"The more things change, the more they stay the same."
While this phrase was coined way back in 1839 by Alphonse Karr, a French writer, it is an accurate description of the current status of Mississippi's deer herd.
Despite all the changes made over the last few years to increase hunter opportunity and reduce deer numbers, the Magnolia State continues to have the highest deer density in the entire nation. Since peaking out at just over 2 million deer in 2000, Mississippi's herd has apparently leveled off to an estimated 1.75 million whitetails.
According to the 2010 Deer Program Report, the total number of deer hunters continued its downward trend from 132,000 to 126,000. However, hunter success rates actually increased to just over 2.14 deer per hunter. But even with an increase in hunter success, Mississippi's total deer harvest dropped from 281,000 to 270,000 animals.
"Even with the liberal season structure and bag limits, hunters are not harvesting enough deer to decrease the population," said Chad Dacus, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks deer program coordinator. "Over harvest of deer is not a risk, with the exception of some areas of southeast Mississippi. Across the remainder of the state, harvest numbers could increase without causing any negative effect on the deer herd."
Let's take a closer look at each of the six MDWFP deer regions and identify the best locations to harvest a deer — any deer — this season.
While progress is being made, hunter resistance to harvesting antlerless deer continues to be a problem in some areas of the North Region. Site visits by area biologists indicate grossly overpopulated deer herds in these same areas. The best solution to this problem is changes in management that will help curb the region's rapidly expanding deer herd.
"The soil found in this region is fertile enough to allow the habitat quality to be restored once deer numbers are reduced," said Lann Wilf, MDWFP regional deer biologist. "And since overpopulated deer herds in this region are much easier to control than in other areas of the state, the management potential for the North Region is very high."
According to the 2010 Deer Program Report prepared by the MDWFP deer committee, overall deer harvest in the 14-county North Region was down significantly from the previous year. Based on the data collected from 987 deer taken on 117,812 acres in the Deer Management Assistance Program, harvest intensity decreased from one deer per 116 acres to one deer per 119 acres.
When looking at the numbers for the region as a whole, the reduction in deer harvest went from one deer per 100 acres to one deer per 123 acres. It is suspected that the reduced harvest rates resulted from harsh weather, poor food plot success, and an above average mast crop.
"The deer harvest in the North Region continues to be skewed towards females, with over 65 percent of the 2009-2010 harvest being does," Wilf added.
According to Wilf, the percentage of 3 1/2-year-old does in the harvest increased to 51 percent, which indicates an expanding deer herd. If hunters in this region continue to refrain from antlerless harvest, the population will continue to explode and the results can be devastating.
When it comes to the top deer producing counties in the North Region, Marshall, Tate, and Panola are hard to beat. Charles Ray Nix, Hell Creek, and Canal Section Wildlife Management Areas offer sizeable deer populations with greatly reduced hunting pressure, when compared to other public land hunting spots. An area where crowding isn't an issue is the expansive Holly Springs National Forest, offering ample deer hunting opportunities.
NORTH CENTRAL REGION
Comprised of 15 counties, the North Central Region has been struggling with a serious overpopulation problem in recent years. While it cannot be conclusively attributed to the deer density problem, Hemorrhagic Disease has been rearing its ugly head at high rates across the region. In fact, the North Central Region saw almost as many confirmed cases of HD as the other five deer regions combined. Hunters reported sick deer and evidence of sloughing hooves.
"Many deer herds in the North Central Region are teetering on the edge of catastrophe, as evidenced by the 2009-2010 season," said William McKinley, the MDWFP regional deer biologist. "Herd numbers shouldn't be so high as to suffer during a wet year."
According to McKinley, the majority of clubs have more deer now than any time in the past. While the region has more mature bucks now than it did a decade ago, many of the region's deer managers have sacrificed nutrition for age and numbers.
Data from the 2010 Deer Program Report revealed that the percent of 3 1/2-year-old does continues to increase, which supports the fact that the deer herd in the North Central Region is continuing to grow at a rapid pace.
The good news is that harvesting a whitetail in this region shouldn't be too difficult a task this season. Some of the top deer counties in this region are Montgomery, Carroll and Attala. When it comes to public land hunting options, the North Central Region is home to the 48,000-acre Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, the largest tract of the Tombigbee National Forest, and a pair of the state's top deer producing WMAs in Black Prairie and Choctaw.
But if you're looking for a less crowded public hunting option in the North Central Region, Malmaison WMA is a good choice. Located on the western border of the region, Malmaison consistently produces some very impressive deer harvest numbers.
EAST CENTRAL REGION
Containing seven of the eleven different soil types found in the Magnolia State, the East Central Region is a very unique deer area. The diverse habitat and fertile soils found in the 12 counties that make up this deer region provide everything necessary for a healthy deer herd. However, it also contributes to the overpopulation problem, when not enough does are harvested each year.
Vast areas of the East Central Region are comprised of pine plantations that are just beginning to be thinned for the first time. Thinning the dense canopy will allow sunlight to reach the barren forest floor, resulting in the growth of an abundant supply of deer browse.
According to Amy Blaylock, the MDWFP regional deer biologist, the acres per deer-harvested in the East Central Region has leveled off over the past decade at a rate of one deer per 100 acres.
The concern remains that the already overpopulated herd in this region may explode as the habitat quality improves. And with the second highest number of deer diagnosed with HD coming from the East Central Region, there is good reason to be concerned.
