"They" say there are no places left to deer hunt in Mississippi. "All" the good public land is way too overcrowded to fool with hunting there. "Too" many out-of-state license plates always line up the few available parking areas. "Road riders" spend all day cruising the forest roads looking for targets of opportunity. "Forest trails" twist and turn everywhere making it too hard to find your way around the wildlife management areas.

"Permits" are now required just to set foot on a public WMA to hunt. "Buck" legal antlers are too tough to determine on public lands. "Zones" are too confusing.

All this makes one want to consider giving up deer hunting in Mississippi. To all that, I simply say balderdash.

Tens of thousands of hunters, both residents and non-residents alike, have trod the public lands of Mississippi every deer season for decades. Among their biggest concerns are how to drag that big buck or fat doe out of the woods to their truck. The deer hunters who are putting in the effort to pick the best public lands to hunt sacrifice a bit of time for some scouting away from the roads and crowds are reaping great hunting benefits from our wide selection of available public lands for deer hunting. You can do it, too.

Mississippi is not a huge state in terms of land mass at 47,233 square miles. It ranks No. 31 in the United States. By contrast, Texas has 262,017 square miles and Alaska has 570,833 as our largest state.

Even so, Mississippi has roughly 2 million acres dedicated to various forms of open public lands for hunting. At about 30 million acres as a statewide total then, Mississippi offers almost 7 percent as public lands for recreational pursuits including hunting. Obviously much of that 30 million acre figure is in private hands, townships, highways, lakes, etc., so really our state's contribution to public lands is even bigger in reality.

In terms of hunting lands and more specifically open public lands for deer hunting, Mississippi offers 49 state-operated wildlife management areas. In addition to these open properties there are 10 national wildlife refuges operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The U.S. Corps of Engineers also controls lands available for hunting.

Mississippi Sportsman has picked out the top-five WMAs in terms of total deer harvest, top buck takes and total doe harvests. Remember, though, this does not mean that the other WMAs cannot be just as good, nor does it imply these selected WMAs are a cake walk for deer hunting.

 

Top picks

• Mahannah WMA. What used to be a bit of a sleeper has really come awake the past few seasons. Maybe the successful hunters on Mahannah want to keep it that way.

This WMA is fairly easy to access 12 miles up U.S. Highway 61 north of Vicksburg past Redwood in Issaquena County. At 12,675 acres, it is considered a midsized management area. During the last recorded hunting season, Mahannah tallied a 193 total harvest, made up of 73 bucks and 120 does. This was the largest WMA doe harvest in the state.

The habitat is a mix of open fields, a waterfowl area, hardwoods with good acorn production and cottonwood trees. The area is prone to flooding, so always call the office before going just to get a status update.

"Selective timber harvest, increased antlerless deer harvest and good mast crops have brought herd health indices on Mahannah above historic figures for the WMA and soil region," said Jackie Fleeman, WMA wildlife technical staffer.

 

Copiah County WMA. Copiah is a small area hosting only 6,500 acres. Don't let the size fool you. Located on the west-central side of Copiah County down Highway 28 from Hazlehurst, this WMA produced 159 whitetails. Bucks numbered 64 along with 95 does. The area boasts a relatively low 25 man-days per deer rating.

Copiah County consists of pine stands with mixed pine-hardwoods along the creeks and drains. Numerous permanent openings throughout the WMA are maintained with native vegetation and supplemental plantings, reports Joshua Moree with the state WMA program.

I have been to this WMA several times, and I'd describe the area as "pretty." The open areas feature sun-toasted sage grass amongst the pines. It looks like classic quail habitat.

Down in the bottoms are tall hardwoods and thickets perfect for hiding bucks. To that end, Copiah has produced some very nice bucks over the past decade. Hunters should check out this sleeper.

 

Upper Sardis WMA. The second-largest WMA in the state with 42,274 acres, Upper Sardis is named for the nearby Sardis Reservoir, and is situated within the Holly Springs National Forest. It is accessed from Oxford up Highway 30 in Lafayette County.

Upper Sardis WMA is predominately forested with stands of hardwoods and loblolly pines, according to WMA biologist Brad Holder. Old logging roads, logging decks and power line rights-of-way are managed as wildlife openings. Timber thinning will increase seasonal browse, fawning cover and acorn production. There are also winter supplemental forage plots of wheat, oats and clovers.

The last recorded deer harvest data indicated hunters on this WMA brought in 136 whitetails. Bucks accounted for 55 of this number with 81 antlerless deer taken. Total man-days on Upper Sardis came in at 8,055, or 59 man-days per deer. That number is high, but because the area is so big, hunters should have no trouble finding an isolated place to hunt.

 

Leaf River WMA. The last time I drove through this WMA, it was so thick in terms of underbrush I wondered how hunters ever saw a deer. The roads were so rough, I got stuck trying to turn around, and had to jack my way out of the hole. First impressions are rarely the best ones.

The 41,780-acre WMA is located in the Desoto National Forest in Perry County.

"The habitat is a mix of fire-maintained pine stands and scattered creeks and drains. Annual prescribed burns have improved the deer habitat," said Josh Moree, WMA program team member.

Leaf River lies in the far southeast corner of Perry County south of Beaumont off Highway 98 and Highway 57. It can also be accessed east from Wiggins.

Ironically the southeast part of the state with its predominately sandy soils has never been considered a prime area for deer hunting. That has changed on this WMA. The total deer harvest was up a whopping 73 percent for the 2008-09 season. The total number was 135 including 77 bucks and 58 does. Man-days were up, too, but 35 more bucks were taken than the previous year.

 

Choctaw WMA. Located just north of Louisville on Highway 15, Choctaw has 24,314 acres within the Tombigbee National Forest in Winston County.

The habitat is mainly covered in stands of hardwood trees and pine. Just as at Upper Sardis, the open areas like logging roads and such are utilized as wildlife openings. Extensive prescribed burns over three years have improved deer habitat increasing productivity of new browse. Acorn production has been down so deer are relying more on native vegetation and supplemental forages, according to WMA staffer Brad Holder.

Harvest data on Choctaw points out that deer harvests were up, but man-days were down. Choctaw has a low man-day rating at 25 hunter days per deer harvested, which means fewer hunters are working the area. Total harvest was pegged at 124, including 66 bucks and 58 does.

"These numbers along with a large percentage (67 percent) of 3.5+-year-old does harvested indicate overpopulation. An increased doe harvest is needed," says Holder.