Deer hunting on Big Lake WMA was a closely held secret until 1994, when James McMurray killed the state-record non-typical there. The property still offers promise to big-buck hunters.
EDITOR’S NOTE — This is part three of a series detailing four Louisiana public areas with historically high odds of deer hunting success.
Lloyd Posey was sitting in his Department of Wildlife & Fisheries truck trying to stay warm Jan. 4, 1994, when he heard a gunshot in the woods.
“I thought, ‘Somebody’s in my spot,’” Posey said.
You see, the now-retired biologist had been spending his off time in the woods of Big Lake Wildlife Management Area, chasing a big deer running a scrape line.
He didn’t really think much of it, until he saw a man drive up to the check station.
“I could see the antlers sticking out above the truck bed,” Posey said.
Posey’s heart dropped when he looked at the deer and heard James McMurray’s story.
The buck lying dead in the back of the truck had been shot by Gilbert’s McMurray right where Posey had found the scrapes.
To add insult, McMurray’s buck eventually measured out at 281 6/8, setting the state record for non-typical deer.
“I was hunting that deer, but it was so cold that I didn’t go that morning,” Posey recalled. “James just beat me to it.”
But Posey got a shot at a sure-fire trophy buck a couple of years later, while hunting the very same area.
“I saw a buck that would have measured about 170 B&C sneaking through the palmettos,” he said.
There were a couple of openings in the palmetto thicket just yards away from the hunter, who readied his flintlock rifle for action.
“I said to myself, ‘If you step in one of those openings, I’m going to nail you,’” Posey said.
A few seconds later, the buck was less than 20 yards from him.
“He stopped right in that opening and looked away from me,” Posey said.
The flintlock snapped to the hunter’s shoulder almost of its own accord, and Posey squeezed the trigger.
“The flint shattered without making a spark,” he laughed. “That’s impossible.”
But the gun remained quiet, and the buck’s head snapped around.
“His eyes got big around as saucers, and he made one jump and was out of sight,” Posey said. “No one ever saw him again.”
The rifle was retired in favor of a Thompson Center Cherokee caplock, but Posey hasn’t had another shot at a buck even approaching that size.
“I’ve been sick about that ever since,” he said.
Now retired and 69 years of age, Posey still makes his way to Big Lake to chase deer, knowing the potential the WMA holds.
“There’s some really good deer genetics out there,” he said. “The genetics are for big antlers and non-typical antlers.”
And he should know — Posey has been hunting the general area since he was child.
“I hunted around the edge of that thing when I was a kid in the late 40s,” he said.
In fact, the McMurray buck reminded him of a deer almost six decades ago very near where the state record was killed.
“I saw one very much like (the McMurray buck) in ’48,” he said. “The first thing I said when I saw James’ deer was, ‘That reminds me of one I saw in 1948.’”
Before the McMurray buck was killed, the local hunters staunchly refused to talk about the WMA.
“That was a tightly held secret until James McMurray killed that deer,” Posey said. “There wasn’t a lot of pressure — mostly just from locals.”
To this day, the area receives very little pressure from bow hunters.
“Most of the bow hunters go up to Tensas (National Wildlife) Refuge,” he said. “What the locals do is keep their mouths shut.”
But there are those who hit the woods with archery equipment.
“Usually by the first half of November, when it starts to cool off and the mosquitoes get knocked back, they start to move a little bit more,” said Crowville hunter Forrest “Tree” Erwin, who has been hunting the land for most of his 44 years.
“I was hunting it back when it was all hunting clubs,” Erwin said.
The population isn’t what it was back then, but he said the effort is worthwhile.
“There’s not near the deer that there used to be, but the chances of killing a big buck are better than they were then,” he explained.
The key to this early season hunting is to locate active feed trees.
“To me, the key to hunting that time of year is to find where they’re eating acorns or thorn beans,” Erwin said. “The ground will be covered with poop.”
But he doesn’t sit right on top of the tree.
