The Mississippi River decided to flex its muscles this spring by pushing against the levees that for almost a century have kept it in check, and pushing its muddy fingers into tributaries like the Yazoo River. Hunters who spend most of their off time prowling the woods of the Delta watched anxiously as deer and all manner of wildlife flowed out of the way of the rising waters.

Many hunters envisioned deer carcasses littering the productive Delta when the waters receded, despite
assurances from state biologists that there would be no hunting-season changes necessary.

"… (W)e expect minimal long-term impacts to deer abundance because flood waters rose slowly, which gave deer time to seek higher ground," the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks said when the waters were highest.

And a look at the WMAs within the impacted area has proven state managers knew what they were talking about.

"We've been on Shipland (WMA), and we are seeing deer," acting WMA Coordinator Jackie Fleeman said in late July. "They have moved right back on it."

That's saying something, since Shipland (which lies inside the levee) was the lone WMA to be completely covered with many feet of water throughout the flood.

Fleeman said deer know how to deal with high water, and simply found higher ground. That meant the majority of the deer passed over the levee to safety, but there were those that didn't make it.

"You might have had some that found high spots (inside the WMA), and when the water came up they didn't make it," Fleeman said. "But, basically, we aren't figuring on there being a major influence on the deer herd."

Other concerns about the high flooding - namely lack of underbrush and a negative impact on fawning - also should prove to be non-issues.

Consider the impact of the standing water on the underbrush, which provides groceries for deer.

"What (flooding) does is it knocks it back," Fleeman said. "We went to places that the best I could figure it had been out of water for 10 days, and it looked like springtime.

"Everything was sprouted out."

And this new growth is exactly what deer want.

"It's an explosion - basically another spring," Fleeman explained. "All that stuff that comes out is grade A deer food.

"It's tender; it's got all the nutrients in it that deer need. They're going to fill up quickly."

Shipland WMA was the public area most impacted by the flooding, with only three others receiving waters from the backed-up Yazoo River.

"About half of Sunflower (WMA) flooded," Fleeman said. "About a third of Lake George and Mahannah were flooded."

However, none of those areas suffered anything unusual.

"The depth of the water wasn't bad at all," Fleeman said. "It happens all the time (along the Yazoo River)."

The bottom line across all the flooded WMAs is that hunting should not be impacted at all.

"Hunters won't be able to tell it happened," Fleeman said.

And that flooding really was the biggest threat to public-land hunters this year.

There were some concerns elsewhere about flooding earlier in the year, but Fleeman said the worries were short-term.

"In spots there was drought early, but I don't think it's enough to be concerned about," he explained. "It's not going to have been long-term enough to have any lasting impact.

"We're getting rain now, so we're in good shape."

There is one big change for deer hunters frequenting the WMA system: Most have moved to a new antler criteria defining legal bucks as those carrying racks at least 10 inches wide or main beams measuring at least 13 inches long to coincide with statewide regulations.

The move was made after data showed the old 12/15 criteria wasn't accomplishing stated management goals.

"Our goal was to protect those 1-year-old bucks, but with the (former) 12/15 we were protecting right at 100 percent of 1-year-old deer, and we were protecting a good number of the 2-year-olds," MDWFP's Josh Moree said of the impact of the old regulations. "With the new criteria, we're still protecting 80 to 80 percent of those 1-year-old deer and only 20 to 30 percent of the 2-year-olds."

As the season fast approaches, Mississippi Sportsman asked state biologists about how the WMA system is shaping up. Here's what they had to say.

 

WEST CENTRAL

WMAs: Mahannah, Sunflower, Shipland, Howard Miller, Twin Oaks, Lake George, Leroy Percy, Muscadine Farms, Stoneville, Sky Lake

All of the WMAs in the Delta open to deer hunting provide quality opportunities, but Fleeman didn't hesitate to say which one he thinks is a hunter's best bet.

Sunflower.

The reason isn't because it's got more deer than other WMAs. Instead, two other factors played into his decision.

"It's so big, and it's basically a statewide season," Fleeman said.

The 60,000 acres within the WMA's boundaries allows hunters to spread out, and the long hunting season means hunters can basically go any time they want and up their odds of success.

Sunflower is Fleeman's top choice for smallgamers, as well. Again, the long season and expanse of property was uppermost in his mind.

"Twin Oaks is good at times, but it's only 5,000 acres," Fleeman said. "You can get crowded on Twin Oaks, but it's hard to get crowded on Sunflower."

Mahannah also can provide some good squirrel hunting, but it's still less than 22 percent the size of Sunflower.

Both cat and fox squirrels can be taken, and Fleeman said there is the real opportunity to take a trophy squirrel.

"There are black squirrels on Sunflower," he said.

