Mississippi is a deer-rich state. In spite of recent bag limit and regulatory changes hunters still have a long season and opportunities to harvest deer that are the envy of many hunters across the nation. A story on the new regulations can be found with this article.
A lot of deer
Russ Walsh, Director of Wildlife for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, estimates Mississippi has 1.5 to 1.7 million deer. The hunter harvest averages around 225,000 to 250,000. So the base population remains at around the one million mark.
“The good news for this season is we had a really good acorn crop last year and are posed to have a great crop this year,” Walsh said, before detailing the irony of that situation. “The bad news is that we have the potential for a great acorn crop this year. With so much browse and mast the deer don’t have to move much to find food, so they spend less time foraging and hunters as a result may see fewer deer.”
A lot of factors determine the deer numbers (population and harvest) every year, said William McKinley, the MDWFP’s deer program leader.
“Carry over, fawn recruitment, hunter harvest, predation, disease, and the list goes on,” McKinley said. “Deer numbers are very fluid and can vary from zone to zone, or even county to county. The bottom line for the 2017-18 season is this:
“Hunters can expect to see deer in every hunting venue, as long as they put in the time to do scouting and put the time in the pursuit. But the evidence is deer numbers have dropped.
“Carry over is a term used to describe that part of the deer herd that has survived the months between season’s close and reopening. Data indicates the harvest last season (2016-17) was down, but not by a drastic amount. This means many 3.5 year old and older bucks will again be there for hunters this year. Bucks are mature at 2.5 years but reach their greatest potential around ages 5 or 6. Does are sexually mature at 18 months, and may remain fertile for 5 to 6 years. Because both sexes are born at almost equal rates, harvesting equal numbers will balance out the overall population. That is in an ideal situation. Few such situations exist.”
Fawn recruitment is the term used to denote the current number of fawns that survive their first year of life. They then are called yearlings. A doe’s health determines if she gives birth to twins. Poor nutrition and other stressors may result in single births.
“We know predation is a factor in fawn recruitment statewide,” McKinley said. “Coyotes — and we can lump in wild and free-ranging dogs — and bobcats are a fawn’s greatest enemy. Wild hogs will kill and consume a fawn in the first few weeks of life, but are not the long-term threat that coyotes and bobcats have become. Where we see deer numbers declining, we also see hog numbers on the rise.”
Disease is another factor that contributes to reproduction and carry-over. For example, a doe with EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) may abort her fetuses but not die. Thus, fawn recruitment may suffer. As of this writing Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has not been reported in Mississippi. Wildlife officials have made and continue to rigorously enforce laws that will help keep the state free of infected deer.
Hunter harvest is simply the number of deer hunters report as being killed or lost. When peak hunting weekends, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas see unseasonably warm or wet conditions, the harvest is reduced.
“All this points to the cyclic nature of deer numbers,” McKinley said. “It is for all these reasons we (biologists) consider trends rather than a single season’s data before recommending to the Commission that a change to the bag limit or season structure be made. One thing we need is more harvest data. There is no mandatory reporting system in place, so we rely on numbers we receive from the DMAP system and wildlife management area reports. Hunting clubs that qualify may enroll in the DMAP program at any time.”
As for the value of DMAP reporting in a historical perspective, Kings Flat Hunting Club in Jasper County can be counted as a grand success. The 1,500-acre property is owned by Plum Creek and is managed for timber production.
“We were keeping our own records with deer weight and antler dimensions prior to the DMAP partnership,” former club president Tommy Hemphill said. “Our does were averaging around 85 pounds and a good buck was a six-point that tipped the scales at 125 or 130. It took us a little while to wrap our heads around the fact that killing more does and allowing younger bucks to get older would change that.”
Within a decade under the DMAP guidance average doe weights were over 90 pounds and 10- and 12-point bucks were becoming a common sight on the skinning rack. Today does weigh as much as 120 pounds and bucks pushing 190 are harvested every year.
Bucks: Reason for the season
In the absence of a legitimate statewide harvest collection method, biologists are relying on DMAP to collect much needed data. Buck harvest data gets an additional boost from the entries made to the Magnolia Records Program.
Magnolia Records is a system whereby hunters may have their buck scored and listed in the appropriate category for all to see, county by county and method of hunting by method. The minimum score to qualify is 125 Boone & Crockett points. B&C scoring criteria are used to score all racks.
“Entries have declined for the past few years,” said Rick Dillard, Magnolia Records director. “I have not compiled the data for the 2015 and 2016 seasons but I am confident in saying that entries are not any higher than the 2014 season (see accompanying chart).”
When asked why buck entries are declining, Dillard said, “I’m not 100 percent sure, but it appears that it could be one or more of several factors.”
(1) Overall harvest has declined in recent years.
“This could be a result to many factors, Dillard said. “Hunters have not experienced a brutally cold winter for several seasons. That fact alone coupled with back-to-back years of above average mast crops mean deer don’t have to move much to find the food they need to survive. From all indications the acorn supply this year will again be a bumper crop. In my travels across the state with the U. S. Forest Service I’m seeing lots of deer.”
(2) A growing number of hunters don’t want anybody to know that they have killed a trophy deer.
“There are actually hunters that believe the land company that owns their hunting club will somehow get the data and raise the cost of the lease,” Dillard said. “Others fear increased poaching, or increased competition from fellow club members.”
