No hunting season can be looked at in isolation, since game-animal health this fall depends on what happened last season.

Was there enough rain to produce plentiful forage, or was it a dry year in which mast crops and undergrowth struggled? Was the spring weather amenable to reproduction, or did heavy rains or hotter-than-normal conditions stress deer and squirrels.

So to get a feel for what will happen in the coming months on Mississippi's wildlife management areas, we first must look at last season.

Fortunately, the outlook is bright, according to the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks.

"We were in pretty good shape coming out of last year," state biologist Brad Holder said. "It was a banner mast year on the WMAs, with an abundance of white and red oaks dropping acorns."

While Holder was talking specifically about the northwest portion of the state, his words were echoed almost without exception by the other biologists tasked with managing MDWFP properties.

The only exception was the extreme northern stretches of the state, which experienced a late-spring freeze in 2007 that killed developing acorns.

In the rest of the state, the carpet of food has spawned an overall explosion in the squirrel population going into the 2008-09 season.

"Squirrels' reproductive potential is such that they can respond to mast crops," Holder said.

The only limitation is the availability of hardwoods on state WMAs: There are several across the state in which hardwood stands are fairly limited.

But if there are hardwoods, there should be bushytails galore.

Deer also shouldn't be a problem, since the state's public areas have been managed for the past few years under strict antler restrictions. That has protected young bucks, providing them time to grow.

Of course, that translates to more bucks wandering the woods. So seeing deer shouldn't be a problem for those who get out and spend some time scouting out the best areas.

It's important to note the antler restrictions for this year, however. Twenty-seven areas call for either a 12-inch inside spread or one main beam measuring at least 15 inches. Hunters on nine other WMAs are limited to shooting bucks sporting 15-inch inside spreads or at least one main beam measuring 18 inches or longer.

Mahannah WMA is managed under the most-stringent antler criteria. Bucks there become legal to shoot only when their racks measure at least 16 inches inside or one of the main beams stretches a minimum of 20 inches.

Those regulations have produced an ever-growing population of mature bucks wandering the state's public areas.

"I think we're seeing the fruits of our labor," Holder said. "Antler restrictions is the closest thing we can come to a magic bullet. You're protecting younger age-classes of bucks."

The ample mast crop also sent does into the fawning season in very good shape.

However, all the biologists said hunters shouldn't expect such a bumper crop of acorns this year.

"Last year was not a typical year," Holder said.

One hiccup in the overall outlook is the effects of Mississippi River water levels along the western side of the state. The news focused on the flooding in the northern reaches of the Big Muddy, but closer to home, the WMAs in the southwestern portion of the state were still inundated as late as late July.

"I feel like it's got to affect the (fawning) on those areas along the river," DWFP's Jackie Fleeman said.

However, Fleeman admitted that deer probably just moved out of the flooded areas, and will probably head back once the waters receded.

So that's the overall outlook, but what about the specifics. Here's what the DWFP biologists had to say about their regions.

Northwest/ Northcentral Region

WMAs: Choctaw, Chickasaw, John W. Starr, Upper Sardis, O'Keefe, Calhoun County, Malmaisson, Sardis Waterfowl, Hamer, Yockanookany.

"We're looking OK," Holder said. "We started out with real good rain, and some of our (food) plots are now getting rain."

That means green patches should be in good shape for the early season.

However, the mast crop on Holder's WMAs aren't anywhere near last year's level.

"We're looking fairly decent on red oaks," he explained. "The white oaks are spotty, but you're going to have white oaks to some degree.

"It's just this year the crop doesn't look as good as last year. I'm really not sure why."

However, there is plenty of browse for deer, thanks to the rains in the spring and late summer.

"We have a well-rounded, seasonal forage prescription," Holder said. "Down the road, we'll be managing timber to release the undergrowth."

The deer outlook is bright across the board on the 10 properties for which Holder is responsible.

