Mississippi's 'New' Deer Hunters

Mississippi's 'New' Deer Hunters

The Magnolia State's deer woods are attracting more women than ever before -- and the ladies are bagging some impressive bucks!

By John J. Woods

The face of deer hunting in Mississippi is changing. Every season, more women hunters of all ages are taking to deer stands all over the state. To my way of thinking, this is a good thing in a lot of ways. New hunters bring new blood and new spirit into the sport. Women hunters offer deer hunting a new influx of interest, inquiry and energy that many of us seasoned hunters have lost.

Several years ago in my own annual hunter safety classes, I began to take note of an obvious shift in the makeup of the class. Gone was the total class enrollment of young boys with dads or granddads. Now dads and moms were bringing their daughters to take the course. College-age men were sharing classroom seats with girlfriends or wives. It certainly created a change of pace in the classroom.

Often when asked what their main interest in taking hunter safety was all about, the reply had to do with the fact that if they wanted to spend any time with their boyfriend or husband, they had to learn to hunt. Even that point of view has changed as well, with many women now taking to the woods simply because they enjoy the sport just as much as the men.

With two daughters of my own, I'm happy to see more women afield. In my Mississippi deer-hunting club today, there are six young women gaining experience as deer hunters. Only one member's wife currently hunts, but several others visit camp to join in the fellowship and camp activities. Having entire families round out camp attendance makes it a lot easier to justify time given to deer hunting.

Because women are spending more time deer hunting these days, it is inevitable that stories about women taking good bucks have begun to emerge. This past season produced more such stories than usual, despite the fact that last deer season was a bit unproductive for a lot of deer hunters in the Magnolia State.

Let's take a closer look at few of these bucks and the hunters who collected them.

DETERMINATION FOR REDEMPTION

It took 18 years of marriage watching her husband drive off to deer camp before Kathy Price decided to join the crowd. At the end of the season a year ago, she finally opted to give it a try. On the coldest day of the season, with the mercury hovering low in the vial at 13 degrees, she donned every stitch of warm clothes she had and headed for a deer stand.

"At daybreak a doe stepped out and I shot. I missed, but I have to admit I was hooked," Price recounted.

"My husband, Anthony, has hunted since he was a child and has always encouraged me to try it, too. I just could not see any fun in getting up before daylight to go sit for hours in the cold," she quipped.

That's a common sentiment that used to be expressed quite regularly by the ladies, but frankly is not exclusive to their gender. A lot of guys voice the same objection. Once they finally do give hunting a try, a certain number of both men and women experience the same rush of excitement. They learn that hunting is a challenging sport.

"I was determined to get more serious about deer hunting this past season. My husband and I had gone hunting four or five times, working to position me for a good shot. Each time he would select a good stand based on past scouting, buck sign and deer observation history. He was really going the extra mile to help me get a deer," Price noted.

"Once I was settled in, he would trek off to his own stand," she continued. "During one of those hunts, a nice 6-point buck stepped out, but I missed the shot again. We hunt on private land, using only muzzleloaders, and I was beginning to doubt my shooting ability. I was shooting a brand-new blackpowder rifle I had just gotten a few days earlier.

"I was so determined to get my deer that when we went hunting again on the 22nd of December, I asked Anthony to sit with me. I thought maybe he could figure out what I was doing wrong. After hours in the box stand, we had only seen one deer. I was getting restless. Just then out of nowhere a buck stepped into the shooting lane."

Kathy quickly got over her restlessness, and this time buck fever was not the problem. Rather, she was trying to focus on exactly where the deer was.

"I distinctly remember several rather stern whispers repeated over and over right in my ear, 'Shoot the deer, shoot the deer,' which did not help to calm me down one bit," Price related.

Kathy drew a few breaths, propped up the barrel of her muzzleloader and centered the buck in the crosshairs of the scope.

"I said to myself, 'OK, I am shooting this deer" as I pressed the trigger to take the shot. I laugh now, but I was somewhat shocked that the wind blowing in our face sent all of the blackpowder smoke drifting right back into our stand," she chuckled. "Our vision downrange was completely obscured."

At least they had heard the deer crashing off into the woods, so they had a good idea where to start tracking the buck. With two previous misses, she was a little anxious about her shot. Kathy and Anthony waited the customary few minutes before starting the search. They then spread out in search of a blood trial. Kathy found the first sign of a solid hit with a spray of blood on nearby sage grass. She recalled that Anthony just grinned and gave her a high five.

Within a hundred yards of that spot, Kathy found her first buck. The 80-yard shot went right through the shoulder. The buck weighed a whopping 230 pounds on the hoof and was more than 4 years old. The antlers totaled 10 points, one broken brow tine with other kicker points out the backside. With a 12-inch spread, the rack was not wide, but it made up for it in mass.

THE FAMILY AFFAIR

Though Darrell Blakely is an avid deer hunter, he always missed one aspect - having his entire family involved in the sport he loves so well. Last September a major hurdle in that quest was cleared when Darrell, his wife, Virginia, and their daughters, Kristin, age 12, and Karli, age 10, took the state-sponsored hunter safety course together. It was to be Virginia's first deer season to hunt, though she had been around the sport all of her life.