“I try to catch them moving into the feed tree,” he said. “I try to find some (feed) trees that have a thicket heading to them, and I like to get on the edge of that thicket.”
The reason is pretty straightforward: The deer creep through the cover of these thickets on their way to the feed.
“I will go into the thicket and look for signs of activity, and then set up,” Erwin said. “I don’t care if I can see the feed tree or not.”
The most effective way to locate these thickets is to abandon the palmetto-laced areas in favor of the ridges hemmed in by sloughs.
“I prefer to hunt the ridges and the thickets. That’s where my daddy taught me to hunt,” he said. “The deer will get in those palmettos, and you won’t see them.”
But Erwin said any particular tree is only good for so long.
“The best way to do it is to hunt a tree for two days, at most, and move to another one,” he said.
That’s because Big Lake deer are very sensitive to hunting pressure.
“They’re sharp,” Erwin said. “I’ve hunted trees that looked like a toilet (with droppings), and it seemed like after a couple of days, the deer are gone.”
This approach is good until Thanksgiving, when the impact of the McMurray kill is manifested.
Hunters from all over the state flock to the now-famous hunting grounds for the two-day either-sex gun hunt. This year’s managed hunt is scheduled Nov. 26-27.
“The locals don’t even go there during those hunts right after Thanksgiving day,” Posey said. “There’s just too many people in there.”
“It’s almost embarrassing, really,” he said.
Department of Wildlife & Fisheries statistics back up these locals’ assessment.
During the 2003 two-day either-sex hunt, 1,010 hunters swarmed through the woods.
The attraction is a combination of hunters’ knowledge that big bucks roam the property, the fact that they can kill does if they want and proximity to Tensas NWR.
“What you get is all the friends and relations of the hunters who got drawn for the Tensas (National Wildlife) Refuge lottery hunt,” Posey said. “They can’t go on Tensas, so they spill over to Big Lake.
“You wouldn’t believe the pressure. They kill the fire out of them.”
Those hunters killed 205 deer, 96 of which were bucks, DWF records show.
That’s fantastic odds — right at 20 percent of the hunters were successful during last year’s two-day either-sex hunt.
And biologist John Leslie said some of the bucks are beautiful specimens.
“We’ll see some good bucks every year, in the 240- to 280-pound class,” Leslie said. “Eight- to 10-points are very common.”
But the sheer number of deer killed means the population is far from overwhelming.
“It’s a very healthy population, but it’s not super abundant,” Leslie said. “It’s a public area, and we get a lot of folks hunting.
“They keep the herd down.”
Posey said he and most of the other Winnsboro-area hunters just sit tight and wait while the out-of-towners maul the woods.
“There’s a lot of pressure then, but it falls off fast,” he said. “We wait until the bucks-only season.”
There’s one day of bucks-only rifle hunting Nov. 28, during which the number of hunters drops dramatically.
Leslie said 86 hunters took advantage of the hunt last year, with only five killing deer.
The deer, by the time the three days are over, have largely gone nocturnal.
But Erwin said he hits the woods as soon as the flood of out-of-towners’ taillights fade in the distance.
“I usually go right back and go scouting,” he said. “The deer go nocturnal, and that gives me time to go in there and go everywhere I want to go.
“I get to see where they have gone and how they’re moving,” he said.
If he finds a particularly promising place during the month after the managed hunt, Erwin will still set up a stand.
But most of his time in the woods is spent simply learning how deer’s movements have changed since the early season.
“I still hunt a little, but I’d say it’s probably 75 percent scouting and 25 percent hunting,” he explained.
While that might seem like a foolish waste of time, Erwin is really preparing for the Jan. 1-9 rifle and the Jan. 10-16 muzzleloader seasons, when his best odds of shooting a heavy-antlered Big Lake buck are best.
Of course, this is when the the locals come back out in numbers.
Records reveal 1,366 hunters showed up for the rifle hunt last year.
That might sound like a lot of hunters, but Leslie pointed out that they are spread out over many more days than the managed hunts.
