Deer hunters whose hunting is restricted to public lands have been dealt a bad hand for the 2017-18 season, as far as killing does to stock the freezer with venison or sausage is concerned.
Earlier this year, after conducting an email survey, Mississippi’s Commission of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks closed public lands to anterless deer harvest during every gun season this fall and winter. The exception is that youths 15 and under can take antlerless deer on public land during the youth-only gun season Nov. 4-17. Even archers can’t take does after Nov. 17 on public lands.
The five-man panel, appointed by the governor, also hit hunters with private land, reducing the season doe limit from five to three in most areas and to two in the Southeast Zone.
The bottom line is, hunters who only hunt with guns and only on public land have had their season bag limit cut from eight to three, and all three must be legal bucks. Meanwhile, across the fence on neighboring private land, hunters can take up to six — three bucks, three antlerless — or five (three and two) in the Southeast Zone.
That said, public-land hunters still have three bucks to harvest by gun. The goal of this article is to help hunters kill those three bucks once the early archery season is done.
Pick up the bow
First, options exist during the October archery season.
If you have already hunted a Wildlife Management Area, you are ahead of the game. You can embrace this as a new opportunity to take up archery hunting and kill a few does.
Crossbows are accurate and legal for archery season. While the initial cost may seem a little daunting, it’s no more expensive than a new firearm and will last just as many seasons. In addition, the use of archery equipment allows a hunter to add anterless deer to his or her limit between Sept. 30 and Nov. 17.
Go to those drainages and creek bottoms where you know acorns will be dropping. Look for a stand location where deer cannot easily circle you. That allows you to set your blind or stand where deer will have to approach upwind, and in October, that usually means a southerly wind. Where such scenarios don’t exist, use a little extra caution to be as scent free as possible. Fooling any of a deer’s senses is tough; fooling its nose is impossible.
Approaching a WMA for the first time is a monumental task and can be intimidating for new archers.
Assuming most readers have access to a personal home computer, exploring a WMA before scouting is pretty simple. Let’s start with what we already know. The mast crop for the 2017 season should be huge. Acorns, persimmons, beech and ash mast, dogwood, wild pecan and honey locust may be at an all-time high.
Deer will not go hungry, nor will they have to travel far to find quality food. For this reason, a hunter who is new to an area will need to put some hours into walking and looking. Picking those areas to start scouting is as simple as finding those food sources.
Become familiar with the MDWFP.com website. Look for individual WMAs and locate the maps and aerial photos. Google Earth is another source and may be even more detailed; you just have to be able to enter the exact location.
WMAs across the state represent one of the finest values for hunters. An annual WMA permit is only $15 and allows access to all unrestricted WMAs — those without draw hunts — for the entire season.
After doing the homework, get to work.
“Nothing is better than boots on the ground scouting,” said Tim Townsend, who lives near Forest and hunted the WMAs in the Bienville National Forest for decades. “Maps will show drains where mast-producing trees may be, but to locate a white oak dropping acorns or a pin-oak bottom requires eyes on-site. Bluffs and steep banks where deer cross and make trails cannot be seen on aerial photographs. Pinch points and natural funnels may be seen on graphic representations, but finding a stand or blind location is a challenge.”
Townsend points to an area of Caney Creek WMA in Smith County as an example of how to scout diverse habitats. The Strong River and Big Caney Creek converge east of Polkville, providing a good spot to locate on a map before starting to look on the ground.
“First, and this is important, have a GPS or working knowledge of a compass before scoping out vast tracts of land,” he said. “People get lost in these woods on an annual basis. Most find their way out without assistance, but it might not be the most pleasant experience. Most modern cell phones have a compass app and many have a GPS app. Both work well as long as reception is good and the battery is charged.
“Second, file a hunting plan with a friend or family member who will know where you entered the woods. Just in case you are one of the few who get lost, a friend or family member having that location will have a good place to start looking.”
