Mississippi's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Mississippi's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Deer can be found in every corner of Mississippi, but some areas produce far more whitetails than others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a deer this fall.

Most deer hunters are surprised to discover that Mississippi has the highest deer density in the nation. The Magnolia State is home to an estimated 1.75 million white-tailed deer. To put this number into perspective, that amounts to one deer per every 17 acres. And with 140,000 deer hunters expected to hit the Mississippi deer woods during the 2010-2011 season, that computes to over 12 deer per hunter. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the odds of taking a deer this season are very good for hunters in the Magnolia State.

However, opportunity does not always account for the hunter's choice of whether or not to pull the trigger. Even with extremely liberal bag limits and outrageously long seasons, the average 2008-09 harvest was a mere two deer per hunter, with only 75 percent of residents and 68 percent of non-residents harvesting any. The only logical reason why twice as many deer were not harvested is that hunters chose not to take more deer.

"Condition data and field habitat evaluations continue to document the negative effects of current and long-term overpopulation in many areas of the state," said Chad Dacus, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks deer program coordinator. "Reduction of the deer population to levels where the habitat can recover is surprisingly unacceptable to most hunters. The result is a continued over-use of quality browse by deer."

Let's take a closer look at each of the six deer regions established by the MDWFP and identify the better locations to harvest a deer -- any deer -- this season.

NORTH REGION

A traditionally strong local sentiment against harvesting antlerless deer in this 14-county region has resulted in deer herds expanding at some of the fastest rates in the Magnolia State. Grossly overpopulated deer herds continue to be a problem on lands where antlerless harvest is either severely limited or completely restricted.

"Fortunately, overpopulated deer herds in this region are much easier to control than in other areas of the state," said Lann Wilf, MDWFP regional deer biologist. "Also, the soil fertility is high enough to allow the habitat quality to be restored after deer numbers are reduced. Therefore, management potential in the North Region is almost as high as any region of the state."

According to Wilf, Deer Management Assistance Program clubs in the North Region harvested the highest number of deer per acre in more than a decade. Based on data collected from 1,220 deer taken from 141,665 acres in the DMAP, harvest intensity increased substantially from 1 deer per 172 acres to 1 deer per 116 acres. Harvest continues to be skewed towards females, with more 61 percent of the harvest consisting of does. With a rapidly expanding deer herd in this region, both the overall harvest and the percentage of does harvested could stand to be much higher.

Greater than normal acorn crops in the North Region the last couple of years have inhibited the ability of hunters to see and harvest deer. This factor also caused hunters in the region to underestimate the actual numbers of deer on their properties. This trend is likely to continue in 2010-11 with predictions of another big mast crop this fall. If this occurs, deer sightings will be reduced, but herd health, productivity, and fawn production should be higher. These factors will cause the deer population to increase even faster, which can be devastating if hunters in the region continue to refrain from antlerless harvest.

When it comes to consistently producing good numbers of deer, Marshall, Panola, and Tate are the top counties in the North Region. Hell Creek and Charles Ray Nix, two WMAs that have sizeable deer populations, offer draw hunts which greatly reduces the hunting pressure below that found on other public lands. On the other hand, if elbowroom isn't an issue, ample deer hunting opportunities abound on the expansive Holly Springs National Forest.

NORTH CENTRAL REGION

Consisting of 15 counties, the North Central Region is home to Camp McCain Military Base, nine WMAs, three separate tracts of the Holly Springs and Tombigbee national forests, and the expansive Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge. With such an abundance of public land hunting opportunities, hunters are certain to find plenty of whitetails for the taking.

Much like the North region, DMAP clubs in the North Central Region harvested the highest number of deer per acre in 11 years. Data collected from 5,297 deer from 403,272 acres in the DMAP revealed that the harvest increased from one deer per 100 acres to one per 83 acres with more than 58 percent of the harvest consisting of does. Although the overall herd in this region appears to be relatively healthy, site visits by the regional biologist revealed vastly overpopulated localized areas in the region in desperate need of a change in management.

According to William McKinley, MDWFP regional deer biologist, the management emphasis across the region shifting from harvesting every legal buck and few does, to more quality deer management has had some very beneficial effects. However, this increased interest in deer management has not been able to stabilize the herd's growth in the region.

"Our deer herds peaked in the early '90s but are currently experiencing a second peak with many clubs having more deer now than then," McKinley said. "Increasing the deer harvest is the only way to combat the burgeoning deer herd."

The top producing deer counties in this region are Noxubee, Oktibbeha, and Winston. These three counties are home to the 48,000-acre Noxubee NWR, the largest tract of the Tombigbee National Forest, and a trio of the state's top deer producing WMAs in John W. Starr, Black Prairie, and Choctaw.

For those hunters preferring a less crowded public hunting option, Malmaison WMA is a good choice. Located on the western border of the North Central Region, this unique tract consistently produces some very impressive deer harvest numbers.

EAST CENTRAL REGION

Because of the extremely diverse soil types found here, the East Central Region is unique in the Magnolia State. Seven of Mississippi's 11 soil types can be found in this 12-county region.

The combination of diverse soil types and quality habitat makes for a healthy, yet overpopulated, deer herd.

