J.H. James of Natchez, owner and operator of the 2,000-acre Ellislee Plantation on the Homochitto River, has proven that anyone can have numbers of big-antlered Texas-style trophy bucks on his hunting lands, if he knows how to properly manage his deer herd.

Ellislee Plantation hosts numbers of monster bucks most of us dream about but never see. What's required to grow trophy bucks in Mississippi, and how can you raise these types of bucks on the land you hunt?

We'll tell you.

Old and new

James' great-great grandfather, George W. Armstrong, moved from Fort Worth, Texas, to find farmland near Natchez about a century ago. He purchased more than 3,000 acres to farm, passing down this property through the generations. James, a trophy-buck enthusiast, decided to impose a management system on the land to produce the kind of bucks he, his friends and his customers wanted to hunt.

"We harvest as many does as possible off the property, and we try to take only 5-year-old-and-older bucks," he said. "We harvest as many management bucks, which we define as 5-1/2-year-old bucks with 8 points or less, as we can.

"I consider a trophy buck any buck that scores 130 or better Boone & Crockett. On our land, we harvest from two to eight of these trophy bucks each year."

James has hunted this property, with its abundance of agriculture, such as corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and green fields planted specifically for the deer, for 17 years. Large, mature hardwoods separate these agricultural fields with many hardwoods also in the middle of the agriculture.

The area's somewhat-hilly terrain creates natural funnels for the deer to travel. Because of the abundance of agriculture and the lush green fields, James grows and holds bucks on his property and also attracts deer from adjacent properties.

James limits the number of hunters hunting his land throughout the season as another management practice.

"During the entire season, we won't have more than 15 to 20 people hunting on our land," he said. "I prefer to only have two hunters at a time. This way, one guide and I personally can hunt with each hunter to make sure they each take a nice buck. Currently, we have 70- to 80-percent success rate on our bucks. Our buck-to-doe ratio is about two or three does per buck, and we're harvesting about 15 management bucks each year."

I hunted Ellislie Plantation last year with Jim Willard of Natchez, founder of the electric Bad Boy Buggies. On the afternoon of my arrival, Willard and I sat over a green field, and saw six different bucks before the sun set, including a 7-pointer that would have weighed more than 200 pounds. Then just before dark, we spotted a bigger buck, but we couldn't see him well enough to count the points. The field also held a 3-1/2-year-old 9-point buck in the field and several 6- and 7-point bucks.

Most hunters would have taken the bucks we saw that afternoon. However, Willard was patient.

"Not yet," he said. "We need to look at more bucks and pick you out a good one."

I couldn't have imagined what would happen the next morning.

Before daylight, on the second morning of my hunt, we slipped into our tree stand along the edge of a creek bottom where two rolling hills made a funnel. We'd hardly reached our stand before we began seeing deer. So many deer moved through this funnel that I felt like a traffic cop. I counted 20 bucks and lost count of the does. With the rut just about to start, the deer milled around and moved constantly.

On one side of the property, I noticed a high fence. When we returned to camp for lunch, I asked James how the high fence on his neighbor's land affected his hunting.

"The high fence seems to funnel more deer, especially bucks, onto my property," he said. "Many of the deer that normally go on the high-fenced land are funneled onto my land. So the high fence has had a positive effect on our hunting."

Just before I arrived for my hunt, James had taken a 6-year-old buck that weighed 260 pounds and had 41 inches of mass.

"Very rarely do you see more than 40 inches of mass on a deer's antlers around here," he said.

Although the buck had 15-inch-wide antlers with relatively-short beams, one of his main beams had 20 inches of length, the other main beam 21 inches, and some of the points reached 5 inches or longer.

"This year is the first time I've seen this buck," James said. "I spotted him once during bow season, and I took him during gun season."

James has motion-sensor cameras stationed across his property to inventory his deer herd, and to learn how many trophy bucks live on the property, and where and when the bucks travel. With that much surveillance, the fact that a 6-year-old buck could live on this land without anyone spotting him was surprising.

Growing big bucks

Besides having an abundance of food, providing sanctuary and allowing as little human disturbance as possible allows James to attract and hold more big bucks than most hunting properties can sustain.

"We don't violate or go into our sanctuaries, unless we think an injured deer has moved into those regions," James said. "Therefore, older age-class bucks have a place where they can hold and dodge hunting pressure. Then we only hunt the sanctuary toward the end of the season with a favorable wind. The rest of the time, we're hunting trails that lead from the sanctuary to feeding sites."

Trophy bucks don't like to see and hear hunters. Many hunters believe the deer have sanctuaries they retreat to as soon as they hear a 4-wheel-drive vehicle or an ATV.

