Public Land Buck Hunts

As you might surmise, not all public lands are created equal with regard to deer hunting potential. Here's a look at how you can figure out which are the best tracts in Mississippi for you.

By John J. Woods

Hunting-gear stores are to men what candy shops are to women. Deer hunters really have no business hanging out in either one for very long. The only possible end result can be a whetted appetite for another treat. But then, we boys must have our toys, right? I often have to counter my wife's argument "One gun should be enough for anyone" with this question: If a person has tasted chocolate once, why should that person need to eat it again? The same logic can also be applied to places to hunt.

When I study all the public land options in Mississippi, I break out in a cold sweat. It's like peering at a rack of brand-new hunting rifles. It's overwhelming. With more than 2 million acres open to public hunting in this state, it is little wonder that narrowing the choices to a few best bets can be quite a challenge. We want to hunt them all.

What with 42 state-owned wildlife management areas (WMAs), six national forests (NFs), nine national wildlife refuges (NWRs), and thousands of additional acres of lands managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi deer hunters have an extensive list of options to explore. The problem becomes how to decide where to go for a reasonable chance at a quality buck hunt on public lands.

SETTING GOALS
With so many choices, how does one tackle such a gorilla? You have got to have a plan; otherwise, you spin your wheels and waste time wondering where to go, or wandering around a piece of public property that has never demonstrated the potential to yield the type of deer hunt you want. First, decide what kind of deer hunting experience you really desire.

Enough deer harvest data and public reports are available from numerous resources these days that you can make an educated guess about which public lands may be good bets for various deer hunting goals. If you are mainly after freezer meat, then you should consider hunting a public site that has consistently yielded good harvests of antlerless deer. Such information is not difficult to find, but getting your hands on it does require a little time to dig in the right places.

Bobby Woods of Greenville displays the kind of bucks that the Yazoo NWR gives up. Photo by John J. Woods

Deer hunters who are only interested in hunting bucks with trophy potential can do the same analysis. The taking of a doe may be a secondary mission, or not one at all. However, keep in mind that when it comes down to deer hunting strategies in the field one particular goal may be ultimately achieved by pursuing a seemingly unrelated goal.

For example, concentrating on hunting antlerless deer during the rut is likely to result in some high quality buck action as well. Though this is not a "how to" article, it is always important to keep hunting tactics in mind.

Travel considerations may play a role in choosing where to hunt. Just how far are you willing to drive from your home to get to a selected hunting area? It is a good idea to get out a state road map and draw a circle to scale, starting with a hundred miles from home. If you live in Booneville, for example, and this is your travel limit, forget the Yazoo NWR, in the Delta region. Set realistic hunting goals focusing on a place closer to home, like the Holly Springs NF.

The element of time investment should enter into the picture as well. If you can't realistically dedicate the time to scout and then hunt a particular public hunting property, then it makes little sense to consider that site. Plan to invest two days in driving around any new area for familiarization. At least three days should be given to getting out of the vehicle to walk roads, trails, old logging skidder routes, creek drainages and habitat features. All of this should be done well ahead of the season so you can pick out your hunting spots early.

The idea of setting priorities for hunting goals cannot be stressed enough. If you sit down for a few minutes and decide what kind of hunt you are after, then the task of narrowing down all the available choices becomes much more manageable.

PUBLIC LAND RESOURCES
The first step in choosing any public land option for deer hunting is to gather up as much information and data as possible. We are very fortunate in this electronic age to have a variety of ways in which to tackle this job. A thorough study of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) Web site, at www.mdwfp.com, is the first place to start. You can access a ton of valuable information from it.

Use other Web sites, such as the various federal agencies governing the national wildlife refuges and other public land resources. These should include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the national Forest Service. Any good search engine can put you right in the middle of more information than you can ever digest. Surfing these resources is highly recommended.

The MDWFP Web site has information on all of the wildlife districts in the state. Each state WMA is covered in detail, including maps, seasons, special rules and regulations, plus other site data. Deer harvest data is available, as well as listings by county of all the bucks currently in the Magnolia Records Program. Studying this data can help you determine where big bucks are being taken in the state.

Farther delving into the site can yield data on mean conception (peak rut) dates by county and a host of other pieces of data to help hunters make good decisions about where to go to hunt state-owned public lands. The federal sites may not offer much in terms of harvest data, but they will provide detailed overviews about hunting the property.

The annual publications supplied by the MDWFP are good sources of hard-copy information. The annual outdoor digest, found at local hunting license dealers, is a "must have" booklet for all kinds information on WMAs, licenses, season dates, harvest bag limits, rules, regulations, regional wildlife district contact phone numbers, and registration details on the Tel-Chek program. Always keep a copy in your hunting vehicle for ready reference.

Another valuable document to acquire from the MDWFP is the Mississippi Deer Data/Deer Program Report. Much of this information is available on the Web, but the soft-cover book has all of the pertinent deer data compiled in one source for easy and quick reference.

Now, all of this information need only be digested if the goal is to pick a new or unfamiliar public land for deer hunting or if the ulti

mate goal is to hunt the hottest place in the state for big-buck potential. If that decision has already been made, simply because a good local public area is only 10 miles from the house and the area is already pretty well known to you, then you are ready for the next level.

