When the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission began in 1932, the Hospitality State was practically devoid of whitetails. In fact, only about 1,500 deer lived in the state, and those were located in largely inaccessible areas in the bottomlands of the major rivers.

But now, thanks to diligent efforts of biologists, enforcement officers and conservation-minded hunters, Mississippi hosts the highest deer density in the nation. Today, the number of whitetails in the state is estimated at about 1.75 million, which is exceeded in total population only by Texas.

According to density maps produced by the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), most counties in Mississippi have more than 45 deer per square mile. The coastal regions and the Delta are the least populated, but even select locations in the Delta support more than 45 deer per square mile.

Even more impressive is the percentage of mature bucks harvested in Mississippi. According to the QDMA, Mississippi leads the nation with 60 percent the buck population exceeding 3.5 years of age. This percentage has tripled since 1999, and the Magnolia State leads the Lone Star state by 11 percent in this category.

Now you may be wondering how does Mississippi lead other states in older bucks, and how did we triple that number since 1999. There may be many answers to that question, but the statistics show that private-land hunters are being more selective in the bucks they take, and new antler regulations are protecting the younger bucks.

The Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) has provided more than 10,000 deer for comparative purposes annually since 1983, according to the MDWFP's Deer Program Report. This program involves the study of trends and herd changes on over 2 million acres of privately managed hunting land in the state.

While it may not accurately represent all areas of the state, it does give biologists something to go by. The study results are broken down into two categories: the four years prior to the 4-point rule (1991-1994), and the last 5 years of study. Antler regulations changed in 1995 to the 4-point rule and the limit changed from five bucks and three does to three bucks and five does.

The average age of all bucks harvested on DMAP lands increased from 2.1 years old in 1991, to 3.0 years old in 2007. Also increased were average spread, beam length, circumference and number of points.

When you look at the stats, the number of harvested 1.5-year-old bucks has dropped from 37 percent in 1994 to 15 percent in the latest study year (2007), and harvest of 2.5-year-olds decreased from 30 percent to 21 percent.

In direct correlation to the drop in 1.5- to 2.5-year-olds is the increase in the older age classes. Harvest of 3.5-year-old bucks increased from 13 to 30 percent, and harvest of 4.5-year-and-older bucks increased from 5 percent to 30 percent.

Equally as interesting is the increase in number of points, main beam length and spread on all bucks harvested on DMAP lands. Average points increased statewide from 4.8 ('91-'94) to 7.0 ('03-'07). Average length increased from 10.4 to 15.6 inches, and average spread increased from 8.7 to 12.7 inches.


Change equals results

Using these figures, it's easy to see that the bucks on private, managed land have gotten older and are growing larger racks. But where does that leave the public land hunter? We all know that public vs. private land buck quality can be as different as daylight and dark, and that the public land hunter probably doesn't stand a snowball's chance at harvesting the class of deer that the private land hunter can.

Or does he?

Well, the playing field was put a little closer to level with the implementation of stricter antler regulations on wildlife management areas in the '02-'03 and '03-'04 seasons. It was during these two seasons that many WMAs across the state adopted a 4-point/12-inch inside spread rule, and Delta WMAs implemented a 4-point/15-inch inside spread rule.

These new regulations were met with open arms by some hunters, and were frowned upon by others.

Hunters not in favor of the new antler criteria complained that they didn't want "trophy management" on their public lands - just the opportunity to shoot any legal buck that they had the opportunity to take.

Hunters who welcomed the new regulations remained patient, and their patience eventually paid off. It wasn't long before larger-racked bucks starting showing up at the check-in stations on these public lands, and all hunters began to see the results of a selective buck harvest program at work.

As of the '07-'08 hunting season, many WMAs dropped the 4-point requirement and went to a minimum inside spread/main beam length regulation. Two dozen WMAs adopted a 12-inch inside spread or 15-inch main beam rule, and nine implemented a 15-inch inside spread or 18-inch main beam rule.

Mahannah WMA, in the south Delta, has gotten even more selective with a 16-inch inside spread or 20-inch main beam regulation.

Bucks harvested on these areas must meet either the inside spread or the main beam length criteria.

Archers hoping to score on public lands in Mississippi need not fear. There are plenty of deer to go around; over 2,400 deer were harvested on WMAs during the '08-'09 season. There are also plenty of places to hunt, with nearly 800,000 acres on 45 WMAs available for deer hunting. Of those 45 WMAs, a select few are open to archery hunting only or offer archers a majority of the available deer hunting season. Some are permit-only (must be drawn to hunt), and others are open hunts.


Charles Ray Nix WMA

Formerly known as Hamer, this 4,000-acre WMA is located in Panola County in the northwestern part of the state. Bucks harvested here must have either a 15-inch inside spread or one main beam length of at least 18 inches. Does 3.5 years and older have comprised a majority of the harvest the last few years.

Reports indicate that deer weights are below average for the region, and an overpopulation of the herd is the likely culprit. Harvest increased from 50 deer in '07-'08 to 146 last season. This represents the highest harvest since the WMA was opened to the public in 2004.

"There is a high population of deer at Charles Ray Nix, as indicated by the continued harvest of mature does," said Brad Holder, regional WMA manager. "We've dropped the weight requirement for does, so any doe, regardless of size, is legal for harvest. This, along with continued food-plot management, prescribed burns and the creation of permanent openings in the timber, should do nothing but improve the overall health of the herd here."

Small areas of hardwoods in the rolling loess hills on this property are favorable to bowhunters. Winter plots of clover, wheat and oats, as well as surrounding agricultural fields and mature oak stands, make this WMA an archer's paradise.

