White-tailed buck racks have never been bigger in Mississippi than they are right now. It seems we have a virtual explosion of big bucks in this state, and plenty of evidence exists to prove it.

Just look to the 3,723 big bucks currently registered in the statewide Magnolia Records Program or reams of private-land DMAP data illustrating a steady improvement in rack dimensions, antler points and buck age classes over the years among other sources of supporting documentation lending credence to this assertion.

Further proof can be easily found. All one has to do to witness this is to scan the "Great Wall of Bucks" at the annual Mississippi Wildlife Federation's Extravaganza Big Buck Contest at the Trademart Center in Jackson usually held in August. Trust me, you will walk away in awe of the tremendous stature of the big bucks on display at this event.

Deer hunters are seeing bigger bucks and taking them, too. So, to what can this trophy class revolution be attributed?

4-point rule

Many deer hunters believe that the year 1995 was the turning point for bucks in Mississippi. In that year, the Mississippi Legislature passed a new law requiring that all harvested bucks must posses a minimum of four points. This meant that cow-horn spikes and many small-racked bucks would no longer be legal. The reason for this new rule was to promote passing on small, young bucks to allow them to gain age and, hopefully, add mass and points to their antlers.

More than 10 years later, the impact of this 4-point rule is still being widely debated around deer-club campfires each hunting season as well as among the state's wildlife officials and biologists. It is as increasingly difficult to deny this rule has had a significant positive impact on Mississippi's deer herd as it is being argued that it is time we advanced up to the next level with our state's deer-management practices.

"This is a wide-open question with lots of factors and issues," said Steve Demarais, professor of forest resources and wildlife ecology at Mississippi State University. "As for the relative availability of older deer now compared to 10 years ago, it is my opinion, based only on subjective input, that there has been an increase in the proportion of older bucks in the statewide population."

There is little doubt that the numbers of deer in the various age classes of bucks from 1 1/2 to over 5 years old have increased since this rule was put into action.

Certainly age is no guarantee that a buck will produce a more massive rack. This is due in part to the influence played by the role of genetics and the universal availability of high-quality wildlife food resources. However, all else being equal, allowing a buck to grow older past the 2 1/2-year age class often does result in it having developed larger antler racks with a higher total number of points along with larger dimensions such as inside spread, beam length and base diameter. This is especially the case as bucks grow up toward the 4 1/2-year mark.

"The DMAP data presented in the Deer Program Report 2005 indicates an increase in the average age of bucks harvested over the period in question," Demarais said. "This supports the conclusion that there are more, older bucks available for harvest.

"The average age of all bucks increased from about 2.2 in 1994 to about 3.2 in 2004."

At least on DMAP hunting club lands, the bucks are definitely getting older before being harvested.

The big question here lies in the fact that our best state data comes from the DMAP program cooperator clubs that are required to submit deer harvest data for every deer taken each season.

DMAP clubs are exclusively private lands. State wildlife officials don't know exactly how all this information might transfer to Mississippi's 2 million acres of public hunting lands. Currently Mississippi has no provisions to capture deer-harvest data on public lands. That's another issue for a future battle.

"Certainly, the 4-point rule arrived at a time of dire need, and it has contributed significantly to increasing the age classes of our bucks," says Rick Dillard, fish and wildlife program manager for the U.S. Forest Service and official buck scorer for the Magnolia Records Program.

While the 4-point rule has worked well in nearly all sectors of the state, achieving most of its intended goals, it may perhaps now have outlasted its usefulness. Time will tell what the next step needs to be. The state wildlife department has already instituted specific buck harvest antler restrictions for select wildlife management areas in the Delta region of the state as a pilot study in an attempt to determine what impact stricter harvest rules may have on bucks. Data results are still pending.

Just the facts

Let's delve a little deeper into the evidence beginning with data collected from DMAP clubs since the 4-point rule was instituted in 1995. Specifically, let's examine the percentages of buck harvests by age class for the 10-year span from 1995 until 2004. This data illustrates that harvested bucks have been experiencing the aging process.

These numbers are crunched and come fast, so hang on. In 1995, 8 percent of the bucks harvested were only .5 years old, 23 percent were 1.5 years old, 38 percent were 2.5 years old, 23 percent were 3.5 years old and only 8 percent were 4.5 years old or older.

The average buck age in 1995 was 2.5 years.

