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In a state known for great deer hunting, the controlled deer hunts that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission holds on wildlife management areas are like buried treasure.

The Game and Fish Commission awards permits for the hunts through a lottery, and the application period is open until 11:59 p.m. July 1. Applications are accepted online through the commission's website at agfc.com. The application process takes less than 10 minutes, and it gives you a chance to hunt deer with modern gun, muzzleloader and archery at the state's finest public properties, including Wattensaw WMA, Dagmar WMA, Madison County WMA, Harold E. Alexander Spring River WMA, Rick Evans Grandview Prairie WMA and many others.

Two years ago, the commission simplified the process by requiring applicants to pay a $5 application fee. Previously, successful applicants were required to pay for their permits when they were notified of having successfully been selected. Many hunters did not claim their permits, and the commission sold unclaimed permits through an online sale that almost never worked properly.

The imprecise nature of the system undermined the program's management objectives, which is to enable hunters to remove a certain number of deer from state-owned wildlife management areas while providing a high-quality hunting experience.

Under the new system, every applicant has skin in the game. All permits are awarded, but not every successful applicant uses the permit. If too few people apply for available permits, unclaimed permits are sold on a first-come first-served basis.

You can look at the WMA controlled hunts through multiple lenses. Because of limited hunting pressure, bucks on the WMAs have a greater chance of reaching maturity than on areas with unrestricted access, like the Ozark and Ouachita national forests. Therefore, they offer a better chance of encountering a mature buck with well-developed antlers.

The Game and Fish Commission has a more holistic outlook for managing deer on certain WMAs. It expects hunters to balance buck-to-doe ratios and to reduce deer densities on areas with limited forage, which sometimes requires shooting does.

Madison County WMA is unique because it is in the chronic wasting disease hot zone.

Through 2016, certain antler restrictions made Madison County WMA a place where hunters stood an excellent chance of seeing a trophy buck.

Now, objectives have shifted to wholesale herd reduction to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease. The commission removed antler point restrictions in 2017 and made it possible to kill an anterless buck without counting against your two-buck season bag limit.

I was sad to see the online sale of surplus permits end because that's how I was able to participate in so many controlled deer hunts over the years. The Madison County WMA hunt was a pilgrimage for me, but I also participated in a controlled modern gun deer hunt at Wattensaw WMA, a modern gun hunt at Harold Alexander WMA, and controlled muzzleloader hunts at Dagmar WMA and Moro Big Pine WMA.

I enjoyed them all. The hunting environment was relaxed, and it was neat to visit with other hunters at their camps. We all had great expectations because the possibility of encountering a buck of a lifetime is omnipresent. I actually had those encounters at Madison County and Moro Big Pine. A muzzleloader hangfire cost me a giant at Madison County, and at Moro Big Pine, which is no longer in the controlled hunt system, hunters were required to kill a doe before killing a buck. I had not killed a doe when a fabulous buck stepped into a clearing and gave me a perfect broadside at about 125 yards. All I could do was watch him through my binoculars and weep.

My Harold Alexander WMA hunt was largely uneventful except in the waning minutes of the final day. I hadn't seen a deer since I arrived, but I wandered into a herd that filtered out of the woods to feed as I headed to my truck. I began the afternoon hunt in that very spot but decided my chances were better deeper in the interior, farther from the road.

That further reinforced my deep belief that you should always trust your instincts.

On the other hand, I got to spend three days with my dear friend Mike Stanley, pastor at Friendship Baptist Church in Highland. He showed me around the WMA, and I enjoyed visiting with him and his family as much as I enjoyed the hunting.

Sports on 06/14/2018

Print Headline: Controlled hunts are nice experiences

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