Mississippi's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Mississippi's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Trophy deer can show up anywhere in the Magnolia State, but when it comes to big whitetails, some areas are in a class by themselves. Mississippi Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at what parts of the state are best for a trophy buck. (November 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

Last month, we focused on the best places in the Magnolia State to bag a deer -- any deer. This month, we turn our attention to another aspect of Mississippi deer hunting -- trophy bucks. Here's an overview of the trophy deer action available in the state, plus areas that exhibit the most potential for producing those mega-sized whitetails.

DEFINITION OF A TROPHY

Webster's Dictionary tells us that a trophy is a memorial given or gained in victory. It is, in simplest terms, something worthy of being remembered. For deer hunters in Mississippi, a "trophy buck" can mean many different things.

For a youngster who has yet to take his first buck, anything with antlers might be that trophy. On the other end of the spectrum, a veteran hunter with a number of fine whitetails to his credit may consider a buck sporting a rack of anything less than less than 150 inches to be unworthy of that status. Then there are those of us that fall somewhere in the middle.

The bottom line is that for most deer hunters in Mississippi or anywhere else, a trophy buck is determined by three antler characteristics -- spread, points and mass.

Trophy bucks harvested in Mississippi are eligible for entry in three different record books. As is the case throughout North America, the Pope and Young Club recognizes trophy bucks taken with archery equipment. The Boone and Crockett Club keeps records of trophy whitetails harvested by any legal method, as well as picked-up antlers and bucks that are found dead.

Back in 2000, Mississippi combined the best features of the P&Y and B&C clubs in creating the Magnolia Records Program. All three of these record systems have a separate category for non-typical and typical racks.

In order to make the P&Y all-time record book, a typical rack must score 125 points, while non-typical racks are required to score 155 points. The minimum requirements for entry into B&C all-time records are much higher, with 170 points for a typical rack and 195 points for a non-typical.

The Magnolia Records Program utilizes the same minimum scores as P&Y, but follows the B&C guidelines when it comes to method of harvest.

However, the MRP takes it one step farther. Not only are the harvests broken down by archery, firearms and pickups, but there's also a category for muzzleloaders.

This information can prove invaluable in helping you identify the areas of the Magnolia State that have the most potential for producing a trophy buck. As we pointed out last month, knowledge is power. The details on the MRP can be useful and truly powerful stuff.

While Mississippi is better known for its total deer numbers, it's also gaining a reputation as a hotspot for trophy bucks. The Magnolia State's trophy potential is evident from the host of entries in all three of these record books.

To date, Mississippi has produced over 250 bucks that have made the P&Y record book and 68 bucks with racks large enough to be listed in the B&C records, while more than 3,000 have qualified for the MRP.

To top off those statistics, most of these bucks were harvested within the last decade. It's worth noting that more than 150 bucks in the MRP have been harvested on wildlife management areas, national wildlife refuges, or U. S. Army Corps of Engineers lands.

In 2002, Ray Barrett of Leland harvested the largest non-typical ever taken from public land. His 201 3/8 B&C buck was a new state muzzleloading record. With outstanding deer like this being taken with increasing frequency, Mississippi is becoming known as one of the best places in the South for taking a trophy whitetail.

PRODUCING A TROPHY

When it comes to producing record-class bucks, a combination of fundamentals must be present. As any deer biologist will tell you, three key factors determine antler size: age, genetics, and nutrition. Since we have little control over the genetics in a wild deer population, we have to play the hand we've been dealt.

Once we eliminate genetics as a serious consideration, the factors that determine antler quality are age and nutrition.

According to Dr. Harvey Jacobson, the noted whitetail biologist, most bucks in Mississippi don't realize their true antler potential until they reach 4 1/2 years of age. There was a time when most of the bucks harvested in the Magnolia State were yearlings, leaving few bucks to ever attain their maximum antler potential. Fortunately, Mississippi hunters have recognized those facts in recent years and are allowing the younger bucks to reach older age-classes.

Nutrition is the final critical factor in antler production. A high-protein diet is a necessity during the antler development period of May through August. Without that high level of protein, a buck's antlers don't realize their potential.

And since antlers are a form of bone, bucks must also have adequate levels of calcium and phosphorus, as well as vitamins A and D in their diets in order to produce large racks. Luckily, much of the habitat in Mississippi supplies adequate nutrition.

The Mississippi Delta is known worldwide for its rich, fertile soil. But another area of the state is also made up of what has to be some of the finest soil for deer to be found anywhere. This dirt, of a soil type known as "loess," is extremely rich in calcium and phosphorus and has the ability to produce high-quality, high-protein feed that bucks need to produce massive antlers. This is evident by the impressive numbers of record-book bucks that have been harvested from this area.

Dubbed the "Great Divide" because it separates the state in half -- with the Mississippi Delta to the west and the plains, prairie and flatwoods areas to the east -- this wide swath of fertile soil is the largest contributor of bucks to the Magnolia Records.

If that isn't proof enough of the area's trophy-producing capabilities, consider that of Mississippi's B&C bucks, 29 out of 68 were harvested in the Great Divide region.

