None of us have unlimited time to spend on our deer-hunting passion, so making choices is inevitable. Here's a look at how you can pick the best public lands in Mississippi to suit your whitetail desires.
By John J. Woods
Time is a precious commodity, and most of us don't use it very wisely. In this regard, deer hunters are often even worse planners than is usual. Many seem to want a magic wand to wave around, casting a spell to make big bucks appear out of a vaporous cloud. They also want some kind of mumbo-jumbo chant to conjure up a list of hotspots in which every buck is a monster trophy, or, perhaps, a mystic pill to reduce their efforts to an hour or less in the woods.
Well, sorry, Charlie - there just ain't no such thing as a supernatural trophy-whitetail charm. Still, there are some tricks in the bag.
People who play with numbers for a living suggest that statistics can be manipulated to say practically anything you want them to say. Maybe that's true under certain circumstances. When it comes to hard data collected on whitetail deer, however, the facts usually speak for themselves. Of course, one slice of pizza does not make the whole pie, nor does one piece of information tell the whole story; that generally takes a comprehensive examination of the complete vista. This is especially true when it comes to picking a prime public deer-hunting location.
Of course, nature can fool you - so maybe the statisticians have a point. Sometimes, it's not simple, really, and the science of scanning numbers to extract precise whitetail hunting trends for a piece of public hunting land has to come into play. And it's then that careful examination of the right kinds of hunting and harvest data can prove quite useful.
A METHOD TO THE MADNESS Deer hunters are an impatient lot. Most of us want quick results with minimal effort. We want to maximize return on the investment of every bit of time, effort, energy, and expense we put into the sport. And these tendencies are even more evident among those tackling the special demands of hunting public lands.
But in hunting, reality rarely works out that tidy way, so we'd probably all be better off in the long run just to learn to enjoy our time afield and not concentrate so hard on gaining a specific result. But then, what's the point? We go to the woods to bag a buck!
In Mississippi, many are hard pressed for time to balance deer hunting with other commitments. Photo by John J. Woods
Deer data from public lands can be looked at in a number of ways in order to select a site suited to an individual hunter anywhere in the state. In conducting this search over the years, I have narrowed my examination of the information to a few basics. Selecting some of those basics depends on common sense, while others require making decisions by looking at a few critical figures regarding our wildlife management areas that are compiled annually by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. These essential items provide a good place to start.
Your proximity to a tract of land is the first consideration in picking a WMA for deer hunting. Only if you have the time and inclination to travel anywhere in the state at any time during the hunting season does this become a moot point.
We're talking about using time wisely here, so first pick an area close enough to home to allow for maximum scouting and hunting time. Once you've figured out how long and far you can travel to do this practically, you have your parameters set. If a 100-mile radius from home is a realistic distance to travel to deer hunt for a few days, then why bother looking any farther out?
Mississippi's six wildlife districts contain 42 WMAs open to the public for hunting. No matter where you live in the state, it's not a problem to find a decent public hunting area.
DECIPHERING DEER DATA The essential criteria for picking a public WMA are harvest numbers for bucks and does taken during recent seasons. Those looking for a trophy are naturally interested in how many bucks and does were taken at a specific WMA. That's because some tracts have harvests as low as two bucks in a season, while others give up as many as 250.
You have to be careful when looking at a single piece of information, though' additional bits of data need to be considered closely as well. Just tracking total harvest by sex does not usually paint the whole picture. Other pieces of information, such WMA acreage, man-days of hunting activity, and the average number of man-days required to harvest a deer, should also be given due weight in the overall equation.
For example: A WMA yielding 250 bucks in a single hunting season might sound like a great location. But what if the site's total acreage is in the neighborhood of 100,000? Suddenly, finding a buck on such a massive tract doesn't sound quite so easy.
Then, if you factor in 25,000 man-days of hunting activity during the season, the story changes even more. Most public-land deer hunters often don't understand the concept of data on man-days. A "man-day" is generally defined as one hunter hunting during one day, regardless of whether he spends one hour or eight hours in the woods. If a thousand deer hunters descend on a WMA on one day, then the activity on that site is 1,000 man-days.
These data are collected at self-service permit check-in stations at the WMAs. Hunters are required to check in and fill out a harvest report card. This information is then compiled for each area at the end of the season. The resulting man-day data can be useful in judging the level of hunting activity at a given WMA.
Likewise, the figures on man-days per deer represent another statistical marker that should be examined when making choices about which public lands to hunt. The number is obtained by dividing the total number of man-days of activity for the season by the total deer harvest for that year. The resulting figure is the average man-days required to harvest a deer on that WMA. The figure often reported is for all the deer harvested regardless of sex. However, it is easy enough to divide total man-days by bucks taken to get a man-day-per-buck figure.
In the earlier example, dividing 25,000 man-days by 250 bucks killed yields an average of 100 man-days per deer taken. That is a lot of days in the woods for each buck harvested! Plus, the sheer number of man-days of activity also implies considerable hunting pressure on this property. Such statistics can make the large number of whitetails harvested much less impressive. Having to compete with a lot of other hunters on a massive chunk of land is probably not a recipe for quick success.
