There is a common misconception among many deer hunters that public land - wildlife management areas in particular - are vast wastelands where orange-clad wanderers roam the woods from daylight until dark.

Admittedly, there was a time a quarter of a century ago when road hunters were a problem and some WMA lands were crisscrossed by packs of dogs for days on end.

Those days are gone.

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks has made huge strides in seeing that every hunter as a quality experience on public lands by increasing access improving deer herd quality and increasing hunting opportunities. Even with this hard work, thousands of acres of public land are under-hunted.

I've been blessed to live most of my life in the Bienville National Forest. In fact, I live in the Caney Creek WMA. During the 2008-09 seasons, I witnessed weeks pass without a single vehicle parked at some of the access points to huge tracts of public land. I also saw a good number of deer checked in at the area headquarters. Without question, deer quality is better and hunters are fewer.

For several years, hunters were required to judge a buck or doe for certain antler and body size before pulling the trigger. Minimum-inside-spread requirements varied somewhat across the state, but the bottom line was the same: Younger bucks were passed and allowed to mature into older, more desirable deer.

For the 2009-10 season, the 4-point rule has been dropped and minimum inside spread or main beam length made the statewide criteria.

Fewer hunters are using public lands because there are fewer hunters. Dog hunting is waning in popularity, and demands on time and resources in a troubled economy slice into free time. This situation could become cyclic as public lands get deer heavy, then hunter heavy, harvests increase and hunter pressure falls off again. But for the current time, and well into the foreseeable future, hunting on public lands holds great promise.

One example of an underused tract is Sunflower WMA in Sunflower County. The 60,000-acre tract of bottomland hardwoods is as close as can be found to the land Theodore Roosevelt and Holt Collier hunted early last century. The area is pock-marked with old lakes and sloughs that naturally funnel deer movement and somewhat hamper hunter movement.

Aerial and topo maps of Sunflower are available for sale by the MDWFP. These maps will allow a hunter to locate these natural funnels and assist in stand placement.

"Deer and squirrel hunters on the area have been declining over the past 15 years," said MDWFP biologist Jackie Fleeman. "Twenty-five years ago, the area was heavily used, but there are people on the area now who hunt all day and never see another hunter."

This is a bit puzzling since the Delta has long been known as a place where deer grow large. For the past several seasons, the area has required legal bucks to have a minimum inside spread and four countable points. For the 09-10 deer season, that has been changed to an inside spread of 15 inches or one main beam measuring 18 inches.

"We should have a fine crop of 3- to 4-year-old bucks on Sunflower that meet the new requirements easily," said Fleeman. "There are ample does too, for the hunter just wanting some freezer meat."

Sunflower is as flat as a pancake, and hunters new to the area are encouraged to have a compass and GPS, and know how to use them. Preseason scouting is highly encouraged, since mast crops can vary across the area. There are ample thickets and canebrakes to act as core areas where deer feel little human pressure.

"We had fewer than 1,700 man-days of deer hunting last season," said Fleeman. "For an area this size, that's a small number. Spread over the four-month season, that could be equated to light pressure.

Forty-four bucks and 53 antlerless deer were harvested on Sunflower WMA during the '08-09 season.

Canal Section WMA in Itawamba County is a narrow strip of land on the west side of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway that can also be classified as underused by deer hunters. Public access to much of Canal Section's better hunting (primarily north of Amory) must be made by water, either by the old Tombigbee River channel or the Tenn-Tom Waterway.

"The area requires some planning on the part of the hunter," said District One biologist Jerry Hazlewood. "Last season, we checked the area on opening day of gun season, and found many of the 30 prepared food plots without hunters, but displaying a lot of use by deer and hogs."

The area runs north-to-south for almost the entire county, yet is no wider than a mile at its widest point. Unlike Divide Section WMA to the north, Canal Section has no disposal areas where poor soil was distributed during the construction of the waterway.

The 32,000 acres of Canal Section are primarily hardwood and swamp bottomland with shallow meandering streams and open lands that were previously farmed. North of Amory, habitat is mostly bottomland hardwood. The open areas south of Amory were reforested in hardwoods in the early 1990s. These different natural habitats, along with man-made waterfowl impoundments and numerous summer and winter food plots, account for why deer, turkey, squirrel, rabbit and waterfowl are the most hunted species on the area.

