Tensas Tango

The annual breeding dance is beginning at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. Will you be there for the party?

The deer wasn’t supposed to be there. Robert Chenier was sitting a couple hundred yards from where the buck was expected to be, not because he didn’t want to kill a big deer. No, it was because one of his buddies had claimed the prime spot.

The place to kill a big buck was obvious.

“This deer had ground scrapes I guarantee were 5 feet around,” the Chenier said. “He also had hit a lot of trees, big trees.”

The morning the scrape line was found, there was fresh urine in one of the large pawings.

“The buck or a doe must have come through there that morning,” the Vacherie hunter said.

The sign was found in an area Chenier and four of his buddies had hunted for several years, so there already was a bit of a predetermined pecking order. That meant Gasper Brazon could claim the privilege of hunting the scrapes without question.

“He always hunts that area, so he was sitting over the scrapes,” Chenier said.

That morning, there were fresh droppings in the scrape nearest to Brazon’s stand site. It seemed deer were working the line hard, and it was just a matter of being on stand when the buck made a pass along the scrapes.

But the plan didn’t really matter much the morning of Nov. 25, 2005: Chenier had heard something moving through the tall, thick palmettos about 7:45 a.m., and he was peering for a glimpse of the animal moving about on the forest floor.

Movement finally caught his eyes, and soon thereafter a deer materialized out of the thick palmettos.

“I saw the horns shining, but that was about it,” he said. “I put the scope on him, and it blew my mind.”

The deer was no ordinary Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge buck — tines resting on stout beams seemed to sprout all over its head.

Chenier quickly readied for a shot, waiting anxiously for the deer to move into a more-open area in the thick cover.

“When I shot him, he was less than 30 yards from me,” Chenier said.

The deer bolted, and then did something that still puzzles the hunter.

“He stopped,” Chenier said. “He just stood there.”

It was unbelievable. The frantic hunter thought he must have missed the shot, but the deer was in an area where he couldn’t get a clear follow-up shot without some contortion.

“I had to sit on the bottom of my stand to get a clear shot,” Chenier said. “He stood there maybe five minutes until I got another shot on him, until I figured out how to get another shot.”

The buck ran again, and Chenier heard him crash to the ground. But soon, he heard something that worried him once again.

“I heard him get up and walk away,” he said. “I said, ‘Lord, I missed that deer.’”

He waited a few minutes before clambering down the tree and fetching Brazon to help him look for the deer.

“I wanted to get back in the tree and tell him where I saw him last,” Chenier said.

Brazon was soon standing where the buck was when the second shot rang out, and he found plenty of blood.

“I got down and went to find the deer with him,” Chenier said. “He hadn’t gone far.”

Amazingly, both shots had connected with the deer.

“The first shot hit him in front of the shoulder,” he said. “The second was right where it should have been — behind the shoulder.”

That wasn’t determined for a few minutes, however. It was the rack that held the two hunters’ attention.

There were 19 points arrayed around the thick frame, and the bases were massive. The deer later scored out at 178 1/8 Boone & Crockett.

“It’s a non-typical,” Chenier said. “It has 13 points on the right side, and 6 points on the left side.”

He couldn’t believe his luck.

“The deer must have passed through (the scrape line) that morning and was working its way back,” he said. “I was just in the right place. Gasper was actually happy I had killed it.”

But his buck was only the largest of the deer killed in 2006 by the Vacherie crew and five other buddies from Chackbay.

“We killed eight bucks last year,” Chenier said. “Five of them were mountable.”

That rate of success wasn’t just happenstance: It was made possible because the hunters have come to understand how to hunt Tensas’ bottomland hardwoods.

The first key is scouting.

Chenier and Chackbay friend Marcus Trosclair Jr., who has hunted the refuge for about 12 years, said they both make concerted efforts to learn the lay of the land before they ever sit a stand.

“We get there two days early to scout,” Chenier said. “We spend a lot of time looking around before we hunt.”

