I didn’t see the big buck at first. I heard it.
Something had spooked the majestic old whitetail, and he was trotting through the swamp. I could hear the splashing of his hooves, even though he was 100 yards away. When the sound reached my ears, my heart started beating so fast, it seemed it would burst.
I could barely see through the undergrowth. But the buck finally stepped into an opening, and I could make out his huge 10-point rack. I guessed his weight at 250 pounds or thereabouts. He had a massive neck, thickened by the rut.
The whitetail failed to see me, hidden as I was in full camo, and when he felt safe, he settled down and started browsing. I placed the crosshairs of my rifle scope squarely on his neck but wasn’t comfortable with the shot. The big boy kept raising and lowering his head as he surveyed the swamp for danger, and I feared he would move and mess up the shot.
Then suddenly, the deer froze and looked straight toward me. His tail swished nervously. Perhaps he caught my scent on the breeze. Maybe he heard the loud beating of my heart. I’m not sure. But he turned and bolted away before I could squeeze the trigger.
I haven’t killed a swamp buck like that one yet, but I’ll keep trying. I’ve had dozens of similar encounters, and sooner or later, luck will be with me.
There are good reasons to hunt swamps, and to be honest, I’m hesitant to share them.
One reason I most like hunting these bottomland realms is the solitude. When I’m in a swamp, I rarely see other hunters. And I’d prefer to keep it that way.
I’m going to tell you about the benefits of swamp hunting anyway because I figure most who read this don’t have what it takes to be a swamp hunter. These pristine tracts of land are open only to those willing to overcome the rugged terrain. You’ll have to wear hip boots or waders to get where I go without getting wet, and you’ll have to be tough enough to tolerate the onslaught of mosquitoes in the season’s early months. If you hunt before frost, you’ll need to avoid snakes such as cottonmouths, canebrake rattlers and copperheads. They love these environs, so be careful where you place your feet and hands.
For the best chance of killing a giant bottomland buck, you’ll have to leave your vehicle and camp far behind and make your way through knee-deep water and ankle-deep mud to reach the heart of the swamp. You need to be there by dawn and stay there till dark, so you’ll be traveling in darkness for an hour or more twice a day. You’ll have to be attentive at all times to avoid getting lost and be prepared just in case you get lost anyway. Better take a GPS and a compass and know how to use them.
You’ll need to scout your hunting area weeks in advance and learn how to find deer sign in a wetland world where tracks, trails and scrapes can disappear overnight with a sudden rise in the water. You’ll have to be creative to find a good stand site where your rear end won’t get soaked while you sit, or in good enough physical condition to tote a climbing treestand all the way in.
The rewards, however, are worth the sacrifice. When you’re walking into these wilderness areas, you can feel the stress draining away. It’s quiet, except for the sounds of wildlife. Trigger-happy hunters and the sounds of ATVs and other vehicles are left far behind. Being there is almost a religious experience.
Best of all, the swamps of Arkansas grow gigantic bucks, and plenty of them. One reason for this is the fact that few people hunt these areas. Bucks can grow old, and their antlers get larger every year they live. Add to that the fact that these fertile bottomlands provide plentiful browse and mast. The deer have abundant food year-round, so they stay healthy and fit, adding body mass and growing to astounding proportions.
You’ll need to read the current regulations and jump through all the hoops that are required to get a hunting permit for some of these areas. But if you decide to try swamp hunting, these are among the places you might want to consider visiting.
Rex Hancock/Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area
Located in Woodruff County, Rex Hancock/Black Swamp WMA takes in 7,721 acres of overflow bottomland. The Cache River runs through the heart of the area, providing the only access to backwoods portions of the WMA other than foot travel.
You’ll have your best chance at a big buck if you boat into the WMA from the public access off Arkansas 33 at Gregory, then make your way into the swamp away from the river. Take waders, and a lock and chain to secure your boat while you’re away from it. And pay attention to your location at all times. There are a lot of tributaries, and a hunter can easily get lost.
Big Lake WMA
Big Lake WMA in Mississippi County is another swamp-buck hot spot. This 12,320-acre area is part of the “sunken lands” formed by the New Madrid earthquake in 1811 and encompasses one of the last remaining large tracts of bottomland hardwoods in northeast Arkansas. It is best reached by Arkansas 181 and 18 near the town of Manila. The area has few roads and is crisscrossed by numerous canals and drainage ditches. During a typical hunting season, half of the WMA will be flooded, and opportunities for taking a nice buck are good if you hunt away from the roads.
Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA
This WMA preserves 17,524 acres of prime swampland habitat along the White and Little Red rivers. Some 7,000 acres of pin-oak flats are flooded annually to attract wintering mallards, and these areas, especially those away from roads, contain some huge bucks. Enter the area from U.S. 64,
5 miles east of Bald Knob.
Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA
Over half this WMA’s 25,482 acres are inundated each fall, and though waterfowl hunters are numerous, deer hunters are not. Monster bucks live here. Access is via Arkansas 280 near Brookings and U.S. 67, south of Corning.
Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake WMA
Twenty miles southwest of Walnut Ridge, Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake encompasses 10,528 acres of swamps and other lowland habitat along the Black River. You’ll have to hunt hard for a chance at a big buck, but plenty of huge whitetails haunt area swamps. Access is from Arkansas 25 at the town of Lynn.
Additional swamp-hunting opportunities are available in Earl Buss-Bayou de View WMA near Weiner; St. Francis WMA near Marianna and West Helena; Wattensaw at Hazen; and Dagmar west of Brinkley. These areas combined cover tens of thousands of acres of bottomland deer-hunting territory ranging from good to excellent. Hunting these areas won’t be easy. Swamp hunting never is. But failure is never truly part of swamp hunting. Whether you kill a buck or not, the hours you spend in the bottoms are worthwhile, for they produce memories you’ll never outlive.