The Matriarch Of The Magnolia Woodlands

Claudette Sansing has been hunting Mississippi deer for more than three decades and has taken more than 50 bucks. Here's her story.

Claudette Sansing displays a double handful of the whitetail racks she has collected in Mississippi.
Photo by Mike Marsh

There's something satisfying about taking a huge whitetail buck in the closing moments of an extended hunting trip; it feels as if you've milked all the enjoyment out of earning a hard-won trophy. If it's the last day of a season during which you've been in the woods every day, success seems even sweeter. And to ice the cake, the buck is the biggest you've taken after three decades of hunting nearly every day of each season.

"It was one of those deals where you hunted the same places all season," said Claudette Sansing. "We went to the place where we normally hunted squirrels. It was the second to the last day of the season in 1999, and we decided to hunt deer there instead of squirrels. We brought out our climbing stands, and I mentioned to my husband, Barry, that we should have left them there to keep from having to pack them back in the next morning.

"I had seen a spot I wanted to hunt next to a cutover. It was a better place than where I had set up the day before, so I headed there before daylight and set up my climbing tree stand. I saw a doe at 7:15 a.m. As she walked behind me, I turned to make sure she was a doe, and saw a pretty decent buck already standing there. I fired, and he hit the ground and didn't move.

"When I got down to walk over to him, I wasn't really all that excited. But the closer I got, the bigger he looked. He was really a big buck, with wide antlers. Normally, it's the other way around: Bucks seem to be smaller than you thought they were after you walk over to them."

The big 8-pointer weighed 200 pounds. The trophy buck -- which Sansing had mounted so that she could savor in memory every day of a long season crowned by success -- was one of over 50 bucks that the huntress has taken since she began pursuing deer with her brother John R. Hazelwood in 1970.

"He kept trying to get me to go hunting with him in Noxubee County near West Point, where he was a member of a hunting club," Sansing recalled. "He hunted deer mostly by setting up man-drives and dog-drives. I didn't really want to go, but I eventually went to see what it was all about. He was really excited about going deer hunting. After I went the first time, I liked it so much I that I bought a Browning semi-automatic shotgun and started going more often. But it was two years before I shot my first buck."

Sansing was on a hound hunt when a buck tried to sneak away from the commotion of the pack. The dogs were pursuing another deer when the 7-pointer came trotting toward Sansing and skidded to a stop. She raised her gun without hesitation.

"He realized he had messed up when he saw me," she said. "I shot him with a load of buckshot at 35 yards, and he fell right there."

Like all big-game hunters, Sansing has had her ups and downs. She missed some shots at deer during her early hound hunts. But she also had successes as her dedication grew.

After hunting deer at Noxubee County for a few years, Sansing was glad when deer seasons began opening up closer to home in Clay County. "I started hunting with a muzzleloader," she said. "Barry and I bought .54-caliber CVA rifles and loaded them with cast bullets and 90 grains of black powder. I enjoyed shooting the muzzleloader because the fact that I had only one shot made hunting even more exciting."

Eventually Sansing added a Browning bolt-action .30-06 rifle to her gun rack. She took many deer with her rifles and eventually stopped hound hunting altogether.

"I enjoyed dog hunts, but there just aren't that many places nearby where you can run dogs anymore," she lamented. "Most of the big blocks of timber have been cut to make way for soybean fields."

Her hunting now is mostly done on private property, as well as a 500-acre parcel leased by Dry Creek Hunting Club, where she is a member. The property is only a 15-minute drive from her home, allowing her to hunt deer often.

"I try to sit in the woods, morning and afternoon, every day from the day the season opens on the Saturday before Thanksgiving until the last muzzleloader season ends the last part of January," she said. "I see lots of deer, but I only shoot the nicer bucks. To me a big buck is one that has an antler spread of 20 inches or more. But those are not very common in this part of the state. I take a lot of bucks with antlers that are around 14 to 16 inches wide."

Sansing has a skinning rack behind her house, with an adjoining shed that serves as the members' clubhouse. The rafters are lined with approximately 200 sets of antlers hung there by hunters who have dressed deer at her skinning rack.

"About 25 percent of the antlers are Claudette's," said Barry Sansing. "I met her on a dove hunt in 1975. It was right down my line. It was really great to meet somebody who liked to do the same things I liked to do. She was crazy about hunting then, and now it seems she likes it more than I do. We have always hunted together a lot, and when I thought it couldn't get any better, we started dating. We were married in 1987."

Claudette Sansing hunts from lots of different stands. Although she occasionally uses climbing stands when she discovers sign in an area in which she has no permanent stand, she likes having a stand already located at the right place. Having an adequate number of permanent stands in the woods ahead of hunting season decreases the amount of set-up time and causes less disturbance, which might alarm deer, than if she hunted from climbing stands.

"Now I mostly hunt from permanent stands," she stated. "I used a climber this year on some unfamiliar land I was hunting to keep from having to sit on the ground. Where I hunt it's mostly pines bordered by cutovers, and elevated stands help you see into the thick areas. But on the land where I normally hunt, I have between 20 and 25 tree stands. That seems like a lot of stands to some hunters. When I decide to hunt a certain spot, I don't want to worry about carrying in a stand.