Trosclair said the group from Chackbay also schedules in a couple of extra days to learn how deer patterns have changed from the prior year.

But the approaches of the two groups are completely different.

For Chenier, who rifle hunts the refuge, it’s all about palmettos.

“I like to hunt them palmettos, what I call the dirty parts,” Chenier said “When the people start walking (after the early morning hunt), the deer go to the palmettos and hide.”

However, anyone who has ever walked in palmettos knows the difficulties these fanlike plants can create. Deer literally can walk past a hunter without being seen.

That knowledge prompts Chenier to remain on alert the entire time he’s on stand.

“I look for movement,” he said. “When I see movement, I watch until I see what it is.

“It might be a squirrel. It might be a rabbit. It might be a deer.”

To enhance the chances of seeing deer moving about, Chenier finds a tree that’s straight enough to allow him to achieve maximum height.

“I get way up,” he said. “I get 30 to 40 feet in a tree. The higher you get, the better. You can just see better.”

Of course, he doesn’t just pick a tree in the middle of a palmetto thicket and climb it.

“I look for trails, tree rubs and ground scrapes and rubs,” Chenier said.

He said the deer begin rutting somewhere around Thanksgiving, which works well with the lottery gun hunts on the refuge.

The Vacherie group of hunters spread out in an area, combing it for sign. They then move to another area and repeat the process.

The evening before the refuge’s short rifle hunt begins, the men get together and discuss their options.

“We talk about what we’ve seen, and decide where to hunt,” Chenier said.

At that point, it’s all about figuring out where everyone will hunt.

“We all hunt the same area,” he explained. “We hunt in a line. We’ll walk in off the trail, and we’ll drop off hunters in a line.”

Trosclair, who rarely picks up a rifle, usually ignores the palmetto-strewn woods in favor of reforested areas scattered across the refuge.

“There are a lot of trees out there, but they’re not tall trees,” he said.

In addition to the scattered trees, tall grasses provide choking cover in which deer can disappear.

“It’s shelter, for one thing,” Trosclair said. “And deer don’t have that much pressure on them. I might see four or five hunters in those grass fields during a season.”

And that translates into lots of deer.

“My dad and I hunted about 40 yards apart one day last year, and we saw 28 bucks,” Trosclair said of one hunt. “Twenty-one of the bucks were different. We’ll see 80 to 100 deer in a season.”

Whereas Chenier gets as high as possible, Trosclair said he doesn’t have to do that.

“I’ve killed deer off a 5-gallon bucket in the grasses,” he said.

However, he has since gone more high-tech, hauling either a tripod or ladder stand into his hunting area on a small cart.

But the stands aren’t meant to provide much elevation.

“When we use ladder stands, it’s the two-section stands,” Trosclair said. “But we only use one section.

“The trees are 10 or 12 feet tall, so you can’t put a tall stand on them. We just get something to blend in with the trees.”

The tripods are used along game trails in the tall grasses, and they’re simply the 8-foot versions that can be bought from stores like Acadmey. However, the Trosclairs modify the stands.

“We just cut the legs off,” the junior Trosclair said. “We’re hunting about 4 feet off the ground.”

He said that gives them a little elevation, but not so much that deer can see them from a distance.

What all this means is that they don’t generally see deer until the animals are right on top of them.

“My farthest shot is 25 yards,” Trosclair said.

Fortunately, however, the hunters have more time to get prepared because of the grass.

“You can hear them coming through that grass,” he said.

The key to hunting these areas is to focus on travel corridors.

“I’m looking for deer runs through that grass,” he said. “I want a well-used trail.”

This grass hunting is especially effective in the early season, before the rut kicks in. Exactly when deer start breeding is debated by Chenier and Trosclair. Chenier believes the first rut is around Thanksgiving, based on the fact that he finds plenty of scrapes.

Trosclair, however, said breeding activity doesn’t really kick off until at least late December but more likely in January.

