Mississippi's 2008 Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

In the Magnolia State, even unlikely places can yield uncommon bucks, but when it comes to big whitetails, some areas are in a class by themselves. Here, Mississippi Game & Fish pinpoints the state's best trophy sites. (November 2008)

There's no question that Mississippi has the potential to produce big bucks, and lots of them. Biologists say that the three most important factors in the development of big deer and big antlers are genes, nutrition, and age. Especially in the Mississippi Delta area, we have the right combination of soils, good nutrition, and management programs that let bucks get some age on them to produce some mighty fine sets of antlers.

One big reason Mississippi produces a lot of big deer is the excellent nutrition in the Delta and in some other areas of the state. Large areas with good soils and good deer numbers have the potential to produce a trophy buck or two -- or even two dozen.

"When you look at the Boone and Crockett and Pope & Young record books, we don't have nearly as many big bucks as places like Wisconsin and Iowa and Illinois," said Chad Dacus, deer program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "However, when you consider the southeastern United States, we're right up there with anyone else. For one thing, we have very diverse habitat, from bottomland hardwoods to hills and the coastal flatwoods. So we have a very dynamic deer herd all the way across the state."

If you want a trophy-class buck, you need to hunt somewhere with a record for big deer; areas that have produced good bucks in the past are likely to do so again. Fortunately, we have a source to go to for information on where to find big deer in the Magnolia State: the Magnolia Records Program.

Established by the MDWFP, the MRP provides hunters with the opportunity to have antlers from deer that they've killed scored and placed on a list of big bucks taken in the state. The Magnolia Records can give you a picture of the areas in which big bucks historically have been produced.

THE COUNTIES

No. 1: Madison

One reason that Madison County consistently comes in first on the list of counties for top-quality bucks is Dacus said, the practices of landowners. "I've hunted Madison County, and I work with properties in Madison County," he said. "There's no doubt that there are a lot of big deer there. The reason they're able to have those deer is that they're managing their property well, and that's taken a lot of education."

Another reason for the number of Madison deer in the Magnolia Records is that it's one county removed from Jackson, where a large deer extravaganza is held every year. "There are a lot more opportunities to have those deer scored," Dacus suggested. As a result, Madison County may be slightly overrepresented on the Magnolia Records relative to the rest of the state.

No. 2: Claiborne

"Many people are trying to manage for older age-structure in Claiborne County," said deer program biologist Chris McDonald. "So there are older deer there. Second, soil fertility there is very high, which translates into good habitat for deer."

McDonald called Claiborne a "river" county. "The Mississippi River is the western border of that county," he noted, "and you also have the Big Black River there."

No. 3: Yazoo

"Half of Yazoo County is in the Delta, and another significant portion of it is on the Big Black River," said deer program biologist Lann Wilf. "Another portion of it is the hills directly adjacent to the Delta, which are extremely fertile. Yazoo also has a real strong following in quality deer management, and most landowners are not shooting state-legal deer." Those folks are instead managing for older bucks with larger racks.

No. 4: Hinds

Although Hinds County doesn't lie on the major river drainages, McDonald said, it still has much the same soil system. "It's in the Lower Thick Loess soil region," he pointed out. As a result, its fertility is very good, and it produces a lot of big deer.

No. 5: Attala

"Good habitat management and the Big Black River combine with the Yockanookany River system to make big deer here," said deer program biologist William McKinley. "Those two river systems come through Attala County, and both produce some very good deer because of the more fertile soils in those areas.

No. 6: Jefferson

"Jefferson County is about the same as Claiborne and Hinds in terms of soils," biologist McDonald said. "And it's a river county like Claiborne." He also noted that any river county going to be a top area in this part of Mississippi.

No. 7: Holmes

"Holmes County is very similar to Attala County, in that the Big Black River system is producing some very good deer," McKinley said. Both counties fall in the region around that waterway.

"You'll see a trend there along the Big Black River," the biologist observed. "Everywhere along that river starting at about Attala and Holmes counties and going south, you're going to see a better class of animals coming off that drainage system because of the soils."

No. 8: Wilkinson

Wilkinson County is another area that benefits from its unique location. The Mississippi River lies on its west side, the Homochitto National Forest is to the north, and a wealth of riverine habitat exists within its boundaries. Bottom line: another excellent county for big private-land bucks.

No. 9: Adams

With the Mississippi River on its west and Sandy Creek and Homochitto National Forest in its western portion, Adams County also falls into the category of river counties. Also, containing a large tract of federal land open for hunting makes it user-friendly to the hunters. Good management in this county also contributes to the production of some very nice bucks.

No. 10: Warren

"In Warren County you have the Mississippi River on one side and the Big Black River on the other side," Wilf said. "And most landowners there are managing for older deer." This combination of factors puts Warren in the top echelon of Mississippi trophy counties.

No. 11: Copiah

"The western part of Copiah County is real good from a deer standpoint," biologist McDonald said. "Most of the areas I've visited in the county are overpopulated, but the county still grows some good deer."

With a bit more management of the doe populations, Copiah appears to have the opportunity to move up in the listings.

No. 12: Noxubee

Rounding out the top dozen counties in the MRP listings is Noxubee, a county far removed from the rivers that support other top areas

. "A good portion of Noxubee County is in the Blackland Prairie," William McKinley said. "For years, it's been known to carry some very large animals. That prairie soil produces some really great deer.

"Plus, people were managing deer in Noxubee County before deer management began in a lot of other counties. So the fact that a lot of the area has been on management for a long period of time has helped tremendously."

