There are many reasons to hunt public land in Mississippi. First and foremost, it should be because the hunting is very good, no matter if you are a trophy hunter or just hoping to put some meat in the freezer. As leased land becomes more expensive and the economy remains sluggish, economics is becoming another contributing factor.

When I first hunted Kings Flat Hunting Club back in the 1970s, annual dues (to cover the lease and utilities) were $200 and a running deer dog. Today, the club requires members to pony up over $1,000 each, and dog hunting is not permitted.

Some hunters can absorb the added cost, but for others the only option is to find a less-expensive place to hunt or stick to public land. With that said, it should be mentioned that not all public land is governed by the same rules. State-run wildlife management areas (WMAs) are different than U.S. Forest Service Land, which is different from Army Corps of Engineers land, which is different from U.S. Fish and Wildlife land - you get the idea.

This month, Mississippi Sportsman provides a primer of rules and regulations to the largest tracts of public land in the state and gives each a grade to represent hunter success. The information and the grade are based on the most current deer hunting data available at press time. That harvest data may be skewed somewhat by the access hunters have at peak hunting times.

For example, Yockanookany WMA in Attala County is a draw-hunt WMA, which allows archery and primitive weapons only. Youth, in some cases, may use modern weapons. A hunter may be drawn, but during his or her allotted time the rains are heavy and the area is flooded. Reading the harvest data for just one year could result in a misrepresentation of the WMA's true potential. If just buck harvests are considered, then the Youth hunters, who have one "Charlie" buck, being one with any size hardened horn, will again skew the data if several are killed during the special youth season.

With all this said, hunters new to an area or seeking an area to try, have to either study years of harvest data to see trends in harvests, or rely on recommendations from outside sources. For that reason this grading chart and WMA/Public Land Primer is being presented.

There are no bad places to hunt; some are just more productive than others. For that reason, no WMA has a grade lower than a C. Success may just depend on how dedicated a hunter is and how much time is devoted to scouting and hunting. Also, there is the consideration of the hunter's choice to harvest an individual animal or not. One man's trophy would be another man's cull.

Since no two hunters will agree on the definition of just when a buck becomes a trophy, we'll have to set a benchmark. For our purposes, a trophy will be described as a typical buck measuring 125 inches. That is the minimum criteria for the Magnolia Records Club.

"On average, antler length, overall, was 5 inches greater this year than in previous years," said Rick Dillard, a scorer and founder of the Magnolia Records Club, following the 2011 Mississippi Wildlife Extravaganza.

All Magnolia Records bucks are listed on the MDWFP website, and most have pictures of the mounts. Also, pictures of this year's Extravaganza bucks are available to view at www.ms-sportsman.com.

For the 2011-12 deer season, Mississippi is again divided into three zones. The zones and other useful information are mapped and described in the 2011-12 Outdoor Digest. For WMAs specifically, legal bucks must fall into the following criteria: Zone One.

Dillard attributes the increased antler length to the change in antler-harvest restrictions placed on legal bucks statewide several years ago. Wildlife management areas have even more stringent regulations.

The most recent statewide data available from the MDWFP is from the 2009-10 season; however, the trends in herd management are well established. These trends indicate a greater number of mature bucks being killed and a stable herd overall.

 

Wildlife management areas

Mississippi offers hunters more than 750,000 acres of management areas on which to deer hunt. Rules and regulations specific to individual WMAs are listed within that area's subhead. The state is divided into three deer zones, and is further divided into five management regions. According to Dillard, state-managed WMAs have provided the second-highest number of Magnolia Record entries since the program began. We will list the WMAs by region, but a synopsis may not detail every WMA. Hunters are encouraged to contact area managers listed in the 2011-12 Outdoor Digest for additional information.

 

Delta Region - Lake George WMA, Leroy Percy WMA, Mahannah WMA, Pearl River WMA, Shipland WMA, Sky Lake WMA, Stoneville WMA, Sunflower WMA, and Twin Oaks WMA.

Mahannah is hands down the top trophy location in the Delta Region. It may also be one of the toughest for which to get drawn. For trophy possibilities, it deserves an A+. In fact, it deserves an A in every category.

When the latest harvest information is considered, Mahannah's choice as a top draw-hunt location is obvious. Most of the bucks harvested on the 12,600-acre parcel of river bottomland were aged at 3.5 to 4.5 years of age.

Lake George WMA, in Yazoo County, also checked in a number of bucks in the 3.5- to 4.5-year-old category. Lake George gets an A as a trophy location because more than half the 20 bucks killed there were in the 3.5- to 4.5-year-old age bracket. It gets an A also as a meat location because 42 anterless deer were harvested there. No deer were harvested during the archery or youth gun season, based on recorded harvest data.

Twin Oaks is another permit area managed for quality deer. The 5,800-acre tract in Sharkey County recorded 19 bucks and 57 does in its last harvest report. If this were a private club, I have to believe the buck harvest would be higher. The doe harvest seems in line, but the buck numbers appear a little low - so Twin Oaks gets a B- for trophy but an A as a meat-hunter destination.