"I can't think of a single situation where we don't have plenty of deer," he said. "There's one thing I can tell you, and that's there are plenty of whitetails running around on my WMAs."

Of course, the quality of the bucks on these areas depends largely on the location of the individual WMA.

"A lot of things start with soil type," Holder said.

Those tracts of land within the Mississippi alluvial delta and/or the loess hills region provide the best soil for producing quality bucks.

"On the WMAs in the delta, we consistently harvest a little bit better deer," Holder said. "Last year, we saw better bucks than a lot of people say they've seen (in past years)."

He said the presence of mast is one of the cogs that allows bucks to grow larger racks on these areas, which include Hamer, Malmaison and O'Keefe.

However, he said other factors also play important roles.

"There are mast-producing trees on those WMAs, but there are mast-producing trees on all of my WMAs, to some extent," Holder said.

One of the critical extras in the delta is the presence of agricultural fields, where deer feast on protein-rich crops.

However, what has really pushed these three areas over the top is the management program, which utilizes the more-stringent rules protecting any buck with a rack featuring less than a 15-inch inside spread or at least one 18-inch main beam.

Malmaison and O'Keefe are worth particularly close scrutiny by hunters, Holder said.

"They both have good bucks taken every year," he said. "They are smack dab in the best soil regions of the state."

Malmaison, which straddles the delta/loess hills transition, is especially noteworthy.

"It's a unique situation: Much of the Mississippi River alluvial valley has been cleared, and a good chunk of Malmaison is bottomland hardwood," Holder said. "There's a lot of deer to be had on that WMA."

The rest of Holder's WMAs fall under the regulations limiting buck harvest to those animals with either a 12-inch inside spread or a 15-inch main beam.

"Hunters are starting to see the results of better management," Holder said. "We are offering them the chance to kill a better buck down the road, which means there's more bucks out there to breed."

He said he can't wait to see the long-term impact of protecting so many bucks.

"Year after year after year, we'll see better bucks," Holder said.

Squirrels also should be plentiful throughout Holder's properties.

"Nine out of 10 (WMAs) have really good stands of hardwoods," he explained. "All of them have a pretty good abundance of squirrels."

Waterfowling is best on O'Keefe and Malmaison. Sardis Waterfowl is dedicated as a waterfowl refuge, and the only hunting allowed is a youth deer hunt.

Malmaison has a roughly 900-acre greentree reservoir that is flooded annually, along with what is locally known as The Scatters.

"The Scatters is, for the most part, a permanent body of water, a cypress brake along the Tallahatchee River," Holder said. "We can't actively manage it."

The past few years have seen lower water levels in The Scatters, and that has created problems.

"It's made it harder to hunt because it's grown up," Holder said. "It's not what it used to be."

O'Keefe holds a series of flooded impoundments and a greentree reservoir.

"Generally speaking, the greentree reservoir is better for greenheads, and you'll have your wood ducks in there, too," he said. "You just kind of hug a tree."

The field hunting provides opportunities for mallards, shovelers, wigeons and teal.

"It's a real mixed bag," Holder said.

Rabbits are not very prevalent on his WMAs, Holder said.

"The habitat really is not conducive to rabbits," he said. "There are rabbits out there, but the numbers could be better."

The backwater areas of Upper Sardis probably offer the best potential at this point, but he said Hamer soon should be a real highlight.

"It will be managed for small game," Holder said. "We're going to keep a lot of the open areas of that WMA open, which will create a lot of good habitat."

There's no significant upland bird opportunities on these 10 WMAs, he explained.

"We just don't have the numbers like we used to," he said. "Hopefully down the road we'll see some response to habitat management."

Northeast/East Central Region

WMAs: Tuscumbia, Divide Section, Canal Section, John Bell Williams, Black Priarie, Hell Creek, Okatibbee, Nanih Waiya, Trim Cane.

There were two concerns coming out of the 2007-08 season.

One was a lack of mast along the extreme northern-most parts of the state, where a late freeze knocked out the crop.

