Mississippi's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Mississippi's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Deer can be found in every corner of the Magnolia State, but some areas produce far more of them than do others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a whitetail. (October 2007)

Photo by Kenny Bahr.

Knowledge is power, they say. In perhaps no other venture is this truer than in the pursuit of Mississippi whitetails. So instead of hunting harder this fall, try hunting smarter. By increasing your knowledge of the whitetails that call this great state home, you can dramatically improve your chances of putting fresh venison in the freezer this fall.

White-tailed deer hunting opportunities are plentiful throughout the Magnolia State. In fact, Mississippi boasts the highest deer density per acre of any state in the nation. This is the primary reason so many non-resident deer hunters flock to the Magnolia State each fall. Not unlike the many resident deer hunters, they like their odds of scoring on at least one of the state's 1.75 million deer.

In all, more than 148,000 hunters are expected to hit the Mississippi deer woods during the 2007-08 seasons. With numbers that high, you have your work cut out for you in planning this year's hunts. Fortunately, hunters in Mississippi have a total of 123 days of deer hunting to accomplish this task.

With such high deer densities, over 20 million acres of prime deer habitat, and a very liberal season and bag limit, you would expect the hunter success rates to be through the roof. However, statistics show that the state's hunters harvest just over 282,000 deer each season. That is an average harvest rate of less than 2 deer per hunter. An even more amazing statistic is that only 72 percent of resident hunters and 67 percent of non-resident hunters successfully harvested a deer last season.

According to the 2006 Deer Program Report put out by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the effects of current and long-term overpopulation in many areas of the state are well documented. Degradation of deer habitat and noticeably substandard condition indicators such as low reproduction were prevalent. The report went on to say that many locations in the state have experienced ongoing damage to native browse by overpopulation of the deer herd since the early 1970s.

Deer habitat found on poorer soils has been more badly damaged than has habitat in more fertile regions. In addition, recovery from damage takes longer for habitat found on lower fertility soils than it does for that found on the more-fertile soils of regions like the Mississippi Delta. Reduction of deer populations to levels enabling habitat to recover is unacceptable to many hunters. The result: continued overuse by deer of good-quality browse.

"We would like to see the harvest rates at considerably higher levels, especially when it comes to the doe harvest," said Chad Dacus, deer program coordinator with the MDWFP. "That is the purpose for Mississippi having a season framework that offers maximum opportunity and special permits that allow additional opportunity to harvest anterless deer."

Hunter opportunity alone cannot guarantee you a great hunting season this year. A number of factors come into play in determining whether this season will be a boom or a bust -- and many of those, like winter temperatures, mast production, and precipitation, are beyond our control.

Cold winters result in increased deer movement. Mast crop failures can also increase deer movement as the animals search for food, whereas abundant mast can keep deer hidden in the woods and decrease their movement. Finally, food plots and native browse production depend heavily on adequate rainfall.

If all these factors come together as they should, we could have a very productive deer season. On the other hand, a lack of any one of these factors can make for long, boring days in the deer stand.

WHERE TO HUNT?

One factor that the deer hunter does have control over is the stand site. While not everyone has access to private property, an abundance of prime deer habitat is available for public hunting. Mississippi provides sportsmen more with than 2 million acres of wildlife habitat for public hunting within 46 state wildlife management areas, 11 national wildlife refuges and six national forests. Scattered over the entire state, these areas offer unspoiled woodland, fields, and marshes filled with game. Some additional lands owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also are available for public hunting.

While any of these resources offer ample opportunity for deer hunting success, the state-operated wildlife management areas are your best bet. The MDWFP has done an excellent job in collecting deer harvest data for each of their WMAs. This information, available in the Mississippi Deer Data Book and the Annual Deer Program Report -- both of which can be found on the MDWFP Web site --can prove invaluable when selecting the better tracts to hunt in Mississippi.

Now let's take review wildlife district and identify the better locations for hunting deer in each one.

District 1

Comprising the 15 counties in the northeast portion of the state, this district is home to 10 wildlife management areas and a sizeable national wildlife refuge. Oktibbeha, Noxubee and Winston lead the pack when it comes to District 1 counties consistently producing good-quality deer and good numbers of deer.

There should be no surprise that the top deer producing WMAs lie in those counties. Choctaw WMA in Winston County, near Ackerman, and John W. Starr WMA in Oktibbeha County, near Starkville, rank very high in total deer harvest per acre despite having a minimum-inside-spread criterion for legal bucks. Another excellent choice is the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge. This 48,000-acre refuge stretches across all three counties.

With over 80,000 acres of public land available in these three tracts, finding an area of your own to hunt shouldn't be too hard of a chore. However, keep in mind that all three areas are close to Mississippi State University. In order to avoid the college-student crowd, it would be wise to site your stand well off the beaten path.

District 2

In the north-central part of the state, District 2 has a number of public land options for deer hunters. In this area, the rich Mississippi River Delta lands in the west give way as you move east to less-fertile bluffs and hills. As a direct result, total deer numbers and overall quality are better in the former. Of the seven WMAs in District 2, three stand out above the rest: Hamer, O'Keefe and Malmaison WMAs.

