Mississippi's Muted Deer Season

The 2008-09 deer season was a real letdown from the previous year as far as big bucks are concerned. But was it just because hunters had learned a lesson and quit talking? (August 2009)

Mississippi deer hunters had every reason to believe the 2008-09 season would be another record-breaker. They'd seen all the pictures, read all the stories and heard all the details about how great the 2007-08 season had been.

You know those details. The 2007-08 season was the one that produced a record nine verified Boone and Crockett quality bucks, a great mix of typical and non-typical deer from all over Mississippi. The same season produced a new record for typical archery, which didn't even count among the B&C qualifiers.

Biologists scored literally hundreds of other bucks from that season that grossed over B&C minimums only to net less than the necessary scores for the antlers to be listed. Of course, there were even more bucks that scored in the 140- to 150-inch range, so many that taxidermy shops throughout Mississippi stayed busy into the next fall.

"If every season was that good, we'd all be rich," joked taxidermist Ellis Solomon of Brandon, "but we'd never see our families."

Then came the 2008-09 deer season. So much anticipation. So many dreams. So much hope.

And, alas, so much disappointment.

Not a single Boone and Crockett buck emerged. Rumors, yes, but none that could be verified.

Only a few reports of bucks that surpassed the minimums with gross green scores trickled in.

The stories of magnificent record-book bucks we hungered to hear, and some of us to write, never came. Sure, there were plenty of splendid stories about great hunting experiences, but none of them ended with a B&C qualifier.

So, we ask, what happened?

Was there a difference in habitat, weather or another natural phenomena that led to the fall off in world-class bucks? Biologists say no, or at least say they know of none. If anything, the conditions for trophy production, and therefore harvest, were actually better in 2008-09 than the previous year. There had been no long periods of drought preceding the season, as there had been the year before. There was great acorn production, as had been the year before, and the woods were full of native browse.

In reality, hunters and biologists alike were concerned about conditions entering the 2007-08 season. Food sources, except for the hard mast, were not good. Drought had hurt browse and had hindered food plot production that summer and fall. Then, all the bucks showed up as healthy as can be and with antlers that would make hunters anywhere in the world jealous.

Was there a fall off in hunter numbers or participation? Not according to license sales or early hunter effort statistics. At least as many, if not more, hunters took to the woods in 2008-09 than the previous year. They also spent more time chasing deer, perhaps encouraged by the great buck harvest of the year before.

Was there some psychological problem within the mature buck segment of the population in 2007-08 that caused so many to commit suicide? Did they just up and decide to walk out in front of a bullet or arrow at one time? Of course not.

But as absurd as that sounds, it makes just as much sense as any other reason offered.

Except for one. Mississippi may have produced another great season of trophy bucks, but the accompanying stories just didn't emerge. Is it possible?

Very much so, said the coordinator of the deer program for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

"I've thought long and hard about it, and I'm not so sure that isn't exactly what happened," said biologist Chad Dacus of Jackson. "It is very possible that we had some book bucks taken that just didn't get made public. The fact that we heard rumors of some big bucks that never materialized would lend to that possibility.

"For some reason or another, I think a lot of people just don't want to share their stories."

Really? Could be.

Actually, there are a lot of reasons why hunters would want to be secretive about trophy bucks. One is obvious.

"This leasing situation is one of the main ones," Dacus said. "The cost of and the competition for productive deer hunting land is something else. The last thing someone with a good lease wants is to give somebody else a reason to want that lease, the next time it comes up for contract."

That's exactly the thinking of one Madison County hunter who requested anonymity for this story, an indication of just how much he fears losing his lease.

"We had a rule this year that nobody was allowed to say anything to anyone about any trophy bucks seen or shot at our club this year," he said. "We have a lease that comes up for renewal in 2010. The last time it came up, we had to almost double what we were paying, and I know there is going to be interest in it again.

"I know we're going to have to pay more, but I'm hoping to keep it from going slap out of sight."

Over the past decade, lease rates have doubled in most areas and have tripled -- or worse -- in others, like Madison County. It's not unusual now to hear prices like $30 an acre being discussed and annual leases running as high as $50,000 for large holdings. One 500-acre private-land lease went for $25,000 per year on a five-year deal last year in the county -- $50 an acre!

"It's getting to where it is impossible to find a piece of land to lease at all, much less one the average guy can afford," Dacus said. "The last thing you'd want is to get one and then lose it to a higher bidder after you've worked hard to have good hunting."

There is precedent for concern.

During the 2007-08 season, two different Madison County hunters took monster B&C non-typicals. Their stories went public, and while the notoriety was good in some respects, it wasn't in others.

One, who had been hunting on family land, lost his hunting rights on the property when a group came in and made a lease offer his kin couldn't resist.

"That's what happened to one guy, and the other guy who killed a book buck got in trouble with the guy who owns the l

and where he was hunting," said our anonymous hunter. "The second guy wasn't supposed to let the story out, but it got out and even though it was never made public where he was hunting, enough word spread that it wasn't long before everyone knew.

"But that wasn't a situation where the landowner was worried about losing a lease or anything. He just didn't want anyone to know because he didn't want any drive-bys."

Drive-bys?

