The Magnolia State is blessed with an abundance of quality whitetail habitat available for public hunting. In all, Mississippi offers deer hunters more than 2 million public hunting acres, comprised of 46 wildlife management areas, 11 national wildlife refuges and six national forests. Throw in a deer population exceeding 1.75 million animals, and it is easy to understand why over 148,000 hunters flock to the Mississippi deer woods each fall.

While trophy deer can show up any place in Mississippi, some public lands are in a class by themselves when it comes to producing giant whitetails. The best way to identify these hotspots is to key in on locations that exhibit the most potential for producing trophy whitetails.

In order to produce trophy bucks, a combination of fundamental elements must be present. As any deer biologist will tell you, there are three key factors that determine antler size: nutrition, age and genetics. Show me public land that provides for each of these factors, and I will show you a trophy hotspot.

Picking the best public land for finding a trophy buck will center on your ability to do some scientific detective work beforehand. In general, trophy buck hotspots usually have: 1) high quality soils and land-uses that favor quality forage production (nutrition); 2) an intensively managed deer herd (age); 3) the genetic background to produce trophy bucks (genetics); and 4) limited hunting pressure.

Let's go into a little more detail about each of these important factors and see how they can help you pick a public hotspot with the potential to produce that buck of a lifetime.

 

Nutrition

Nutrition is the single most critical factor in antler production. A diet high in protein is a necessity during antler development (May-August). Without a high level of protein, a buck's true antler potential will not be realized. And since antlers are a form of bone, bucks must also have adequate levels of calcium and phosphorus in their diets to produce large antlers.

High-quality soils combined with land-uses that favor quality forage production are significantly related to deer body size and antler quality. Soil moisture and fertility are the two basic components that make up a high-quality soil. These components determine the volume and nutritional quality of plant material that can be produced in an area.

Habitat diversity is also a very important factor to take into account when evaluating the trophy potential of a particular area. Deer require a diversity of food sources and habitat types in order to thrive. Hardwood ridges flowing into bottomlands containing a mixture of agricultural crops and dense thickets full of browse are ideal for producing and holding trophy bucks.

 

Age

The second most critical factor influencing antler production is age. According to extensive research conducted by Harry Jacobson at Mississippi State University, antler growth is age specific, with most bucks not realizing their true antler potential until they reach 4½ years of age. That is why it is so important to allow the younger bucks to reach older age classes.

Deer management on public lands in the Magnolia State varies greatly, from simply following the state regulations to intensively managed herds with strict minimum beam or spread requirements. The more intensively managed public lands offer limited access via lottery-style draw hunts, and in some cases require the hunter to harvest an adult doe in order to qualify for a special buck hunt held later in the season.

These strict regulations not only allow the bucks to reach older age classes where they can achieve their potential, but also help keep the doe segment of the population in check. Obviously, the more intensively managed public lands offer a much better opportunity for a hunter to harvest a trophy buck. All the hunter has to do is fill out an application and be one of the fortunate few to draw one of these coveted permits.

Additionally, most of the more intensively managed public lands require that all deer harvested be checked at a check station to allow collection of the biological data. Hunter data is also collected. This information allows the biologists to determine herd health, buck/doe ratios, hunter effort and population indices. This information is compiled annually, and is made available to the public. The data in these reports can prove invaluable when selecting the better public lands to hunt in Mississippi.

 

Genetics

While good nutrition and older age classes are very important in determining antler quality in a deer herd, genetics also play a key role. The problem is that we actually know very little about whitetail genetics and how it applies to antler production. However, most deer hunters would agree that good genetics are a prerequisite for producing trophy bucks. Since we have little control over the genetics in a wild deer population, we have to play with the cards we have been dealt.

You don't have to be an expert in genetics to identify likely trophy-buck areas. All it takes is a little advanced scouting - not of deer, but of data. Since most managed public lands have an abundance of harvest information collected over several years, scanning this data can yield an abundance of valuable information about the area's current trophy potential. Also, talks with local managers and game biologists can prove fruitful.

 

Hunting Pressure

Hunting pressure has as much to do with the trophy potential of an area as any other factor. Without a doubt, the primary reason for mature whitetails becoming hunter wary is hunting pressure. While some hunters choose to complain about overcrowded hunting conditions, those willing to hunt smart and utilize other hunters to their advantage can be successful in harvesting pressured bucks on public land.

There are other options that can help you avoid much of the hunting pressure experienced by many public-land deer hunters. One alternative is to apply for some of the limited-access hunts available on a number of public lands across the state. Another option is to seek out some of the lesser-known public lands that simply don't receive excessive hunting pressure.

Some receive little hunting pressure because of a lack of publicity, while others require a permit that many hunters consider to be too much of an inconvenience.

And finally, one of the best ways to avoid the crowds is to hunt areas that lack easy access and require more effort to reach than most hunters are willing to put forth.

Now that we have identified the key factors essential to picking the best public land for finding a trophy buck, let's see how they apply to Mississippi Sportsman's picks of the top public hotspots in the Magnolia State.

