Mississippi may have too many public land locations for hunting white-tailed bucks. Bet you never heard that statement made before. And you're probably thinking where in the world did this guy come up with that one?

Well, for starters, how does our public hunting land trust in Mississippi totaling just over two million acres sound to you? I have trouble enough getting around my own hunting club's 650 acres every season, much less two million.

The reward of course is that having this much public land available for hunting in Mississippi is one of the best resources in the country. Certainly taking too big a bite makes the task of finding the best places on public lands to hunt bucks virtually unmanageable. The trick is to formulate a good strategy for narrowing the search based on your own interests and capabilities. Even with two million acres, this is possible to do.

Public land profile

Public lands in Mississippi come in four types. These include lands residing in our six national forests, property owned and managed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers mostly around the several reservoirs across the state, the 46 state-owned wildlife management areas and 11 national wildlife refuges under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Acreage resources for each include more than one million acres alone in the six national forests. The NWRs total more than 100,000 acres. The 46 WMAs total just under 1 million acres. Currently, no full assessment of the total acres under the control of the Corps of Engineers is available, but it would be safe to say these lands add thousands of additional acres of property open to public access.

Naturally, some of these public-land sources are quite small in size like the 807-acre Mathews Brake National Wildlife Refuge not far from Greenwood. At the other extreme is the enormous 500,000-plus acres found in the Desoto National Forest south of Hattiesburg.

The state wildlife management areas vary in size from the 700 acres at Muscadine Farms WMA near Avon to the massive Chickasawhay WMA south of Laurel at 122,740 acres.

Also, the habitat types, land features, timber layouts, native wildlife food resources and overall development of the areas for hunter access are highly diverse among all these different public-land sites. Some have well-developed road systems and trails, while others do not. A number of public-land managers will plant wildlife food plots, though hunters may have to discover on their own where they are located on the property. All of this means that hunters have to do plenty of advanced research, planning and pre-season scouting.

Narrowing the field

One thing should be understood up front. Seasons, rules, regulations and other details of hunting any public land vary greatly depending on management oversight. This is especially the case with lands managed by federal agencies, which frequently do not always follow in sync with state seasons or overall state-issued hunting regulations and procedures.

As deer hunters begin their own selection process for picking a best public-land location for their buck quest, they need to know that the more research and background checks they do initially, the better informed they'll be. Today, this process is made a whole lot easier due to the tremendous amount of information available from the various agencies that have control over the public lands. Internet searches are the key to unlocking the hunting information.

Jot these web sites down, and plan to surf them extensively for detailed information on all the public land options in the state. First and foremost is the state wildlife department for information on WMAs, as well as all pertinent hunting rules and regulations statewide at www.mdwfp.com.

The Corps of Engineers site is www.usace.army.mil.

Information on the national refuges can be found at www.fws.gov.

National forests in Mississippi can be accessed at www.southernregion.fs.fed.us.mississippi.

So which public lands are best?

"Based on my experience hunting public lands in Mississippi, I always go with a state WMA, because the rules are uniform from site to site, areas are well maintained and managed, plus access is usually very easy," says Jason Pope of Madison.

This advice is hard to ignore.

For a lot of good reasons, the state-owned lands might very well make the best choices for a quality buck hunt. By all means, federal lands should not be ignored, but our state WMAs are hard to beat.

Data sources

Narrowing down all the possible choices to stake out a good buck hunt on public land is made a lot simpler if one is willing to accept a simple assertion. That is an examination of harvest data, land-use hunting-pressure indices and other data sources can yield a list of the most likely public properties for a quality deer hunt. Sometimes this data can also give an indication of the buck potential on various sites as well.

At least this is one rational approach to choosing a public land to hunt. Otherwise, selections can be based only on pure speculation, or an awful lot of shoe leather.

Fortunate for Magnolia deer hunters is the fact that the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks produces darn-good deer hunting data for all of its WMAs. The only downside is that the available information always lags at least a year behind due to the time required to assemble, analyze and publish the data. Even so, this type of data still offers a decent insider look at hunting results on these public lands.

Most of this information is available on line at the state wildlife agency's web site, but the agency also produce a hard-copy version known as the Mississippi Deer Program Report. The most current version is for the hunting year 2004-2005. Hunters can request a copy of this report, and all DMAP clubs should receive one. This manual is definitely a good guidebook to have on the shelf when picking public lands for a buck hunt.

