Backcountry hunting: No need to travel west for a wilderness hunt

Many Arkansans dream of taking a big-game backcountry hunt in the Rockies, but you can do the same thing in the Ozarks and Ouachita mountains.

In Arkansas, of course, you will be limited to hunting whitetailed deer and black bear, but backcountry hunts will give you valuable experience for hunting bighorn sheep, mountain goats and elk in other states should you be fortunate enough to draw a tag.

Until I entered my 40s, I hunted exclusively on public ground. My favorite destination in my 20s and early 30s was Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area in Johnson County, but I frequently hunted in the Flatside Wilderness Area near Paron, as well, and also in the Caney Creek Wilderness Area near Mena and on Poteau Mountain near Hartford.

In recent years, I've enjoyed authentic wilderness deer hunting experiences on Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife management areas in permit draw hunts. The permit-only system keeps hunter numbers low, and a WMA's secluded nature allows you to find spots that are too remote and too hard for most other hunters to access. My favorite is Madison County WMA, but this year I drew controlled hunt permits for muzzleloader and modern gun at Dagmar WMA near Brinkley. Dagmar won't be as strenuous as hunting in the mountains, but exploring and unlocking the secrets to an area I don't know is a welcome challenge.

The first step when planning a hunt in the backcountry is to study a map of the area. U.S. Geologic Survey topographic maps are very helpful, but Google Earth, OnX and HuntStand provide detailed satellite imagery that provides visual context.

A satellite image clarifies the squiggly lines of a topo map and visualizes land relief. It will show you benches, hollows, saddlebacks, gaps and water courses where animals feed and travel between hollows and valleys. Most importantly, a satellite image will show you small ponds and other features that draw wildlife, like overgrown clearings around derelict homesteads.

When looking for a backcountry hunting spot, it is imperative to get as far as possible from a road. Nowhere in Arkansas are you ever more than 1 mile from a road, but all roads are not equal. County roads and major forest service roads are the most heavily traveled, especially during deer season. Unimproved forest service roads are lightly traveled, and some are not traveled at all. Identify an area that is accessible only by foot or by mule, if you are so equipped. You are guaranteed to have such an area to yourself.

Your next step is to visit the area in person. This serves several purposes. One, it allows you to familiarize yourself with the area and gather physical intelligence that you can process into a hunting strategy. Mark a central "landing" spot as a waypoint, and mark it on a paper map as well. Mark key features, such as hardwood flats, game trails and even last year's antler rubs. Bucks are territorial, and they often rub the same trees every year.

Also, mark the best route to your area. Resist leaving physical markers, like ribbons. They are unsightly, but they also leave a trail for other hunters to follow. Some will, if for no other reason than curiosity, and they might like what they find.

Next comes the hard part. You should walk in and out of your backcountry hunting area as often as your schedule allows. It's hot and humid. Horseflies, deer flies, ticks and chiggers are nuisances, but you must overcome them to become familiar with your area. It will also help build and maintain proper physical conditioning for what promises to be a challenging enterprise in the fall.

In summer, the walk will be relatively easy because you are wearing light clothes and light footwear. When you return in October for muzzleloader season and in November for modern gun season, you will be carrying a firearm, ammo, knife, a coat, heavier boots and other assorted gear. You'll need to be in shape.

If you venture deep into the backcountry, you will probably camp for several nights, which means you will also carry a tent or hammock, food and cookware. If you don't have a pack animal to carry your gear, you'll have to carry it yourself. If you kill a deer, you'll have to pack that out as well, which probably means you'll make at least two trips.

An alternative, which I use when hunting in national forests, is to establish a backcountry base camp. I mark it as a waypoint on my GPS and also on my physical map. From there, I access my hunting areas. You will need rope to hoist your food into the air and away from where bears and raccoons can get it.

An easier, more convenient alternative is to camp in a designated campground. The U.S. Forest Service has several car campgrounds in the Ozark and Ouachita national forests. Each site contains a parking pad and tent pad, and there's a communal pit toilet. There is no water source, so you'll have to bring your own. Keep your food in a certified bear-proof cooler and secure it with a padlock.

Game and Fish Commission wildlife management areas have numerous camping areas. They are clearings with no amenities, including water. However, car camping allows you to set up a dedicated cooking area and table, and you can also bring coolers and any other conveniences you desire. Bring a shovel to bury personal waste, and pack out your trash.

Transporting a deer out of the backcountry is the most challenging and most arduous part of a hunt. Transporting a bear carcass is even harder. Using a game cart is not easy in mountainous terrain, but it's viable if you take your time. You can also quarter a deer and carry it out in pieces, but you must retain proof of sex. If you are physically fit, there is a method for carrying a deer on your back. Clay Newcomb, a noted Arkansas hunter, demonstrates the method at

You must also check or tag your deer before transporting it out of the woods. If you have cell service, you can check a deer on the Game and Fish Commission's mobile app or call (877) 731-5627. If cell service is not available, use one of the game tags that comes with your hunting license.

Be safe at all times. When visiting the backcountry, tell a friend, relative or spouse where you are going and when to expect your return. Provide a list of waypoints. If possible, take a companion.

Do not overexert. Take your time and choose a level, unobstructed route. Stay hydrated and take frequent breaks.

When fall arrives, you will be ready for an exciting and rewarding hunting adventure.

Upcoming Events