Eight Best Buck Counties

Fortunate hunters spend autumn days in these perennial hotspots, but those in other parts of the state can take steps to duplicate their success.

Otha Barham

August 20, 2007 at 1:31 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Young Nick Walker poses with Houston Primos’ 155 2/8-inch buck taken during the 2001 primitive-weapon season in Madison County.
Young Nick Walker poses with Houston Primos’ 155 2/8-inch buck taken during the 2001 primitive-weapon season in Madison County.
Larry Reece scanned spacious openings from his elevated stand one day during the 2001 Mississippi Primitive Arms deer season. His Knight muzzleloader was at ready as he spotted a big buck 150 yards distant. He made some grunts on his Hunters’ Specialty grunt tube.

The deer paid no attention, but a closer buck charged into view with hair bristling, obviously looking for a fight. Reece quickly fired a .50-caliber maxi ball ahead of 90 grains of powder, and the giant deer dropped.

“I nervously reloaded the rifle as he got up and ran off,” said the hunter.

A search into the night was fruitless. The next day proved no different. Even with help, Reece could not find the buck. During the following days, he and his hunting companions listened for coyotes and watched for buzzards to lead them to the deer.

A week later, Reece’s brother was sitting in a tree stand, and noticed something white in a tiny pond of water that the hunters had not known existed. When he investigated, he learned the white was the exposed belly of Reece’s buck, which had floated to the surface.

When the antlers were measured by officials of Mississippi’s Magnolia Records Program, the resulting net score was 207 3/8. Reece’s buck was listed in second place in Madison County in the non-typical category. The first-place deer was a pickup head. His deer was No. 1 on the Muzzleloader list for all of Mississippi, the largest entry taken with a black-powder firearm.

The Magnolia Records Program (MRP) listing is ongoing for bucks from any year, and is published by county for the entire state. In addition to the overall top scoring bucks, the system lists bucks taken by archery and muzzleloader separately. Also, there is a listing of the top bucks taken on public lands.

The MRP listing provides an excellent basis for hunters who would like to know the best places to hunt Mississippi’s top-of-the-heap bucks — record book deer. The minimum score for entry into the program is 125 for typical entries and 155 for non-typical antlers. The scoring systems used are identical to the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young systems.

Acknowledging its value as a resource, one cannot rely on the MRP as the sole basis for selecting a hunting property on which to find the next record book buck. A primary reason is that it is a voluntary program; therefore, it cannot be determined how many record book deer go unmeasured. There are numerous reasons why certain heads are never measured, some reasons being obvious to hunters. Also, there are small pockets of deer habitat scattered throughout the state outside the primary big buck counties that produce huge deer, the result of intensive management and/or very limited hunting pressure.

However, with that shortcoming in mind, the MRP listings point with important validity to Mississippi’s hotspots for the finest bucks the state has to offer. Also, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) game biologists agree that the counties that consistently yield the state’s highest scoring bucks appear as the top ones listed in the MRP.

The big question

Considering this information, which counties in Mississippi produce the highest number of outstanding trophy whitetail deer?

First, what is a trophy buck? Let’s assume you are interested only in the very highest-scoring antlers in the state, say 150 B&C score and above. Look along the Big Black River that flows southwest through the westcentral part of the state just north of Jackson. Madison County stands out distinctly as the most productive big buck county.

Hear what Reece has to say about the county where he took his 30-point record black-powder buck.

“You can hunt your heart out for a big buck, and if there isn’t one there, you aren’t going to find him,” he said. “Madison County is a good place to look.”

The land Reece leases is a “place where a deer can reach enough age to be big, a place where there is little or no hunting by surrounding landowners, or at least they let some big deer go,” he advised. “It doesn’t do any good to let mediocre bucks go if your neighbor is going to shoot them. I believe most Mississippi bucks are taken before they reach their full potential.

“You can’t join a club with 10 members hunting a section (640 acres) of land and expect to see many big deer.”

He and his brother hunt 715 acres.

“Plant good green fields in places where you can see a lot of territory in several directions, get to the stand undetected and hunt the rut,” Reece advised.

The eight Mississippi counties ranking at the top in the MRP listing of bucks measuring 150 gross points and above are, in descending order: Madison, Hinds, Claiborne, Yazoo, Adams, Noxubee, Wilkinson and Copiah. Interestingly, the top four border the Big Black River, which flows southwest through several westcentral Mississippi counties before it empties into the Mississippi River.

The question becomes, why are these counties producing bucks with oversized racks? According to Chad Dacus, deer program coordinator for the MDWFP, the explanation is simple.

“The No. 1 reason is soil type,” he said.

The predominant soil type in the area of these top counties along the Big Black is loess, a fertile, deep, light soil of even consistency deposited in ancient times as dust crossing the Mississippi River from the west. The alluvial (water-moved) soil along the Big Black adds even more fertility, and provides a core area for Mississippi’s most spectacularly antlered whitetail bucks.

“No. 2 is the land ownership,” Dacus said.

He explained that land in those productive counties is typically managed intensively for quality bucks, and the land is generally owned in large tracts. Large blocks, of course, keep deer from traveling onto improperly managed areas. For example, a buck with trophy potential could be shot outside the managed property before it reaches trophy age.