WMA data indicators

In order to narrow down the field of top WMAs as buck hunting hotspots, we selected specific data sets. These include the top 5 WMAs listed in three data categories including overall buck harvest per WMA, the number of acres of property per each buck taken, which sort of illustrates deer densities, and the number of man-days hunted at each site for each buck taken.

This last index is a reflection of the hunting pressure on the WMA, which may or may not figure into an individual hunter's concern for hunting a particular area. Sometimes hunting pressure can be used to play into the hunting strategy of a crafty woodsman able to plan around the movement or patterns of other hunters in the woods.

The top-five buck harvest WMAs for the 2004-2005 hunting season included Caney Creek WMA at 94, Upper Sardis with the same result of 94 bucks, Canal Section/John Bell with 79, Sunflower WMA at 70 and Chickasaw WMA with 59 bucks.

The top-five WMAs showing the least number of acres per buck harvested were Copiah County at 194 acres for each buck, Marion County came in at 257 acres, Mahannah with 259, Stoneville 286 and O'Keefe is listed at 290 acres per buck taken.

Man-days is a technical term gauging the amount of time hunters spend in the woods tabulated by the area-use cards hunters are required to complete on any WMA. Each year, all this data is compiled and compared to the total deer harvest for the area including both bucks and does. The resulting number indicates a statistical gauge of the total days the WMA was hunted for each deer harvested. This number then is a rough measure of hunting pressure on the area.

The top-five WMAs with the lowest number of mandays of hunting for each deer taken were Yockanookany WMA with only six days, the Black Prairie WMA at seven days, Hell Creek at 12 mandays per deer, Mahannah at 17 mandays and John Starr WMA with 19 mandays. If hunting pressure is a major concern to some hunters, then these WMAs have the least amount of it.

By comparison, the highest number of mandays at any WMA in the state was 1,041 per deer at the Upper Pascagoula, but then only two deer were taken there that year.

Top hotspots

Based on the information detailed above, a number of viable selections of public-land WMAs can be singled out as potential buck-hunting hotspots. Though this data certainly lays some essential groundwork in making final choices, some additional work is needed to zero in on just the right hotspot fitting a hunters particular interests.

A number of criteria can now be applied to help narrow the field. This might include such subjective characteristics as just how far the hunting area is from home and how easy it will be to get there with limited time off. It may be the overall size of the property. Some hunters like huge tracts of land hoping they are less likely to see other hunters. Another hunter might like a smaller area, where pre-season scouting can be more realistically managed. Maybe you like to hunt bottomland hardwoods, while others prefer pine-covered ridges and hill tops. Terrain preferences can be a huge factor when picking a favorite place to hunt.

Now that a list of some of the better sites can be formulated, pick out one or two of the most viable spots to concentrate hunting plans. Specific maps and other detailed information should be checked for each area on the state wildlife website. The wildlife department now has great topographic/aerial photo maps of each WMA. These are invaluable to laying out plans for a general orientation, then are extremely useful once inside the property boundary. Call the wildlife office at 601-432-2400 to order these special maps.

What sites would I target? I would hunt any of the top buck-producing WMAs. Next, I would concentrate on those areas producing bucks in the least amount of acres. Personally, I would ignore hunting pressure and select off days to hunt after the weekend dust has settled. Because of the historic productivity of some areas, I would take a hard look at scouting Caney Creek, Copiah County or Mahannah.

Federal options

"Certainly Mississippi has some great WMAs, but my best luck has been on the federally controlled national wildlife refuges, specifically the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County near Hollandale," says bowhunter Randy Pearcy of Madison. "When I lived in Cleveland up in the Delta, I spent a lot of time slugging around the wetland swamps of the Yazoo NWR, and have seen some very nice bucks over the years. Though the area can be tough to hunt in super wet years, this refuge holds tremendous big-buck potential that simply cannot be ignored. It's definitely my favorite haunt."

Despite the vast network of state WMAs, hunters should never turn a blind eye to the other public hunting lands available in Mississippi. In their own way, they are all great.

It should be evident that Mississippi has no shortage of public-land opportunities to put together a quality hunt for a decent buck. It requires planning, research and analysis. Scout it out, and then commit the time to be in the woods. Eventually, all the effort will bring results.