The buck eased through the woods, nipping at greenery and moseying along the edge of the slough before turning and slowly crossing the depression. The animal moved along a trail a couple of does had used hours before, without so much as a sniff of the ground.

About 15 feet away - but 30 feet above - the hunter watched the deer with obvious interest. A bow was across his lap, an arrow nocked and ready to fly.

It would have been a chip shot, and in truth the deer would have been in trouble on many clubs. The buck's rack sported 10 long points, and stretched around about 20 inches of air. Each main beam would have taped out well past 20 inches.

The hunter, sitting quietly in his stand, estimated the deer would easily score 135. Maybe gross in the low 140s.

Still, he didn't raise his bow or prepare to take a shot. Instead, he just watched the buck walk up the bank of the slough and push through a nearby thicket, turning its head to work the antlers between the small saplings.

The buck was soon bedded down in a small clearing, allowing the bright sun to cast its warmth on the bitterly cold day.

The hunter sat back with a smile, and thought about the big bucks he'd seen on the same property.

There was the 130-inch 8-point the season before that fed in front of his stand for two hours, most of that time being within easy muzzleloader range.

And then, the day before, there was an amazingly wide buck that had moved out of the very same slough over which the man now sat. The deer stayed in a thicket and could never be seen clearly, but it was a monster.

An hour later, the big 10-point was on the move again, trotting after some does that moved through the area. The hunt ended with the hunter easing out of the woods and going back to the camp without a deer - but with a great story to tell.

Twelve hours later, in a stand a few hundred yards away, the same hunter watched that same 10-point and an old 6-pointer fight like children on a schoolyard. Much of that action took place only 30 yards away.

Again, the hunter never attempted a shot.

Perhaps he wasn't really hunting? Maybe he had lost his mind?

No, the man was hunting a piece of Washington County property that was under intensive management - and his host of the hunt, Greg Hackney, had given strict instructions on what deer could and could not be shot.

He could kill an 8-point, if that deer was at least 3½ years old. He could kill a 9-point if the animal was "guaranteed to be 5½ years old." Ten-points, well, they could only be taken if they were just brutes.

Sure, this 10-point was a beautiful animal, but the hunter estimated the deer at about 4½ years of age - and that didn't quite meet the criteria.

That's one of the keys to trophy management - letting bucks walk long enough to age.

"If you want to grow a Boone & Crockett deer, you have to be willing to let a 4-year-old 160 (class) deer go, hoping it will grow 10 percent to break 170 inches," Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks' Lann Wilf said.

That might sound a tall order, and it is for most hunters. But for those willing to exercise that kind of patience, the payoff can be incredible.

Of course, there is a caveat: Not every region of the state can be expected to produce numbers of 160-inch bucks.

The fact is that habitat is critical to growing big deer, and that doesn't just mean there needs to be greenery in the woods.

According to MDWFP experts, it takes the right soil for a hunter to have a real expectation of developing a trophy animal.

"The soil you are working with directly dictates how many deer you can carry," Wilf said. "You can have good habitat anywhere and good, quality bucks anywhere, but you're not going to crank out 170-plus bucks in Harrison and Stone counties."

Mississippi State University researcher Stephen Demarais has found that the same plant can provide different nutritional value - and it's all related to the soil in which the plant grows.

"The soil regions explain the majority of the variations in the body weights and plant quality," he said.

Oh, certainly, freaks of nature turn up occasionally even in the poorest areas of the state, but the distribution of B&C bucks - and even that of Magnolia deer - line up almost exactly with the quality of the soil.

Of the 82 certified Boone & Crockett bucks and 20 Pope & Young deer killed in Mississippi, only one has come from southeast of the Interstate 55/I-20 juncture - an area of the state that holds the least-fertile soil. A buck must score 170 typical or 195 non-typical to make the B&C all-time book, while the Pope & Young Club mandates a minimum of 125 for typical and 155 for non-typical deer.

Magnolia deer - those that score 125 typical or 155 non-typical on the B&C scale - are more common, and frequently are killed even in this less-than-nutritional corridor. However, of the more than 3,300 Magnolia bucks on record as of 2009, only 361 were killed in the southeast portion of the state.

The key to these numbers is the types of soil in each of the 11 resource areas of the state. Why? Because the more fertile the soil, the more nutrients are transferred to deer - and that can mean better body weights and larger antlers.