“You have a nine-day season as opposed to the two-day managed hunt,” he said.
The average number of hunters in the woods would be 151, and they would be spread out over more than 19,000 acres.
Since the largest number of hunters will, obviously, be out during the two weekends of the season, the number of hunters during the week is likely even lower than the average.
That means there’s a lot of space to spread out.
And Posey said the timing of the hunt couldn’t be better.
“The rut up there is in late December through early January,” he said. “We get that bucks-only hunt during the rut.”
McMurray’s record-setting buck proves this — it was running a scrape line on Jan. 4, 1994, when a bullet put it on the ground.
But Erwin said he believes the rut is slowly shifting later in January.
“You’ve got some young bucks that want to get after it, but they have to wait on the does,” he said.
And those does, he believes, are moving into estrus later than a decade ago.
But even once does are ready to breed and bucks go crazy with lust, killing a Big Lake buck isn’t a cakewalk.
“You don’t see a lot of deer,” Posey said.
That assessment is borne out by Leslie’s statistics, which show only 50 bucks were killed during last year’s bucks-only hunt.
“The big bucks get smart very quick after that managed hunt,” Leslie explained. “They get nocturnal, and go to the thickest, soupiest areas they can find.”
And therein lies the key to killing Big Lake bucks — scouting out the nastiest territory in the area.
Posey knows, however, that even the most-wary, night-loving buck can be caught moving about during shooting hours during the rut.
“The bucks will come out,” he said. “If they’re trailing a hot doe, they forget about the pressure.”
While some hunters might still try to hunt feed areas, hoping does will draw bucks within range, Posey said he doesn’t believe that’s very effective.
“By the time the bucks-only season gets here, they’ll usually have the acorns scooped up, unless it’s a bumper year,” he said. “When the bucks are rutting, they’re not worried about groceries.”
Therefore, Posey said he simply loads up his gear, grabs his gun and a “plastic Wal-Mart chair” and walks into the woods to find areas in which he believes other hunters might be stalking about.
“I like to utilize the pressure,” Posey said. “Hunters will move the deer, so I want to be there to catch one slipping through.”
He hunts the higher areas of the property, so palmettos are commonplace. That makes spotting deer from the ground difficult, and explains why most hunters in the area choose climbers from which to hunt.
But Posey said he can’t climb any more so he strategically places his chair to provide as much of a view as possible.
“There aren’t nearly as many palmettos as on Buckhorn,” Posey said. “There’s some world-class palmettos on that WMA.”
But Posey doesn’t just go into an area he suspects will be receiving hunting pressure and plop down his chair in the first opening he finds.
“I look for natural funnels where someone would disturb a deer and it would pass through that funnel,” he said.
That might sound like a crap shoot on a piece of property that is basically a swamp, but Posey said he just uses the proliferation of water to his advantage.
“There are a lot of little lakes back there,” he said. “Sometimes you can find a lake with another bayou heading off in an angle, forming a V.
“Deer will pass right between the lake and the bayou.”
Other times, the funnel might be created by sloughs or pipelines.
Erwin, on the other hand, avoids the palmetto-littered portions of the property, preferring to stick with his ridge hunting.
“What I look for is actual deer sign, like I do in November,” he said.
But the sign he’s looking for switches from that of active feeding to that of bucks’ calling cards.
“I look for hookings and pawings,” Erwin explained.
Erwin said hunting the ridges running between sloughs gives him a real advantage over the hunters in the palmettos.
“The woods fill up with water by then, and you can get up in a tree and hear bucks running does all through those sloughs,” he said. “If the water’s not running, I’ve seen bucks trail does through the water.”
Just as with his feed-tree hunting, however, Erwin doesn’t hunt one area long.
“If I see a buck chasing a doe 100 yards away, I’ll move over there,” he said.
And within a couple of days, he’s on to another ridge.
“They’re liable to travel this ridge one week, and that ridge the next,” Erwin said. “It’s a 50-50 deal they’re going to be where you’re not.”