Pearl River may rise as a sleeper this season since primitive-weapon seasons have been adjusted to allow greater hunter opportunity. Deer hunters (other than youth) are limited to archery and primitive weapons throughout the season. Limits placed on the antlerless harvest in the past has been modified to allow a much greater window of opportunity. This should put more hunters in this Madison County tract located between the Ross Barnett Reservoir and the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Nathaniel Emerson, a Central Region manager for the MDWFP, has found several fine bucks along the property boundary with the Trace. He also says antlerless deer are plentiful and need to be hunted.

"We see deer, including quality bucks, on the property all the time," said Emerson. "These deer do cross the Trace off our area and return to feed or bed down.

"Hunters need to look for fresh trails and crossings as good places to place stands."

One interesting note is that the hogs once plentiful on Pearl River WMA appear to have moved out. Emerson said he is seeing few hogs and little sign of them.

 

East Central Region - Bienville WMA, Caney Creek WMA, Talahalla WMA, Okatibbee WMA and Nania Waiya WMA.

Bienville, Caney Creek and Talahalla WMAs are all contained within the Bienville National Forest in Scott and Smith counties. A wide and diverse system of creek bottoms and forested hills, dotted with natural prairie, greet hunters to these tracts.

Taken together, the Trophy potential will average out to a solid B, with the meat potential at a solid A. Anyone wanting to put a deer in the freezer should be able to do so on this triumvirate in a season. A little homework and some walking are necessary to locate food sources. The three areas are divided into still-hunting-only and areas where dogs are allowed during specific seasons. Handicap opportunities are lacking, but it is a good place to introduce a youth to deer hunting.

Nania Waiya is the sleeper in this region. An open WMA where only archery and primitive weapons are allowed, 83 deer were taken on the 8,040-acre tract on the upper Pearl River. Of the total reported harvest, 23 were bucks in the 2.5-to-3.5 age range. Access on Nania Waiya is not always easy as storms have uprooted some timber and periods of high water make reaching some of the area a challenge.

Biologist Jeff Mangrum has an excellent working knowledge of the area and agrees that for real trophy potential and meat production, the area deserves a B and A, respectively.

Okatibbee WMA in Lauderdale County, a smaller area of just 6,883 acres, has produced some respectable bucks in the past, but it just cannot be considered a trophy destination. It is, however, an excellent place for handicapped hunters to have a quality outing.

Antlerless deer harvested outnumber bucks four to one. It rates a C for trophies and a B for meat.

 

Northeast Region - Black Prairie, Canal Section, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Divide Section, Hell Creek, John Bell Williams, John Starr, Trim Cane, Tuscumbia and Yockanookany.

Great deer hunting abounds in this region with several areas turning in impressive harvest numbers. This region is arguably the best in Zone 1 for trophy bucks, as far as public land is concerned.

Chickasaw WMA turned in numbers demonstrating last season was their second-best season ever. The herd health is good, and when bucks are allowed to reach that magic 4.5-year age mark, the racks can be impressive. This WMA earns a solid A across the board.

Choctaw WMA has a large area of mixed hardwood and pine with undulating terrain that makes scouting and hunting a pure pleasure. The entire 25,000 acres is set aside for still-hunting only, and forest-management practices there have allowed for ample browse. Only the fact that the buck harvest last season, 44, is a little low compared to the 82 anterless deer taken lowers the trophy grade to a B. Otherwise the area is all A's.

Hunting deer on Black Prairie WMA in Lowndes is by permit only. This 1,800-acre tract is serviced with best management practices for forage and an ample population of young bucks in the past two seasons that were allowed to walk. This will result in the potential for some trophy hunting during coming seasons. Give Black Prairie all A's for a quality hunt - if you get drawn.

Trim Cane is a small area, just 891 acres, but it is set aside for handicapped hunters only. It has enough quality deer to allow for a quality hunt.

 

Northwest Region - Calhoun County WMA, Charles Ray Nix WMA, Malmasion WMA, O'Keefe WMA, Sardis WMA and Upper Sardis WMA.

Malmasion will continue to keep the best trophy rating in this region as it is managed for quality deer hunting.

More than 50 percent of the 27 bucks harvested last season at Malmasion fall into the 3.5-to-4.5 age bracket. That is one reason the 10,000-acre Grenada County tract is a popular destination each year for hunters wishing a quality hunt. Add this to the fact it edges Tallahatchie NWR and that just makes the possibilities all the better. This is a straight-A WMA that is open, with no draw required, for hunting. Good deer are on the area, but scouting should precede a hunt.

Charles Ray Nix offers good harvest numbers for an area measuring just 4,000 acres. Many deer clubs would love to have a 24-buck, 41-doe harvest with just 1,200 man days invested. A draw selects the hunters for this area that earns B+'s for trophy and meat and an A for youth opportunity.

