It started with a mere flash of movement.
Without moving his head, the hunter shifted his vision to the spot in the forest. Was it just a bird, perhaps a squirrel? He studies the area, hoping for …
There it was again, movement, and this time he spotted the shape of a deer’s back and rump of a big deer. The head should be right there as the hunter brought his binoculars into play.
Parts of a body became visible, a bit of antler, a heavy swollen neck, a broad chest — enough that a rifle scope replaced the binoculars.
The deer was quartering toward the elevated hunter. The head is now clear, maybe 80, maybe 100 yards distant. A few more steps and a high shoulder shot would be possible. With a .270 rifle, that was a moot point.
The report of the rifle carried down the ridge and along the creek bottom. A fresh round went in the chamber and the scope was back on the buck, just in time to see a final foot shake as death came to the magnificent 10-point.
Few things get the attention of Mississippi hunters as much as deer season, stories of a past hunt and other whitetail related information. Biologists from the state to federal level hear the same question every season: What can we expect to see this year?
Mississippi Sportsman posed this very question to three of the state’s top-ranked deer managers and researchers. In their responses are some facts hunters can take to the bank. There are also some debunked myths and troubling trends.
Lan Wilf, Deer Program Leader for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks summed the season up in four words: “There will be deer.”
All things being equal, hunters who saw deer last season will likely see deer again this season. Beyond that, there are just too many variables to consider, including
* What is the given hunter’s expectations for the season, meat for the freezer or a Boone & Crockett trophy for the wall.
* Will there be a dry fall to follow our hot dry summer*
* Will there be a fine mast crop or will browse be in short supply?
“If I could honestly answer all those questions, do you really think I’d be working here, or as some guru in the stock market,” Wilf said. “Here is the bottom line, deer populations are cyclic; some years all the factors come together and hunters are more successful, while some years, not so much.
“But again, the individual hunter’s success contains an infinite number of variables.”
For a trophy hunter, the 2015-16 season started with fawn recruitment back in 2010. Those bucks that have managed to survive should be reaching the peak of their lives. Their body weight and antler mass will be about as good as it will get, making them desirable trophy candidates. Fawns dropping this year will be trophy candidates for the 2020 to 2022 seasons. Minimum antler harvest restrictions were implemented years ago to allow bucks to gain age, and thus size. It has been a successful management tool where it is allowed to work.
“Based on fawn recruitment and buck carryover this should be a banner year for mature bucks,” Wilf said. “In 2011 we had a good year, and 2012 was an exceptional year. So we should be seeing an excellent crop of 3-year-old bucks, and if hunters will pass on these, allowing them to age a little more, we could see a strong trend of trophy bucks in the coming seasons.”
There is no crystal ball for forecasting the coming deer season. There are, however, some pointers that will give a hunter a pretty good idea of what exists to make the season a successful one. Most deer hunters are members of a camp or hunt a family farm. Predicting a season is a bit easier than for the public land hunter.
However, both can put together an accurate forecast and here’s how.
As deer season winds down and hunters start catching up on home-front projects, time in the woods begins to wane, at least until small game and turkey hunting lures hunters back to the woods and fields. Finding a shed antler is not in and of itself a big deal. Finding a shed from a mature buck is a bonus and finding both sides is a real plus.
This buck survived the season and there is a better than average chance he will again be in the same home range in the upcoming season.
Start searches for sheds in known bedding areas and creek crossings. Anywhere a buck might have to lower his head to go beneath undergrowth or hanging vines. In 50-plus years of deer hunting this writer has found a lot of sheds. Success comes when I look for them like I’d look for a glove or flashlight I might have dropped. I walk trails and around food plots.
“Having a dog to shed hunt with you is fun and fruitful,” said Steven Crotwell, an avid deer hunter from Morton. “Any dog that will play fetch may be trained to be a shed hunter. Have a shed just for the dog. Reward them each time it brings you the antler. Then on the walks you have another set of eyes and a keen nose looking for the toy it likes to play with.
“Every shed found indicates a buck that will be a year older and bigger. And that is a good thing.”
Fawning occurs, for the most part, in July, a little earlier in the north and a little later in the south counties. Fawn recruitment is a fair indicator of herd balance and the buck-to-doe ratio. This ratio should be understood and serve as a factor in herd management decisions, even on public land. It requires some boots on the ground at a time when the fields and forests are anything but cool and pleasant. Trail cameras can pick up some of the duty.
Look for itty-bitty tracks on trails or log roads, country dirt roads or in newly plowed food plots. This is an indication that a fawn, or hopefully two, have dropped and are now traveling with their mother. This fawn should be about 10 days old. By mid-September the numbers of new fawns should be decreasing greatly. Late fawns could indicate a low buck-to-doe ratio resulting in does being bred later in the winter. The perfect ratio is one-for-one. So every doe is bred during the main rut.
D-Map data showing a high number of dry or barren does indicates an overpopulation of antherless deer. This is a dead giveaway that more does need to be taken out earlier in the season. Fill the freezer early if this is the case.
“It’s too early in the year for us to see a trend based on the 2014-15 deer hunting season,” said Rick Dillard, co-founder and director of the Magnolia Records Program, which created a database of deer harvested in all Mississippi counties.
“The Wildlife Extravaganza (held at the Trade Mart in Jackson the first weekend in August) is the first big coming out show for recent harvests. Most years there are around 100 heads brought in for scoring and presentation.”
Dillard did say the quality and number of entries have been on a steady climb. Management incentives and reasonable harvest restrictions are resulting in a better class of buck deer in Mississippi.
“Any supplemental feeding, from a food dispenser to a planted food plot or crop will affect deer movement,” Wilf said. “Where supplemental feeding takes place, deer movement is reduced by four percent. That is a documented fact.
“It could be more than that. On D-Map clubs where we have better data, we’ve seen as much as an eight percent decrease in deer movement with supplemental feeding.”
According to the biologists, three primary factors govern deer movement, aside from the rut, those being the mast crop, weather and hunting pressure. A good mast crop will decrease deer movement as food is readily available. Cold weather will increase deer movement as they feed in order to stay warm, and hunting pressure will force deer to become more nocturnal.
Unless you are a deer hunter who lives light years removed from modern inventions, you have a trail camera. This is a tool that allows year-round monitoring of buck antler growth, herd concentration, predator concentrations, and just interesting images.
Digital cameras have improved the quality of the images and there are even cameras that will transmit the images to your cell phone in real time. What could be better for a boring office meeting?
Cameras run the gamut of prices, from well under $100 to over $500. Naturally, you get what you pay for but the mid-priced units are very good.
Doe deer are another indicator of the season to come. Where they historically hang out should be easy to determine. Food near cover is a deer magnet. Where you see does on a consistent basis, you will see bucks later in the season, especially during the rut.
All this is a very simplistic way of saying a hunter needs to spend as much time in the woods as possible. Books could be, and have been written about deer hunting and the quest for a successful hunt.
Spend the time in the woods, do your homework, look for fresh tracks, well-used trails, creek crossings and study game camera pictures. Keep a journal of animal sightings and the conditions. Were the deer you saw feeding, or just traveling, had they been bedded down, or were they walking and browsing?
Over the seasons you will develop an instinct for your own personal deer season forecast.