"In the Delta, for instance, 100 percent of fertilizer goes into the plant (instead of remaining in the soil to mitigate deficiencies), and that makes every bite about three times more nutritious than in less-fertile parts of the state," MDWFP's William McKinley said. "You are greatly increasing the potential of seeing one of these (trophy) deer if you are hunting the right region."

So if soil type has a great amount of influence on the size and number of deer a piece of property can grow, how is a hunter to know which area is best for him? Here's what state biologists had to say about each of the 11 soil-resource areas.

 

Mississippi River Delta

This stretch of flat land extending from the river eastward to the hills is traditionally some of the most-fertile in the state, and can translate into big bucks.

However, McKinley said there are actually two parts of the Delta: the batture land inside the river levees and the flatlands outside the levees.

"Traditionally, the river got out of its banks and would flood all the way to Greenwood," he said.

He said that constriction means the river is adding to the nutrient base annually within the batture, and that's a main reason why hunters like Hackney will invest so much time and money to hunt there.

"Our soil leaches out a lot of the nutrients, but the river replenishes them," Hackney said. "It gets high and floods every year, and adds more nutrients to the soil."

And that has produced some massive deer for him, his family and his buddies.

McKinley said this assessment about nutrient deposits is right on track.

"You are getting a much quicker nutrient deposit in the batture," he said.

But there is a disadvantage to hunting that strip of land closest to the river.

"That Old Man River does a number on the deer population and tree growth at times," he said. "You just never know."

Plus, it seems the Delta region east of the levees actually seems to hold the most fertile soils.

"Stuff grows better (outside the levees)," he said. "I guess the soil will eventually be used up, but it's some of the most-productive soil in the country."

But here's the catch with the main Delta region: There is generally less habitat available for deer.

"The Delta tends to be mostly fields," McKinley said. "The amount of deer habitat is limited to islands."

That fact came through in the numbers, which showed that during 2004-2008 an average of 271 acres were needed to support a buck, while 452 acres were required to support a 3 ½-year-old buck.

However, even with the negatives, the entire Delta region can grow some real trophies.

MDWFP records show that the average 3½-year-old Delta buck killed during the 2008 season weighed 192 pounds, sported just more than 8 points sitting atop 4.3-inch bases with a spread of more than 15½ inches.

Deer 4½ years old or older averaged 204 pounds, 8.3 points, antler bases of 4.6 inches with a spread of 16.4 inches.

However, a real look at the potential is shown when you average season kills.

A 3½-year-old buck during 2004-2008 weighed 191 pounds, dressed up with 8.2 points arrayed along 19.1-inch main beams that encircled 15.7 inches of air.

Bucks that lived to be 4½ years or older averaged 202 pounds with 8.5 points along 20.6-inch beams sprouting from 4.6-inch bases. The average inside spread was 16.7 inches.

That might not sound like a big difference, but McKinley said the average mature buck from the Delta would score about 135 inches B&C.

Inside the batture, the average antlers are about the same, but where this narrow strip of land excels is in habitat - there's plenty of it and that means it supports a much higher number of mature bucks.

For instance, during 2004-08, one buck was killed per 145 acres and one mature buck was killed per 185 acres - by far the best averages in the state.

 

Upper thick loess

This is a belt of extremely rich, thick soil rising in hills from the main Delta region. And it is one of the real rivals of the Delta in terms of nutrient-rich soils.

"It is believed to be even more fertile than the Delta," McKinley said. "These hills are extremely erodable; they are pure soil.

"You may be looking at 100, 200 feet or more of solid soil."

That erodability seems to be the key behind a nutrient-richness that is almost unrivaled.

"As it erodes, it just exposes more fertile soil," McKinley said. "It grows some of the best hardwoods. You can grow oak (there) almost as quickly as you can a pine."

And the fact that there is less farming in this region means there's plenty of habitat for deer.

The MDWFP numbers show that there were almost 274,000 acres within the upper thick loess region between 2004-2008 that could support a buck on every 157 acres (compared to 271 acres per buck in the Delta). The average is even more striking when looking at the amount of upper thick loess needed to support a mature buck at least 3½ years of age: 282 compared to 452 in the Delta.

Even with the larger population of deer, the herd is very healthy because the nutrition that drives the wild growth transfers to the deer.

For instance, a 3½-year-old buck between 2004 and 2008 weighed in at 176 pounds. It carried 7.9 points along main beams that grew from 4.1-inch bases, stretched 18 inches in length and encircled 14.6 inches of air.

Bucks that were 4½ years old or older jumped to 189 pounds and sported 8.3 points. Their main beams were 19.9 inches long, and started with 4.6-inch bases. The average inside spread was 16 inches.