"Yeah, poachers -- road hunters," he said. "That's a big problem all over the state, but especially in places like western Madison County where it's known for the giant bucks it produces. We've got a horrible problem with poachers out here, so much that even though our local law officers do all they can, they can't stop it.

"Our sheriff deputies and our conservation officers are good about working the roads and they successfully make cases all the time. But it's like for every illegal hunter they take off the road, there's two more taking their place. And the more they know there's a chance to get a trophy buck the more they come out."

It can be downright scary, especially in an open field next to a road.

"I was sitting in a tripod stand about 300 yards from the road looking at deer in the field," said L.J. Watson, a Canton-area hunter who was on the fringe of western Madison County's trophy area. "There was this doe behind me with two yearlings, back between me and the road. A small rack buck came out and was feeding with them, but I wasn't interested in them and was concentrating on a wad of deer in front of me.

"There were a lot of does and yearlings I was watching, including this lone doe that I was thinking about shooting. I had pretty much forgotten about the deer behind me, but I took another look to make sure a bigger buck hadn't come out. Then I went back to looking at the deer I was interested in and was considering a shot -- when I heard a car slow down and a gun go off behind me."

Watson said he turned around and saw the doe and two yearlings running off, but couldn't see the young buck. He saw the car easing up the road.

"I stood up in the tripod and I guess they saw my orange vest and hat and they took off," he said. "They drove off fast. I climbed down and walked over to where those other deer had been and sure enough, the young buck was down and dead. I thought about calling the law and having them come out and stake out the deer in case they came back to get it that night, but I decided they'd never come back after seeing me.

"Then I started looking at where the deer was lying and where I saw the car and where my stand was. It was almost right in line. That kind of scared me. I can't help but believe that people road hunt out here because they hear about all the big bucks west of here. And if they'd shoot at a young buck without looking to see what was beyond the target, what would they do if they saw a big 10- or 12- or 14-point buck?"

Of course, they'd shoot and not worry about it. Jealous deer hunters rarely think about the consequences of their actions.

Which leads us to another reason why a lot of hunters would just as soon keep their kills secret.

In the modern age of the Internet and countless Web forums where deer hunters gather in cyberspace, comments tend to get out of control. Early in the 2008-09 season, two archers in different areas of Mississippi took nice bucks. Pictures that never were meant to be circulated got out and were posted on Web sites. Neither hunter wished to share his story.

That opened the door for speculation, and that is never a good thing. It wasn't long before accusations of illegal kills were made against each hunter on Web sites, where, of course, there is little legal protection offered.

The ridicule that followed in the weeks made it impossible for writers or reporters to get the hunters to discuss their hunts. Even when offered a chance to clear the air, the hunters declined.

Tracy Laird of Natchez understands that problem. Laird, who owns the non-typical record for archery deer in Mississippi, still has a bad taste in his mouth from his experiences six years ago when he killed the 236 1/8-inch buck in Adams County during the 2003 archery season.

"There were times when I wished I'd never killed that buck, or at least had never told anyone I had," Laird once said about his kill. "You wouldn't believe what all I went through. People said I shot it with a gun. People said I was trespassing. People said I shot it with a light at night.

"I don't know if it was jealousy that I killed the buck and they didn't, but a lot of people just did me dirty about that deer. As much as that deer meant to me, it did cause me a lot of grief."

It didn't help that Laird told his story, sharing it with the public either.

"No, it didn't," he said. "There are always going to be some people who don't care what you say."

And that was before the days of the Internet chat rooms, where chatters can post whatever they want without fear of repercussion. Given an opportunity, mean people will be mean and they were downright uncomplimentary to those early trophy takers last year.

That it happened to two archers long before the gun season, it is conceivable that gun hunters decided to dodge the ridicule and keep their trophies to themselves.

But did they?

"The only way I guess we'll ever find out is if some bucks we haven't heard of appear at the Big Buck Contest in Jackson in August or if we start seeing them at the Magnolia Records Program scoring sessions this year," Dacus said. "We always get a few surprise deer at the Wildlife Extravaganza, with the exception of last year. We didn't get any surprises because all those deer we already knew about."

Without a doubt, the 2007-08 season will be difficult to match or even approach in production. Not a week passed that year without a Boone and Crockett story emerging.

"That was the thing about this year," Dacus said about the 2008-09 season. "We got so used to hearing about those stories, that we figured we'd have a repeat the next season. Then we didn't and we started hearing that it was a bad season, when in reality, it wasn't. Sure, we didn't get all the book bucks that we had the year before, or at least we don't know that there weren't any, but we still had a pretty good year for bucks.

"We scored a lot of 150- and even some 160-class bucks. We scored as many as we do in a normal year. It's just that 2007-08 wasn't normal, and I guess we were spoiled."

Solomon agreed.

"We may not have gotten the record-book bucks this year, but we saw a heck of a lot of trophy bucks," he

said. "The great thing I saw this year was that we were getting those quality 150- and 160-class bucks from some new areas like Leake and Scott County and again from Rankin County.

"So, while it may seem like the season is a bust, it really isn't. As long as our hunters continue to practice quality buck management, we're going to see these kind of bucks in new areas and we're going to see a lot of people taking their bucks of a lifetime."

But we still may not hear about them!

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