Mississippi’s black-belt bucks go into rut a week or two before Christmas. The state archery deer season runs from early October to late November. Firearms seasons are split but run from late November through late January. There are seasons for primitive weapons enthusiasts, modern firearms hunters using deer dogs, and other gun seasons where the use of dogs is illegal.
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