Mississippi's 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Deer can be found in every part of the Magnolia State, but some areas produce far more whitetails than do others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a deer this fall. (October 2009)

It has often been said that history is the best predictor of the future. And when it comes to hunting whitetails in Mississippi, no statement could be truer.

Hunters who spend the extra time acquiring a thorough knowledge of where whitetails most often have been taken in the Magnolia State are destined to dramatically improve their chances of putting fresh venison in the freezer this fall.

By examining the data collected from the last couple of seasons, we can get a good indication of what awaits us in the 2009-2010 deer woods. And based upon the "Deer Program Report" put out by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the outlook couldn't be much brighter for the state's whitetail hunters.

The opportunity to harvest multiple white-tailed deer is readily available throughout the Magnolia State. According to the Quality Deer Management Association's 2008 Deer Density Map, Mississippi has more deer per square mile than any other state in the nation. However, that deer population estimated at more 1.75 million animals is both a curse and a blessing. While hunters may favor the increased odds of seeing and shooting deer, severe overpopulation is a concern for biologists and deer managers statewide.

"We would like to see the state's deer population greatly reduced," said Chad Dacus, the MDWFP Deer Program coordinator. "Our liberal antlerless season framework is necessary for landowners and deer managers to meet their management goals and reduce the overpopulation problem that exploded in the late 1980s."

In all, over 150,000 hunters are expected to hit the Mississippi deer woods during the 2009-10 season. With such high numbers, you might expect the competition to be fierce for stand sites, especially on public lands. However, there is little need to worry. Deer hunters in Mississippi have a total of 138 days to hunt between Oct. 1, 2009 and Feb. 15, 2010. That's assuming they take advantage of the all the various hunting methods and deer zones that are available.

With extremely liberal hunting seasons and bag limits, excessive deer densities, and more than 20 million acres of prime deer habitat, you might expect hunter success rates to be through the roof. However, the average harvest rate for the 2008-09 season was estimated at two deer per hunter. Even more amazingly, these same statistics revealed that only 76 percent of hunters in the Magnolia State successfully harvested one deer last season.

It is obvious that hunter opportunity alone does not guarantee you'll take home a deer. There are a number of factors that come into play in determining whether the season will be a boom or a bust. Many of those factors are beyond our control, like winter temperatures, mast production, and precipitation.

Cold winters result in increased deer movement. Mast crop failures can also increase deer movement as the animals search for food. Such movement makes the whitetails more susceptible to walking in front of hunters.

On the other hand, in years of abundant mast crops, deer stay in the woods more and decrease their movement. Thus they are harder to hunt. Similarly, food plots are heavily dependent upon adequate rainfall. If they don't get it, don't expect the deer to hang around those sites.

Regardless of how these factors come together, the deer are still out there. You just need to adjust your tactics to meet the conditions. If not, you may be in for some long, boring days on the deer stand.

Mississippi offers sportsmen more than two million acres of wildlife habitat for public hunting within 46 state-operated wildlife management areas, 11 national wildlife refuges and six national forests. They reach all the way from the upper edge of the coastal marshes on the Gulf Coast to the lower reaches of the Appalachian foothills in Tishomingo County. Some additional lands owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are also available for public hunting.

While any of these resources offer many opportunities for deer hunting success, the WMAs are your best bet. The MDWFP has done an excellent job in collecting deer harvest data for each of their WMAs. This data is available in the Annual Deer Program Report, which can be found on the agency Web site at www.mdwfp. com. This information can prove invaluable when selecting the better WMAs to hunt in Mississippi.

Now, let's look at each deer region and identify the top spots to bag a deer this season.

North Region
Consisting of 14 counties, the North Region is home to six wildlife management areas and a rather sizeable national forest. According to William McKinley, MDWFP regional deer biologist, this region is home to the most rapidly expanding deer herd in the state.

"The sentiment against harvesting antlerless deer remains strong in the North Region, and is the strongest of any region in the state," McKinley said. "While the herd appears relatively healthy, site visits to the region revealed grossly overpopulated deer herds on the lands that continue to refrain from antlerless harvest."

Panola, Tate and Marshall lead the pack when it comes to counties in the North Region that consistently produce good numbers of deer. The expansive Holly Springs National Forest along with the Charles Ray Nix and Hell Creek WMAs offer ample public hunting opportunities in this region. Both of these WMAs hold draw hunts, which help reduce some of the hunting pressure seen on other public hunting lands.

North-Central Region
The 15 counties in this region are loaded with public land hunting opportunities for deer. Whether you opt for one of the nine WMAs, the three parcels of national forest in the Holly Springs and Tombigbee NFs, the expansive Noxubee NWR, or Camp McCain Military Base, you are sure to find plenty of deer for the taking.

There should be no surprise that the top deer-producing counties in this region are Oktibbeha, Winston and Noxubee. After all, the 48,000-acre Noxubee NWR, the largest portion of the Tombigbee NF, and three of the top deer-producing WMAs at John Starr Forest, Choctaw and Black Prairie are located in these counties.

With more than 85,000 acres of public land available in those tracts, finding an area of your own to hunt shouldn't be too difficult.

Malmaison WMA, situated on the western border of this region, is another property that boasts some very impressive deer harvest numbers. This WMA might better suit those hu

nters that prefer a less crowded hunting area.