Calhoun County WMA is a solid area, and offers something for everyone, including a special youth season. Antlerless deer harvests are up since regulations have been adjusted for a longer doe season. Calhoun County gets B's across the board.

 

Southwest Region - Caston Creek WMA, Copiah WMA, Marion County WMA, Natchez WMA, Old River WMA, Sandy Creek WMA, Theodore Mars WMA and Wolf River WMA.

The Southwest Region gets a lot hunting pressure from Mississippians as well as from the densely populated Southeast Louisiana area.

Copiah WMA turns in some very good harvest numbers, and is perhaps the best bet for deer hunting in this region. At 6,583 acres, Copiah gets solid B's across the board. Prescribed burnings and supplemental plantings will continue to keep habitat improved, and the 150-deer average harvest should continue. If you can manage it, this is a good area to hunt during the middle of the day in the middle of the week.

Old River WMA has the potential to deliver a trophy buck, and as a source of meat deer, it is as good as any and better than some. Old River gets a B for trophy bucks, but A's for meat and youth opportunity.

Wolf River WMA, graded at all B's, is a variety of pine plantations with creek drainages. This paper-company land has seen a decrease of hunting pressure, but has held steady delivering about 40 bucks and 40 does each season.

Theodore Mars WMA is set aside for youth hunting only, but few have taken advantage of the area. That should change this year as carry-over has been good. Seeing a deer and getting a shot should make this a better season. The area deserves an A just on the basis of youth opportunity.

 

Southeast Region - Chickasawhay WMA, Leaf River WMA, Little Biloxi WMA' Mason Creek WMA, Pascagoula River WMA, Red Creek WMA and Ward Bayou WMA.

The soil in most parts of the southernmost counties is of poor quality, and deer pay the price for the lack of nutrition. Hurricane Katrina opened the canopy of trees allowing a rebound of browse, but at the same time created a nightmare for deer hunters.

"There are some of the worst thickets here now I've ever seen in over 40 years of living on the coast," said Paul McKay of Woolmarket.

The season along the southern tier of counties has been adjusted to allow for the later rut. But that in itself is old news.

Leaf River WMA in Perry County has to be the best for overall success of all the areas in the Southeast region. Hunters will find some older bucks that have length that is impressive but mass that is lacking, earning a B grade. As far as putting meat in the freezer or allowing a youth a good chance at a quality hunt, Leaf River gets an A.

Chickasaway WMA in Jones County gets a good B grade across the board. It could have been higher, but hunting pressure is pretty intense with some locals setting up "deer camps" on the public land during the gun seasons. A balanced harvest has been seen over the past three seasons.

Pascagoula WMA was closed due to flooding for much of the 2009-10 season, so long-term number comparisons are a little skewed. In an average year, 100 to 125 deer are expected to be harvested. Trophies can be found here, so this area rates a B+ across the board.

Mason Creek WMA in Green County may be our sleeper in this region. Increased efforts to get an accurate harvest should indicate this is a far better area than the previous harvest numbers indicate. With a sold B across the board, based on land type and hunting pressure, the potential of this area should be investigated by deer hunters in South Mississippi.

 

National wildlife refuges

Understanding the regulations on a national wildlife refuge is of vital importance, as these rules can be different and somewhat confusing when compared to other areas in the state. For example, a primitive weapon on private land or a WMA is defined as any of several metallic-cartridge single-shots that load from the breech. On a NWR, a primitive weapon is defined as one that loads with a single projectile from the muzzle only. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that hunters read and understand the rules and regulations for the land being hunted.

A NWR permit is required to hunt a refuge or to apply for one of several special deer hunts offered within the refuge system.

ATV use is another contentious issue. On Dahomey NWR, for example, a hunter cannot even have an ATV on his truck or on a trailer.

Antler restrictions on NWR land follows state law for private lands within the applicable zone. The WMA with that zone will have different requirements. All this said, the chances of harvesting a trophy animal are excellent on most of the NWR properties. In fact, more Magnolia Record bucks have been harvested on NWRs than any other hunting areas, excluding private lands. Yazoo and Panther Swamp are hands down the best of the NWR complexes.

 

National forest lands

Many wildlife management areas are located on U.S. Forest Service land. That land outside the WMA boundaries but within the National Forest has a different set of rules and is enforced by USFS and MDWFP law enforcement. Antler restrictions and bag limits follow that of private lands across the state.

One big difference in the USFS non-WMA land is the restrictions on game retrieval. On a WMA, a hunter may use an ATV, within certain guidelines, to extract a killed deer. On USFS land outside the WMA's, no motorized extraction is allowed except on specific established roads. The Forest Service provides a pamphlet identifying those approved roads. However, hand carts are permitted to relocate game to a pick-up point. Here again, it is the responsibility of the hunter to know where the lines are and what specific rules and regulations apply to that parcel.