"On the Divide Section and Tuscumbia, you couldn't really find acorns," DWFP biologist Jerry Hazlewood said. "The two nights of freezes (in the spring of 2007) just decimated the acorn crop."

A lack of acorns could again be a concern this year, according Hazlewood

"The ones I've looked at locally here don't look as good I thought they would," he said in late July. "I've looked at some sawtooth (oaks), and they're just bare."

The lack of mast last season probably contributed to the second problem - a localized outbreak of blue-tongue, which killed numerous deer in the northern portion of Tishomingo County.

"Last August and September, there were 38 reported cases of blue-tongue," Hazelwood said. "Since 1992, it was the worst year for blue-tongue.

"The deer were stressed."

Despite good harvest numbers, Hazlewood said the combination of illness and absence of mast probably will hurt at least one public area.

"I think our overall deer numbers are down on the Divide Section," he said, adding that the population there is still much better than many other areas in the state.

It looks like the deer should have plenty of protein-rich acorns this year.

"I'm seeing a lot (of mast) on the trees right now," Hazlewood said. "We had pretty good moisture this year. We were a little behind (normal rains), but we had a good, wet spring and a good summer.

"It looks like conditions should be right for reproduction of deer."

With that in mind, Hazelwood said the Divide Section, the adjacent John Bell Williams and Nanih Waiya would be his picks for top public deer-hunting areas in his part of the state.

"They're not draw situations, and there are good opportunities," he said. "There are lots of remote areas to scout out, and if you take a little time you can find an isolated area."

The Divide Section is loaded with deer, despite the blue-tongue epidemic last year.

"There's no trouble seeing deer when you're in there," Hazlewood said.

The key is targeting areas in which dredge spoil was deposited when the Tenn-Tom Waterway was dug, Hazlewood said.

"They cleared off the hills and hollows, and filled in with material dredged from the channel," he said. "About a third of the WMA is in these disposal areas."

These 40- to 600-acre disposal areas aren't very fertile, but Hazlewood said there is plenty of cover for deer in the way of scattered trees and tall grass.

"It's now going through some successional changes, so deer are using them," he said.

One item of note is that Divide-Section regulations limit most hunters to primitive weapons.

However, Hazelwood said the biggest program offered on the Divide Section WMA is an emphasis on youth and handicapped hunting. These include different hunts with gun, archery and primitive weapons.

Handicapped hunting is facilitated through the placement of specialized stands.

"There are 10 wheelchair-accessible shooting houses," Hazlewood said. "There's plenty of room for helpers."

Nanih Waiya near Philadelphia offers hunters a one-two punch, he said.

"There's lots of good deer hunting, and there's lots of hogs in there," Hazlewood said.

The area is composed primarily of bottomland hardwood, but ground cover is thick thanks to Hurricane Katrina.

"Nanih Waiya and Okatibbee both experienced a lot of damage from Katrina," Hazlewood said. "Trees were down, so there's a lot of regeneration coming on.

"It'll be thick, and there's a lot of deer browse."

If the mast crop is as plentiful as Hazlewood expects, focusing on feed trees near these thickets should be productive.

Okatibbee, however, is surrounded by human development.

"The urbanization around the area has pretty much isolated it," he said.

Hunting is thusly limited to only a few weeks, outside of the almost two-month archery season. There are dedicated youth and handicapped opportunities here.

Canal Section WMA also offers six wheelchair-accessible shooting houses on a 250- to 300-acre handicapped-only section of the property.

Squirrels should be a real boon to small-gamers thanks to last year's overall bumper mast crop.

"Usually the two years after a good acorn crop, the population is up," Hazlewood said. "The more food, the more production."

Tuscumbia also provides good deer hunting, but access for that purpose is limited because the area is managed primarily for waterfowl.

"Unit 1 is open, but it's limited to water access," Hazlewood said. "Unit 2, we close to everything once duck hunting starts."

Unit 1 has several deer hunts, including one week-long youth-only hunt, but Unit 2 is open for only six days.

