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Yesterday and today: Nelson bucks illustrate state’s deer management

by Bryan Hendricks | April 21, 2022 at 2:01 a.m.
These two bucks are bookends to Sheffield Nelson’s deer hunting career. The buck with the small 8-point rack (left) was a trophy animal when Nelson shot it in 1971. The big buck, taken in 2021, is the result of dedicated management practices. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bryan Hendricks)

Two deer taken 50 years apart illustrate the history of deer management in Arkansas.

To the hunter that shot them, both are sacred for what they represented at their places in time.

Sheffield Nelson of Little Rock shot the first deer in November 1971 in Prairie County south of Hazen. It was his first deer, a 2-year old buck with a spindly, 8-point basket rack that no modern hunter would bother to score. Nelson said he doesn't remember what the buck weighed, but he guessed it was about 150 pounds.

Nelson, who served on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission from 2000-07, shot the second buck in November 2021. It weighed more than 200 pounds and sported a tall, massive 10-point rack that scored 150 4/8 Boone and Crockett points.

A typical rack requires a score of 170 to qualify for B&C's all-time awards book. Hunters generally kill one to three bucks with typical racks in Arkansas that score that high, but 150 B&C is an exceptional rack in most states.

In 1971, hunters could not imagine seeing, let alone killing, a Boone and Crockett class buck in Arkansas. Nelson said his little 8-point was a trophy in those days.

"A group of us had hunting rights on a place near Hazen that was owned by a cement company," Nelson said. "I had done a lot of looking, a lot of scouting, a lot of everything, and it was unusual to see even a hoof print. There just weren't very many deer on the property, and it was some great property surrounded by farmland and timber. He was the first buck that I'd seen close enough to assure that he was a buck and sure enough that I wanted to shoot him."

The second buck was the result of intense management under standards developed by the Quality Deer Management Association. Nelson killed the buck at Jackson Point, a private hunting preserve that occupies an island on the Mississippi River. The club's management plan maintains a relatively even ratio of does to bucks and enables bucks to reach at least five years of age.

The club aggressively manages and manipulates habitat, which contains a checkerboard of thick refuge cover, open woodlands and fields planted with a variety of nutritious food like wheat, oats and turnips.

"That's what enabled him to get so large," Nelson said. "Our big deer there are usually 150-plus. I've killed one that scored 159 1/2 and 155. They were both among the top bucks killed on the property in their years, and this one was the largest killed in 2021."

Nelson said he watched the 2021 buck for three or four years and actually declined to shoot it in 2020, when he said its antlers were at their peak size. Nelson said the rack was actually a bit smaller in 2021.

"I had him in my scope at about 150 yards two or three days before the season ended," Nelson said. "I decided to let him live at least one more year. He was such a good breeding stock animal, and I am tickled to death that I did because I'm sure he's got a bunch of little ones running around the property."

Although southeast Arkansas produces our largest number of trophy bucks, even a prime property like Jackson Point probably did not harbor exceptional bucks in 1971, Nelson said. The management ethic that encourages deer to reach mature ages simply did not exist then.

"In 1971, first of all, it [Jackson Point] was owned by a timber company. I doubt seriously they had anything like this because back then they weren't leasing, they weren't managing it to raise deer or turkey," Nelson said. "That took off when the individual investors of Jackson Point reserved it as a hunting club."

The club selectively cuts timber annually. The club also reserves a percentage of acreage for food production, but members are allowed and encouraged to plant additional food plots, as well. Consequently, abundant food is close to all of the thick refuge areas, so deer do not have to travel far or make themselves vulnerable when they eat.

"Our main goal is to feed them and help them grow with the hope that eventually one will come to a field," Nelson said.

The same ethic that has turned southeast Arkansas into a big buck factory has enabled deer around the state to exhibit Boone and Crockett potential. Every region of the state now produces B&C record book bucks. The trend started in the late 1990s when the Arkansas Game and Fish instituted a regulation statewide requiring a legal buck to have at least three points on one antler.

"The 3-point rule was a big starter, and it shows what great job the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has done," Nelson said. "It shows what hunters and sportsmen around the state have done. They bought or leased areas so they could control what goes on there hunting wise. That's how you produce healthy deer. If you shoot everything that walks through, you won't ever get deer like this.

"Until you see them, it's hard to sell yourself on it, but ultimately you will be pleased with the results."

Nelson said it took a lot of time for deer around the state to respond to modern management. The 1971 buck probably would not have developed a 140- to 150-class rack even if it had reached old age, he said. Because hunters shot every buck they saw in the 1970s, including yearling spike bucks, genetic quality was suppressed. Allowing superior quality animals to survive additional years and to breed gradually improved antler quality in the herd at large, Nelson said.

The 1971 buck would still be a legal buck in most of Arkansas today, but many modern hunters would not shoot that buck nowadays. Nevertheless, Nelson said he is proud of them both for what they meant to him in their eras.

"The feeling I had when I killed that first buck probably rivaled the feeling I had when I killed the big buck," Nelson said. "He was my first buck, but back then he was a big buck. I was absolutely tickled to death to get him. I've killed a lot of deer between then and now. The little one was probably more exciting because he was my first one, but this big one is exciting because he's such a beautiful specimen of what we're growing down there."

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