Of course, good genes in the deer population are a prerequisite for growing big bucks.

Smokepole strikes

Houston Primos was hunting in Madison County during the same primitive-weapon season the same year, 2001, as Larry Reece when he shot the No. 6 all-time MRP typical buck that has been measured for the county.

Interestingly, Madison County’s No. 1 typical buck was also taken with a muzzleloader. Stephen Greer took that 180 2/8 net deer in 1996.

Primos’ deer measured 155 2/8. He was hunting private land from a tripod stand that was partially hidden by a chinaberry tree. He saw a giant buck running, as if it had been spooked. His Encore .50 rifle made a solid hit, but the shot was not perfectly placed. Unable to find a trailing dog, Primos mounted a horse, and trailed the deer, finding it wounded but down. With a finishing shot, the lifetime trophy was his.

Like Reece, Primos places stands where he can see a lot of territory.

“We have a lot of food plots,” he said, “but big deer don’t go to them. I sit big fields where I can see well.”

For many hunters, a trophy buck doesn’t have to measure 150 net inches of antler. The MRP lists bucks with minimum net measurements of 125 inches typical or 155 inches non-typical. These certainly are trophies for the majority of deer hunters.

For hunters who seek trophies in the 140-and-above net score, in the typical category as an example, the top-eight counties that produce these deer are nearly the same ones that yield the 150 and above gross scoring deer. In order, they are Claiborne, Hinds, Madison, Yazoo, Adams, Jefferson, Holmes and Wilkerson.

In seeking a hunting lease, a hunter might want to look at this ranking and note that Holmes and Jefferson counties, which were not in the top eight that produced the 150 gross and above deer, do fit into the top group producing fine 140-net-class bucks.

Having learned clearly where the highest scoring whitetails come from in Mississippi and why, where does that leave the majority of the state’s deer hunters who live and hunt in the rest of the state? What can they do to up their chances at record-book bucks?

They can grow the big bucks with work, financial investment and widespread cooperation, according to Dacus.

“Habitat modifications are at the top of the list,” he said.

Planting or harvesting timber, planting food plots and enhancing naturally occurring plants that deer prefer are examples of providing an environment conducive to trophy deer production.

MDWFP biologist William McKinley offers these solutions to the challenge of producing top-scoring bucks. Assuming that herd genetics will allow super bucks to develop, his first emphasis is on habitat — the type and quantity of plants that provide both food and cover, the terrain, availability of water, etc. Land use such as crops, forests or pastures are included here.

Next, McKinley lists soil fertility as crucial. If your soil is poor, liming and prescribed fertilization are called for. Cultivation may be needed, and goes hand in hand with planting food plots. Soil sampling, choosing recommended plants and planting the recommended percentage of the land are all important.

Should we feed?

There is widespread interest in feeding deer high protein pellets in areas of Mississippi that have poor soils. Biologists consistently point out that this is a much more-expensive approach than growing properly fertilized food plots, perhaps year-round plantings and fertilizing naturally occurring plants like honeysuckle.

Cooperation of hunters and adjacent landowners in letting young bucks walk is also essential to growing older, and thus larger-racked, deer. This can be the most difficult management practice to accomplish.

But a buck with trophy potential will never get there if he is harvested in his second or third year.

“The record-book bucks come from just a few areas along the Big Black River in those top-producing counties,” McKinley said. “They let the younger bucks walk.”

Thus the strategy for having high-scoring deer outside the top trophy counties is clear. Hunters should not be discouraged if they hunt far away from the Big Black drainage. Remember, Winston County’s Tony Fulton trudged out to his handiest stand on Jan. 19, 1995, with only a few minutes to hunt on that cold, wet evening. He came in with the new world-record non-typical buck. The Mississippi deer measured more antler inches than any whitetail ever taken by a hunter anywhere.

Notice on the map that Noxubee County on the Alabama line has 37 bucks in the MRP measuring 150 and above gross points. Adjacent Oktibbeha County lists 30, and nearby Attala and Holmes have entered 32 each.

During the 2005 archery season, Wayne Stewart hung a tree stand near a bedding area on private land in Noxubee County, where he had found an impressive shed during extensive scouting the prior summer. A giant buck came within range, and he was able to arrow the deer. His buck was the top MRP-scoring deer taken by archery in Mississippi for that season. The Buckmaster scoring system lists the deer at 159 2/8 inches, the No. 2 all-time semi-irregular bow-harvested buck for Mississippi. Its composite Buckmaster score is 178 4/8.

Stewart’s success is in large part due to his persistence as a bowhunter. He scouts year round, not halfheartedly, but with a searching and attention to detail that rivals a professional detective. He has hunted giant whitetails in many states and extensively in Canada. He has taken several bucks that qualify for the Pope and Young record book, but has only had one measured, and it scored in the 130s.

Is there a message here that, considering his hunting the continent’s best areas, Stewart’s finest whitetail came from Noxubee County? Might we too hunt our less-publicized properties in the less-rich soils of our state, and take a record deer simply by hunting harder and smarter?

Who knows? Combining this approach with careful management for growing the monster bucks and letting them walk until their muzzles turn gray, we just might be calling in the MRP measuring team.


View other articles written Otha Barham


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