"We make (the Unit 2) hunt archery only," Hazlewood said.

But there are some real opportunities available, he said.

"There are some good deer that have been seen in there," Hazlewood said. "There's some old growth and grown-up fields deer bed down in.

"It's been underutilized."

Some of the best squirrel and rabbit hunting in this region, if not the state, is found on the Canal Section/John Bell Williams complex near Boonville, Hazlewood said.

"We consistently report over 2,000 squirrels harvested, and another 1,500 to 1,800 rabbits," he said. "And that's just what's voluntarily reported through our daily check system.

"It'll just blow your mind."

The key is the habitat, which is composed primarily of bottomland hardwoods.

"It's bordered on the east side by the Tenn-Tom Waterway, and in the middle of the area are a series of creeks that eventually turn into the old Tombigbee River," Hazlewood said.

Those creeks are lined with mast-producing oaks that support the huge gray-squirrel population.

"There're very few fox squirrels," he said.

Cottontails, or "hillbillies," proliferate in areas of the complex reforested in the mid 1990s.

"That early successional growth has produced a lot of rabbits," Hazlewood said.

He also pointed out that the Tenn-Tom Waterway levees are managed to provide plenty of cover for rabbits.

Those looking for unpressured small-game hunting can head to the Divide Section WMA.

"It's been underutilized," Hazlewood said.

The early successional growth around the disposal areas provides plenty of cover for rabbits, while nearby bottoms hold plenty of squirrels.

"The disposal areas are interspersed with blocks of canals and streams lined with hardwoods, and that's where the squirrels are," Hazlewood said.

Trim Cane WMA has a healthy population of rabbits, but Hazlewood said there are only a limited number of hunters allowed during the season.

"There is a drawing, and there are only two hunting parties allowed per day," he said.

Waterfowl hunting can be pretty good on Tuscumbia, which offers opportunities to knock down mallards and woodies, along with the occasional pintail.

Again, the area's Unit 1 is open during the regular state season. However, Unit 2 is managed using a preseason draw system to control pressure.

"There are 10 stations," Hazlewood said.

However, those who aren't chosen during early draw can show up and take a chance to score a position.

"We have a standby system," Hazlewood explained. "If people (from the early draw) don't show up to hunt by 5:30 that morning, we do a drawing from among the people standing by."

Those who do get into Tuscumbia's Unit 2 should have great chances to bag some ducks.

"It's small, but it's got some good duck hunting," Hazlewood said.

Ninih Waiya attracts mallards, pintails, wigeons and wood ducks, but only when water accumulates naturally.

"We're trying to manage some slough areas, but we don't have any created impoundments," Hazlewood said. "When there's adequate rainfall, there's usually plenty of ducks."

Trim Cane north of Starkville also offers duck hunting, but on a limited basis. As with Tuscumbia, hunters are chosen by a preseason draw, but others can show up each morning for an on-site drawing for spots not claimed.

Hell Creek and Black Prairie WMAs are home to decent populations of quail, but both are limited to permit-only hunting (applications must be filed in person at the WMAs' headquarters).

"They are primarily quail field-trial areas," Hazlewood explained.

West Central Region

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

The most-important factor surrounding these WMAs, which primarily are located in the Mississippi Delta, is the level of the Mississippi River, said DWFP biologist Jackie Fleeman.

"They were kind of hurt early because of water," Fleeman said. "A lot of deer had to move."

Shipland, Sunflower, Twin Oaks and Lake George were the most-affected, although a portion of Manannah also was inundated.

"There's a levee that splits Manannah, and about a third of the WMA is outside that levee," Fleeman said.

The fact that the river still had not receded by late July left a question mark over the bulk of the areas in this part of the state.

"I haven't been able to get out to the areas," he said.

However, there's one positive connected to such high water during the heart of the summer.

"The browse is staying tender and green instead of getting hard," Fleeman said, pointing out that normally by July deer have to look harder for favored browse.