Waterfowling opportunities also can be found in the Delta, namely on Howard Miller and Muscadine.

Howard Miller provides 2,400 acres of rice and soybean fields, and is purely designed for waterfowl hunting.

Muscadine boasts 1,400 acres of old catfish ponds that are now managed for moist-soil hunting.

In addition, Mahannah has 1,100 acres of old fields managed as moist-soil units, with some lakes scattered through the woods.

All the duck hunting is on a draw basis, and Fleeman said it's tough to make a call on which is the best bet.

"It depends on what day it is," he chuckled. "One of them will be better one year, and another will be better another year."

 

SOUTHERN REGION

WMAs: Natchez State Park, Sandy Creek, Copiah County, Caston Creek, Marion County, Wolf river, Old River, Theodore A. Mars Jr., Little Biloxi, Red Creek, Ward Bayou, Pascagoula, Leaf River, Mason Creek, Chickasawhay

There are 17 WMAs scattered across the southern reaches of the state, ranging from those in the hills in the southwest to the sands of the coastal plain. That makes it a bit more challenging to talk about the region as a whole.

So biologist Josh Moree broke it down, with the bottomlands of the Pearl River being the rough boundary.

Over in the southwest, he said the region's WMAs should see another successful season. But there is one public area that stands out above the others in terms of deer hunting.

"Copiah County WMA is probably the most popular," Moree said.

Opportunities abound on this area due to a generous season structure that allows adult hunters to chase deer basically from Oct. 1 through early January, with a three-week youth archery season tossed onto the back end of the hunting season.

The long season makes it one of the most-popular targets for deer hunters, and they have pretty good odds of success.

"There are just more deer in that area," Moree said. "Hunters have a good chance of at least seeing deer and harvesting a deer."

Unlike other WMAs in the southwestern portion of the state, however, only bucks carrying racks measuring at least 12 inches wide or having main beams at least 15 inches long can be harvested.

The only exception to that rule is that hunters younger than 16 can take any antlered deer, regardless of the size of the rack.

Of course, this lengthy hunting structure isn't all bucks-only.

"There are more either-sex (hunting) opportunities," Moree said.

It is noteworthy that regulations for Natchez State Park and Marion County WMA also define a buck legal for harvest as having a rack with a at least a 12-inch inside spread or a main beam measuring at least 15 inches.

Caston and Sandy Creek WMAs might not hold as many deer, but Moree said those properties shouldn't be overlooked.

"There are some great (deer) harvested off of Caston and Sandy Creek," he explained.

Now, that's not to say the quality of deer on these areas normally lines up with what can be killed in the Delta, but they aren't bad.

"A 15- to 16-inch 8-point is a nice deer in that area," Moree said. "But just like anywhere, you can have a bigger deer show up."

Old River WMA, which runs along the Pearl River, also holds a healthy population of deer, but Moree said there is still a lot of damage to the timber from Hurricane Katrina that litters the entire area.

"It's still a lot of thicket," Moree said. "It's good for the deer, but the hunters still have to maneuver through it."

Over on the eastern end of Moree's district, deer hunters have to curb their trophy expectations because of the sandy soil.

"You can only expect the deer to get so big in that habitat," Moree explained.

That said, there are some public tracts of land offering the opportunity to put some meat on the table.

"Our most popular area is Leaf River (WMA)," he said. "We get a fairly high number of harvested deer there."

However, Chickasawhay and Red Creek WMAs also provide deer-hunting opportunities.

Mason Creek also is improving, thanks to habitat work by the U.S. Forest Service.

"They have opened up stands of timber," Moree said. "That's going to help the wildlife."

Theodore A. Mars Jr. provides youth hunters with a good opportunity, as it is closed to all other deer hunting.

And there's no lottery required for participation this year.

"It's open to all youth," Moree said. "We haven't had a lot of participation with the lotteries, so we decided to just open it up."

In terms of small game, Pascagoula River WMA provides everything necessary to maintain pretty good squirrel and rabbit populations.

"It's all river swamp," Moree said.

The area covers more than 30,000 acres, but Moree said it's much longer than it is wide.

"It's long and skinny," he said. "Some areas aren't a mile wide."

Accessibility to the area has been addressed to make it easier for hunters to take advantage of the opportunities there.

"We are improving a number of roads, and this year we are making some roads ATV-access only," Moree said. "And, of course, you can access it by boat."

Sandy Creek also holds some squirrel, and Copiah County and Marion County WMAs have some upland-bird opportunities.

"We've got some quail on Copiah," Moree said. "We've also got some quail and even some woodcock on Marion County."

In fact, the woodcock hunting probably is better on Marion County than the quail hunting.

