Getting around on Ben’s Creek was a challenge last year, and that helped the area carry a large number of deer into this season.
Robert Duncan grew up hunting the piney woods of Washington Parish. He can vividly recall traipsing through the woods around Ben’s Creek west of Bogalusa.
However, his weren’t the only set of feet slogging through the creek bottom. The older men of his family and their pack of deer dogs often accompanied him.
“The deer population in Washington Parish just wasn’t as good back then as it is now,” Duncan said. “There were a lot of dog hunters back then, and they could kill just about every legal deer in an area.
“Deer didn’t have much of a chance to mature around these parts. A 100-pound buck was about average. There were a few bigger ones that came out of the creek swamp and from up around Varnado, but those weren’t really local deer to the area that’s now Bens Creek WMA. Now you’ve got some good deer in there that stay in there year round and probably never even get fired upon.”
Indeed a lot has changed at Ben’s Creek since the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries leased it in 1987. The land was leased from Cavenham Forest Industries, which gives a pretty good indication of the primary usage of the land — growing timber.
Ben’s Creek, like Pearl River and Sandy Hollow WMAs, took a pretty good hit from Hurricane Katrina. Several of the timber stands were almost completely wiped out, and Weyerhauser came back in after the storm and salvaged what they could. With some help from the LDWF, they were able to have Ben’s Creek operational last season thanks to the tremendous combined effort.
“That increased the amount of clear cuts in Ben’s Creek,” said LDWF Region 7 Manager Randy Myers, “and that’s going to create better habitat in the long run with ground cover and browse.
“But we did loose the ability to access some of the areas along the drains that had hardwoods blown down. We heard from some turkey hunters this past spring that they found getting around in those kinds of areas was difficult at best.”
Myers indicated that Ben’s Creek is now carrying a moderate to slightly high deer population. Studies have shown a higher age structure on does, and that gives an indication that the WMA is carrying more deer.
“We do have several nice bucks on Ben’s Creek, and somebody kills a decent buck every year,” Myers said. “The spikes do get hit pretty hard, but we’re starting to see some older bucks come out of there due to the adjacent habitat and access problems.
“So Ben’s Creek definitely comes to mind as a one of the top deer WMAs in the state because of the increase in deer numbers and age structure. It’s getting some more mature bucks. I think there are better days ahead for a WMA that was already very good.”
The last deer Duncan took from Ben’s Creek was a basket-racked 8-point that weighed 145 pounds.
“I don’t think you’re going to get any 180s out of there very often,” he said, “but I have seen some good 140s and 150s come from Ben’s Creek.”
Ben’s Creek deer don’t lack for food with all the new browse growing on the ground, but the LDWF does put food plots out to enhance feeding opportunities. 2005 was a washout with the WMA being inaccessible and the lingering drought, but Myers said they have most of the areas planted for this season that they have planted in the past.
“The entire area is basically just a lot of pine hollows with some hardwood stands mixed in,” Duncan said. “Since it’s always been used for raising timber, it has always had clear cuts with a lot of short pines.
“The big thing at Ben’s Creek is that the deer have a lot to eat with the pine shoots, new tender briars and the plots. They also love to eat the daisies that pop up out there.
“In my opinion, there is so much food that it takes looking for something else to find a prime stand spot.”
Duncan generally searches for signs of deer activity in an area rather than finding a bedding spot and a feeding spot and placing a stand somewhere in between. The area is broken up into small blocks of timber that Duncan says can be walked in approximately 20 minutes.
His first indication of where to hunt is based on where he sees tracks and other sign around the edges of each plot.
“I still look for basic stuff like where they sleep and where they eat,” he said, “but finding where they’ve been moving is just as, if not more, important out here. I generally look for a lot of fresh tracks and other signs of activity like fresh rubs and scrapes.
“Of course the key to finding a good place to hunt is to get out there and look around because deer travel all over that thing, and when they start running does, you just don’t ever know where they’ll be.”
In fact, Duncan believes it’s possible to judge the progress of a buck at Ben’s Creek by keeping an eye on the rubs. If he finds all new rubs with no old ones mixed in, chances are he’s on to a pretty young deer.
On the other hand, if he sees fresh rubs mixed in with old ones, he determines that he’s on the trail of a more mature buck.
“If all the rubs are new, you’re probably looking at a first- or second-year buck,” Duncan said. “But a buck that’s been out there rubbing for two or three years is going to leave old rubs from each year he’s been rubbing. Two or three different ages of rubs is a sign you’re hunting a more mature deer.