Inspect the numbers for specific WMAs, and
you can get a better feel for which are the prime hunting spots. Still, some of the decision comes down to simple hunter preference. You may not mind the challenge of competing with a lot of hunters on a large tract that yields a lot of deer. On the other hand, your pleasure may tend more toward targeting a smaller WMA that can be more effectively scouted in a shorter period of time.
Now that we've looked at the criteria, it's time to put it to the test by picking some of the top WMAs in the state that allow the wisest use of your limited time to scout and hunt. Here's a look at the WMA from each of the six wildlife districts that offers the best statistical options for bagging a deer.
DISTRICT 1 This northeast corner of the state has two varieties of terrain: On its southern end are plains; its northern portion is hill country all the way up to Pickwick Lake. In this district the top WMA is 8,244-acre John W. Starr Memorial Forest WMA, which lies in Oktibbeha and Winston counties near the city of Starkville.
John W. Starr Memorial Forest WMA
This WMA doesn't experience heavy hunting pressure; the last seasonal data reported its man-day total as 875. On average it took deer hunters 17 days to harvest a deer - a fairly low number. The total deer harvest was only 51 deer, but of that number, 34, or 66 percent of the kill, were bucks. John W. Starr obviously is a promising area to try.
DISTRICT 2 The habitat in this district is rolling hills covered in mixed timber mingled with farm fields. There are five WMAS in this district. Malmaison WMA is the top pick for two primary reasons: It had a high deer harvest at 270, including 79 bucks and 191 does, and is thus a worthwhile area for either-sex deer hunting, and its man-days per deer taken came in at only 16. Though its 4,438 total man-days of activity may appear high for a 10,016-acre tract, the fact that success levels were so high offsets the hunting pressure.
For hunters in this district who are short of time for scouting, Malmaison looks like a good option. That a deer was taken for every 37 acres on the tract indicates that the herd is quite large for the size of the property. You shouldn't have to scout massive areas to find a likely place for hanging a stand.
DISTRICT 3 With a highly developed agricultural base, the Delta region of Mississippi is a protein-rich habitat with plenty of water resources and tangled big-buck hideouts. To be honest, this district has several quality WMAs and other public lands, so picking a single winner is tough. Still, the huge Sunflower WMA, part of the Delta National Forest north of Vicksburg in Sharkey County, gets the nod. And it's huge, comprising 58,240 acres!
Sunflower total deer harvest was 372. Of that number, bucks totaled 211, and does 161. Though the total kill provides impressive numbers, the total of man-days hunted, 9,555, looks excessively high. But, again, this is an unusually large piece of public land. I've hunted Sunflower, and though I've encountered other hunters on the roadways, I've met none in the woods.
The man-days per deer came in at 26, which is a very reasonable number for a WMA this large. With its flooded greentree system, numerous bayous, and edges bordering lush farm crops, Sunflower has to be considered a best choice when time is scant.
DISTRICT 4 Dotted with timbered areas mixed with livestock pastures and watermelon fields, this district runs north from Laurel to just north of Meridian and from the Alabama line west to Madison and Rankin counties.
Of the eight WMAs in this district, the nod goes to 25,300-acre Bienville WMA, which lies in Scott County and is surrounded by the national forest of the same name. Bienville's habitat consists of a lot of pine hills and hardwood bottoms.
Hunting pressure here is relatively low - 2,263 man-days in the last data reported. Hunters took 71 bucks and 23 does. An arresting statistic: Bucks made up 75 percent of the total harvest. The figure for acres per deer taken here is somewhat high, but the man-days-per-deer number is modest at 24. All in all, it's a good area.
DISTRICT 5 Copiah County WMA is an easy choice for a variety of reasons. First among these is its standing reputation for producing trophy bucks. In the most recent data, this WMA reported 78 bucks and 53 does taken. Since the area covers only 6,583 acres, that's a very decent harvest. The low man-day total of only 1,339 breaks down to a man-day-per-deer average of 10. These statistics all point out this WMA as a solid choice. Also, this tract is close to the Jackson metro area and easily gotten to from there via Interstate 55, so time-stressed urban and suburban hunters can easily access it.
Copiah County WMA
DISTRICT 6 The Gulf Coast region of the state has always struggled to establish any kind of reputation as deer-hunting venue. The sandy soil in this district is not generally well suited to growing high quality browse for trophy-class bucks, but pockets of pretty decent deer habitat do exist here. Eight state WMAs can be found in the district, several of which boast impressive acreages. The midsized Old River WMA in Pearl River County, however, appears to be the cream of the crop.
Old River WMA
Spread over 15,042 acres, the total deer-kill figure of 40 isn't impressive for the size of the tract - but 29 of those were bucks. On the other hand, the total man-days of hunting, 1,715, and average man-days per deer, 43, are the lowest reported in the district.
Though these aren't great numbers, remember that the area didn't have a lot of hunters running all over the woods either. That lower hunting pressure on Old River is the factor setting it above the pack in this district.
IN CONCLUSION Despite the fact that each day contains 24 hours, we never seem to manage to eke out enough time to accomplish everything on our to-do lists - and this seems even truer with regard to deer hunting. If your hunting time is limited, the most successful tactic for wisely using what time you do have is to do some homework ahead of time. That research can put you on the right tract of public land, where your hours afield can most effectively be used. For more information, visit the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Web site at www.mdwfp.com.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Mississippi Game & Fish