Get to the bottom of it
Start with the creek bottoms. In early fall, they should be dry, but 2017 is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Remember, you are looking for mast and travel routes deer use to reach it. Once several mast-producing trees have been located, work perpendicular to that spot to locate the nearest higher ground.
Finding a thicket in a pine plantation with multiple escape routes is your goal. Deer don’t like to sleep in water any more than people do, so they will seek these bedding areas. With a feeding and bedding areas found — this includes finding deer feces, fresh tracks and territorial rubs — look for a tree between the two where a stand can be placed.
Stands can be placed in the woods two weeks before the opening of hunting season. Check individual WMA regulations for specific instructions. A stout lock is recommended to secure tree stands. A full-body safety harness is required on all WMAs when hunting from an elevated position.
“So much mast will be produced this year because of the rains, deer movement might be curtailed,” Townsend said. “Deer are browsers, but they will visit the same sites as long as food is there. They will pick up a few persimmons here and a little ragweed there, acorns here and dogwood mast there; always on the move. Finding those food sources is going to be the key in the early season, but with so much food available, deer sightings could be fewer.”
Remember, fewer sightings in these conditions does not mean there are fewer deer; it only means that hunters are not seeing them as often as in previous years.
Townsend and his family have hunted the Caney Creek WMA since before it became a WMA. Townsend limited on good bucks last season, each one exceeding the minimum criteria of either having a 12-inch inside spread or a 15-inch main beam.
After Nov. 17, it will be bucks-only on public lands, not matter what the weapon. This is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Joshua Hawkins, a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy who often hunts public land.
“The best chance a Mississippi hunter has to kill a buck will be during the rut,” Hawkins said. “We have all said this and know this to be true. WMAs are no different when it comes to the rut.
“There will be a rut, and the best time to shoot a quality buck will be during this period. But scouting and knowledge of the area is just as important. Knowing where the does are and what their daily activity is will be the bottom line for finding bucks.”
Sunflower WMA in the Delta may be one of the best areas this year for hunters willing to put in the preseason scouting. All the sloughs and lakes are full, so deer are making trails around them.
The same can be said for the Mahannah and Yockanookany WMAs, if you were chosen for one of these areas. Pull on your snake boots, use mosquito protection and go walking. Hawkins suggests finding an active trail and staying with it until it leads to a natural bottleneck. Look for a tree close to a thicket where the wind will be in your face and sit as still as possible.
Application periods for draw hunts are over for this season, but Canemount WMA is definitely worth the money and the effort in future seasons, according to Hawkins.
“It is the closest thing to hunting extra-prime private property a public-land hunter will ever experience,” he said. “The WMA is divided into several units, and there is no such thing as a bad unit. Mahannah is another favorite, and it has deer as well as hogs, just a bonus for me.
“During the rut you are hunting does, even if you can’t shoot them. Bucks are also hunting does at this time, and since multiple doe are entering estrus within a short time, the buck will follow a doe group seeking an estrus doe. The more does you see, the better the chance of seeing a shooter buck.”
Hawkins also points to field edges and logging roads as places to look for bucks. Scrapes are like a social networking or online dating site for deer. A buck will visit an active scrape line regularly. And, there is no honor among cervids — multiple bucks will use and freshen the same scrape, licking branch and rub.
Once you find an active area, sit on it from daylight to dark. Bucks may travel downwind of the scrapes; remember, they are looking for the smell and taste of a doe, so actually visiting the scrape itself is not necessary. Stand placement and scent-proofing is critical. A hunter may get high enough in a stand to fool his eyesight, but fooling a buck’s ears and nose is a whole different challenge.
The technology for online scouting has never been better. Deer numbers may be a little low, according to some — especially those who participate in email surveys — but the populations are still very good.
There is no reason this shouldn’t be a banner deer season. With a strong cold front and colder weather lingering, the deer movement should skyrocket. Herd health should be excellent based on available food.
“There is a myth that public land is a game-barren sea of orange bobbing and weaving through the woods,” Hawkins said. “Yes, you may see another hunter, but on any given day, your chances of seeing a quality buck are very good.”