The saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a perfect fit for Mississippi deer hunters.
For some, obviously, beauty means a wide, thick rack with high G2s and a lot of mass that rates a spot in the state record books.
For others, a freezer full of venison cube steak, tenderloins, and shoulder roasts is a beautiful thing.
Most deer hunters find themselves falling somewhere in between.
A lot of factors come into play when one hunter makes a statement about what another should harvest. Logging onto a social-media page dedicated to deer hunting will give you a peek into that world.
Ben Melton doesn’t need the Internet for that; his perch at Tunica Farm Supply gives him a front-row seat at the beauty pageant that is deer hunting in the northern Mississippi Delta. He sees the big bucks and he hears others’ comments.
Melton acquired the company a year ago from David Klimek, and among his first decisions as owner was to continue the store’s long-standing Big Buck Contest.
“We’ve always had big bucks in this contest from way back when David started it years ago,” Melton said. “To win ‘Best Overall, you’ve got to have a deer in the high 160s or 170s ... last year it took a 154 to break into the Top 10.
“I think that says a lot about where our deer are headed, and a lot of that has to do with hunters choosing to implement a big-buck program on their property.”
Melton said that as recently as six or eight years ago, a 138-inch buck would have made the Top 10. How did the average score of a Top-10 buck increase by nearly 20 points in the life span of a whitetail?
“A lot of hunters would say it’s because we get entries from behind the levee,” Melton said. “The thought is there’s simply just better deer behind the levees of the Mississippi River, but a friend of mine actually put that to the test.”
Melton told the story of a local hunter who also hunted in Texas in high-fence country and convinced one of the biologists there to visit that area of Mississippi. The opinion was there was no real difference between the land inside and outside the levee with the exception of hunting pressure.
“I’d say 90 percent of the land behind the levees is owned or operated by clubs that have pretty strict big-buck programs,” Melton said. “That means that they don’t kill the 2½- and 3½-year-old deer that might have a really nice rack but have yet to reach their full potential.”
Melton understands the dilemma of letting a 4½-year-old deer that would score in the 140s or even 150s walk. He said trust comes from knowing the deer herd on the property you hunt.
“Here’s a good example; one of the guys who’s won the contest twice keeps track of his deer,” Melton said. “He is very familiar with what’s on his property, and he’s watched these deer through trail cameras and in person over the years, so he knows when a 150-inch buck is only 4½ and lets him walk for another year.”
For hunters who may not have the luxury or opportunity of following deer year-round, it’s important to be able to judge the age of a deer independent of antler size.
“It’s just as important to be able to age a deer (live) on the hoof, but I completely understand some of our hunters who have concerns over letting a deer walk, and then the deer gets shot one a neighboring property, hit by a car or even worse, gets taken out by a poacher riding the roads looking for big deer to shoot” Melton said.
Admittedly, there is a discipline to letting deer walk. Melton said much of that is tempered when recruiting young hunters to the sport as well as a growing concern he has about illegal hunting.
“As a parent, one of my greatest joys is seeing a child take a deer, whether it’s their first or not; they’re enjoying the sport,” he said. “I also think there’s a problem when it costs you less in fines to drive around and shoot deer off other people’s property than it would cost to lease land or join a club.
“I’d really like to see much stiffer fines and penalties for road hunting than what we have in place right now.”
Encouraging the younger generation to get involved while supporting the quality of deer hunting has always been the goal of the Quality Deer Management Association in Mississippi.
Mike Mitchell is the chapter president of QDMA’s Pine Belt Branch as well as a real-estate agent with Tom Smith Land and Homes. Mitchell spends a lot of time outdoors, not only in the Hattiesburg area where he lives but hunting in various places around the state. He said there are a lot of concerns involving Mississippi’s deer herd, including the risk of diseases and predators, and he feels areas of the state are seeing a herd decline due to these and other issues.
Mitchell said his chapter recently conducted a conference featuring Dr. Strickland Bronson from the Mississippi State Extension Service, specializing in wildlife management. Mitchell said Bronson reiterated the three-phase approach to growing quality deer: nutrition, genetics and age.
“There’s been a lot of discussion regarding the nutritional needs of deer and supplemental feeding,” Mitchell said. “I believe that agricultural practices, food plots and growing nutrition on game land is much better for deer nutritionally speaking than just providing baited areas to hunt over.”
Mitchell said hunters who spend time getting soil tested, planting a variety of foods that will benefit deer year-round and hunting those areas will increase their chances of seeing quality deer, both bucks and does.
In recent years, analyzing deer genetics has been widely discussed in social and professional circles. As newer information is learned about exactly what it takes from a genetic standpoint, the ability of hunters to be able to determine the genetics of their local deer herd is still mostly out of reach.
“A poor-racked deer may carry good genetics or even breed with a doe that has better genes than the male,” Mitchell said. “As hunters, we may not know which, but even if there are good genetic deer out there on your land, he’s still got to have that good nutrition in order to develop.”
Mitchell said having proper nutrition and a good gene pool mean nothing if deer are harvested before they reach their potential, making age an important part of trophy development.
“You may be looking at a future superstar, one that’s got good genetics, good nutrition and everything else it takes to become a trophy deer,” Mitchell said, “but if you shoot him while he’s in junior high school, he’ll never grow to be that college superstar he had the potential to be.”