Conversely, 10 seasons later in 2004, the harvest of .5-year-old-bucks had dropped to a mere 4 percent. One-and-a-half-year-old buck harvests fell to 12 percent, and 2.5-year-old harvests were reduced to 28 percent. The taking of bucks 3.5 years old increased to 31 percent. Bucks 4.5 years old or older now comprised a whopping 25 percent of the buck harvest.

In 2004, the average age of bucks taken on DMAP lands was up to 3.1 years old.

The trend was obviously toward older bucks. The 4-point rule and hunter inclination toward letting young bucks pass brought this about. Again, the reasonable assumption is that older bucks meant bigger and better bucks.

Additional evidence can be found by checking buck harvest data from the Magnolia Records Program's top-five registered buck counties. These include, in order, Madison, Hinds, Claiborne, Yazoo and Attala. For these five counties, data was compiled from two-year sets, 1995-1999 and 2000-2005, to illustrate the increase in the number of MRP trophy-class bucks scored and registered in this statewide system.

Over this 10-year period in Madison County, 148 bucks have been registered. From 1995-1999, this included 32 bucks, and from 2000-2005 they totaled 116, or 78 percent of the total entered in MRP.

For Hinds County, the numbers total 94 - 28 then 66, or 70 percent of the total.

Claiborne County hunters have registered 83 bucks so far with only 15 in the first years then 68 in the later five years, or 82 percent of the total.

Yazoo County has tallied up 74 bucks in the MRP with 21 then 53, totaling 72 percent.

Finally, Attala County numbers have reached 63 scored bucks. Only 15 were taken in the early years, followed by 48 in the last years for a total of 76 percent.

What all these numbers serve to support is the idea that more trophy bucks have been taken and registered in this state from 1995 when the 4-point rule came into effect through 2005.

Similar data has been reported by one sample DMAP club in Holmes County. This 650-acre tract on the Big Black River has also experienced an upward trend in the percentage of older bucks being taken since the 1995 4-point rule.

Their first year of DMAP data in 1997 showed 33 percent of bucks taken aged 2.5 years. In 2005, the number was zero. In 1997, 3.5-year-old bucks taken totaled 17 percent, but it increased to 33 percent in 2005. For bucks 4.5 years or older, 17 percent was taken in 1997, but by 2005 the number was 67 percent.

In only nine seasons, the percentages of older bucks being taken over younger ones were significant. Antler points and rack dimensions have also shown proportional increases overall.

"I've seen more 160-, 170-, 180-class bucks this year (2006-2007) during my many scoring sessions than I can remember," Rick Dillard says. "During the past 10 years, Mississippi has entered more deer in the Pope and Young Club record book than any other state in the Southeast. To date, over 200 deer from the Magnolia State have entered into the prestigious club's records."

Game management

Other reasons exist why Mississippi deer hunters are seeing increased numbers of older bucks sporting larger headware. Part of this good news is the result of quality deer management practices being applied both to public and private lands. Applied tactics in herd management, habitat enhancement, herd monitoring and even hunter management have contributed greatly to the improvement of our statewide deer population.

These efforts have been much more dramatic on private lands. As one might imagine, the difficultly of putting quality deer management ideas to work on nearly 2 million acres of public lands is extremely difficult given the habitat diversity across the state along with the extreme variations in soil compositions.

The other miraculous thing that is coming about is that hunters have begun to restrict themselves in terms of the types of bucks they are willing to take. These self-imposed limitations have resulted in fewer young, small bucks being taken despite the 4-point rule. Accordingly, these bucks got older, bigger and better.

In the past, any old buck with an antler nub showing was enough for bragging rights back in the office on Monday morning. Today, such bucks are scoffed at by most hunters, so the trend to take these types of bucks is beginning to turn. Hunter selectivity has had a profound impact on allowing bucks to grow older in the hopes they will produce larger antlers.

"In a recent MSU survey of DMAP cooperators, 94 percent of responding cooperators indicated that hunters on their property passed on bucks that were acceptable by state and club regulations," Demarais said. "This means that many hunters are choosing not to harvest the first legal buck that comes along, which is very good news. They are choosing not to harvest a legal buck to wait for something larger to come along.

"This voluntary selectivity has improved the buck age structure throughout the state."

Are Mississippi's bucks getting bigger and better? After seeing all the evidence presented here, how could anyone possibly think otherwise?