 

Lower thick loess

This strip of rich soil located in the extreme southwestern part of the state has incredible potential.

"The potential in Southwest Mississippi is scary because I really don't know what the area could produce if you kept (deer) within carrying capacity," MDWFP's Chris McDonald said.

The region is much like the upper thick loess, with thick-soiled hills pushing nutrition to deer and providing incredible options for hunters.

However, McDonald said there are problems associated with the general hunter attitude in the area.

"The deer are either at carrying capacity or the hunters won't let (bucks) get old enough," he said.

But there is no doubt that the 145,202 acres (in 2004-2008) can provide stellar opportunities.

During that time period, an average of 138 acres supported a buck with 222 acres needed for each mature deer topping 3½ years of age. Those are actually better numbers than the upper thick loess.

However, body weights were a bit down, with the average 3½-year-old weighing in at 165 pounds and a 4½-year-old-plus buck averaging 180 pounds.

That said, the calcium deposits on the bucks' heads measured out comparably with bucks taken within the upper thick loess. The average 3 1/2-year-old carried 7.8 points projecting from 17.3-inch main beams that grew from 4.1-inch bases and circled 13.9 inches of air.

During the same time period, those bucks that survived longer than that sported 8.4 points and 4½-inch bases supporting 19.3-inch main beams with an inside spread of 15.2 inches.

 

Upper/lower thin loess

These two regions pretty much follow the I-55 corridor, and serve as the dividing point between the really productive, rich soils of the western side of the state and the by-and-large less-productive eastern half.

"You get some hills of good soil, but you also get some with more rocks," McKinley said.

There still is fairly good nutritional transference to deer, however, as the numbers from the state 2008-09 Deer Program report shows.

For instance, only 179 acres of upper thin loess were required to produce one buck with 355 acres needed to produce a buck aging out at 3½ years or older. That's still a better average than that in the Delta (but remember there is less available habitat in the Delta due to farming).

In the lower thin loess region, a buck was harvested for every 228 acres, while one mature buck (3½ years old or older) came every 390 acres.

However, the slightly less-nutritious soils exhibit themselves in the measurements of mature bucks in both soil regions.

Between 2004 and 2008, the average upper-thin-loess 3½-year-old buck weighed only 159 pounds. It grew 7.3 points with bases measuring only 3.9 inches around. The main beams were only 16.1 inches long, and spread out only 13 inches.

Bucks moving into 4½ years or older age classes picked up 11 pounds to average 170 pounds, but still lagged behind in head gear with 8 points situated along 18.3-inch main beams supported by 4.4-inch bases. Inside spread was a mere 14.6 inches.

In the lower thin loess, a 3½-year-old buck weighed all of 165 pounds and sported 7.4 points supported by 16.7-inch main beams growing from 3.9-inch bases. The inside spread was 13.3 inches.

Once the average buck surpassed 4½ years, the weight increased only 8 pounds. These bucks averaged 8.1 points, 19-inch main beams with 4.4-inch bases and 15-inch inside spreads.

 

Black prairie

There are two strips of this rich soil in the state: one stretching between northeast Kemper and northwest Prentiss counties, and the other that runs from about Jackson southeastward to the northeastern tip of Wayne County.

And it's somewhat of a hidden jewel.

"The black prairie holds some of the most fertile soil in the state, and is the most fertile soil in the east side of the state," McKinley said.

He said the soil pH levels are close to neutral, which makes them perfect for growing habitat - and there are some species of oaks like chinquapin oaks and Durand oaks that grow nowhere else.

"You'll have a hard time finding them in books because they are so specific to that region," McKinley said.

The real challenge to the black prairie region is the habitat availability.

"Traditionally, it was a prairie," he said. "You're either looking at pastures or ag fields with some hardwood stands."

And there is a lot of red cedar, which doesn't provide any food to deer, growing in these two areaa.

That shows up in the numbers, with 331 acres needed to produce a single buck and 660 acres needed to produce a mature buck.

While the body weights don't really compare with the Delta or the thick loess areas, antler development does.

A 3½-year-old buck averaged only 160 pounds between 2004 and 2008, but it sported 7.7 points on 16.6-inch-long main beams and 3.9-inch bases. Inside spread averaged 13½ inches.

Those bucks that survived that year class averaged 177 pounds, had 8.3 points and main beams stretching 18.7 inches. Bases were 4.4 inches around, while the inside spreads taped 14.7 inches.