(3) Minimal qualifying bucks are no longer viewed as trophies, due to successful management practices.
“Years ago a 120- to 130-class buck was the talk of the town,” Dillard said. “Now, that size buck is more common and hunters don’t get excited unless it is at least 160- to 170-class buck. Several hunters have multiple bucks entered in Magnolia Records. Unless their most recent buck is larger than any of the others they have entered, they are likely not to enter it.”
If you have a buck that has not been officially scored but you think may qualify for the Magnolia Records contact them at mdwfp.com, or mswildlife.org. Scoring sessions are held in locations around the state several times a year.
2017–18 deer forecast
Along with the reduction in doe harvests, the Mississippi Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks allowed the MDWFP to change its deer management zones from three to five. The Delta and Southeast zones were unchanged, but the former Hill Zone was subdivided into three different areas — Northeast, East Central and Southwest — allowing greater micro-management of each zone.
The following season forecast includes comments from the different zone managers.
“As with other regions of the state, total deer sightings and subsequent deer harvest was below average in the Northeast Region for the 2016 – 2017 hunting season,” said John Gruchy, the MDWFP’s private lands program coordinator. “Decreased daylight deer sightings may be a result of a strong acorn crop throughout much of the state in addition to late-summer drought affects on supplemental plantings. Of course, hot temperatures made for tough hunting as well. However, buck quality appeared to be above average on many properties for the 2016-17 season.
“Above-average summer precipitation and mild spring and early-summer temperatures made for some great cover, natural forage, and soft mast during the growing-season of 2017. Agronomic crops and summer forage plots looked better than they have in years. Given the ideal conditions for fawn production and lactation, expect a big fawn crop for the 2017-18 season. Summer forage conditions were also great for antler production. Considering below average harvest last season and the strong fawn production we had in 2012 and 2013, we should have a great crop of 4- and 5-year-old bucks on the hoof going in to the 2017-18 season.”
Early indications point to another above-average hard mast crop going into the fall in northeast Mississippi. If this is the case, pinpointing animal movements around food sources may be difficult. Use information from scouting cameras wisely and avoid pressuring animals too much while daytime sightings are scarce. Don’t be afraid to vary your hunting tactics, be patient, and stay diligent.
“Many have reported a reduction in daytime sightings and unproductive food plots due to a lack of rainfall,” said biologist Conner Herrington. “Harvest data shows stability in body weights as well as an increase in lactation throughout all age classes of antlerless deer.
“Buck harvest declined in part due to cooperators shifting harvest strategies towards mature animals, which has yielded and upward trend in the quality of deer harvested. As a region, hunters should look optimistically towards the 2017-18 deer season in the southeast. Stable reproduction and an overall shift in buck harvest are conducive to a productive hunting season.”
East Central Region
After having one of the most difficult hunting seasons on record in Mississippi, said MDWFP biologist Pierce Young, “hunters have a lot to look forward to in central Mississippi for the 2017–18 season.
“Although the warm winter weather and overabundant acorn crop made it difficult to see deer last season, it helped deer recover from two years of rough summer and fall droughts.”
According to Young, food was abundant at the end of last season and the condition of deer going in to the spring was good. In addition, the spring and summer rains this year have produced abundant nutritious natural vegetation to help with antler growth and fawn production.
Bucks born in the wet summers of 2012 through 2014 will be reaching ages of 3.5 to 5.5 years old, which means larger antlers in the woods than the last couple seasons.
Deer population numbers are very property-specific throughout central Mississippi, but overall deer harvests seem to have remained at a level to keep the deer herd stable after years of needed herd reduction. If moist weather conditions continue into the fall for food plots, hunters in this part of the state can expect a very good upcoming hunting season.
Biologist Alex Conrad reiterated that last season was hampered by a severe late summer drought along the Mississippi River, but that could be good news for the coming fall and winter.
“The 2016-17 season was marked by a severe drought in late summer that persisted into the fall, a bumper acorn crop, and above warm temperatures during winter,” he said. “Subsequently, deer movement was poor and resulted in a region wide decline in harvest.”
He pointed to several things that hunters can look forward to this year.
Data collected during annual herd health checks suggested that deer emerged from winter in fantastic physical shape. Although some herds might have experienced stress from a prolonged spring flood, past experience suggests that herds that had access to soybeans should not have been detrimentally affected. Overall, frequent and abundant rainfall in spring and summer have created the ideal habitat conditions for producing an excellent fawn crop, and bucks with above average antler quality going into the 2017-18 season.
“Early signs of hard mast production look good; honey locust beans, pecans, and acorns seem plentiful,” said Karmen Campbell, a biologist for the zone. “Spring and early summer weather patterns have produced consistent rain which has kept the vegetation succulent though mid-July.
“Wild hogs are becoming a serious problem in the southwest region. More and more landowners are starting to use hog control methods such as trapping. Many hunting properties in the southwest are now harvesting as many or more wild hogs each year than deer. This hog population still has unknown impacts on deer forage competition, deer disease, and fawn recruitment.”
Campbell expects the 2017-18 season to produce some great quality bucks in the southwest. Hunter observations and hunter harvest numbers have been down the last few years, but this has allowed more bucks to move into the mature age group and be available for harvest.