Photo by Mike Searles.
O.T. Sutton has the Mississippi deer hunting thing figured out — which is why the walls of his Columbia home are covered with trophy heads.
In addition to being a crackerjack shot and an excellent (albeit amateur) gunsmith, this guy has mastered the heart of hunting bucks through the entire rutting cycle — which to many hunters means a few weeks of pre-rut and another week of bucks actually chasing does.
Not to Sutton.
To him it means hunting pre-rut bucks during the archery season in Tunica County in November and continuing his pursuit of the big boys through the peak of south Mississippi’s doe-chasing in February. Thus, he was probably the happiest man in the Magnolia State when the deer season was extended through to Feb. 15 for muzzleloaders and archery in the extreme southeastern corner a few years ago.
“You know I was!” said the former guide, who honed his buck communication skills during years of helping clients at Mississippi’s first pay-to-hunt operation at Cedar Ridge near Port Gibson. “When they gave us those extra weeks of hunting in south Mississippi, that was the final piece of the puzzle for me.
“And we really needed that change — because hunters around the rest of Mississippi don’t have a clue just what we were facing down here. The season was ending before we were ever really seeing bucks chasing does. It was always bad, but once the deer population started exploding it just got worse.”
Mississippi wildlife officials divided the state into two deer zones far different from each other in size. Zone 2, or the southeast, comprising only nine counties and parts of five others, includes the worst of Mississippi’s deer habitat, the southern coastal plain and the southern end of the Pine Belt.
Most of the area’s small complement of hardwoods spared by the lumber companies was destroyed by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the horrific storm has provided a great benefit to the Zone 2 deer population by opening holes in the dense pine forests. Biologists predict a rise in the number of deer and improvement in the herd’s health.
“Obviously, that could further affect the rut down there,” said Chad Dacus, deer project coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “The latest breeding date that we recorded in the state for last year was March 21 in Perry County” — which lies in the heart of Zone 2. “Any time you put more deer on the ground, you’re putting more antlerless deer and that means it takes longer for them to all cycle out once or twice and be bred.”
Dacus and the rest of the state’s biologists have comprised a map that shows the average breeding periods for all parts of Mississippi. It is posted on the agency’s Web site at mdwfp.com (just look for the site’s link to the new deer page) and is based on the historical data collected in post-deer season studies of does shot later in the spring. Biologists collected the fetuses, aged them and determined dates of conception.
The breeding map — color-coded to distinguish 10 different time periods — can be very beneficial to hunters, making available one more tool with which to decipher buck movements. “You can take their average date, and factor in the moon phases and pretty much plan your season,” Sutton explained approvingly. “I for one believe that the most does come into estrus on the full moon phase. So if I take the average date of conception and look for the nearest full moon to that date — hey, I’m onto something.
“For a lot of us who have hunted all our lives in certain areas, if we are half the sportsmen we ought to be, we have recorded our successes in our logs and know pretty much what is going to happen. But for newcomers, this can be an invaluable tool. It also would be a nice tool for somebody who has hunted one club in one part of the state all his or her life and then moves to a new club in another area.”
According to the map, the peak breeding period is earliest in northwest Mississippi, where it falls between Dec. 6 and 13. “Of course, that’s just a peak, and there’s obviously a broad range,” Dacus said. “We know that some does are being bred in November. But that week in early December is the peak period.”
The earliest breeding during last hunting season that has been confirmed by the MDWFP was Nov. 20 in Coahoma County; the latest average breeding period, Jan. 24 through Feb. 6, occurred in the extreme southeast, the relevant area incorporating Jackson, George, Greene, the eastern edges of Harrison and Stone, the southeast corner of Forrest, the southeastern two-thirds of Perry and the southern part of Wayne counties.
“We know that it can extend much later into February and even early March down there,” Dacus pointed out. “And, obviously, it can happen earlier in January, especially in some pockets where there has been some quality deer management.”
