As winter approaches the Magnolia State, weather conditions usually turn nasty. Duck hunters love late winter because it's typically when we get the coldest weather and plenty of water. Deer hunters like it cold, too, because the deer move more in search of food.

But do deer hunters like the wet stuff? Some have become accustomed to hunting the high, dry spots because they make the best food plots. Others enjoy hunting the ridges that are covered with oaks and plenty of acorns.

But a few hunters across the state have focused on hunting the wet places, and it has paid off for them.

No matter where you go in Mississippi, you are probably not far from some type of water source. Whether it is the clear creeks of the Hills or the swamps of the Delta, good deer hunting and water are never very far apart.

Early season hunters know that watering holes are magnets when the weather conditions are hot and dry. But as the seasons change, hot and dry will change to cold and wet.

In some places, wet is an understatement. I was reminded of this in early October when removing a stand from a location on the edge of a small lake near the Yazoo River. When I put the stand up the previous year I was standing on dry ground several feet from the edge of this cypress lake. But with the constant rains of 2009, I had to stand in thigh-deep water at the base of the tree when I took it down.

The woods were flooded from the point just as I left the truck about 200 yards from the stand. The water gradually got deeper the closer to the stand I walked, but the crashing of a deer through the water when I entered the woods could be heard loud and clear. It didn't take much searching to find the bedding spot only a few yards from the truck on a small, sunlit knoll in the woods.

It was obvious that this deer had been bedding just a few feet from the truck, and was waiting to see what I was going to do before it bounded off in the distance. Had I been actively hunting the area, I might have keyed in on this bedding area amid the flooded woods.

Deer will use water to their advantage when given the chance. Whether they are bedding in secluded locations in a swamp or feeding in flooded acorn flats in the big woods, being next to water offers safety and security. Predators have trouble sneaking in through the water, and the prey animals know this. Many times I've heard stories of pilots spotting bucks bedded down on rice levees in the Delta. The deer apparently sought out seclusion in the wide open fields, finding cover on the long, winding levees only a couple of feet wide at the most.

From this vantage point, they had three advantages: the ability to see danger from hundreds of yards away in every direction, the ability to hear danger coming across the wet fields all around them and the relative safety of being out in the middle of a wide-open field when all of the orange-clad hunters were searching every nook and cranny of the woods in the distance.

 

A stealthy approach

Cal Crawford of Starkville chooses to sneak through the water where he hunts because it leaves little scent on the ground and offers him a more concealed approach than through the dry woods. He prefers to wade quietly through the shin-deep water on his property, taking time to rest on exposed tree roots or leaning against a tree trunk.

"Besides the fact that no one else ventures into the sloughs with deer rifle in hand, slipping through the water is much more quiet, for me, than trying to slip through the woods covered with crisp leaves," Crawford said. "Having spent a lot of time in the sloughs and noticing travel routes of does and younger deer, as well as the less traveled routes of mature deer, I know where I need to be slower and more deliberate as opposed to where I can move quickly to get where I need to be.

"In slower areas, I'll slip between clumps of buck brush, down the center of the slough, standing in the buck brush and slowly scanning the landscape for any movement and listening for leaves crunching.

"By slipping through the sloughs in the water, I can gain access to spots that are much too thick to get to over land and come in the back door, so to speak. The cool water also keeps my body temp down, so I don't sweat as easily as I normally would walking to a stand."

While I have never spent much time stalking deer in the water, I have used water to my advantage when going to my stand. With the right wind, a hunter in a pirogue or canoe can slip in and out of a hunting area practically undetected. Oftentimes the route across the water is shorter than a path by land.

While it is against Mississippi law to kill a deer from a boat, it is perfectly legal to use a boat to go to and from your hunting spot.

"I was in rubber boots, walked down the trail to the slough and started slipping along the edge in the water," Crawford said. "I had stopped at a tree and was scanning around. I happened to see a flash out of the corner of my eye, and saw four long tines when the deer lifted his head. He took another step, hiding me from his sight behind a tree. I had a heart shot in the 'V' of the tree, and took it, felling him where he stood.

"The slough was too deep to cross in boots, so I had to go put my waders on, and have worn them since that day, anytime I've ventured into the slough. Being at the right place at the right time is definitely the secret to killing big deer, but slipping through the water quietly gets me into position unnoticed many more times than not."

 

The secret hideout

Deer will use isolated knolls and ridges in the swamp to get away from danger. Jon Allison from Tippo has spent years hunting swamp deer in the Delta. Having spent time in Yazoo Refuge and near his home in Tallahatchie County hunting swamp deer has given him valuable insight into deer behavior in wet habitats.

"I learned more about hunting deer in water or really just hunting deer period when I hunted the Yazoo for the first time back in 1990," he said. "The first two weeks in January that year opened my eyes to a lot. I was fortunate to get to hunt with three guys there who have a history of scoring on big bucks in tough places to hunt. I was lucky enough to hunt several years amongst these guys, and I never once quit learning. Their tactics made killing better deer at home much easier than I had experienced in the years leading up to this point.