"All of my stands are metal. Most of them have swivel seats, so I can turn quietly to shoot in any direction. We also have some 4-foot by 4-foot shooting houses with roofs and sides on them overlooking five or six food plots. But hunting from the stands overlooking the food plots isn't all that successful. There are a few small deer taken, but the big ones are back in the woods. They know the shooting houses mean there are hunters out there, and they hang b

ack in the deep woods until after dark. Then they come out to feed. The secret is to find the trails with buck sign leading to the food plots from the woods and put your stands there."

Barry Sansing helps her move and erect her stands. He doesn't mind the chores a bit. "If she decides she wants to hunt a certain spot, there's no need to argue with her," he offered, smiling. "She tells me where she wants to hunt based on the sign she's seen, and we head to the woods to put it up. If that spot doesn't pan out, it won't be long before we're moving the stand to another spot she's found. It's amazing how she can spot the best places to see a buck."

"I hunt over trails and where I see buck sign along the hardwood ridges and along the edges of the cutovers," Claudette Sansing explained. "Most of the territory is pretty thick, so sometimes I just want a stand where I can see a good ways. A long shot for me would be 150 yards; most of the time, the shots are much closer than that.

"We sometimes hunt on some family-owned land where there are soybean fields. I saw a really nice buck last season standing in a soybean field, but he was at least 400 yards away. I don't get enough practice shooting that far. You have to know where your bullet will hit when a deer is that far away. Some hunters can do it, but I wasn't going to take a chance on making a bad shot, so I passed up the buck."

The Sansings hunt deer, doves and squirrels. Between hunting seasons, they also fish for crappie and bream. They don't practice shooting between seasons, but they do check their rifles for accuracy ahead of opening day. They also clean the firearms thoroughly after hunting season before storing them in a safe.

"Barry used to cast our bullets for the muzzleloaders," she said. "But now we use the new belted-style bullets. They are easier to use and very accurate. I had to get a new .54-caliber Thompson Center inline muzzleloader, because my old muzzleloader would not take a scope mount.

"I use a black powder substitute now, and a shotgun primer ignition system. I am getting too old to see the open sights, so now I have to use a red-dot sight."

Sansing says that, despite being female, she never felt unwelcome during any of her hunts. There are a few more women hunting in the woods now than were when she started hunting deer, but not many. She always liked outdoor sports and hunting seemed a natural outgrowth of her youthful pursuits. Her nephew's wife, Jo Hazelwood, began deer hunting with her a couple of seasons ago and having the companionship of another woman is nice. When she first started deer hunting in the early 1970s, her brother's wife, Jewell Hazelwood, sometimes went along to share her hunts.

"Around here, it wouldn't do any good if someone objected to women hunting," she said. "It's always been accepted. I've never felt out of place, and have always been accepted as just another hunter. I rode motorcycles and horses when I was young because I always liked to be outside enjoying nature. Walking in the woods and sitting on a stand is peaceful. I spend a lot of time scouting, looking for sign and trails between hunting seasons, and I sit in the stands a few times before deer season ever comes in.

"When I'm scouting an area, I like to carry binoculars so I can see bucks and other animals in the woods. There are lots of leaves on the trees before deer season comes in, and it helps me see what a buck has growing on his head."

Claudette Sansing has only killed one doe. It was crippled in one leg, and she thought that it had been shot recently. But it turned out that the doe had been wounded in the leg a couple of seasons before; it had healed, leaving it with a limp.

She likes to dine on deer, but she knows that if she waits long enough and passes on does and small bucks, the right buck will come along. "I do the skinning and dressing," Barry Sansing said. "Claudette helps with the butchering and packaging. We both like to eat venison. One of us cooks it about as much as the other, and we are both good cooks. As good as Claudette is at getting her buck, we get a lot of practice."

"I only shoot bucks," Claudette Sansing emphasized. "There are some hunters who shoot any legal deer that comes along, but I like my bucks to have nice antlers. I used to take some small bucks when it was legal -- I shot a few 4-pointers -- but now I only like to hunt for trophies. Antlers get me excited. This year, I shot a 6-pointer with my muzzleloader and a big 8-pointer with my .30-06."

The Sansings have a daughter who went deer hunting when she was young, but pursued other interests, as she got older. Still, her parents are not disappointed. "Either you like hunting or you don't," Barry Sansing said. "It's not for everyone. But Claudette's the most dedicated hunter I've ever seen, woman or man. She goes if she feels good or if she feels bad. She's going to make it out there into the woods somehow every day. She goes more than I do now. I just can't get out there when it's bitter cold, but she still goes when it's too cold for me. I kill 90 percent of my deer by luck. She gets hers on purpose, because she puts a lot more effort into hunting than I do."

One regret Claudette Sansing has is that she didn't begin taking photographs of hunters with their deer earlier in her career. "I started taking photos of everyone who skins a deer at our shed back in 1980," she said. "We've filled almost four albums with photos. After that many deer, it's hard to remember which hunter goes with which set of the antlers hanging from the beams in the shed."

Based on her long experience, the matriarch of the Magnolia deer woods has some advice for young women who might want to give deer hunting a try but don't know how to go about it. All that women have to do, she asserts, is to express an interest. "I wish I had taken my brother up on his invitation to go hunting sooner than I did, because I've enjoyed every hunt I've ever been on," she said. "If you show any kind of interest in hunting at all, someone will ask you to go on a deer hunt.

"If you're bored with sitting around the house, you should give deer hunting a try. Just sit in somebody's stand, whether you take a gun along or not, and enjoy breathing the fresh air. Just the idea of being in the woods before the sun comes up or watching it go down is enough to make me go hunting. I just like being out there, enjoying nature."

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