“The last few years, the rut’s been getting later and later because it’s been so hot,” Trosclair said.

There are times, however, even during the early season when Trosclair will abandon the reforested areas and move into the main woods.

“I might need to give the grass fields some time to cool down,” he said. “So I go in the woods to kill my scent out there.”

To prepare for this, his early scouting includes noting where two favored deer foods are found.

“If you can find a honey locust tree, that’s like giving candy to a baby,” Trosclair said. “They’re not really eating the beans: They chew it, chew it, chew it and spit it out.”

There are plenty of these bean-bearing trees on the property, so they aren’t hard to find. Hunting them effectively, however, can be a challenge.

Trosclair likes to set a ladder stand (adding the second leg section) right in the honey locust, a potentially painful experience because of the spike-like thorns protruding from the trees.

“I go out there and knock the thorns off,” he said. “It can be tough.”

His real secret, though, is to find wild persimmons, a rarity on the refuge.

“Those are few and far between,” he said. “But if you can find a persimmon tree, I’m not going to guarantee you’re going to kill, but you’re guaranteed to see (deer).”

Trosclair said he’s tracked down 11 persimmon trees, so he’s set if he can’t get a shot anywhere else.

“When we go out there and want to kill us a doe, that’s where we go,” he explained.

Another approach taken by Trosclair, particularly when looking for heavy-racked bucks, is to hunt the edges of the areas closed to hunting.

“When I’m hunting for a buck in the big woods, that’s where I’m hunting,” he said. “You know there’s a high activity of deer because there’s no pressure in those areas.”

The tactic here is to simply find well-used trails.

“The deer will be traveling in and out of that protected area, so you try to catch them on the move,” Trosclair said.

It’s worth noting, however, that refuge rules prohibit shooting into or across a closed area.

But hunting the edges and waiting for bucks to move into the hunting areas can be very effective for those looking for a trophy.

“When we go in there to shoot something, it’s going to go on the wall,” Trosclair said.

Another critical factor for both Trosclair and Chenier relates to pressure from other hunters.

“You have to get off the roads,” Trosclair said. “The average hunter walks 10 to 15 minutes, and that’s it.

“When I’m walking to my stand site, I’m walking for no less than an hour.”

Chenier said he and his buddies sometimes will go even farther.

“I’ve got an area that I kill deer in every year, and it takes me an hour and 45 minutes to walk there,” he said. “But it’s almost guaranteed.”

The reason is simple.

“When other hunters get down and start moving around, the deer will not really be pushed to us, but they’ll move into areas with less pressure,” Chenier said.

Both hunters try to hold their scent down as much as possible, but Trosclair said his goal is to simply smell natural.

That’s why he picks up honey-locust beans while scouting.

“Those beans stay in my (clothes) bags,” he explained. “I keep them so I get the scent of the bean in my clothes.

“You might say I stink when I put them on, but I’m using the beans to cover my scent.”

Aside from that, the hunters recommend being prepared to hunt in sloppy conditions.

“It’s not an easy hunt,” Chenier said.

However, Trosclair said the only really bad portion of the refuge is located in the mid section of the property around Sharkey.

“If you go down the four-wheeler trail by Sharkey, that’s the worst,” he said.

Unless he hunts that area, Lacrosse rubber knee boots work well, and they also serve another purpose.

“The rubber boots help break up the scent,” Trosclair said.

And even though Tensas is a four-hour haul for these hunters and there are plenty of public areas much closer to their homes southeast of Baton Rouge, Chenier and Trosclair plan to make the pilgrimage to the refuge for years to come.

“To kill a big deer in Louisiana, that’s the spot,” Chenier said.

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About Andy Crawford 863 Articles
Andy Crawford has spent nearly his entire career writing about and photographing Louisiana’s hunting and fishing community. While he has written for national publications, even spending four years as a senior writer for B.A.S.S., Crawford never strayed far from the pages of Louisiana Sportsman. Learn more about his work at www.AndyCrawford.Photography.

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