Toward the end of last month’s installment of Happy Trails I began to opine and brag a little about the evolution of deer hunting in Mississippi during my 45-year tenure as a deer hunter, and about how much positive progress has been made over the past 10 or 15 years.

Let’s now peel a few more layers off the onion and investigate the facts and data that backup my optimism. Please don’t turn the page after reading the words “facts” and “data:” I will try my best to keep the discussion interesting.

I have been a member of the Quality Deer Management Association for a number of years. One of the great things that they do each year to try to advance deer management — and by extension deer hunting — is to compile a detailed analysis by state and region of deer hunting and management related data.

The annual data is obtained from the various state wildlife agencies across the 26 states that contribute data for inclusion in the annual report. 

“Since QDMA was founded in 1988, we’ve watched the harvest pressure on yearling bucks decline steadily from the extremes seen after restoration, and this resulted in climbing rates of mature-buck harvest as more older bucks became available,” said Kip Adams, QDMA’s director of education and outreach. “However, the 2014-2015 season will be remembered as the first where the two trends intersected and hunters took more mature bucks than yearlings.”

Here in the Deep South we are so commonly stereotyped and placed at the bottom of the heap when measured by certain standards that it is refreshing to see statistics placing Mississippi and Louisiana at the very top when measured against the entire country — and in this case it is a category to be proud of.

Mississippi topped the list for mature-buck harvest in 2014, meaning that at 74 percent it had the highest percentage of 3 ½-year-old-plus bucks in the harvest of any state.

We were at 72 percent in 2012, showing consistency in the overall deer herd and hunter attitudes.

Louisiana was tied with Arkansas for second place at 67 percent.

The contrast is startling, when you realize that states like New York and Wisconsin had 3 ½-year-old-plus buck harvests of 18 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

The improvements in buck-harvest age structure here in the Deep South are definitely the result of changing hunter attitudes, but in the case of Mississippi the bold criteria put in place a few years back by the MDWFP changing and defining what constitutes a legal buck had a big hand in creating these profound results.

Conversely, when you consider what states had the lowest percentage of yearling bucks in the buck harvest, Mississippi ranks second, behind only Arkansas.

Out of the top 5 states with the lowest percentage of yearling bucks in their 2014 buck harvest, Arkansas had 8 percent, Mississippi logged in at just 13 percent, with Louisiana ranking right in there in fifth place with 17 percent.

Looking again at states like New York and Wisconsin, they tied for last place with 48 percent each.

It is an established fact that if the yearling class of bucks is over-harvested, there will be fewer bucks available to reach the 3 ½-year-old “mature” classification.

Looking at the United States as a whole, the percentage of yearling bucks in the overall harvest declined from 62 percent in 1989 to 33 percent in 2014. The 2014 average is the lowest national percentage ever reported.

This is great news and bodes well for the future of deer hunting.

In Mississippi, the bag limit is no more than three antlered bucks per season, which is consistent with neighbors Louisiana and Alabama.

But there is a huge difference between those three states when it comes to the definition of exactly what constitutes a legal buck.

Let’s take a look at each of the bordering states’ definitions. Alabama defines a legal antlered buck as being one with “bare antlers visible above the natural hairline.”

The only saving grace for Alabama is that one buck out of the three-antlered buck annual limit must have at least four antler points 1 inch or longer on one antler.

In Louisiana, a legal buck is defined as a deer with at least one visible antler of hardened bony material, broken naturally through the skin.

Before I get too smug as a Mississippian, I have to remind myself that not that many years ago Mississippi had a very similar legal buck definition. That is exactly why for many years back in the day I knew virtually nothing about observed buck behavior — because I never got to watch a buck behave past the recognition that he was a buck.

Mississippi is now divided into three management zones, with strict inside spread and minimum beam length criteria.

In Deer Management Zone 3, where I hunt, a legal buck is defined as having either a minimum inside spread of 12 inches or a minimum beam length of 15 inches. That sounds a little tough to the uninitiated, but after having this rule in place for several years seeing bucks meeting that minimum classification is now common place.

It didn’t happen by accident.

Let’s all give a tip of the hat and kudos to Mississippi deer hunters and managers, and to the professionals at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.