Virtually every state in the nation that offers white-tailed deer hunting has a river system or river basin region associated with its high-quality deer production.

Just consider the Warrior River in Alabama, the Red River in Texas and Oklahoma, the Gasconade River in Missouri, the Rock River in Illinois and the Milk River in Montana. These are legendary buck-producing areas all linked to a river system.

In Mississippi, this whitetail-river basin connection is the Big Black River running from Webster County southwest to Claiborne County, where it eventually flows into the Mississippi River. Along the way the Big Black touches 11 different counties, all of which are top deer-harvest counties. In fact, eight of them are in the Top 12 of all counties according to DMAP data.

Many factors had to come together to make the Big Black River the primary deer-yielding sector in the state. These include the essentials of exceptional genetics that produce healthy bucks with lots of antler bone along with soil compositions that grow high-quality browse. This agronomy is also conducive to supporting superior food plots in addition to the general agricultural practices that contribute to the available food resources as well. The results are that good genes and good dirt produce big bucks, and many of those monsters are allowed to walk, according to the MDWFP's deer program coordinator, Chad Dacus.

"This area not only has good genetics, soil type and quality habitat, it also has large tracts of privately owned land," he said. "There is a good amount of agriculture interspersed with the swamps and forest lots.

"These large landowners and clubs allow the bucks to put on age. This is really what separates the Big Black corridor from other parts of the state - the combination of all factors of age, nutrition and genetics to their fullest."

 

The Genetic Factor

"With all the buzz and talk about genetics, it sounds like we know a lot about managing genetics in free-ranging populations. Deer management really rests on three legs of a stool - age, nutrition and genetics. Genetics is a little bit of a black box. We need more research."

That remark was made by Randy DeYoung at a deer study group meeting. DeYoung is with the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville, Texas. More importantly, DeYoung is a research colleague of Steve Demarais at Mississippi State University.

Both know Mississippi deer and their genetics. Both know the deer in the Big Black River region have the genetics. Truth is deer either have it or they don't. Big Black River deer apparently have it. That's a good thing, because little can be done to alter or enhance it.

The take-home message is that under a free-ranging scenario, more improvements are likely to be made to a deer population by placing the most emphasis on the basics of habitat, nutrition and age distribution - things that can be controlled - and less on genetics.

 

The Soil Factor

Quality habitat and thus deer nutrition starts with the soil. Research conducted by Demarais and Bronson Strickland worked to identify the primary soil types in the state and where they were located. Five soil types were identified then with some of the types being lumped together. Now these soil types have been expanded to 11 with further delineation.

"Of those five original types of soils, we assumed the rich alluvial soils of the delta region and the loam soils of the loess region to be the most fertile," Demarais said. "Hence, our a priori ranking of the highest to the lowest fertility would be the delta, loess, upper coastal plain, lower coastal plain and coastal flatwoods."

This was important information because within the Big Black River basin the soils are the upper thick loess, upper coastal plain and the upper thin loess. All are among the most fertile soils in the state. This establishes the basis for the quality deer produced in the region.

"Researchers in Mississippi found a perfect relationship between buck quality and soil quality," DeYoung said. "In other words, the habitat with the best quality soils was home to the biggest body weight deer.

"The same was true of antler size. The best soil types produced the biggest antlered deer. They documented the same trend for doe body weights as well."

They'll get no arguments from Ronnie Foy, who along with his brother James farms hundreds of acres in the Big Black River basin north of Canton.

"Naturally we like to think our soils are among the best in the state," he said. "We have been farming this region along the Big Black River for several generations. Our yields of corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton are some of the best in the state,"

This agricultural trend exists all up and down the Big Black from beginning to end as well.

"Of course, this has proven a huge benefit for my deer and turkey outfitting business at the same time," said Foy. "The hunting areas along the Big Black have always produced big bucks and lots of does.

"We collect some impressive bucks every season."

James Foy took a 14-point, non-typical buck in this area that scored 175 7/8 B&C. James' buck is currently the No. 12 all time non-typical buck for Madison County listed in the Magnolia Records Program.

 

The Habitat Factor

"Plain and simple, the habitat adjacent to the Big Black River is just super," says James Harper of Vicksburg. "We have family land right on the river, and the natural browse available to our deer is exceptional.

"We plant a few extra food plots, mainly to pull deer out of the woods, but in terms of providing extra nutrition, it certainly is not necessary."

His family land lies in Warren County north of Interstate 20 and the town of Edwards. Harper and his sons have taken more than one trophy deer on this river property in addition to ample does to help balance the herd, which is critical to any overall quality deer management plan.

"One thing we notice on our place is that the consistent annual flooding of the river covers a big portion of our hunting grounds and woods," said Harper. "This not only brings in much needed ground moisture, also filling up creeks, ponds and potholes, but it drags in minerals and other nutrients for the soil as well.

"Once the waters subside in the spring or sometimes early fall, the area turns into a proverbial jungle of native browse. The foliage generated by this constant interaction of the river and the adjoining soil creates some of the best deer habitat in the whole state."

So what is so special about the native browse along this river? In two words, it could be summarized as the quantity and the quality. Mississippi is a natural "green" state to start with. Mix that with a river basin supplying ample water to the area, and plant resources just grow and grow. There is a lot of variation in this vegetation assortment as well.

This list includes, among numerous other selections of natural browse, honeysuckle, southern dewberry, blackberry, green briar, muscadine, persimmon, crabapple, pear, plum, seasonal oak mast and even kudzu. Of course, the nutritional value of these plants varies, but if it is green, it will eventually be eaten by deer.

Lastly, these same soils also grow superior supplemental food plots as well. Adding extra acres of man-made plots is a universally accepted practice now. Landowners, hunters and deer managers regularly plant both spring and fall wildlife plots with simple to complex foods including ryegrass, wheat, oats, various clovers, peas, vetch, alfalfa, soybeans, corn, brassicas, sorghums and greens such as turnips, mustard, rape and even sugar beets or any combination of these. All of this extra effort just adds more quality and quantity to an already exceptional habitat.