Fleeman also said he was confident deer displaced by the high waters would simply move back to the WMAs whenever the river recedes, providing the typical quality hunting for which the Delta is known.

That doesn't necessarily mean the properties will be teeming with deer, however.

"There's not a whole lot of difference as far as the number of deer on them," Fleemans said. "If you think you're going to go and see 40 deer in a day, you probably won't be happy."

However, this will be the sixth year of the MDWFP antler-restriction program, and hunters are seeing the number of bucks increase.

"What we've basically got on all these areas are smaller bucks running around," Fleeman said.

That, combined with a decent doe harvest, has left the herd balanced.

"The deer herd is in real good shape," he said. "Body weights, antlers, lactation are all in good shape because we don't have too many deer."

And the overall result is the opportunity for hunters to see some quality bucks.

"We have really good deer killed on all of them," he said.

The complication to two of the best areas, Twin Oaks and Mahannah, is that hunters must apply for a draw no later than Sept. 15.

Fleeman said these draw hunts are designed to manage how hard deer are pushed.

"There's still a lot of pressure, but not nearly as much as if it was wide open," he said.

Those lucky enough to secure a permit for Mahannah will find plenty of habitat.

"There are 8,000 acres of more mature trees, but 3,000 acres have been replanted," Fleeman said.

The replanted areas are thick, and offer prime cover for deer, he pointed out.

They also provide plenty of food that is complemented by timber management designed to increase new browse production.

"We've been trying to do some (timber) cutting to try and open up the understory so we get vines and stuff growing," Fleeman said.

The rest of the WMAs in Fleeman's region are open to hunting by anyone who shows up, he said.

Lake George is one of those open properties that holds a healthy population of deer thanks the thick, replanted trees covering most of the area.

The tangle of growth on this area makes it harder to hunt, however.

"You have a hard time seeing a lot of deer sign," Fleeman said.

Shipland WMA has almost no oak trees, but mast is still an important part of the equation for deer hunters.

"There aren't very many oak trees, but it's got a lot of pecans," Fleeman said.

On the negative side of the equation, Fleeman said he probably wouldn't recommend Leroy Percy.

"It's so small," he said of the 1,642-acre WMA.

That doesn't mean there aren't deer there, however.

"Every now and then, they kill a good one," he said.

Squirrel hunters have ample choices, since every one of the West Central WMAs holds healthy numbers of bushytails, especially in the wake of last year's massive acorn crop.

"We have black squirrels on all of them," Fleeman said.

While Manannah and Twin Oaks are great choices, they are only open when there isn't a deer hunt under way.

So Fleeman said the 60,000 acres comprising Sunflower WMA probably is a great choice.

"You get that first burst of pressure early, and then the crowds are gone," he said. "Then the actual squirrel hunters hunt pretty much all year."

The only WMA he recommended hunters shy away from was Lake George, simply because of the dense growth that makes it almost impossible to even see squirrels, much less get a shot.

That very jungle of vegetation put Lake George on the top of Fleeman's rabbit-hunting choices, even though the trees are starting to mature and the understory has gotten so thick it's hard to work.

"It's mostly in those replanted trees, and they're starting to get big enough and thick enough that it's petering off," he said.

Waterfowling is offered on several of Fleeman's areas.

Lake George and Muscadine, the latter of which is closed to all other forms of hunting and is covered by a preseason draw, provide quality field hunting.

Howard Miller and Mahannah fall under a permit-only system, both preseason and on-the-spot drawings.

"We will draw about half of the spots, and about half will be walk-up drawings," Fleeman said.

That system was implemented on Mahannah last year, and everyone who wanted to hunt was admitted.

"We did not turn anybody away," Fleeman said.

Look for a mixed bag of mallards, gadwall, teal and pins.

Sunflower WMA draws numbers of ducks, as well, because of three greentree complexes.

"There's one about 700 acres in size that we pump, and the Forest Service usually pumps the other two," Fleeman said.