"(Hunters) come prepared to shoot quail, but they end up killing more woodcock," he said.

Waterfowl opportunities in the southern district of the state are pretty much limited to Old River, Pascagoula River and Ward Bayou WMAs.

"It's mostly wood duck, but they will harvest an occasional big duck," Moree said.

 

CENTRAL AND EAST CENTRAL REGIONS

WMAs: Caney Creek, Pearl river, Bienville, Tallahala, Okatibbee, Nanih Waiya, Choctaw, Yockanookany, John Star, Black Prairie, Trim Cane

Biologist Amy Blaylock said this portion of the state suffered from an early summer drought, but rains began falling in time to provide ample habitat going into the fall.

"That (rain) should really help, especially with the food plot plantings," Blaylock said. "That should produce late-summer browse that you may not normally get."

This new growth provides optimal nutrition for deer, especially important at this time because deer are fawning and bucks are growing antlers.

And the best option for hunters to take advantage of this perfect storm of rain and habitat probably is Black Prairie WMA, Blaylock said.

"It's producing heavy weights and pretty good antler size," she said. "The Black Prairie soil region is known for producing some of the larger-bodied deer.

"It's not the Delta, but it's got good soil quality and good habitat."

Topping off the native habitat is the availability of manmade groceries.

"There's tons of agriculture around the WMA," Blaylock said.

Harvest data proves just how much potential the WMA holds: Last season, hunters spent 282 days on the property, taking 28 bucks and 32 does. That works out to a deer for every 4.7 trips to the area.

Those are odds public hunters smile about.

While most of the deer hunting is restricted to those drawn in lotteries, there are open youth and archery hunts available.

Black Prairie also is regulated under an elevated antler criteria, with only bucks carrying racks with at least 18 inches in width or main beams stretching at least 18 inches being legal.

Those looking for more days in the woods can move just to the west to Choctaw or John W. Starr.

"They pretty much follow the state season," Blaylock said.

Choctaw is within the Tombigbee National Forest, and has benefitted from the management practices implemented by that agency.

"It's an area that has a higher deer density, so your chances of seeing deer are pretty good," Blaylock said. "And they shoot some pretty good deer there."

Trim Cane provides excellent opportunities for handicapped hunters, with everything set up and ready to go.

"There are tons of deer there and handicapped stands," she said. "You have a real good opportunity to harvest a deer."

And WMA staffers do all they can to ensure success.

"They escort you to the stand and everything," Blaylock said.

Caney Creek, Tallahala and Bienville WMAs also have pretty good deer densities and are managed under a statewide season, making them options.

Small-game hunters can move over to Yockanookany and Choctaw.

"They have real good squirrel hunting," Blaylock said. "Yockanookany is nothing but hardwoods. The woods are open, so if you're wanting to walk, it's a real good area."

Draw rabbit hunts are hosted on Trim Cane, and are pretty popular, she said.

Trim Cane also is home to seven waterfowl moist-soil units that have been planted, and Blaylock said they make pretty good opportunities for those who are drawn in lotteries.

 

NORTH SECTION

WMAs: Malmaison, O'Keefe, Chickasaw, Canal Section, Calhoun county, Charles Ray Nix, Sardis Waterfowl, Upper Sardis, Hell Creek, John Bell Williams, Divide Section, Tuscumbia

While other portions of the state experienced some drought conditions moving into the spring, WMA biologist Brad Holder said his area was by and large spared.

"We've been fairly blessed up in my part of the world," Holder said. "Coming out of last season, the existing habitat was in decent shape. Everything is looking pretty solid.

"We could be doing a lot worse."

That has set up Charles Ray Nix (formerly Hamer WMA) to be a great option for deer hunters.

"It's purely a function of habitat," Holder explained. "We've got the most pure habitat of any of my other WMAs."

That means there are plenty of deer to be had.

"The carrying capacity at Charles Ray Nix exceeds any of my other WMAs," he said.

That said, hunting opportunities are restricted to archery, primitive weapons and two youth rifle hunts.

"Nix is 40,000 acres, but mainly because of how the place lays out we wanted to ensure a measure of safety," Holder said. "It's fairly open."

To heighten the safety factor, the primitive-weapons hunt is open only to those chosen during a lottery.

Just to the southwest is O'Keefe WMA, which is another great place - especially for those looking for quality bucks.

This property is located just inside the Delta, putting it in the state's most-productive soil type. And, in keeping with that, there are plenty of high-nutritional food sources for the deer herd.

"You've got an island of (prime deer) habitat in a sea of agriculture," Holder said.

And that presents the potential for trophy bucks.

"Generally, we see a little bit better quality deer on O'Keefe; that's the bottom line," he said.