Most areas of the state have a peak period lasting from as few as five days to as much as a week, the longest being the southeast corner’s two-week stretch reaching into early February.
“I think that is a direct sign of just how out of whack our deer population is down here, in regards to buck/doe ratios,” said Pascagoula’s Larry Walker, who hunts public lands throughout the area from the massive Pascagoula River Wildlife Management Area to the Leaf River WMA near McLain. “We have got to take more does and start letting the bucks walk to get that ratio better, and I applaud the wildlife agency for their efforts to do that. The tighter buck antler restriction in Zone 2 is forcing hunters to let the young bucks go — or, at least, it’s putting out the message that they ought to let them walk.
“I was worried at first that when they extended our season to Feb. 15 and made it bucks only that it would further worsen the problem, but I don’t see that happening. Hunters are being selective — at least they ones I know are. We have stressed to everyone we know, my buddies and I, to take a few does early in the season in November and December and to take at least one doe for every buck they plan to take later.”
The Zone 2 restrictions only allow hunters to take bucks that have at least 4 points or greater and either a minimum inside spread of 10 inches or a minimum main beam length of 12 inches.
Sutton looks at the map with a chuckle. “I can relate to it,” he said, referring to w
hat he has seen happening in his 40-plus years of hunting experience and how it jives with the map. “The one thing that jumps out at me is the late breeding down here in my area” — by which he meant the peak dates of Jan. 9-16 in Marion and Jeff Davis counties. “That’s accurate to a degree; it used to be dead on that.
“And I know that to be a fact: Since I have always worked either a month on and month off, or six weeks on and six weeks off schedule in the oil fields, I have watched the calendars and done the best I could to work around the rut. I have noticed in the last 10 to 15 years that the peak has consistently been getting later. It may still be Jan. 9 to 16 where they are checking the does, but I promise you it’s later than that where I hunt — I’d say a week or two.”
Sutton has seen the peak of doe chasing move from mid-January to late in the month, and often sees bucks chasing does that recycle in late February during the squirrel and rabbit seasons. “I’ll be scouting turkeys in late February or even early March and see bucks chasing does — and I mean bucks that we haven’t seen all year,” he added. “What you have to realize is that with the buck/doe ratio out of kilter, a lot of the does don’t get bred in that first peak period. They recycle 28 days later and the bucks start running them again.
“One of the best tips I can give hunters is that when you see the bucks starting to really run does in January, mark that date down on the calendar and count 28 days later. Circle that day and plan to hunt if you can. There will be plenty of does in season again during that period, especially younger does.”
Sutton actually prefers to hunt what he calls the peak of the pre-rut, when he gets to call bucks with rattling horns and grunt tubes. Some of his best bucks were fooled by his crashing horns, stomping the ground and grunting up a storm.
“Again, this map can help you figure that out, too,” he said. “The peak period for calling deer with rattling horns is 10 days to two weeks prior to when does come into estrus. The bucks have already started fighting to establish dominance. You can get into a buck’s home area, start up a good, loud fighting sequence, and the biggest buck around will have to come to defend his range or, at least, to look and see if the bucks battling in his area are ones he should deem competition.
“You get a short window of opportunity there — a week or so before the does come into estrus. Once they’re hot, you can forget that calling stuff. A buck won’t leave a hot doe for anything, not even to defend his territory.”
According to Dacus, biologists are busy tracking the southeast Mississippi deer herd and the impact of Katrina. He expects that both quantity and quality will rise in the coming decade.
Already, with quality deer management practices observed on big deer clubs, biologists and sportsmen are beginning to see the kind of first-quality bucks that Zone 2 counties can produce. Antler restrictions should also produce similar results on public land — and there’s a lot of that.
“We have some really big tracts of very remote deer habitat in southeast Mississippi,” Dacus said. “We’ve got some that are really, really difficult to hunt and obviously those are probably where some of the better deer are because they aren’t under as much pressure.”