That's more than twice the number of B&C entries that have come from the fertile Mississippi Delta.

"The abundance of very fertile stream bottoms in this region

, like Big Bayou Pierre, Little Bayou Pierre, St. Catherine Creek and the Big Black and Homochitto rivers create a diverse habitat that provides everything necessary to produce big bucks," said Chad Dacus, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Deer Program Coordinator. "And the abundant agricultural crops that are found along these river bottoms are excellent supplemental food sources for the deer."

WEATHER EFFECTS

Although we have little control over the weather, it can certainly have a major impact on what the upcoming deer season is like. Weather events can affect such factors as deer movement, rut activity, habitat quality, food availability and antler development -- and hunter access.

Take Hurricane Katrina, as a perfect example. Although this massive storm wreaked havoc on much of southern Mississippi, some of its side effects were positive for deer hunting in that region.

Several of the state's top deer biologists have hinted that hunters in District 6 should experience one of their best deer seasons ever.

Two years of poor access due to storm debris, coupled with an incredible increase in browse production from sunlight reaching the forest floor, means an older and healthier age-class of bucks. And where you find older, healthier bucks, you'll find larger racks. So this year, southern Mississippi looks bright for trophy hunters.

Unfortunately, the prospects for northern Mississippi are not as bright. This past spring and summer, two major weather events hit the northern Magnolia State that may have devastating effects on the deer population.

Back in April, the area experienced two extremely late freezes on consecutive nights. In some locations, temperatures plummeted to as low as 24 degrees, browning out all the lush new vegetation.

"It was like we were experiencing a second fall," said Jerry Hazlewood, a MDWFP wildlife biologist who lives in the area. "Everything north of U.S. Highway 82 looked like it had been sprayed with a burn-down herbicide. I am afraid we lost our acorn and soft-mast production for the year."

If that wasn't enough bad news for the region's deer hunters, those damaging late freezes were followed by a period of severe drought. This combination of events will impact the trophy-buck potential in north Mississippi for the next couple of years.

Less browse available during the antler-development months means poorer quality of antler production. Even though a failed acorn crop results in more bucks visiting winter food plots, those bucks most likely will be sporting headgear that's smaller than normal.

Finally, let's look at the part of the state that should produce most of the record-book bucks this year. The lower Delta that includes all of southwest Mississippi, along with a few counties in the central part of the state, is poised to yield the region's traditional harvest of big bucks.

This region not only escaped the damaging freezes that north Mississippi experienced, but it also received enough rainfall to keep it out of a severe drought situation. With an abundance of all the ingredients necessary to produce big bucks, deer hunters in this region are sure to keep the record-book officials busy scoring some impressive racks.

But before you get the idea that everything is just rosy when it comes to trophy-deer hunting in this region, you'd best step back and consider the situation a bit longer.

This part of the state does have one major drawback. The vast majority of acreage in this region is privately owned, making gaining access to hunting land a major hurdle.

Unless you own a tract of land in this area -- or can afford to shell out a few thousand bucks to join one of the exclusive hunting clubs, where slots are always in high demand -- your only remaining option is the limited public land.

Twelve different public tracts -- three national wildlife refuges, seven state wildlife management areas and two national forests -- offer public hunting opportunities in the area.

Another factor that you need to take into account, even though it isn't necessarily weather-related, is the peak of the rut for whichever area of the state you plan to target.

The best strategy is always to concentrate your hunting efforts around the peak of the rut.

The average breeding date can vary as much as six weeks from north to south and across the state. For example, the average breeding date for parts of Greene County in southeast Mississippi is as late as Feb. 1.

In DeSoto County, it's Dec. 15. In Yazoo County, it's the end of December. And in much of Jefferson County, the breeding peaks around Christmas.

Identifying the peak of the rut for your hunting area is much easier now, thanks to the MDWFP biologists. After 20 years of collecting biological data on deer, they have created a map of the average conception dates for each area of the state. Since observable rutting activity peaks about two weeks prior to the average conception date, all you need do to obtain the estimated peak rut period is subtract two weeks from the average date shown on the map for any particular area.

To view the map, you can visit the MDWFP at www.mdwfp.com.

TOP TROPHY HOTSPOTS

Though a trophy buck can come from any part of the Magnolia State, locations with the best habitat and most fertile soils have a leg up on the competition when it comes to producing bucks with massive racks.

No other parts of Mississippi have better potential than the Delta and the Great Divide, which runs from DeSoto County in the north, down the Big Black River in the central part of the state, and takes in the majority of the counties in southwest Mississippi.

Counties in this area that have been and continue to be the top trophy buck prospects are Madison, Claiborne, Issaquena, Adams, and Yazoo.

Even though this area is the best for trophy deer, don't count out any of the Black Prairie counties for producing record-book bucks. In this season's race, the dark horse might be the area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Coastal Plain of southeast Mississippi.

There are plenty of big bucks out there to be had. Do your homework, and you can turn a wealth of knowledge into power. With a little luck, one of those Magnolia State monsters can wind up hanging on your den wall! l

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

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