 

Interior flatwoods

This narrow band of soil in the east-central and northeastern portion of the state is basically "just a flat stretch that's just about all pine," McKinley said.

That said, there is still fairly good nutritional value to the clay soil, and there have been some really nice deer killed in the region.

And it did fare comparably to the black-prairie region in the MDWFP's latest deer program report, with 3½-year-old bucks averaging 157 pounds and 4½-year-old-plus bucks weighing in at 175 pounds.

Antler development of 3½-year-olds was marginally lower. The younger mature bucks exhibited 7½ points around 15.9-inch main beams growing from 3.7-inch bases. Inside spread averaged 12.6.

Truly mature bucks - those that reached at least 4½ years of age - pretty much caught up with black-prairie bucks. These deer had 8.3 points, 4.2-inch bases, 18.4-inch main beams and 14½-inch spreads.

 

Upper coastal plain

This region is more sandy and, thus, less fertile. However, McKinley said Winston County - slap in the middle of this region - proves that sometimes accidents happen.

"For years, the world (non-typical) record was held by a deer that came out of Winston," he said.

The Fulton buck was killed in 1995, and scored 321 7/8 on the Buckmaster scoring system. According to the Boone & Crockett club, the 45-pointer scored 295 6/8 inches - which qualified it at the time as the largest non-typical killed by a hunter.

"He looks like a pin cushion," McKinley said. "There are points everywhere."

And it's not the only big buck that comes from the region, but the biologist said it's not an area that one should have a high expectation of consistent trophies.

"The upper coastal plain produces some outstanding deer, but as an average it's about middle of the road," McKinley said.

Two hundred eighty acres averaged one buck during 2004-2008, while a 3½-year-old-plus buck came off every 681 acres during the same time period.

Weights and antler measurements also was down compared to more-fertile soil regions.

A 3½-year-old buck weighed 151 pounds, had 7.3 antler points, 3.8-inch bases, 15.9-inch-long beams and a 12.9-inch spread.

Older bucks averaged 165 pounds, 8 points, 4.2-inch bases, a 14.4-inch spread and 17.9-inch beams.

 

Lower coastal plain

This region comprises most of southeastern Mississippi, and for the most part mirrors the upper coastal plain, state biologist Amy Blaylock said.

"There really isn't a lot of difference until you get into the lower part of the lower coastal plain," Blaylock said. "The farther south you go, the soil nutrition decreases."

However, she said the region isn't incapable of producing decent deer.

"You can have good habitat and some good bucks, especially for that area," she said.

However, the majority of the piney woods there are owned by timber companies, tying the hands of hunters wanting to improve habitat, and hunting clubs are usually pretty small.

"A good deer can come out of anywhere, but it wouldn't be a realistic expectation to have a B&C come out of there," Blaylock said.

In fact, not a single B&C buck has ever been registered from the region.

Of course, Blaylock said normal hunting practices in that region don't help.

"Most bucks down there don't get past 2½ to 3 years old," she said. "They get killed pretty quickly."

The resulting scarcity of mature bucks is reflected in state harvest numbers, which show that during 2004-2008 a buck was killed for every 578 acres. There was a mere one mature buck (at least 3½ years old) killed per 1,302 acres of land.

A 3½-year-old deer weighed 147 pounds, with its older cousins averaging only 155 pounds - proof of the lack of nutrition-rich soil and lack of management in the region.

Antler development in this less-than-nutritious region was predictably on the shy side.

An average 3½-year-old during the 2004-08 period wore 7.4 points, but circumferences of the bases taped only 3.7 inches. Main-beam length averaged 15.4 inches, and antler spread was only 12.7 inches.

There was a slight increase for the few deer that lived to at least another year, but it wasn't much. These bucks averaged 8 points with 4.1-inch bases - really in line with other more-fertile regions. However, beam length was only 17½ inches, while the spread of these truly mature bucks was only 14.2 inches.

 

Coastal flatwoods

As the name connotes, this region borders the Mississippi coast, including parts of five counties. Not much here but pines and nutrient-lacking sand.

"It's pretty bad down there," Blaylock said. "It's pitiful."

Only one buck per 833 acres was killed, with 2,211 acres required to kill a mature buck between 2004 and 2008.

And a 3½-year-old weighed only 143 pounds, while those aging at least 4½ years barely broke the 150-pound mark.

Antler development is even worse than the lower coastal plain deer, with even those deer 4½ years and older not quite averaging 8 points.