Two of those areas would be the Pascagoula WMA on the east and Old River WMA on the west side. “I’d bet there’s still some areas back in those WMAs that rarely have or never been hunted because you can only get to them in a boat,” Larry Walker agreed. “You can get as remote as you want to get. Obviously, the only thing that bucks have going for them in antler growth down here is age.
“Let’s face it: We don’t have the genetics and we don’t have the mineral-rich habitat or soil quality to help. The best we can do is let them get old and see what happens. We see a couple of good deer each year come out of Leaf River and a few at Chickasawhay, but those WMAs get a lot of pressure.”
The extended rut has yet to attract a lot of upstate Mississippi “Yankees” down to Zone 2 for some late-season hunting, at least not on the WMAs.
One reason, Chad Dacus suggested, is the difficulty in hunting the WMAs hit so hard by Katrina, as all the downed timber makes it hard to see deer and get around. “You can’t imagine just how difficult it is,” Walker said. “I’m excited about it because I really believe we’ve got a lot of bucks at these WMAs that will reach full maturity before being seen, and many that will die of old age after producing more deer.”
Dacus likened the difficulty in hunting to that experienced in the early 1990s after the severe ice storm that hit the north Mississippi Delta and other northern areas. “Similar situation, totally different causes,” the biologist explained. “The ice snapped most of the trees in the Delta in half that winter and made hunting up there impossible for the next decade; Katrina did the same, if not more, in southeast Mississippi. Long-term I think that it could help. Opening up that canopy lets the sun hit the forest floor and it promotes growth of browse and grasses that can feed the deer.”
Thanks to the Magnolia Records Program, it’s getting easier to see the kind of bucks that the southeast counties can produce, and the kind that will be available during the late rut.
Pearl River County has produced the most inches of antler on any one deer in the form of a non-typical 20-pointer that netted 184 7/8 Boone and Crockett Club points back in 1985. Three other counties, all split between Zones 1 and 2, have produced non-typicals. Those are Jeff Davis (170 3/8 B&C), Marion (159 6/8 B&C) and Covington (155 4/8 B&C). Records do not indicate which zone actually produced those deer.
No Boone and Crockett qualifiers for the club’s all-time record book been produced in Zone 2 counties, although two have produced typical deer that grossed over the minimum net of 170 inches. A Perry County buck taken in 1994 grossed 185 inches, but the 12-point netted just 165 2/8 B&C. In 1995, Forrest County produced a gross buck of 170 7/8 that netted 165 1/8. Those are Zone 2’s two largest typicals.
George County has the toughest time producing top-quality bucks, perhaps as much because its remoteness in relation to the Pascagoula River swamps makes its big ones hardest to find and kill as for any other reason. Only one deer that beats the Magnolia Records minimum of 125 inches has come from George, a 126 6/8 taken back in 1950. Hancock County too has yielded up only one Magnolia Records buck, a 141 7/8 B&C from 2003.
Jones County, which is split between zones 1 and 2, is a county coming on strong. Of the six bucks that have qualified for Magnolia Records, five have been taken since 2000. The top three that scored 148 3/8, 138 7/8 and 134 6/8 were killed since 2005.
It’s likely that many other deer have been taken that would qualify for the state’s record program that just haven’t been entered. “I think it’s more likely that we’re going to see a lot more in the very near future,” said S
utton. “Giving us the opportunity to hunt bucks during the peak of the rut is certainly going to help. You know, we’d probably have seen a lot more Magnolia Record bucks in the past if we just could have hunted them when they needed to be hunted.
“Now that hunters can take muzzleloaders and archery equipment to the woods all the way through to Feb. 15, I think you’ll be seeing more of the bigger bucks — hadn’t been for Katrina, I think you would already see that happening. The only thing I think they need to do now is give us rifles and shotguns at least through Jan. 31, if not all the way through to Feb. 15. Last year, on Feb. 15, our bucks were running hot and heavy.”
Find more about Mississippi fishing and hunting at: MississippiGameandFish.com