PUBLIC LAND

When it comes to wildlife management areas and other public tracts, no definitive source for tracking big-buck harvest exists; for that information we turn to the biologists who monitor the deer on Magnolia State public sites.

Sunflower WMA

"Sunflower is unique," biologist Lann Wilf said. "It has a relatively low deer density. It's in the Big and Little Sunflower river drainages, and has exceptional deer habitat. That makes for challenging hunting, because it's real thick in a lot of places.

"What makes it pretty decent is that this is the fifth season of the 15-inch inside-spread rule." To be legal quarry at this tract, a whitetail buck must sport a rack featuring either a 15-inch inside spread or a main beam measuring at least 18 inches.

Shipland WMA

"Shipland is on the same antler criteria as Sunflower," Wilf noted. "Shipland is the only WMA we have that's behind the Mississippi River levee and is on the 'batture' soil-type. It's just archery and primitive weapons; there is no modern weapons season on it."

Although the WMA is small, covering just 3,642 acres, its unique geographic position still makes the tract a good prospect for giving up some trophy-sized whitetails.

Twin Oaks WMA

"Twin Oaks is exceptional," Wilf said. "It has the same antler criteria as Sunflower and Shipland, but it's draw hunt all the way through the season, and it's archery and primitive weapons only. So there are a lot of deer being protected and getting into the older age-classes there."

Lake George WMA

In force at Lake George are the restrictive antler criteria that characterize all of the top WMAs. "Lake George has no draw hunts," Wilf reported. "It has a rifle hunt, but a lot of the area is regenerated hardwood that is anywhere from 12 to 15 years old. That means it's real thick, and probably is some of the best deer habitat on any management area in the state.

But that thickness isn't all good news. "It's exceedingly hard to hunt," the biologist conceded, "but it has phenomenal opportunity. There are a lot of deer, and a lot of big deer, on Lake George WMA."

Mahannah WMA

"Mahannah WMA did have a 15-inch inside spread like the other WMAs, but last year it went to a 16-inch inside spread or a 20-inch main beam," Wilf said. "That's because all the adjacent clubs are doing basically the same thing."

Mahannah offers a draw hunt, the biologist noted, but there are archery, primitive weapons and rifle hunts held there as well. "The area has some phenomenal deer habitat on it," he continued. "It has a lot of deer, and it has big deer. The thing that makes it better than some areas is that the antler criteria are so high; everyone else is targeting 3-year-olds, but Mahannah is targeting 4-year-olds."

Copiah County WMA

"Copiah County WMA is in transition right now," Chris McDonald said. "It's predominantly mixed pine and hardwoods, but we're trying to do some habitat management on the property, and get some prescribed fire back on it."

Copiah County WMA has been under antler restrictions for two years. "This upcoming season will be the third year we have it," the biologist noted. "It started off as a 12-inch minimum inside spread; then, last year, we went with a 12-inch spread or a 15-inch main beam. That has allowed us to grow some older animals on the property, and the hunters out there are very happy. It's probably one of the most heavily hunted areas we have on a per-acre basis."

Sandy Creek WMA

"Sandy Creek WMA is a state-operated area that's actually owned by the U.S. Forest Service," McDonald explained. "It's dominated by hardwoods and mixed pine/hardwood habitat. Historically it's produced real good deer for public land. It has the same antler restrictions on it that Copiah County has, but it's a much larger area. It's about 17,000 acres."

Caston Creek WMA

According to McDonald, the quality of deer at Caston Creek WMA is good, but not as good as that at either Copiah Creek or Sandy Creek. "It's very different habitat," he pointed out. "There's a lot more area being managed for longleaf pine. There also are some soil differences. Typically as you go farther west the soil fertility increases, and Caston Creek is east of Sandy Creek."

As a result, the WMA's soil is less fertile than, and its overall quality of deer habitat not as good as, what's found at certain other areas. "However, there still are quality deer on that area," McDonald said.

Black Prairie WMA

"Black Prairie WMA is in Lowndes County, and is another of the WMAs that lies in the Blackland Prairie," biologist William McKinley said. "It's all permit-hunt-only, and has been that way for years.

"Some very good-quality animals have come off that area in the past," he added. "It has very limited use, and is managed more for quail than it is for deer. But at the same time, it has also produced some really outstanding bucks."

Malmaison WMA

"Malmaison WMA is another area known for producing some really outstanding animals," McKinley said. "It's a primitive-weapons-only hunt that doesn't allow modern firearms, and it does have a specific doe season.

"If you harvest a doe during that time frame you can hunt a buck during the peak of the rut. And at the end of that time it opens back up for everyone to come in and buck hunt." In other words: Kill a female deer early, and you get a "bonus point" that you can use to come back to hunt a buck at a prime time of the season.

"A lot of Malmaison is in the Delta," Lann Wilf offered. "It's also on the 15-inch/18-inch antler rule. It has extremely good deer habitat in places, but there also are a lot of deer on it."

O'Keefe WMA

O'Keefe WMA holds no draw hunts, biologist Wilf stated. "It's archery and primitive weapons only," he said. "It's in the Delta, and they're doing some timber work that ought to improve the habitat. The deer habitat there historically has been good, but not that phenomenal. It's going to improve substantially, because we're doing habitat work in there."

Natchez State Park

McDonald pointed to one more area that hunters shouldn't overlook: Natchez State Park WMA.

"This is a relatively new area from a hunting standpoint," he explained. "It's a park rather than a true WMA; in other words, hunting is not the sole purpose of it. The past few years we have opened it up to draw hunting only,

and we have youth, handicapped, and adult hunts on it. It's mostly primitive weapons and archery on that site, and there are some quality deer for sure on it."

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