In terms of total acreage, these three properties combined don't quite break 20,000 acres. However, what they lack in size

they more than make up for in quality. Although all three rank very high when it comes to the number of deer harvested based on acreage, Hamer WMA is expected to produce some deer of exceptionally high quality over the next few years. This can be attributed to the extremely low hunting pressure it has received over the past few seasons. Like the WMAs listed in District 1, these WMAs also have a minimum-inside-spread criterion for legal bucks.

Although quite small at 4,083 acres, the Tallahatchie National Wildlife Refuge is worth checking into. Hunting is available throughout most of the refuge, and Malmaison WMA borders it to the south.

District 3

Bordered by the Mississippi River on the west and the Big Black River on the east, District 3 is deer-habitat heaven. The fertile soil of the Mississippi Delta produces high-quality cotton and corn. This region's 12 counties contain a number of WMAs along with the 100,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the Delta National Forest. With an abundance of public hunting opportunities and what are recognized as Mississippi's finest deer lands, it's no surprise that District 3 tends to dominate the deer harvest records.

For that reason alone, it's an almost impossible task to pick a single best location to bag a deer there. So instead of picking one, let's look at the top three. Sunflower WMA, its 60,115 acres in Sharkey County, always places first or second in the total harvest category. However, Twin Oaks WMA and Mahannah WMA rank at the top of the list for fewest acres per deer harvested. Deer hunting at these two WMAs is by permit only, except for the January archery hunt, which is open to the public.

The Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex is the largest refuge complex in Mississippi and includes both the newest (Holt Collier and Theodore Roosevelt NWRs) and the oldest refuge (Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge) in the state. The other four refuges in the complex are Hillside, Matthews Brake, Morgan Brake and Panther Swamp.

District 4

Encompassing 16 counties from the Pearl River on the west to the Alabama line on the east, this district lies in the heart of the Magnolia State. The region is characterized by a pronounced diversity of habitat among the 12 counties lying within its borders. Much of the district is a combination of heavy pine timber and bottomland hardwoods.

Three of the WMAs in District 4 have excellent track records for good deer hunting. Bienville WMA, near Morton, and Caney Creek, near Forest, are on lands of the Bienville National Forest in Scott County. Tallahala WMA, near Montrose, is another good option. While each of these tracts is known for producing good numbers of deer, Tallahala WMA contains more hardwoods and creek bottoms, which puts it in the lead for better deer numbers and, potentially, bigger deer.

Four District 4 counties really stand out when it comes to the harvest of first-quality deer: Kemper, Lauderdale and Clarke counties, which are along the Alabama line, are all beginning to turn some heads when it comes to the quality of deer being taken from within their boundaries. Then there's Madison County, which produces not only lots of whitetails but also a lot of very big ones.

District 5

For as long as I can remember, Southwest Mississippi has been known as the "Trophy Triangle." It has all the ingredients necessary to produce numbers of top-quality deer.

Bordered on the west by the Mississippi River, the district contains a number of very fertile river bottoms such as Big Bayou Pierre, Little Bayou Pierre, Big Black River, Cole Creek, Clark Creek, Buffalo River, Amite River, St. Catherine Creek and the Homochitto River. The extremely good deer habitat is one of the reasons that District 5 contains the highest concentration of white-tailed deer in the state.

The greatest part of the land in District 5 is privately owned. However, some good deer hunting opportunities are to be had on public land in the district. The Homochitto National Forest, which contains both the Caston Creek and Sandy Creek WMAs, offers good deer options if you don't mind coping with a little competition. Not far away is St. Catherine Creek NWR with more than 26,000 acres of prime deer habitat.

Finally, 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 outstanding deer habitat, this small tract boasts the highest deer harvest rate per acre of any of the Magnolia State WMAs. With those kinds of statistics, you can bet that Copiah County WMA won't stay a secret for long.

Since the metropolitan area of Jackson is less than an hour's drive away, hunting pressure is certain to increase. Planning to have your hunting trips take place during the week may help avoid some of the hunting pressure that you're sure to encounter on the weekend.

District 6

More than two years have passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated this area of the state. The effects of that monster storm will be observed for years to come. But what will the deer hunting prospects be for those counties along the Mississippi Gulf Coast?

According to Chad Dacus, the deer in District 6 are in very good shape. They've been under little hunting pressure in the last two years owing to the inaccessibility of hunting areas. Now, finally, the roads have finally been cleared of debris and food plots planted.

Two WMAs in the region on which deer hunters should focus their attention are Leaf River, in Perry County, and Chickasawhay, in Wayne County. Encompassing over 122,000 acres, Chickasawhay is the largest WMA in Mississippi; the sheer size of this property makes scouting a necessity. At just over a third of the size of the Chickasawhay, Leaf River WMA is a sizeable tract in its own right. Both of these WMAs should provide good deer hunting opportunities this fall.

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