 

St. Catherine Creek NWR

St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge, located just 7 miles south of Natchez off Highway 61, provides some of the best public-land trophy deer hunting to be had in Southwest Mississippi. This 24,445-acre refuge is comprised of a mixture of bottomland and upland hardwoods, cleared land, cypress swamps and fallow fields.

Bordered by the Mississippi River to the west, the Homochitto River to the south and private property to the north and east, St. Catherine Creek NWR sits smack in the middle of what many consider to be a premier trophy hotspot.

Nutritionally, the deer on St. Catherine Creek NWR couldn't ask for anything more. The rich, fertile soils provide an abundance of succulent forages that contain high levels of protein, calcium and phosphorous. In addition to the natural vegetation, the refuge is literally surrounded by thousands of acres of agricultural crops, not including the 1,200 acres of corn, rice and grain sorghum planted along the river for wintering ducks on the refuge. And with a mosaic of plant succession scattered across the refuge, habitat diversity definitely isn't a problem.

The age structure and the genetics of the deer herd on the refuge are unsurpassed. Although there is no intensive deer management plan for the refuge, the limited season framework (archery and muzzleloader only) combined with hunters making a conscious effort to harvest quality bucks and an exceptional number of does are the secrets to its success.

And it doesn't hurt that St. Catherine has an abundance of thick cover, which further increases the chances of the bucks on the refuge reaching their antler-producing potential.

Surprisingly, hunting pressure isn't a problem on St. Catherine Creek NWR. Despite a network of gravel roads and four ATV trails offering excellent access to the entire refuge, hunting pressure seems to remain at a minimum. Some hunters walk in over a mile to their stands, while others hunt just a short distance from the nearest road or ATV trail.

According to Mark Cupit, St. Catherine Creek NWR's law-enforcement officer, trophy deer are taken by both types of hunters, and are just as likely to be taken in the hills as they are down in the river bottoms.

 

Panther Swamp NWR

Next on the list is Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which offers excellent opportunities to harvest a trophy buck for the deer hunter willing to put forth a little extra effort.

Located in Yazoo County about 10 miles southwest of Yazoo City, this 38,601-acre deer-producing factory is nestled between Lake George and the Yazoo River in Yazoo County.

Although the Lower Auxiliary Channel divides Panther Swamp NWR in half, the East and West Levee Roads that parallel the canal allow hunters vehicle access to the heart of the refuge.

Panther Swamp NWR is dominated by bottomland hardwood forests interspersed with numerous wooded sloughs, cypress-tupelo brakes and bayous. And being surrounded by some of the most fertile cropland to be found in the southern Delta certainly doesn't hurt when it comes to antler production.

Just keep in mind that hunting access and game retrieval can be severely restricted, much like it is on St. Catherine Creek NWR.

"I prefer to get back off the beaten path and hunt a food source adjacent to water," said Mark Ross of Ocean Springs. "Although I've only hunted Panther Swamp for three years, I quickly noticed that the big bucks like the water.

"In fact, the big 260-pound 11-pointer that I killed last season with my muzzleloader came out of a nearby slough to feed on the acorns that were dropping beneath my climbing stand."

Part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex, comprised of a total of seven refuges, Panther Swamp NWR consistently produces quality bucks like Ross' year after year. Unlike St. Catherine Creek NWR, where archery and muzzleloader are the only methods of deer hunting allowed, Panther Swamp NWR also offers a brief November deer gun season. However, the muzzleloader and gun opportunities on Panther Swamp NWR are limited draw hunts.

 

Mahannah WMA

Saving the best for last, Mahannah Wildlife Management Area is located in Warren and Issaquena counties, approximately 18 miles north of Vicksburg on Highway 61. This WMA consists of 12,695 acres of the most ecologically intact and biologically diverse bottomland hardwood ecosystems in the Mississippi Delta.

Considered to be the premier public-land trophy buck factory, Mahannah produces more trophy whitetails than any other WMA in the Magnolia State. Mahannah's success can be directly attributed to its prime whitetail habitat, limited hunting pressure through a special draw permit system, and utilizing antler size restrictions to target older age class bucks.

Regulations on Mahannah allow draw hunt deer hunting with archery, primitive weapon and modern gun. There is also an open archery season for bucks only in January that does not require hunters to be drawn to hunt. Bucks are not eligible for harvest unless they have at least an inside spread of 16 inches or one main beam of at least 20 inches, or the hunter has a special buck tag that allows the harvest of a buck with one unbranched antler.

"Mahannah has some phenomenal deer habitat," said MDWFP Deer Program biologist Lann Wilf. "It has a lot of deer, and it has big deer. The high antler size criteria are what make Mahannah better than some areas. Everyone else is targeting 3-year-old bucks, but Mahannah is targeting 4-year-olds."

Additional information on hunting opportunities at any of the NWRs in Mississippi can be found on the Web by logging onto www.fws.gov/refuges, click on Mississippi, then select from a list of all the refuges in the state. And if you want to get in on the whitetail action at Mahannah or any of the other state WMAs, go to MDWFP's Website at http://mdwfp.com.