SELECTION CRITERION
How do you pick a public land to hunt for bucks? One might think the easiest way is to hunt where the most bucks have been taken in past seasons. In fact, that may not be a bad strategy, but it needs a little further examination to include some additional aspects to tell the whole story.

For example, if you study the last statewide deer harvest data available - which was for the 2001 season - the chart lists the Chickasawhay WMA as having yielded a harvest of 350 deer, 250 of which were bucks. This was the highest buck count for any WMA in the state. That sounds like a buck hotspot right? If you dig a little deeper, you also learn that this same WMA generated 25,000 man-days of hunter activity that season. This translates into 71 man-days per deer taken on the property and 100 man-days per buck. This means hunting pressure was pretty high.

By contrast, the Copiah County WMA gave up a total of 131 deer - 78 bucks and 53 does. Total man-days that season were only 13,339, which means only 10 man-days for each deer taken, and only 17 man-days per buck. The potential of this area is pretty obvious.

Couple this data with local reports of some very nice trophy bucks coming off this WMA the past few seasons, and Copiah looks like a winner. It is obvious that this spot is more viable for a trophy hunter than a site that actually yielded more total bucks. Of course, keep in mind, too, that we really have no way to quantify buck quality on any public land, except through local news reports. Maintain a close watch on those reports throughout every hunting season and afterwards.

Of the 41 state WMAs with listed harvest data in the 2001 report, the range of man-days required to harvest a buck runs from a low of 9.5 days to an unreal high of 635. Naturally, we know that some hunters may have taken a buck after only one day of hunting on any given plot of public land, but these statistics do serve as a rule of thumb in evaluating the overall deer hunting potential of a particular site.

Certainly a hunter could walk into the worst statistical site in the state and kill the next state-record buck. You need to examine this type of data carefully and apply it with a strong measure of common sense. Mainly examine deer data for total harvest, buck harvest, acreage and man-day pressure.

Once all the analysis is done, make the best choice to match your hunting goals. Then settle on the site and apply everything you know about buck hunting strategies and tactics. Learn the layout of the land by studying a good topographic map. Drive the property thoroughly to become familiar with every forest road and trail. Get out to walk the land, and walk a lot. Search for land features favoring buck hideouts, travel routes, funnels, feeding areas and food resources unique to the site. Find the persimmon or crabapple trees, bedding areas, drainage patterns, crossings, and edges where habitat types meet.

Look for tracks and travel patterns, noting the going-to and coming-from directions, then scout them both ways. Along the way, keep an eye out for portable tree stand placement locations. As the season nears, continue scouting for active sign, such as early-season rubs or scrapes.

THE UPSIDE ISSUES
With 2 million acres of public hunting lands available, the issue is not access. For example, in the Delta NF, north of Vicksburg, the Sunflower WMA has plenty of access roads. But scouting can lead you to locating several greentree flooded-timber areas where bucks really like to hide out. Most hunters never venture far enough into the property to find these.

Another benefit is that public lands are maintained. Roads, bridges and walk-in trails are generally kept up. Many WMAs have planted food plots, although you have to work to find them. Access may or may not be allowed for ATVs, so come prepared to walk. I've stumbled onto planted plots at Caney Creek, Pascagoula and Pearl River WMAs, as well as in several national forests, over the years.

Mississippi's public lands also offer an amazing array of habitat types. They range from flooded swamplands characteristic of the Yazoo NWR, near Glen Alan in Washington County; to the rolling pine hills of the Caney Creek WMA, within the Bienville NF in Scott County; to the deep hardwood gullies found in Franklin County's Sandy and Caston Creek WMAs. You can choose the habitat that matches your hunting style.

THE DOWNSIDE?
It would be denying reality if we ignored the potential disadvantages of hunting public lands. However, the downsides often never really materialize.

First off, public lands are, well, public. During hunting seasons, dedicated trophy hunters may encounter less-devoted deer hunters, or even folks pursuing other game species. Non-hunter road traffic may prove distracting as well.

Avoiding hunting pressure can be achieved by steering clear of sites listing high rates of man-day activity. Even on those areas, crowding can be negated by effectively scouting for isolated microhabitats off the beaten pathways. Hunt on weekdays, when traffic is slack, rather than on weekends, when traffic is high. Take advantage of special hunts, such as the muzzleloader season or the late archery season.

Misgivings also arise on the NWRs, which often have special rules, regulations, season dates and bag limits. Sometimes it makes one think such rules are intended to deter hunting on these public lands. Obtain current information from the appropriate federal Web sites, then contact the specific site area manager to verify the information. Make no mistakes when it comes to complying with federal rules.

Know also that jumping through these hoops can be entirely worth the effort. Three NWRs in particular - the Yazoo, Panther Swamp and Noxubee - have proven reputations for producing big bucks. The Yazoo NWR, especially, has yielded a number of Pope and Young Club all-time-record-book bucks over the years.

Harvesting a nice buck off public land in Mississippi is definitely a realistic possibility. It takes planning, goal setting, resource study, and plenty of hunting time in the woods.

Oh yeah, and on your way out to hunt you might stop by a gun shop to browse or a candy shop to pick up a chocolate candy bar . . . to boost your energy for dragging out that big buck, of course.



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