Mississippi's 2006 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Wallhangers can show up anywhere in the Magnolia State, but some areas are in a class by themselves when it comes to big whitetails. Mississippi Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at the parts of the state best for encountering trophy bucks. (Nov 2006)

The secret's finally out. Mississippi trophy hunters have tried to keep the evidence to themselves for as long as possible -- but now the news is spreading fast about the trophy buck potential in the Magnolia State.

By the end of deer season, a tall stack of print-media material will have piled up beside my easy chair, and from then until the start of turkey hunting, I spend a lot of time catching up on my reading. Thumbing through one high-profile national outdoors magazine, I came across a piece on prime prospects among trophy deer hunting sites. As I read on, I cringed: We'd finally hit the big time. In the course of his review of up-and-coming hotspots in America, the author listed two states to keep a close watch on in particular -- and Mississippi was one of them.

MISSISSIPPI'S TROPHY POTENTIAL

I'll never forget the story told by whitetail hunting lodge owner Robin Callender of Port Gibson. For more than 20 years ago now he's attended an outdoor hunting show in Michigan. In his booth he displayed several of the bucks taken through the years from Claiborne County.

"As hunters passed by my booth," Robin recalled, "they would always stop to talk about these mounted bucks being from Mississippi. They had no idea we had such large whitetails. One guy began to get totally indignant about my mounts, displaying his ignorance of Southern buck potential. The last straw was his accusation that these bucks could not have come from Mississippi. I finally just told the guy to move on."

Today, one has only to comb through the record books of the Boone and Crockett or Pope & Young clubs, as well as Mississippi's own Magnolia Records Program, to find proof of Mississippi's big bucks. If there's any doubt in your mind about the trophy potential here, check out the bucks listed in the Boone and Crockett book starting with the one at the top of the list for Mississippi: The Tony Fulton buck, taken in Winston County in 1994, scored 295 6/8 non-typical B&C points. A world record at the time, it continues as the official state-record buck.

Currently, more than 3,100 bucks are listed in the Magnolia Records, all scoring above the minimum of 125 B&C for typical bucks and 155 for non-typicals.

As additional evidence, just ask some of the trophy hunters themselves. A case in point: Cliff Covington, who hunts Claiborne and Jefferson counties. From 1990 through 2004, Cliff took eight bucks that made the MRP list. Most of them 10-pointers, they scored from 130 3/8 up to 150 0/8 -- although that biggest rack was only an 8-pointer!

The bucks are here -- no doubt. The problem lies in figuring out where, and how, you can find yours.

TACTICS FOR MAGNOLIA TROPHIES

The first point to consider: How exactly ought you to hunt a true trophy whitetail? Just placing a stand over a greenfield or food plot in the Magnolia State almost assures you of seeing deer. On the other hand, those whitetails probably won't sport massive racks. You need to hunt, and with perseverance, specifically those areas in which plus-sized bucks hang out -- and then be the beneficiary of a huge dose of good luck.

From those who've both taken trophy bucks and chosen to be frank about the circumstances we discover that luck comes into play far more than we might have thought. But luck can be defined in a lot of different ways when it comes to deer hunting. I prefer to imagine that "lucky" hunters more often than not create their own good fortune. In other words, they do their homework, which puts them in the right place at the right time.

An old adage has it that any college football team -- even Ole Miss! -- can win any game on any given Saturday afternoon. And so too can any given hunter take the next state-record buck on any day spent in fields or woods. But if the Ole Miss gridiron squad shows up at the baseball stadium, they're unlikely to win the ensuing contest.

In one crucial respect, hunting differs not at all from other sporting activities: The more hours you spend in preparation, the better you're apt to perform. If you play a lot of golf, you'll get better at it. Similarly, spending substantial time in the woods will correspondingly increase your chances of coming across the buck of a lifetime. But a critical part of the effort is scouting, so that the time invested puts you in the right place. It has to be timely, and you have to be able to interpret the sign you encounter correctly.

Next, you need to design your setup to take advantage of what you've learned, while also taking into account foliage available for camouflage, shadowing, shot direction and distances, and wind options. When the hunt begins, all your gear needs to be in order. And finally, once you're in the woods, it's essential to be prepared to move and to set up again as your ongoing evaluation of conditions may dictate.

MINING THE STATISTICS

Mississippians have access to a lot of info regarding hunting areas, and the deer that those regions have yielded, to avail themselves of. You can examine deer harvest data by individual wildlife management areas, or use the MRP records to plot the number of trophies given up by individual counties. From the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks' Web site you can obtain maps of soil types, which are keys to identifying optimal antler-producing regions. Additionally, the site offers a breeding-date map of the state to aid in exploiting the rut. A final resource to check out: maps of our waterways. A savvy hunter employs all of these in picking an area to target.

One sure thing about researching the whereabouts of trophy-class bucks in Mississippi is your study will reveal a close association among antler quality, high-quality soil types, and water resources. As much as anything else, the interplay of these factors is responsible for some of the habitat most prone to foster monster deer. That said, a tour of several of the major river drainages in the Magnolia State and a look at the big-buck prospects that they offer will be in order.

A WORLD OF WATERWAYS

Mississippi River

Thanks to Old Man River, the entire western border of the state is in effect a whitetail buck corridor. The soils deposited by the Mississippi through the eons form the basis for some exceptional deer habitat. Making the corridor even more attractive: a strong presence of numerous public hunting lands.

