Buckmasters Magazine

There Goes the Neighborhood

There Goes the Neighborhood

By Mike Handley

Anyman’s Land coughs up TWO Louisiana records.

When Buckmasters published a series of stories about North America’s top 10 producers of record book bucks in 2009, the news generated some unexpected results.

Some readers were happy to see their states garner recognition; others’ contempt for “land-grabbing” outfitters flared brightly, and they accused us of opening the gates to the evil hordes hungry to snap up what remains of leasable land — as if the world didn’t already know that America’s Heartland grows big whitetails.

Chief among those who welcomed the news were Louisiana hunters. The worst comment that reached my ears was, “Well, there goes the neighborhood,” meant to spur more smiles than frowns.

The top-10 list of bone yards — we called them “big buck factories” — was not randomly chosen. It was not based on Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young records. It came straight from our own record book, specifically from the years 2005 to 2008.

I did the research and wrote all the stories. My inspiration was the map of North America denoting B&C entries that surfaces every few years. I didn’t think it served today’s deer hunter, since counties and states that were big yielders in the 1960s and 1970s were given as much play as the current producers of record book bucks. Thus, I looked only at the three preceding seasons’ entries.

There were several surprises, and perhaps the biggest was Louisiana being the No. 3 producer of book bucks, thanks mostly to deer harvested in Madison, Tensas and Concordia parishes. Those three, to be precise, were the nos. 2, 3 and 4 among the top 10 counties in the world for firearms-harvested, book-class deer.

That was three years ago, but not old news. Indications are that Louisiana might have overtaken Illinois, and just as many truly monstrous bucks are being felled with broadheads there.

The same three parishes are at the top, too, although Avoyelles Parish is a close fourth.

The really good news is that anyone can hunt the top three parishes, since they all contain a portion of what is now the best piece of public ground in the country (at least for super-sized bucks). It’s not easy. You might not even see a deer. But if you do, it could be the kind of buck of which dreams are made.

Even if you don’t fill your tag, to enter the palmetto-choked Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge is worth the price of admission. This is the kind of land that once bedazzled Teddy Roosevelt.

While hunting the Louisiana black bear in the Delta bottomland forests, Roosevelt was left slack-jawed by giant cypresses, whose knees extended 2 to 3 feet above the black ooze. He spoke of palmetto jungles, vast canebrakes and bayous teeming with alligators, garfish, snapping turtles, wrist-thick water moccasins, amphibious swamp rabbits and great ivory-billed woodpeckers.

In fact, the only existing footage — a bit grainy and black-and-white — of the ivory-billed woodpecker was filmed in the Tensas.

The large bird, now thought to be extinct, might be the only thing Roosevelt saw that you won’t see inside the refuge today.

The nearly 70,000-acre refuge and the adjacent state-run Big Lake Wildlife Management Area (another 19,000-plus acres) are the two most well known and heralded public tracts in Louisiana. Big Lake is where James McMurray shot the state’s rifle record in 1994.

Bowhunters pretty much have run of the refuge except during the few lottery-awarded, prime-time gun hunts. Participants must apply and be drawn for the privilege of hunting with a firearm, and applications are usually taken by the first of August.

The gun hunts often coincide with the peak of the rut in December, but archers often see better bucks in January. Two bowhunters, Tadpole McLeod and Ricky Caldwell, have the proof on their walls. Both men took 200-plus-inchers off the refuge last January.

There Goes the NeighborhoodNO. 1 BY COMPOUND BOW

Tadpole, who made the drive from Starks, La., scored first on Jan. 7. Because of the five-hour drive up and his hunch that the full moon would keep deer off their feet until midday, he slept in that day and didn’t venture into the refuge until almost 10 a.m.

He was hunting with his son, Derek, and buddies John Berry and Jude Moreaux. Rather than go to a familiar spot — and 20 years of prowling the palmettos have given him many — Tadpole hung his stand in a different place.

To be honest, he’d have settled for a doe in a heartbeat.

About 5 p.m., he heard something — either a deer or a bear, from the sound. Knowing he’d better be ready if it happened to be a deer, he stood and held his bow at the ready.

Seeing a partial rack at 30 yards was all Tadpole needed. He never gave the antlers a second glance. He watched the buck paw a scrape, and then it began walking straight toward him.

He drew when the deer passed behind a tree. When the animal stepped into the clear, it lowered its head, swung it from side to side and began sniffing the ground.

“When I saw its nose moving, I knew it was going to leave,” Tadpole said. “I didn’t wait for it to turn. Its head was down, so I leaned out and shot it right through the shoulder blades.”

After he lowered his bow and began descending, eyes glued to the buck, Tadpole thought he saw either palmetto fronds or vines entangled in the antlers’ left side. It wasn’t until he walked up to the buck that he realized the vines were actually more antler.

The buck field-dressed at 180 pounds, which means it probably weighed 230 on the hoof — small compared to some of the brutes harvested there. It took top honors at four big buck contests, no surprise since it’s a new state bow record.

Two weeks later, yet another monster hit the fertile dirt inside the Madison Parish portion of the Tensas. It, too, is a state record.

There Goes the NeighborhoodNO. 1 BY CROSSBOW

Ricky Caldwell’s weapon of choice might’ve changed since he began hunting the refuge back before it was a refuge, but his routine rarely varies. Because he’s a farmer and most of his work is done by the time deer season gets into full swing, he’s in a tree almost every day except Sundays.

By late January, the Winnsboro hunter had taken a nice 8-pointer and shot at a 150-incher. The only reason he missed the latter is because his crossbow’s limbs hit the tree in front of him. He’d been too wrapped up in the size of the deer to notice what was right in front of his nose.

It’s because of that buck that Ricky returned to the same spot a dozen more times, always hopeful for a second chance.

He climbed the same tree for what he’d decided would be the last time on a mild Jan. 24. At 9 a.m., he heard something fast approaching through the water behind him. It was a massive 7-pointer that didn’t give him a shot.

Not quite an hour later, Ricky was ready to go home. He stood to stretch and to gather his gear, and then heard something in the palmettos. The 7-pointer returned, along with another buck.

The second one stole his breath.

“I’ve hunted that same area for 47 years, and I’d never seen anything like that,” he said. “That buck was HUGE!”

Ricky snapped out of his daze long enough to make the 35-step shot.

The gorgeous rack carries a BTR score of 184, which puts it at the top of the short list of Sportsman’s Paradise crossbow harvests. Its true gross (composite score) is 203 6/8 inches.

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This article was published in the Winter 2012/2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2020 by Buckmasters, Ltd