East-Central Region
The East-Central Region is unique in that it is the most diverse area in the state in terms of soil types. Although this region consists of only 12 counties, it contains seven of the 11 soil types found in Mississippi. This diversity, combined with quality habitat, makes for a healthy, although overpopulated, deer herd.

"For the past two years, we have had excellent acorn crops," said Amy Blaylock, the MDWFP regional deer biologist. "These bumper acorn crops have decreased deer sightings and caused undue concern among hunters that the deer population has drastically dropped. However, because of the massive amounts of acorns, deer didn't have to walk very far to find food."

While the abundant acorn crop often results in a decreased deer harvest, it also can positively affect overall herd health. Excellent fawn drops are usually seen following a record acorn crop.

According to Blaylock, some of the highest deer densities in the East-Central Region can be found in Jasper, Clarke and Madison counties. As far as public land opportunities, hunters should focus on the WMAs in the Bienville National Forest, such as Bienville, Caney Creek and Tallahala WMAs. Nanih Waiya WMA, located in Neshoba County, is another good public land option. All four of these tracts have seen considerable increases in deer harvest over the last few years.

Southeast Region
With the exception of the southern coastal counties, high deer densities can also be found in this region. Hurricane Katrina had a great effect on habitat quality and hunter access in the southern part of the state. The otherwise devastating effects of this massive storm actually provided more deer habitat by thinning dense timber and creating more natural openings.

The past two seasons in the Southeast Region have been marked by record harvests, primarily resulting from the improved habitat and more deer being carried over from the two seasons immediately following the storm when hunter access was a major issue. Another exceptional season is expected this fall. However, hunters in this region need to take advantage of these conditions while they last.

"Unless we begin active habitat management over the next couple of years, we will begin a downward trend in habitat quality because the once open forest floor will begin to be shaded out again," Blaylock noted.

Blaylock suggested that hunters wanting to harvest a deer in this region should focus on the northern tier of counties such as Jefferson Davis, Covington, Lamar and Greene, since they have higher deer densities than do the southern coastal counties. The Chickasawhay and Leaf River WMAs are prime examples of public lands in the region with high deer densities.

Southwest Region
Southwest Mississippi has long been known as the top trophy whitetail producing area of Mississippi. It has all the ingredients necessary to produce not only quality whitetails, but also high numbers of deer. Bordered on the west by the Mississippi River, this region contains a number of very fertile lowland drainages, such as Big Bayou Pierre, Little Bayou Pierre, Coles, Clark and St. Catherine creeks, along with the Big Black, Buffalo, Amite and Homochitto rivers. This extremely high-quality deer habitat is one of the reasons the region contains the highest concentration of white-tailed deer in the Magnolia State.

Although the vast majority of the land in the Southwest Region is privately owned, there are some good deer-hunting opportunities to be had on public land, too. The vast Homochitto National Forest, which contains both Caston Creek and Sandy Creek WMAs, offers good deer hunting if you don't mind a little competition. Not far away is St. Catherine Creek NWR with more than 26,000 acres of prime deer habitat.

Then there is Copiah County WMA near Hazlehurst, which is considered by many to be the state's best-kept secret. Composed of 6,583 acres of quality habitat, this small tract boasts the highest deer harvest rate per acre of all the Magnolia State WMAs. With those kinds of statistics, you can bet Copiah County WMA won't stay a secret for long.

And since the metropolitan area of Jackson is less than an hour's drive away, hunting pressure is certain to increase. Planning your trips during the week may help avoid some of the hunting pressure the area is sure to experience on the weekends.

Delta Region
Bordered by the Mississippi River on the west and the Big Black River on the east, the Delta Region is deer habitat heaven. While the fertile soil of the Mississippi Delta is best known for producing high-quality cotton, corn and soybeans, these same rich soils also produce an abundance of quality whitetails.

The 11 counties located in this region hold a number of WMAs, along with the 100,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt NWR Complex and the Delta National Forest. With an abundance of public hunting opportunities and what has become recognized as Mississippi's finest deer lands, it is no surprise that the Delta Region tends to dominate the deer harvest records.

For that reason alone, it is an almost impossible task to pick a single best location to bag a deer this season. So, instead of picking one, let's consider the top three. O'Keefe WMA in Quitman County may not be the largest WMA in the Delta Region, but it can certainly hold its own when it comes to deer densities.

Next we have Twin Oaks WMA in Sharkey County and Mahannah WMA in Issaquena County. This pair of WMAs always seems to rank at the top of the list for number of acres per deer harvested. Deer hunting on these two properties is by permit only, except for the January archery hunt, which is open to the general public.

When it comes to the best counties in the Delta Region to harvest a deer, one county is just as exceptional as another. However, the counties with the most woodland tend to be more productive.

It would be remiss to close this section without including the Theodore Roosevelt NWR Complex. It is the largest refuge complex in Mississippi. The refuge units in the complex are Theodore Roosevelt, Holt Collier, Hillside, Matthews Brake, Morgan Brake and Panther Swamp national wildlife refuges.

That's a look at the best public spots to find deer in Mississippi. These picks were chosen based on area whitetail harvest data and input from several MDWFP regional deer biologists. Keep in mind that these selections were for areas that produce numbers of deer, both antlered and antlerless. Next month, we will take an in-depth look at where the big bucks can be found.

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