"I've really noticed a significant difference in the spookiness of our deer herd since we've been using the Bad Boy Buggies exclusively to travel back and forth to stands," James said. "Bad Boy Buggies don't make any noise or emit any odor. Also, we use camouflaged Bad Boy Buggies, which makes seeing them more difficult for the deer."

In the last 5 years, a hunter at Ellislee Plantation harvested a 10-point buck that scored 156 inches B&C. In 2005, a bowhunter took a buck that scored 139 inches B&C.

The prices of properties that can produce trophy bucks like that has skyrocketed in Mississippi and also in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

"The neighbor's land that adjoins my property once leased for about $12 per acre until about 3 years ago," James said. "Today, this same land leases for $30 per acre as more hunters search for land where they can produce trophy bucks."

Oops!

Every hunter needs to perform certain actions before going into the woods to hunt, with the most important being sighting-in his or her rifle. When I arrived at Ellislee Plantation, James and Willard suggested I go to the rifle range and sight-in my Mannlicher .30-06 with the double-set triggers. However, since I'd sighted in the gun the week before and had taken a nice buck with an accurate shot, I opted to skip sighting in my rifle.

We saw plenty of bucks during the hunt, and I'd even put the crosshairs behind the shoulder of two or three bucks in anticipation of Willard telling me to pull the trigger, which hadn't happened yet.

On the last afternoon of the hunt, Willard and I went to a double-wide tree stand on the edge of one of the sanctuaries where James had seen a monster buck coming out. The Ellislee folks had mowed a 30-yard strip of land for 300 yards along the edge of the sanctuary, made up primarily of a sweet gum thicket with a small creek running through it. A vetch field on the other side of the creek had a large field of standing corn behind it.

On the other side of the mowed lane, the sanctuary consisted of a sweet gum thicket and an old hay field, providing a bedding area for the deer. This same region had produced the 140-class buck two days before I arrived.

Because James had set up motion-sensor cameras on a trail leading through the sanctuary, he had a photograph of the buck he wanted me to take. After 45 minutes on the stand, he showed up.

"There he is, John," Willard whispered.

A huge buck stepped out onto the shooting lane. I assumed the buck would cross the small lane to get into the thicket before I could get off a shot.

So I quickly brought my rifle to my shoulder and reached for the very light and sensitive trigger. Immediately, the rifle reported, but I missed. The big buck wheeled and went back into the thicket. I bolted my rifle quickly, and to my surprise, the buck stepped out again.

This time, I let the crosshairs settle behind the front shoulder and squeezed the trigger, knowing that the buck would go down. However, he didn't.

Once again, I bolted the rifle. I locked-down and knew I could make the shot. When the rifle reported, the buck kicked up and ran back into the thicket.

"I know I got him on that last shot," I said to Willard. "The first shot I got off too quickly, and the second shot seemed to be dead-on, but the third shot was exactly where it needed to be."

I haven't missed a buck in an opening like that in probably two decades.

I thought to myself, "Maybe I've gotten old, maybe I can't shoot, or maybe there's something wrong with the gun or the bullets."

But I just knew we'd find the buck when we climbed down from the tree stand.

However, when we arrived at the spot where the bullet should have tagged the buck, we saw no blood or hair. We searched and then decided to wait until after dark to locate my buck. But we didn't find him that night or the next morning. Before I left camp, I went out to sight-in my rifle, although I knew for certain it was sighted-in properly.

I realized when I shot off a bench at a target, the paper wouldn't lie, and that's when I learned my gun was shooting far to the left and low. I don't know how my scope got bumped because I'd kept it in a case since the last hunt. I didn't remember bumping it as I pulled it up into my tree stand. I felt like the cat caught with a canary in its mouth.

I knew better than to go into the woods without sighting-in my rifle. But I felt so certain about the proper sighting-in of my gun from the last hunt. In my excitement about hunting at the Ellislee Plantation, my enthusiasm overran wisdom, and I made a common mistake I'd always advised other hunters not to make. I missed my trophy buck, and yes, I felt stupid.

I relearned the lesson that no matter how many years you've hunted and how many deer you've taken, sometimes, you still make stupid mistakes.

However, on this hunt, I spotted as many, if not more, big bucks on this property than I'd ever seen at any place I'd ever hunted. I had the chance to bag a true monster. I also learned more about how to grow trophy bucks and what management practices landowners needed to execute to grow trophy bucks on any hunting property.

For more information, call James at 817-271-2025, or email him at jhjames@ellisleeplantation.com