Managers, therefore, hold hunters to higher standards, utilizing a buck-management strategy calling for racks at least 15 inches wide or a main beam measuring at least 18 inches.

"We cater to a segment of hunters who might not care to see as many deer but want a chance at killing a quality deer," Holder said.

The great news is that there is no draw on this area, so it's open to hunting throughout the season.

That said, Holder pointed out that timber thinning was under way in late July on 270 acres on the western side of the WMA.

"It's going to provide some excellent habitat in the future," he said.

There also will be timbering occurring on Malmaison at the earliest opportunity, Holder explained. That probably means this work will be under way during hunting season.

But Holder said that shouldn't be an issue, since they have studied the issue on other properties.

"We did it on (Charles Ray) Nix, and we didn't experience any problems at all," he said. "Deer acclimate. Habitat disturbances actually attract wildlife."

He did say the work probably will be scheduled to take place only on weekdays to prevent interference with the bulk of hunters.

Upper Sardis also has a generous season structure, but adults can only use archery equipment.

"It's a small area, so we decided to go with a little more restrictive season," Holder said.

Youth, however, can reach out farther beginning Nov. 5.

"Youth can use rifles through the entire season up there," Holder explained.

Sardis Waterfowl is a great option for youth hunters, since the only hunting on the area is for youth during the first three weekends of November and the first weekend of December.

These are draw hunts, but Holder said it's worth putting in for the lottery.

"It's a great opportunity for kids to come out, have a great opportunity to see deer and kill one, as well," he said. "The only problem is that kids' expectations can be a little high after hunting on Sardis Waterfowl.

"It's a great place."

Dog hunters can head to Calhoun County with numerous days open to chasing deer with canines.

"We really try to cater to dog hunters on that WMA," Holder said.

Squirrel-hunting options in the northeastern part of the state include Malmasion, O'Keefe and Upper Sardis.

"We've got plenty of woods on those," Holder said.

Calhoun County WMA also offers some decent hunting, mainly in the hardwood draws. And Charles Ray Nix is an up-and-coming small-game area.

"I've got a feeling that it's going to pick up," Holder said.

That's because of work to thin the forests, which has provided a ton of new growth on which squirrels can feast when the annual hard-mast crop has petered out.

"Now they don't just live off all the hard mast; through the summer they have all the soft mast to eat," Holder said.

Rabbit hunting in the region isn't all that great.

"We are not flush with rabbits," Holder admitted.

Three areas, however, do have what Holder termed "rabbitat."

Charles Ray Nix has a proliferation of early successional growth, making it one of the best targets in the area. But O'Keefe offers some CRP and WRP fields that can hold some cottontails.

There are some waterfowling opportunities on Upper Sardis, O'Keefe and Mailmason.

O'Keefe has 700 acres of open fields that managers flood annually and 1,300 acres of greentree reservoirs, making it one of the premier public areas in Mississippi.

"It's one of the more intensively managed waterfowl areas in the state," Holder said.

The fields are leased out for farming, providing great groceries for migrating birds.

The greentree area is divided into three 300- to 600-acre units to ensure there is productive hunting available each year.

"We rotate through those GTRs, flooding one each year," Holder said.

Great youth hunting is available on the Graham Lake portion of Upper Sardis, which otherwise is a sanctuary and closed to hunting.

Malmaison also attracts ducks.

"By far, the majority (of waterfowl hunting) is sloughs, draws and oxbows," Holder said. "We really don't have any management abilities on those."

That's not the case on a 700-acre greentree reservoir, which is intensively managed to attract ducks.

"We also are in the process of improving that habitat," Holder said.

The Malmasion Scatters is another good option.

"That has been and continues to be a ducky area," he said.

Hunters on Malmaison can expect to kill mainly woodies, mallards and green-winged teal, with a few gadwalls mixed in.

In the northeastern portion of the state, deer hunters don't have to worry with restrictive seasons on Chickasaw, Canal Section and John Bell Williams, as hunting is regulated in line with statewide seasons. However, there aren't quite as many deer there as some others.

"Deer densities aren't going to be quite as high as the central portion of the state," Blaylock explained. "There was a bad bluetongue outbreak in the northeast two years ago; I think that had a lot to do with it."

Blaylock pointed out that a change in management in Canal Section and Divide Section WMAs means that hunters have to check their deer this season.

"We've never had mandatory check stations, but we now have mandatory stations set up along the length of the areas," she said. "We'll now be able to collect data to help us manage the areas better."

Chickasaw is a predominantly piney tract of land, but Blaylock said it's still a good option for squirrel hunters.

Waterfowlers in the northeastern section of the state can look toward Tuscumbia for some quality hunts - if they can make it through the lottery.

"They have pretty good success, usually," Blaylock said.