"Sign reading became not just an observation, but a huge part of the formula in making decisions on where to intercept a particular deer. Most of the time, this was in the water, whether on the refuge or at home. I also realized very quickly just how far away a buck may be bedding from his nocturnal feeding/doe chasing areas.

"One huge advantage when hunting 'wet bucks' is the ability to scout when things are not covered in water. Usually when hunting season arrives, water is covering a large amount of the area. Getting in there during the dry season before fall/winter can give a hunter a lot of information as to why things work the way they do when water is abundant. Subtle rises, islands, spoil banks from long-ago dredging, large brush piles, large fallen trees or logs - these are all things to be aware of since they may be the 'end' of the particular trail your deer is heading down during the hunting season. These are your bedding areas.

"Once rubs and scrapes, or even better, an actual monster sighting, takes place later, you will have at least an idea of where that deer resides. If there are scattered high spots or islands, these tend to be doe-bedding areas more so than mature bucks in my experience. You may encounter a big buck bedded here with a hot doe or something; otherwise, a big deer is content on finding just enough real estate to get him up out of the water as far as bedding - a log, a brush pile, even saw one on a stump but not sure how he got up there."

 

Edge signs

While water can provide hunters with a quiet approach and deer with isolated bedding areas, water can also act as a funnel. Scouting around the edges of sloughs and streams may reveal travel routes along the length of the water or trails leading directly into or out of it.

Deer, as with most any other creature, will take the path of least resistance. This path may be along the high ridge next to a swamp or it may be a well-worn groove that cuts down the river bank or the steep sides of a drainage.

Wet spots are not always wet 365 days a year. A well-traveled deer trail during December may mysteriously enter a slough and come out on the other side, but if you scout that same spot during the summer, you'll probably find the trail as it cuts across the low area.

While deer will usually walk the edge of deeper water, they will not hesitate to cross it in areas that they have been traveling all year. An animal that can swim the Mississippi River without batting an eye surely won't hesitate to cross a cypress brake. A hunter who keys in on well-worn entrance and exit points along waterways is likely to score on a crossing deer. Likewise, hunting trails that run parallel to streams and sloughs can be just as productive. More times than not in areas of agriculture or tree plantations, edges of streams are where the mature mast producing trees are located. These trees were left when the land was cleared, and they will be the trees the deer come to for food.

Allison searches for sign where the trails intersect the water. He says that mature bucks leave sign in water just as they do on land, but that the edges are often where more sign is located.

"Deer like to leave sign as soon as they come out of the water and right before they enter," he said. "They are also leaving sign on the high ground and in the water along their trail, but a real statement type of sign will be left at land's edge, usually a signpost rub or a big scrape. This spot where he is entering or leaving the water will often be very near where other deer such as young bucks and does will be entering or exiting, but usually just off to one side.

"He wants to catch those does along their travel route, but security still means enough to not use the exact same trail. He will intersect their travel routes even if water exists. I have seen scrapes in the water - muddied-up water under an overhanging branch. The branch is key here in that it still holds his scent even when the scrape in the water is diluted."

 

Post-season scouting

When it's all over but the shouting and you didn't get the chance to take that big mossback in the swamp, you can use scouting immediately after the season ends to get a head start on the next season.

"I like to cut trails when doing this - in other words move perpendicular to the way most of the trails are running," Allison said. "Once you run across the type of sign you're looking for, you can then follow the sign or trail farther into the swamp to see where it leads. With the water level up, it is giving you a good look at normal hunting season scenarios.

"Stealth is important so that you get a good look at any deer you may bump. Once you see whatever it is there is to see along this particular route, you can backtrack and start your perpendicular route once again. Bumping an actual big buck during this time should have little negative effect on hunting him next season.

"Always be looking for a stand location while slipping through the water because you never know just how deep or shallow a particular deer may be going into the swamp. Finding a suitable tree in the post season and then marking it and an entry trail is a very good jump on next season. Even if conditions turn off dry, more than likely a lot of the same patterns will hold true."

 

Swamp bucks

If you're after those monster bucks with webbed feet and barnacled bellies, then you need to head to the Delta. Thousands of acres of swamp hunting can be found from Vicksburg to Tunica on public land.

Probably the first area that comes to mind is Panther Swamp NWR near Yazoo City. Miles and miles of hardwood ridges run between tupelo swamps on this public area, and hunters can access those hard-to-reach spots by land or sea. Hillside NWR near Thornton, Morgan Brake near Tchula, Mathews Brake near Sidon and Yazoo NWR near Glen Alan are also included in the Theodore Roosevelt Complex with Panther.

As with any Delta hunting, but more particularly in these areas, water levels can make or break your hunt. Keep an eye on Yazoo River stages if you plan on hunting Hillside, Panther, Morgan and Matthews. These areas are prone to flooding when the Yazoo backs up into nearby tributaries.

Yazoo NWR water levels are a little more constant, but Steele Bayou can make dry woods go wet at times.

Archery hunts on these areas are open to the public so long as you have the Refuge Annual Public Use Permit. Check http://www.fws.gov/trcomplex for more information on hunting rules and regulations on these areas.