Year three may be the charm for a 10-year plan to grow bigger bucks at the already trophy-rich Thistlethwaite WMA.
There’s no other wildlife management area quite like it.
Some deer hunters sing its praises, while others curse its understory consisting of a jillion palmetto plants.
But quality whitetails do indeed love the hardwoods habitat at Thistlethwaite Wildlife Management Area located just north of Washington in St. Landry Parish.
It was 1975 when one trophy deer taken from Thistlethwaite’s 11,000 acres made statewide news. It was a mega 13-pointer earning a Boone & Crockett score of 180 5/8 inches. Taken by then youthful Shawn Ortego of Ville Platte, this buck was probably the first trophy whitetail killed in the era following deer restocking in Louisiana.
Prior to 1975, there were only three other typical Louisiana bucks scoring above Ortego’s Thistlethwaite trophy, and these were taken in 1943, 1961 and 1914, respectively.
Ortego’s deer was impressively adorned, and the buck’s antlered crown kept such a score even considering its thick but exquisite palmation on its left beam (an asymmetrical deduction). The news of the buck spread all over Louisiana, and the Thistlethwaite WMA trophy deer hunting legacy was born.
Ortego’s buck is now No. 5 in the Typical-Gun trophy division of the Louisiana Big Game Records. It has been eclipsed only once in recent times by Donald Riviere in Avoyelles Parish, where the hunter killed an 11-pointer scoring 182 5/8 B&C in 1998.
“It’s not uncommon to have a few bucks taken every year that score in the 140 B&C range at Thistlethwaite,” said biologist manager Tony Vidrine with Region VI of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “Also, we have bucks in our records there weighing 250 to 275 pounds. One taken quite a while back weighed in at 333 pounds.”
As for the Louisiana Big Game Records, Thistlethwaite has delivered its share of trophy whitetails — two modern gun trophies, two archery trophies and three muzzleloader trophies.
Newly retired wildlife chief David Moreland has reported for years that the deer stocked here came from the Chicago Mills area (now called Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge area). And as most hunters know, deer bearing Tensas NWR genes get to be quite impressive in both antler growth and live weights.
As for habitat, Thistlethwaite’s diverse wild acres of hardwoods produce mast every year, and the effect of timber management here produces a forage base of abundant browse plants as well.
And then there’s the sea of palmettos on the forest floor.
This plant alone provides a tremendous amount of cover allowing the gray ghosts of Thistlethwaite ample opportunity to escape predation from visiting hunters. There is agreement by most all hunters visiting Thistlethwaite that the terrain is tough going and very noisy due to the dense sea of palmettos.
For the 2007-08 hunting season, Thistlethwaite will be entering year three of a 10-year experiment designed to produce quality bucks on public lands. Management prescriptions here mandate that hunters take only spikes or bucks with at least 4 antler points (at least one-inch long) on one side.
This type of “slot restriction” on antlered bucks is an attempt by area biologists to move at least 50 percent of the bucks usually taken at 1 1/2 years of age or younger into the older-buck segment of the deer herd. The taking of any buck not meeting these restrictions is prohibited.
The experiment at Thistlethwaite is in response to LDWF surveys demonstrating that an increasingly large percentage of hunters (86 percent) statewide are in favor of quality deer management.
According to Vidrine, quality deer management (QDM) involves allowing younger bucks, mainly 1½-year-old deer, to grow older. This type of management is designed to protect them as they enter into the 2½- and 3½-year age classes before they are harvested.
“I want to emphasize that QDM is not trophy management that is aimed at allowing bucks to get to be 4 to 6 years of age before harvesting them,” said Vidrine. “We may see a few older bucks come out this year at Thistlethwaite, but I give the experiment five years at least to begin showing significant differences in our harvest records.”
According to Thistlethwaite’s recent harvest records, there were 20 bucks at seven points or better (2½ years or older) taken during the first year of the experiment (2005-06). In 2006-07 (second year of the experiment), the number of bucks harvested at seven points or better increased to 32 deer — a 38-percent jump.
“Even with these numbers, we still have to see some years down the road if we can sustain this increase and possibly make it better,” said Vidrine. “Remember the goal of the experiment is to increase the harvest of bucks at seven points or better to 50 percent. We still have 12 percent to go, and we have to see if it’s a sustainable harvest over time.”
In 2006-07, 120 deer were taken during two managed hunts here in November and December. There were 19 hunting efforts per deer taken in November, and 14 hunting efforts per deer in December. This data translates to one deer taken per 53 acres during managed hunts in 2006-07 at Thistlethwaite.
Thistlethwaite’s top-10 bucks of the 2006-07 season included a 12-pointer with a live weight of 182 pounds. Its circumferences at the bases were over 5 inches, and the deer sported main beams of over 24 inches in length. It had an inside spread of over 14 inches.
The next-ranked 2006-07 Thistlethwaite buck was an 8-pointer weighing 205 pounds with circumferences over 5 inches. Its main beams were measured at 21 inches with an inside spread of 16.5 inches.
There were eight other bucks on Thistlethwaite’s top list that ranged from 126 to 205 pounds with the smallest base circumferences measuring 3.88 inches. Antler points ranged from seven to 12, with main beam lengths measuring 16 to 24 inches.
“Our deer kill here in 2006-07 was also affected by rainy weather during the bucks-only and muzzleloader segments,” recalled Vidrine. “For 2007-08, we may simply see more quality bucks taken during the late season if we have colder, dry weather.”
In addition to these positives, though, there are some negatives to consider for those who are thinking about giving Thistlethwaite a try for the first time.
“If you don’t put in the time, you won’t even see a deer,” warned Ryan Hooks, 54, of Opelousas, principal of Opelousas Junior High.
Over a 20-year span, Hooks has taken 30 whitetails out of Thistlethwaite including a prized buck — a 9-pointer at 250 pounds.
“I was in my hip boots when I shot that buck,” recalled the hunter.
Two seasons ago, Hooks also killed two other bucks in Thistlethwaite — another 9-pointer and an 8-pointer.
“I can’t say enough just how tough it is hunting the area,” he said. “You definitely have to pay your dues.
“Sure, on any given either-sex day, a hunter may chance upon a good, quality buck due to hunting pressure, but if you don’t happen to be that lucky and still want a good buck, you’re going to have to hunt very hard.”
According to Hooks, this is not like hunting on private lands where areas are baited and hunting pressure is low.
“It’s just not for everybody,” said Hooks. “You have to go out there and figure out what they’re feeding on and how they’re moving. And you have to do this by trying to find what faint trails you can see amidst all those palmettos.
“When you hunt there, you’ll see very quickly just how limited the visibility is at Thistlethwaite.”
For Hooks, the advantages outweigh the above-noted disadvantages.
“It’s a well-managed area holding good numbers of quality deer, and Thistlethwaite is large enough to enjoy,” he said. “Also, it’s located not far away from my home in Opelousas. I’m very busy as a principal at school, so my time is limited.
“And it’s free to hunt there thanks to the Thistlethwaite family (owners of Thistlethwaite WMA) and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.”
Early in the season, hunters scout the area’s undisturbed deer by finding smitten browse sites and evidence of foraging on acorns. Once squirrel season starts, the deer become chiefly nocturnal, and the majority of hunters then have to wait for the managed hunts after Thanksgiving to enjoy better chances at scoring on a wallhanger. Those who are successful have to walk distances away from the majority of the crowd to find relatively undisturbed deer.
December and January are months that find the rut occurring at Thistlethwaite, so hunters are advised to take advantage of the bucks-only and muzzleloader segments.
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