When it comes to hunting opportunities, the highest deer densities in the East Central Region can be found in Madison, Simpson and Smith counties. For the best public land opportunities, hunters should focus on the Bienville NF and the three WMAs found within its borders — Caney Creek, Bienville, and Tallahala. Nanih Waiya WMA, located near Philadelphia in Neshoba County. is another very good prospect.
According to MDWFP regional deer biologists, the Southeast Region experienced a 10-year low in overall deer harvest during the 2005-2006 hunting season due to Hurricane Katrina. However, the most recent data indicates that the overall deer harvest there has finally rebounded to pre-Katrina levels.
In addition, the most recent DMAP harvest data reveals that most of the biological parameters for the deer population in this region haven't changed over the past five years.
Primarily because of poor soil fertility, the 15 counties in the Southeast Region have a reputation for having low quality deer habitat in general. With that in mind, it is doubtful that any measurable improvement in the deer population in the Southeast Region will be seen in the near future. Hunters in this region may have to accept that what they have now might be as good as it is going to get.
Your best chances for harvesting a deer in the Southeast Region are in Lamar, Marion, and Jefferson Davis counties. These counties have much higher deer densities than do the southern coastal counties. The Wolf River and Marion County WMAs, along with the vast De Soto NF, remain good public land choices for bagging a deer.
Hunters in the Delta Region have been faced with a number of challenges over the past few seasons. The same vast river systems that created the extremely fertile soils found in the Delta have wreaked havoc for hunters in low-lying areas across this 11-county region.
Severe flooding in recent years has resulted in abnormal concentrations of deer in higher areas, significant localized herd displacement, and substantial mortality in some locations. Harvest numbers, especially for antlerless deer, dropped dramatically in this region at a time when the population was expanding.
That was the situation prior to the record flooding that occurred this past spring. It may be some time before we see the full impact on the deer population in the Delta Region as a result of the devastating 2011 inundation.
"We will have to wait and see what happens," said Lann Wilf, MDWFP deer biologist for the Delta Region. "We expect the deer population in the Delta Region to continue to expand in the unaffected areas. However, the deer herd in the south Delta will definitely be stressed by the effects of the 2011 flood. And while the population should persist, we won't know for some time at what level."
Choosing the best counties in the Delta Region is a challenge, since one can be just as productive as the next. However, you are certain to increase your odds of harvesting a deer this season by focusing on the counties with the most timberland.
From the 100,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex to the numerous WMAs, the Delta Region has an abundance of public deer hunting opportunities. The real challenge comes in choosing which of these bountiful deer lands to bag your deer.
Three of the WMAs in this region are perennial picks when it comes to producing exceptional deer harvest numbers. O'Keefe WMA in Quitman County is unique because it is one of the largest contiguous tracts of timber in the north Mississippi Delta outside of the Mississippi River levee. The harvest numbers on O'Keefe have remained high enough to keep it in the top 10 WMAs in the state for the past several years.
Mahannah WMA in Issaquena County and Twin Oaks WMA in Sharkey County are the shining stars in the South Delta. Although they are better known for producing trophy bucks, this pair of WMAs also rates near the top of the list for total numbers of deer harvested per acre and man-days per deer.
If none of the WMAs in Delta Region suit your fancy, there is always the Delta NF or the massive Theodore Roosevelt NWR Complex, which is made up of six NWRs — Panther Swamp, Hillside, Holt Collier, Mathews Brake, Theodore Roosevelt, and Morgan Brake. All contain an abundance of whitetails.
The Southwest Region continues to lead the Magnolia State in both quality and quantity of whitetails. Even the fertile Delta Region is struggling to keep up with this deer-producing "factory."
Based on the data provided in the 2010 Deer Program Report, the harvest rates in the Southwest Region remained unchanged from the previous year, with one deer per 66 acres harvested. With historically high lactation rates being observed in 2008-2009, biologists are predicting an even greater increase in deer numbers in the region. Fortunately, most of the private land in the Southwest Region is under some form of quality deer management, with adequate doe harvest being a top priority. But despite an increased doe harvest, the remaining females seem to produce even more fawns.
"Lactation rates for 3 1/2-year-old does have been 70 percent or greater for four of the past 5 five years," said MDWFP regional deer biologist Chris McDonald. "Average body weights for bucks and does have also been consistent for the past five years."
The vast majority of this region is comprised of acorn-producing hardwood river bottoms, an abundance of high quality browse, and some of the most fertile soils to be found anywhere in the state. This extremely high quality habitat is the primary reason this area contains such a high concentration of whitetails.
The most popular public land deer hunting opportunity in the Southwest Region is the massive 189,000-acre Homochitto NF. Nestled inside its southern boundary are two sizeable WMAs — Sandy Creek and Caston Creek. Despite the intense hunting pressure they receive, this pair of WMAs continues to produce decent hunter success rates.
But if you prefer public land with far less hunting pressure, St. Catherine Creek NWR is just down the road and offers an additional 26,000 acres of prime deer habitat.
It seems only fitting to wrap up this article with the Magnolia State's most productive WMA for whitetails — Copiah County. This 6,583-acre tract is located just southwest of Hazlehurst on the Claiborne/Copiah County line. Featuring exceptional habitat and effective deer management, this relatively small tract of public land consistently boasts the highest deer harvest rates per acre of all of Mississippi's WMAs.