Southern Region

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

These public lands cover the entire southern region of the state, stretching from the fertile soils of the thick loess hills region tucked in the crook of Louisiana's "boot" to the relatively sandy and infertile area in the extreme southeast.

However, the overall prognosis is good.

"We've had really good numbers on reported deer harvest compared to the past five years," DWFP biologist Josh Moree said.

He said the passing of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was a mixed blessing.

"It created a lot of early successional habitat, so there's plenty of cover and browse for deer," Moree said.

Unfortunately, the devastation caused by the storm wasn't such good news for the squirrel population along the storm's track.

"The squirrels took a big blow in (MDWFP) District 6 (in the southeast)," he said.

Rabbits on the other hand seem to be in excellent shape throughout the lower portion of the state.

"I've seen more rabbits this spring and summer than I've ever seen," Moree said. "They've got plenty of cover."

To look more closely at the 15 WMAs Moree is tasked to manage, however, requires talking about two distinct regions with Interstate 55 acting as a good boundary.

"Once you get west of I-55, you start to get to the thick loess, and that's when it really gets good," Moree said.

All of the WMAs in this southwestern corner of the state hold good numbers of deer.

Moree also said he's expecting a good acorn crop again this year.

"It looks like the red oaks will be pretty good this year, although I think the white oaks will be sort of scattered," he said.

Sandy Creek and Caston Creek fall within the Homochitto National Forest, and that presents challenges for MDWFP managers.

"We have no say in timber management," Moree said, noting that the U.S. National Forest controls the properties. "Currently, all we're allowed to do is plant food plots and maintain some openings."

That being said, there are great deer-hunting opportunities.

Of the two, Sandy Creek's mix of hardwood and pines attracts a lot of non-resident use, Moree said.

"It's one of the closest ones to Louisiana," he explained.

Copiah County, located a bit farther from the state line, has a good population of deer, turkey, quail, squirrels and rabbits, Moree said.

"It's got a lot of upland old-growth pines on the hills," he explained. "Mixed in are a few hardwood bottoms."

Natchez State Park also has good deer-hunting opportunities, but the WMA is closed to all but youth and handicapped hunting, along with limited archery and primitive-weapon hunts.

"It's on a draw system," Moree said.

Squirrel hunting in this region should be best on Sandy Creek, which experienced what Moree classified as an exception season in 2007-08.

"It was in the thousands of squirrels harvested," he said. "There are a lot of hardwoods and a lot of mast."

Moving east of the interstate, Moree said trophy bucks are a rarity.

"The soil down here just won't support that," he said. "You're not going to have the same production, but there are exceptions."

This is the area that was most affected by Hurricane Katrina, so there were plenty of trees knocked down as the storm blasted through. That left an abundance of cover on the ground for deer, and browse has proliferated.

The Pascagoula/Ward Bayou complex just north of the coast offers some of the only bottomlands in the area, but the property is basically the flood plain of the Pascagoula River. That means access can be difficult.

"No more than 1,000 acres (out of a combined 50,000 acres) is upland," Moree said. "Pretty much, as you move south it gets lower and there are few road systems.

"It's mostly water access."

Old River WMA is another hardwood area, but Moree said it was absolutely blasted by Hurricane Katrina.

"It took probably the worst blow from the storm," he said. "It's nothing like the area used to be."

Many of the downed trees were oaks, which were sold as salvage, Moree said.

"It's a lot more open now," he explained. "We would like to restore a lot of those desirable hardwoods."

Although the remnants of the downed trees have provided cover and the openings have filled with browse, Moree said it's very difficult to hunt the area now.

"It's so difficult to access," he said.

The rest of the WMAs in this area are mostly piney upland, although some have stream-side hardwoods.

While Mason Creek, Chickasawhay, Wolf River, Leaf River, Red Creek and Little Biloxi do offer some deer hunting, Moree said state managers' hands are tied when it comes to habitat management.