“That’s important to know if a spike steps out first thing in the morning. Holding off on him may pay off in that bigger buck later in the day.”
Since most of the timber is small, Duncan typically sets up in some kind of ground blind. There are some areas where hunters can use climbing stands or leaning stands, but a large part of the timber is anywhere from 3 to 20 feet tall, and it doesn’t have enough backbone to hold a heavy hunter perched precariously on a climbing stand.
“I have always either taken a little ground blind or built up a makeshift blind out of old broken limbs,” Duncan said. “I pay particular attention to scent since I’m hunting on the ground, and that Tink’s 69 has worked very well for me in the past at Ben’s Creek.”
Myers concurred with Duncan, but added that Ben’s Creek offers a pretty good mixture of stand areas to suit any taste. Some hunters bring climbing stands or leaning stands and set them up on the edges of the clear cuts, where there are large enough trees to withstand the weight, while others like Duncan just set up on the ground.
“There are a few different options for stand placement,” Myers suggested. “Hunters can set up near the food plots, the bottoms or in the younger thickets that weren’t as affected by Katrina. In fact, you can get pretty deep in some of the younger stands, and that may allow you to get away from some of the other hunters.”
And speaking of other hunters, Ben’s Creek has them. Due to this WMA seeing traditionally good harvests compared to other WMAs, it also sees a lot of hunters. However, Myers said that hunter efforts were down almost 50 percent last year due to the after-effects of the storm.
The majority of hunters at Ben’s Creek come from Washington and St. Tammany parishes, and they were both hit hard by the storm. There was also a 40 to 50-percent reduction in harvest last season. Thus, this may be a great season for taking a mature buck in a less-pressured environment.
While the pressure may be reduced this season, there are still a lot of diehards who consider Ben’s Creek kind of their area, and they stay with it all season long. Like other public areas, though, Ben’s Creek sees more pressure on the weekends and around the holidays. Myers said pressure also tends to lessen as the season winds to a close.
“You can combat the pressure a little bit by being willing to work to get to areas other hunters aren’t willing to go,” said Myers. “The only problem with that this season, though, is that some of those little secret hideaways may not be accessible because of the fallen hardwoods.”
Duncan suggested there are ways to beat the hunting pressure other than trying to get away from it.
“You can try to get away from people by walking farther off the roads,” he said, “but these are such small blocks that you can’t really go very deep in any of them. Of course, going any distance past the hunters who like to hunt the edges of the roads is a plus, but you can only go so far.
“One thing I used to do before the storm was try to get in place as early as I could. I always wanted to be the first one to check in. I had to get up almost as soon as I went to bed, but it paid off with some good deer. I also learned to be patient and stay put while other hunters have had enough and are getting out of the field.
“That hunter movement will always get deer up and moving around. You can’t kill a deer if you aren’t on your stand. I’ve seen many a deer out there from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock.”
Myers reminded hunters that there is a self-clearing check-in process for hunting WMAs. While he has found that most hunters abide by the rules and regulations, sometimes the check-in gets overlooked. Hunters must check in and keep their card on them until they are through with the hunt, at which time they should return the harvest report to the proper box.
While there aren’t any real secrets to taking deer at Ben’s Creek, Duncan believes there is a way to tip the odds in your favor. He has consistently killed love-struck bucks in the past by hunting when they tend to throw caution to the wind in order to make time with the ladies.
“Hunting scrapes has paid off for me extremely well in the past,” Duncan said. “Finding signs of deer movement is one thing. Finding signs of movement with a good scrape line is something completely different.
“If I can find a line of active scrapes, that’s where I will be hunting.”
Duncan said he has often found series of four or five scrapes within 25 or 30 yards of one another. The scrape lines can show hunters when the deer are going into and out of the rut. Duncan always looks for fresh scrapes free of fresh rain, sticks and leaves. The farther off a road Duncan finds a scrape line, the happier he gets.
Hunters trying Ben’s Creek will most probably find fresh scrapes anywhere from Christmas to the second week of January.
“That’s generally the peak rut in that part of the state,” Myers explained. “You can have some activity a week or two on either side, but those are usually the three hottest weeks.”
Duncan agreed with Myers, and, while he has seen rutting activity as early as late October, he has noticed over the years that the rut seems to just be getting into a good swing in January.
“I see more bucks running does then than I do at any other time of the year out at Ben’s Creek,” he said. “Late December through January is when you definitely need to take the time to try your luck. The pressure is down a little bit, and the bucks aren’t as cautious. That’s a pretty good combination for taking a good buck off a pressured public hunting area like Ben’s Creek.”
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