"We strongly encourage hunters to explore the area prior to actually hunting," said Hazlewood. "There are plenty of great places to hang a stand and spend a day watching a trail crossing or even a food plot. Hunters tell us the quantity and quality of bucks on the area has increased over the past few years."

Another area in the northeast that has seen little deer hunting pressure is Tuscumbia WMA. Only about 1,200 acres, Tuscumbia is primarily a waterfowl area. It was closed to all hunting activity for several years while the waterfowl attractors were constructed and allowed to provide safe haven for migrating waterfowl.

Recently, the area has been opened to archery deer hunting on a limited basis. This means deer hunters can use the area from opening weekend until waterfowl season opens. Millet, clover, sunflower and other wildlife food crops are planted on Tuscumbia, and deer are plentiful.

According to Hazlewood, it is a walk-in-only area that has seen very little pressure on the deer herd. He admits this might change as word of the area spreads among hunters.

Waterfowl hunting is limited to draw hunts on part of the area, and hunters should read and understand regulations before using Tuscumbia. The deer are plentiful, but suitable trees for climbing stands are not. For that reason, some deer hunters choose to hunt from the ground, using blinds they bring in, or stalking to take advantage of native plant material.

It is fair to mention here that some areas, such as Yockanookany and Nanih Waiya WMAs, are susceptible to flooding - thus access is limited at times. The Yock is a draw-hunt area for both primitive weapons and archery. Located in Attala County, it has areas that may flood during rainy periods, keeping hunting pressure down. Granted, the deer may have to flee to points where pressure exists, but they return as soon as the water recedes.

If hunters are "flooded out," there are no make-up or second chance days. The 2008-09 deer season saw the Yock flooded during some of the peak periods of hunting activity. That resulted in a lower harvest and greater carryover. Yockanookany WMA is well worth the time required to apply for a permit and scout the area. The area has a good population of wild hogs as well, offering hunters a tasty bonus.

Nanih Waiya WMA is similar in many ways to Yockanookany, but no special draw permits are required. Access is governed by the water level of the upper Pearl River. During early archery season, many sloughs and creeks are all but dry. As the rains of winter begin to come regularly, the waterholes fill, limiting access to many parcels of the WMA to boat or chest waders.

Nanih Waiya has a good stand of hardwood, and generally mast may be found with a little scouting. As with every area, season food will dictate where deer may be feeding. Soft mast, such as persimmons and muscadines, are short-lived foods, falling early in the archery season. Acorns are a staple, some more popular with our native cervids than others. Only scouting will allow a hunter to locate active trails, crossings and natural funnels where deer travel.

Only archery and primitive weapons are allowed on Nanih Waiya. Primitive season opens Nov. 21, and remains open through Jan. 31, 2010. Legal bucks fall into the 12/15 requirement, that being a 12-inch minimum inside spread or one main beam of at least 15 inches.

Mississippi has more than 800,000 acres of wildlife management areas all across the state. Each area manager will assist hunters in locating under-used parcels. Each is not a hunter's paradise where the perfect tree is always upwind of the perfect trail. Hurricane Katrina felled thousands of trees in 2005. The unscheduled clearing made walking difficult and ATV retrieval of deer next to impossible.

Still the opened forest allowed forage foods to flourish, so deer numbers have increased in those areas. Consider this: A male fawn in 2005 that survived the storm and subsequent hunting seasons is now a mature buck with a mature rack.

It may be the best time for a hunter with the will to work to find a trophy in the rough.

Okatibbee WMA is one such case. The loss of timber was a blow to squirrel hunters, but has proven to be a boon for deer hunters.

Other areas have sizeable tracts of under-used land because of access or other factors. Few deer hunters relish the thought of hunting near traffic, but parts of Caney Creek WMA are bordered by I-20. Generations of deer have grown up with the constant noise, and give it little thought. Hunters avoid the areas, and thus the deer have little pressure.

Area 1 of Caney Creek has seen increased pressure as hunters have realized this ribbon of land between Forest and Lake, north of I-20 and south of the railroad, has been largely ignored.

Don't allow yourself to be fooled into thinking Mississippi WMAs are gross wastelands. Do some research, study the maps, do lots of walking and scouting and find the deer of your dreams.

It may just be easier than you think.