To get things started off right, Virginia selected a Ruger 77 Compact rifle, chambered for the light-recoiling .243 Winchester and topped with a scope. She then invested some time at the shooting range practicing prior to opening day. That preparation paid off, as she took a doe early in the season. Still, the bucks seemed to elude her.

The Blakely family hunts in eastern Mississippi on private land in Newton County. Virginia had a good feeling about the stand overlooking a green plot that she selected on December 19, 2003. She had

seen deer crossing the food plot during the previous week's hunt.

Getting a late-afternoon start, she did not get settled into the stand until shortly after 4 o'clock. Because it was late, Darrell had decided to sit with her but was soon catching 40 winks. At 5 p.m. a doe popped out of the brush into the plot.

"At first I thought it was my imagination, so I nudged Darrell to tell him a deer was in the plot. From his position he could not see the deer, but just then a buck stepped out and I thought my imagination had really gone wild," Virginia recounted.

"I watched the deer for a second or two, and then I put up my rifle to take a look through the scope. I could definitely count points - six of them, in fact, were pretty clear. The buck fed for a few minutes, then stopped to gaze around the food plot. I had the scope on him the whole time, and when he raised his head for a broadside shot, I pulled the trigger," she detailed.

At the shot, the buck ran about 30 yards across the food plot, disappearing into the woods. Virginia thought the buck acted wounded by running low to the ground in an unusual fashion. She was confident she had made a good shot, so she held off tracking the deer for about 15 minutes.

Once she was down out of the stand, there was no blood trail, but it did not take very long to find the buck only 20 yards inside the woods line. Keeping track of where the deer entered the trees made for the speedy recovery, which was lucky, since it was getting dark.

A quick inspection revealed the buck's rack carried 8 points and had a 13-inch inside spread. Back at camp, the buck was weighed at 175 pounds. A doe and a trophy buck in the freezer is a pretty good way for any hunter to start a first season!

Melissa Ballard killed this 14-point buck last season. The deer's rack green-scored 144 1/8 B&C points. Photo by John J. Woods

FAMILY COMPETITION

Melissa and Ashton Ballard of Clinton took up hunting in order to share some time with husband and father Dwayne. Both the mother and the daughter, however, found the sport to their liking and developed into accomplished hunters.

On a youth deer-hunt weekend back in mid-November of 2003, Ashton proved that point. The teenager bagged a 13-point buck. After seeing her picture in the Clinton News, I tracked down her father, Dwayne. In talking with him, I discovered that his wife, Melissa, had also killed a big buck during the season that rivaled the one Ashton bagged. This sounded like an even better story!

Ashton began deer bunting in earnest at 8 years old. To date, she has taken 10 whitetails, but the really nice bucks had eluded her during those early seasons. When the 2003 youth hunt rolled around, she was anxious to get into a stand with her dad, who acted as guide and mentor.

On opening day of the youth weekend, she missed a nice 8-point after watching a dozen deer feed on a green plot. This only served to heighten her concentration for the next day. By 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Ashton was again perched over the plot. As many as 17 deer showed up on the plot at one time during this hunt. But it was two bucks in particular that caught her undivided attention.

When the two deer finally spread far enough apart to provide a better view, Ashton knew one was a keeper. As she fired her 260 Remington rifle, one of the bucks made an odd movement, making her think she had shot the wrong one, but then the buck she was aiming at ran off.

A minimal blood trail made tracking difficult. In fact, she and her dad were unable to find the deer. Dwayne then called in some friends, and at 9:30 p.m. the buck was located.

The big whitetail weighed in at 235 pounds. Its rack had 13 points and an inside spread of over 22 inches. The rack unofficially scored 146 6/8 Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) points.

Melissa Ballard, however, was not quite ready to concede family bragging rights to her daughter yet.

A month later, Melissa was on her way to a green plot where a neighbor's cows often showed up. She had the same rifle Ashton had hunted with, and with Dewayne in tow, she cautiously walked the final 20 yards to the plot. At the edge, both hunters spotted the shape of an animal at the opposite end of the plot. Though they thought it was a cow, a pair of binoculars revealed one side of a trophy-class rack.

Raising her rifle, Melissa checked the buck through her scope. As she tried to steady the rifle, it dawned on her that she had never shot standing up. Struggling to stay calm, she locked the crosshairs on the buck and squeezed the trigger without glancing again at the antlers.

The buck bolted from sight into thick pine cover. After waiting 30 minutes, Melissa and Dwayne tracked the deer 100 yards before finding it.

The 14-point buck weighed 205 pounds and the rack had a 19-inch spread. Melissa did not quite overtake her daughter, however, as the unofficial B&C score totaled 144 1/8.

"My hunt ended so fast that we had plenty of time to clean up and go to dinner," Melissa beamed. "This was better than Christmas."

Indeed, the 2003 deer season was a banner year for the Ballard women. And it foreshadows more such stories from future seasons as the makeup of the Magnolia State's hunting population continues to evolve.



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