Archery season on Charles Ray Nix begins Oct. 1 and runs through Nov. 20. A brief youth gun season will interrupt archery season for a few days, and archery will resume Nov. 30 and continue through Dec. 11. A permit only-primitive weapon hunt will run through Dec. 18, and then archers will have the deer hunting to themselves until Jan. 31. No permit is required to hunt deer with archery equipment on this WMA.


Stoneville WMA

Located in the central Delta near Leland, Stoneville WMA occupies approximately 2,500 acres of the rich, fertile soil in Washington County. Practically an island of trees among tens of thousands of acres of farm fields, this WMA is open to archery and primitive-weapon hunting only.

Most of the timber was cut here 10-15 years ago in response to severe ice storm damage, and the browse is now plentiful and of good quality. The 15/18 antler rule went into effect 2 years ago, and the deer harvest was reported at only 7 - down 5 from the previous year.

Harvest last season was reported to be six deer. This number seems surprisingly low until you see that no hunters reported using the area the entire month of October, and then only 15 used the area in November prior to the firearms hunt. Hunter numbers again fell off as the firearms season ended, and fewer than 50 archers reported hunting the property during the month of January.

Archery season at Stoneville is from Oct. 1 through Nov. 20, and again from Jan. 2-31.


Leroy Percy WMA

Leroy Percy WMA, located about 10 miles east of the Mississippi River in Washington County, is located within the confines of Leroy Percy State Park, which is one of the few state parks in the state where hunting is allowed.

The 2,200-acre WMA is comprised almost entirely of mature, bottomland hardwood forest. Acres upon acres of soybean fields surround the park, and the deer benefit from ample nutrition throughout the year.

Deer harvest has remained relatively low over the years, with only a dozen or so deer being taken each year.

"We have the same people show up year after year to hunt," said Betty Barnett at Leroy Percy. "It's not that we don't have the deer, it's just that we don't have much hunting pressure. We have a lot of people who stay here in the park cabins, but most of them hunt the larger places nearby, like Yazoo Refuge."

Only archery and primitive-weapons hunting is allowed on this small area, but archers enjoy an extended late season. Early archery season is Oct. 1-Nov. 20, and the late season runs from Jan. 2-31. Does and legal bucks may be taken on this WMA, and the 15/18 antler rule has been in effect here for the last two seasons.


Sky Lake WMA

This WMA is one of the newest to be opened by the MDWFP, and has yet to be hunted by the public. Sky Lake's 4,200 acres are near Belzoni in the central Delta region. Consisting primarily of reforested agricultural land, this WMA is comprised largely of 8- to 10-year-old hardwood plantings, with a few hardwood-lined lake and stream banks.

The hunting will probably be difficult here, as there are few trees from which to hunt and the ground cover is choked thick with briars and brambles. This is excellent deer habitat but tough to hunt. Does and legal bucks can be harvested on this WMA throughout the season. Legal bucks are those that have a minimum inside spread of 15 inches or a main beam length of at least 18 inches.

Archery hunting will be draw-only, Thursday through Saturday, from Oct. 1-Nov. 20. A late, permit-only archery season will be held from Jan. 2-31. All deer hunting on this WMA is Thursday through Saturday only, but the good news is that no other hunting will be allowed on these days, with the exception of Saturday waterfowl hunting.

Applications for draw hunts at Sky Lake must be received by the MDWFP by Sept. 1.


Shipland WMA

Shipland WMA is the only WMA in Mississippi that occupies land between the Mississippi River levee and the river. This 3,600-acre property is located in Issaquena County near Mayersville.

Hardwoods occupy much of this area of undulating terrain along the river bank, but sand fields and willow brakes are also scattered throughout the area.

Deer hunting here is restricted to archery and primitive weapons only, with the exception of a seven-day youth gun season.

Archery season runs Oct. 1-Nov. 20, and then again from Jan. 2-31.

The 15/18 antler rule went into effect during the '07-'08 season. The deer harvest hovers around 20 deer per year at Shipland, with only eight bucks being taken out of 22 deer harvested last season. However, hunting pressure seems to be very light during the archery season with only 86 hunters present during both the early and late archery seasons last year.


Mahannah WMA

Mahannah WMA comprises nearly 13,000 acres in the south Delta, near Vicksburg. Cypress swamps, mature bottomland hardwood stands, CRP hardwood plantings and agricultural fields mix together here to form a variety of desirable habitats for whitetails.

Archery hunting on Mahannah begins with a permit-only hunt from Oct. 1-16. Several permit-only, gun and primitive-weapons seasons occupy the next several weeks, and then a late archery season is open from Dec. 31-Jan. 31. Hunters do not have to be drawn to hunt this late-archery season. Does and legal bucks may be taken during both archery seasons; however, bucks must have either a 16-inch minimum inside spread or at least one 20-inch main beam to be legal for harvest.

Fifty-six bucks were harvested here during the '08-'09 season, although very few during the archery-only hunts. Be not dismayed, ye arrow flingers: There is lots of potential for taking a trophy buck at Mahannah.

Tim Campbell took a 272-pound, 21-point here a few years back, and the brute sported 8-inch bases and a 26-inch main beam on one side.

Applications for the draw hunts must be received by the MDWFP no later than Sept. 1.


Copiah County WMA

This 6,583 acre WMA is located in Copiah County in the southwest portion of the state near Hazlehurst. Stands of pines are interspersed throughout the hardwoods that line the creek bottoms in these south Mississippi hills.

Archers may hunt the early season from Oct. 1-Nov. 20, and enjoy an extended late season from Jan. 4-30. Legal bucks and does may be harvested; however, bucks must have a 12-inch minimum inside spread or a main beam length of at least 15 inches.

Deer harvest increased from 80 during the 2005-06 season to 146 in the 2008-09 season, mainly due to a more intensive management program consisting of prescribed burns and the creation of forest openings.