Starting in the north and working south, the list of best bets includes: O'Keefe Wildlife Management Area, near Lambert; Twin Oaks WMA, by Rolling Fork; Mahannah WMA, c

lose to Redwood; the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge; and Sunflower WMA, in the Delta National Forest, also near Rolling Fork.

Mahannah and Yazoo have proved consistent producers. If memory serves, a 22-point buck was surrendered by Mahannah, albeit with little fanfare, in the last couple of seasons.

Big Black River

Currently, the whole of this river route can be considered a hotspot. Though Pearl River WMA, just north of Jackson, is small -- 6,900 acres -- it's a sleeper for primitive weapons hunting. Be sure to check it out.

One of our newest WMAs, Yockanookany, in Attala County, is worth scouting now. It's only 2,400 acres in area, but the river of the same name runs through it, so the habitat's appropriate for big whitetails.

South of Jackson, near Hazlehurst, lies Copiah County WMA. Another small area, yes -- but in the past five years it's yielded several trophy-class bucks. Running though big stands of pine timber here are numerous long, sage grass-covered drainages. The habitat looks more suitable for quail than for whitetails, but don't be fooled by appearances: Set up for deer traveling these grassland bottom funnels. Also, pick hunting sites well away from the WMAs main roads, which are heavily traveled on weekends.

Yazoo River

This unique, narrow river basin is overlapped to some degree by both the Mississippi and the Big Black drainages -- a disposition that actually serves to intensify the already high quality of the region's habitat. While several tracts of public lands are in this sector, hunters can do no better than to spend time at the Panther Swamp NWR off U.S. Highway 49 in Yazoo County. Plan on hoofing it off the beaten trails to find bucks in wetland areas.

Tombigbee River

The Tombigbee River (a.k.a. the Tenn/Tom Waterway) is the premier flow in the northeast quadrant of Mississippi. Noxubee County, on the southern end of this waterway, ranks seventh for buck harvest in statistics compiled by the MRP, and the public areas in the drainage (at least eight) provide plenty of options for hunters scouting for trophy-class animals.

The best bet for trophy action along the Tombigbee is the esteemed Noxubee NWR, just south of Starkville on State Route 25. Clinton's Jason Pope, who hunts the refuge often, noted, "Noxubee is a fantastic area. From the highway it looks like a Southern pine forest, but deep into the area are hardwood islands that produce trophy class bucks every season."

Pascagoula River

The closest thing to a true wilderness area in Mississippi has to be the corridor of the Pascagoula River. A remote area, its seclusion guarantees an unpressured place for hunting deer. Nestled in the river drainage near Lucedale is 37,000-acre Pascagoula WMA. Obviously, it should be included on the list of places you could scout for a big buck this year.

The area is laden with swamps, lakes, ponds, and creeks. Historically, the sandy habitat hasn't produced the type of nutritional forage that tends to yield lots of trophy-class bucks. On the other hand, that deer can reach 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years old in these wetlands ensures that a few reach wallhanger proportions. Last season, the WMA purportedly gave up three excellent bucks, despite Katrina's having roared through the area.

Southwest Rivers

A number of primary tributaries feed into the Mississippi River in the southwest corner of the state, which is crisscrossed by the Homochitto, Buffalo and Amite rivers, as well as Bayou Pierre. These flows are surrounded by trophy buck habitat all around the huge Homochitto National Forest between Natchez and Brookhaven. Within the national forest lies Sandy Creek WMA, its 16,000-plus acres on that feeder stream of the Homochitto River.

Sandy Creek, always a popular public hunting area, has a reputation for giving up some noteworthy bucks each season. The terrain, mostly covered in pines, features deep ravines and hardwood ridges that can make for some tough going. Midweek hunts will enable you to avoid the crowds. Look for rub lines along the upper reaches of oak-covered ridgelines.

Pearl River

A big region stretching from Winston County across the state's midsection and down to the Gulf Coast in Hancock County, this river basin is dotted along the way by seven public hunting areas.

On the upper end, the Bienville National Forest contains 26,000-acre Bienville WMA, near Morton; it's composed mainly of lightly rolling hills covered in pines. Those prepared to hike far off the roadways to find pockets of hardwoods will have the best chances at big bucks here.

On the lower end of the Pearl River is Old River WMA, west on SR 26 near Poplarville. Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in Pearl River County, but the aftermath was less of a problem for wildlife. By now most trail and roads in the area are again open.

The Pearl River channel runs the entire western border of this WMA. Thick growth makes for terrain tough to traverse, but since the MDWFP reports deer weights and antler sizes increasing over years past here, it's worth a look. The downside to this WMA is its potential for floods that can result in area closure. Be sure to check ahead before heading to Old River for a hunt.

SUMMING IT UP

Is Mississippi a true trophy state? With over 50 bucks in the Boone and Crockett all-time record book and another 3,000-plus in the Magnolia Records, it'd be hard to deny it. Wallhangers don't come easy, but for those willing to go the extra mile in preparation and scouting, the likelihood of killing such a whitetail in the Magnolia State is high.

Find more about Mississippi fishing and hunting at: MississippiGameandFish.com

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