Deer harvest in this region has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years at one deer per 100 acres. If harvest rates are not increased, there is concern that the already overpopulated herd may explode due to better than average acorn crops and improved habitat manipulation in pine plantations.

"Many areas planted in Conservation Reserve Plan pines have experienced canopy closure," said Amy Blaylock, MDWFP regional deer biologist. "These stands of pine are just about ready for their second thinning. Once these areas have been thinned, the amount of sunlight reaching the ground should increase the amount of deer browse available. Therefore, the outlook for future deer habitat is positive."

When it comes to hunting opportunities, the highest deer densities in the East Central Region can be found in Madison, Jasper and Clarke counties. For the best public land opportunities, hunters should focus on the Bienville National Forest and the three wildlife management areas found within its borders -- Caney Creek, Bienville, and Tallahala.

DELTA REGION

Thanks to the extremely fertile soils created by its vast river systems, the Delta Region is whitetail habitat heaven. However, these same river systems have made it challenging for the hunters in low-lying areas across this 11-county region. Severe flooding over the past few years has resulted in abnormal concentrations of deer in higher areas, significant localized herd displacement, and substantial mortality in some locations. Harvest numbers, especially antlerless harvest numbers, have dropped dramatically in this region at a time when the deer population is booming.

"The expansion of deer populations in the Delta Region is a direct result of the enrollment of approximately 500,000 acres of farmland in CRP and Wetlands Reseve Program, which has increased available deer habitat," noted biologist Lann Wilf. "The population in the Delta Region is expanding rapidly on average, and continued increase in harvest is needed to control the deer density and maintain herd health on normal weather years."

Selecting the best counties in the Delta Region is a daunting task, since one is just as productive as the next. However, focusing on the counties with the most timberland is certain to increase your odds of harvesting a deer this season.

Whether it's the 100,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the Delta National Forest, or the numerous wildlife management areas, the Delta Region has an abundance of public deer hunting opportunities. The real challenge comes in selecting which of these bountiful deer lands to bag your deer.

Three of the WMAs in this region have a long history of producing exceptional deer harvest numbers. O'Keefe WMA in Quitman County is unique because it is one of the largest tracts of timber in the North Mississippi Delta outside of the Mississippi River levees. The harvest numbers on O'Keefe have trended upward for the past several years.

Mahannah WMA in Issaquena County and Twin Oaks WMA in Sharkey County are two WMAs in the South Delta that shouldn't be overlooked. Although they are better known for producing trophy bucks, this pair of WMAs also ranks high on the list for total numbers of deer harvested per acre.

If none of the WMAs in this region suit your fancy, there is always the massive Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge complex, which is made up of the Panther Swamp, Hillside, Holt Collier, Mathews Brake, Theodore Roosevelt, and Morgan Brake tracts. All contain an abundance of whitetails.

SOUTHWEST REGION

The Southwest Region has long been known for producing monster whitetails, but it also carries the distinction of having the highest deer densities in the Magnolia State. With all the ingredients necessary for deer to thrive, it is no wonder that hunters enjoy higher than normal success rates. Much of this region is comprised of acorn-producing hardwood river bottoms, an abundance of browse, and some of the most fertile soil to be found anywhere in the state. This extremely high quality habitat is the primary reason this area contains such a high concentration of whitetails.

The biggest obstacle most hunters have to face when hunting this region is access. Most of the prime deer hunting land in the Southwest Region is privately owned. However, there are a few public land opportunities scattered across the area.

The most popular public land offering in the southwest is the vast 189,000-acre Homochitto National Forest, which also contains both Sandy Creek and Caston Creek WMAs. Despite the hunting pressure they receive, these locations continue to produce high hunter success rates.

Considered to be Mississippi's best-kept deer hunting secret is the Copiah County Wildlife Management Area. This 6,583-acre tract is located just southwest of Hazlehurst on the Claiborne/Copiah County line. Thanks to quality habitat and effective deer management, this relatively small tract of public land consistently boasts the highest deer harvest rates per acre of all the Magnolia State's WMAs.

Just down the road is St. Catherine Creek NWR with an additional 26,000 acres of prime deer habitat, but less hunting pressure.

SOUTHEAST REGION

One positive effect of Hurricane Katrina has been the increase in deer habitat available in the Southwest Region. The devastation caused by this massive storm thinned dense timber stands and created more natural openings for browse to grow. Most biologists theorized that with more habitat created, the deer harvest should also increase. However, that was not the case in the Southeast Region.

"Most biological parameters have stabilized or slightly decreased compared to pre-Katrina levels," said Chris McDonald, MDWFP regional deer biologist. "The explanation is most likely habitat quality and herd numbers. Although Katrina increased deer habitat, it possibly just created more poor quality habitat.

"Due to low soil fertility, the region is recognized as having poor deer habitat in general," McDonald continued. "With many deer protected from harvest post-Hurricane Katrina, the quality of new habitat may not have been adequate to support the extra deer. Thus, the habitat and herd numbers simply balanced out one another."

Your best bet at harvesting a deer in the Southeast Region is in Lamar, Jefferson Davis and Covington counties in the upper northern half of the region. These counties have much higher deer densities than do the southern coastal counties.

The Leaf River and Chickasawhay WMAs, along with the rest of the De Soto National Forest, remain good public land choices for bagging a deer.

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