"They're either managed by the Forest Service or are owned by timber companies," he said.

The one real highlight in this list is Wolf River WMA, which is owned by a private timber company.

"There's a lot of timber harvesting on that area," Moree said. "There are a lot of clear cuts and young pines, so there's a lot of diversity."

Rabbits are thick on the WMAs hit by Hurricane Katrina, he said.

"There's a lot of good habitat," Moree said.

Pascagoula River and Old River were two he said should really shine.

"There are a lot of good thickets for rabbits to hide in," he said.

Moree didn't expect squirrel hunting to be as good east of I-55, however.

"It's not as good as it was before the hurricane," he said. "There are some localized populations."

Those wanting to find a few squirrels might have luck on Pascagoula River WMA, he said.

This is one of the few areas of the state in which quail hunters can find some action.

Moree said Marion County, Leaf River and Red Creek are three areas that hold decent populations of birds.

"Marion County gets a pretty good amount of quail-hunting pressure," he said.

The other two areas lie on Forest Service property, and that has been helpful.

"The Forest Service does a little more prescribed burning, and that's good for quail," Moree said.

The best waterfowl hunting is limited to Pascagoula River, Ward Bayou and Old River, but Moree said there isn't a huge variety of birds.

"It's mostly wood ducks," he said.

Central

WMAs: Bienville, Tallahala, Caney Creek.

Bienville, Tallahala and Caney Creek WMAs are nestled within the predominantly piney woods of the Bienville National Forest, and they aren't known for their monster deer.

"We just don't have the nutrients to have big deer," MDWFP's Paul Windham said.

That doesn't mean the deer aren't plentiful, however.

"The majority of our hunters, when they go into the woods, they see deer," Windham said. "I hardly ever hear of anybody who comes out that says they haven't seen a deer."

That's due in large part to the timber management exercised by the U.S. Forest Service.

"The browse is in really good shape," Windham said. "We have enough browse to keep them healthy."

Rainfall has been scattered on the WMAs during the summer, but Windham said there should be enough to spark ample mast production.

However, acorns aren't as important as undergrowth because hardwoods are concentrated along creeks in Tallahalla and Caney Creek. Bienville WMA boasts even fewer hardwoods, with just a few stands scattered about the property.

While state managers would like to remedy that, the fact that Forest Service officials are responsible for timber management ties state biologists' hands on most habitat-management decisions.

"We have a cooperative agreement," Windham said. "They do the (prescribed) burning, where we are in charge of the food plots."

And all three areas have a number of green patches, with clover being emphasized to enhance the amount of protein available to deer.

What MDWFP managers have been able to do is up the antler criteria to require bucks carry racks measuring at least 12 inches inside or sport at least one main beam that stretches to 15 inches.

That's really had an impact on the three areas' herds.

"The regulation changes on our antlers have helped out tremendously," Windham said. "Allowing some younger bucks to get some age on them is beginning to show.

"You're starting to see some 120-, 130-class deer you normally wouldn't see."

Bienville has responded particularly strongly to this change in hunting rules.

"It's really coming on," Windham said. "In fact, last year, there were more bucks brought in than does."

Squirrel hunting has been on the upswing since Hurricane Katrina swept through the area, but it's no easy task to sneak through the woods.

"We still have a lot of timber on the ground," Windham said.

He said the number of squirrels taken from the three areas plummeted immediately after the storm, but he doesn't think the population has suffered.

"It might be because people just couldn't get out to hunt," Windham said. "I think there are plenty of squirrels out there."

Rabbits, on the other hand, seem to be scattered.

"It's fair, but there aren't many people who do it," Windham said. "We do have some rabbits, but the numbers aren't real high."

And quail populations are in even worse shape.

"We just completed a quail survey on all three of the areas, and there were very few," Windham said.

That might be an understatement: He said only four were found on Tallahala, one bird was spooked up on Caney Creek and Bienville yielded no evidence of quail activity.

"The quail population has just gone to nothing," Windham said.