Taking a deer for the freezer is just as tough as taking a trophy buck. Many hunters certainly would not buy into that statement at all, because for years they have been successful at putting venison in the freezer but alas have yet to mount a big buck on the wall. Based on recent reports from the woods and fields though, this situation has been gradually changing over the past several seasons.

On high-pressured hunting lands, public or private, even the naive does that are usually taken primarily for table fare have gotten smarter than and nearly as difficult to hunt as their male counterparts. Most meat hunters are centering their hunting efforts on taking a nice fat doe, not a small buck.

Typically a young doe is the best eating of all whitetails, so hunting does is a good strategy for stocking up a good meat supply.

So agrees Kevin Coughran of Bovina.

"I would much rather take a good doe for the freezer than a small buck with only four or six points even if it is legal," he said. "I've hunted so many years now that I am to the point where I let the small bucks go in favor of putting the Dale's marinade on a tender doe backstrap."

This strategy grows bigger bucks and balances the deer herd buck:doe ratio at the same time. That's smart hunting.

So hunters looking to wrap up some quality deer meat for the freezer have to make more critical decisions on where to hunt, especially on public lands. Even so, there are some evaluation methods hunters can use to narrow the choices for the best public lands in Mississippi to collect some meat for the smoker.

Also this is a good time to fine-tune tactics aimed specifically for a successful meat hunt. This means making adjustments to ever-changing deer movements and daily behavior patterns. These tactics may be somewhat different than those adopted solely for buck hunting, but one can play into the hands of the other to the hunter's advantage.

It should go without saying that the process of hunting for venison might very well yield the buck of a lifetime at the same time. Be ready to react to either as the chance occurs.

Keys to the stockyards

With 46 state-owned wildlife management areas, six national forests and 11 federally controlled national wildlife refuges in Mississippi, how does one go about finding the best places to hunt when high protein sustenance is the main mission?

That's over two million acres of public hunting grounds. Sure, they all have deer on them, but are some places better to hunt than others? The trick is to find which ones are best and for what reasons.

Some deer hunters say without tongue in cheek that Mississippi simply has too many public-land options to hunt; therefore, narrowing the field is tough. It's hard to argue against that point. However, the task is made a whole lot easier by one document published by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks every year for the previous year's hunting results.

Every deer hunter should acquire a copy of the Deer Program Report 2006 or view it on line at www.mdwfp.com. This publication compiles all the available deer hunting harvest data from the WMAs. It also offers seasonal wrap-up profiles of each WMA by the area managers or regional biologists.

Of course, really savvy deer hunters will also search the web for the national refuges at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service site, plus information on national forests at the U.S. Forest Service site. Keep in mind, though, that several WMAs are found in our national forests across the state so some information or data may overlap.

This state manual is full of good information about deer hunting in Mississippi, including one table that sums up the critical deer harvest data from the 2005-06 season. The data in this table is listed by individual WMA so side-by-side general comparisons can be made. This is a really good place to start looking for clues as to where one can plan hunts this coming year for the purpose of securing meat for the table.

Filleting the data

Since harvest results are readily available in this annual report, this source of information is the easiest to tackle. Wise hunters will read the entire manual because of the excellent information contained in it, but they'll concentrate specifically on two things: first, the data in the WMA harvest data table, and then the individual WMA write-ups given on each area.

Hunters can further compile the data to analyze it by figuring out which areas are the tops in several different categories. For example, the top-five WMAs for deer harvest totals are Upper Sardis, Chickasaw, Sunflower, Mahannah and Choctaw. During the season, Upper Sardis hunters collected 212 whitetails, including a top-rated 103 does.

If you live near this public area, then at least on the surface the data would suggest this is a good location to bag a doe. In that case, all you have to do is put some boot leather on the ground to conduct some firsthand scouting in order to carve out a little corner of the property to hunt. Hopefully, you're the only hunter in that area, but never, ever count on that given it is land open to all hunters.

Another category of data to examine is the top WMAs that list the least amount of acreage per doe taken. This entry in the table is one way to look at deer density, though that is a very general outlook. Hamer WMA, for instance, rated 87 acres per doe harvested. Though the property has only 3,909 acres, the total harvest there was 98 deer, nearly half of which were does. That is a pretty good number, even for a very small hunting area. This WMA is in Panola County, and is certainly worth taking a hard look.

Many such data connections can yield plenty of ideas about where to conduct your next hunt. So spend some time digging in this deer report. Take a look, too, at top doe harvest areas plus areas with the lowest man-days of hunting per deer taken. The man-days indicator reflects hunting pressure on the area.

Once a couple of reasonable choices are made as to where to hunt, then attention can turn to the best tactics to use. Deer hunting is deer hunting, right? Well, if you want fresh venison tenderloin to slice, wrap in bacon then slap on the grill, just keep reading.

Follow the food chain

"Does bunch up like cows when they gather in groups to browse," said Madison hunter Chris Clifton. "Last year I sat in a ladder stand 75 yards from an open pasture. By the time I climbed down the ladder at dusk, I counted 18 does standing around in one spot all munching on the grass.

"I kept thinking surely a buck would come over to check out all this lady action going on, but nothing with antlers ever showed up. I thought later, 'I guess I sure did miss a chance to bag some tenderloins and venison roasts.'"

Missed opportunities in deer hunting are gone forever. Food is the key, though.

Young deer eat a lot. By fall hunting seasons, yearlings and mature does are putting on extra pounds fast getting ready for winter or when the best natural grocery supplies begin to dwindle down usually long before the spring green up. Moving around to every available wildlife food resource is of the highest priority for these deer.

For that reason, the No. 1 hotspot to hunt deer for the meat pole is to find out where the does are gathering to eat. This is going to change too as foods are eaten down and depleted. Be prepared to move from one food resource to another in search of does.

In Mississippi, that means a check list for deer food should include, first and foremost, any acorn-producing oak trees or, better yet, a grove of them. Honeysuckle bushes, berry thickets, wild apple or pear trees and persimmon trees are top bets to attract feeding deer. Of course, food plots with lush green rye grass, oats, wheat and clover will usually draw deer in from a long way off.

Make plans to investigate all the potential feeding areas. When fresh activity is discovered around these favored browsing sites or active pathways to and from them, these will be prime places to set up stands for observation and ambush shots.

Hunt early, hunt often

Hunt early means both the time of the day and the period of the season to maximize opportunities to take a deer for the meat locker. Though the morning hours can still be highly productive, many hunters find the late-afternoon hours bring out most of the deer. At any rate, hunt them both, but do it early in the opening weeks of the season long before deer wise up to hunting pressure.

Deer-observation studies have consistently shown that deer are most active first thing in the morning, just before dusk, and, to a lesser extent, during the midday period. Of course, a lot of factors impact when deer are feeding most, but the early morning hours still seem to be when many hunters connect on deer finishing up their feeding or moving from food resources to bedding areas.

A number of arguments have been put forth over the past decade or so as to when are the best phases of a hunting season to reduce the population of does. The consensus seems to suggest the early part of the season before does have been bred is the best time to take a doe out of the herd to obtain a quality meat source and also add balance to the herd.

On my own hunting camp in Central Mississippi along the Big Black River, we allocate doe harvests per our six members based on the recommendations of our state DMAP biologist. This is usually two does each. We highly encourage our members to take their does during the first three weekends of gun season, but the earlier the better. Opening weekend often sees a line waiting at the cleaning station to process the take.

One word of caution is due, though, for taking does during the early phase of the season. That is to make positive identification of the whitetail target in the scope crosshairs to make certain that small button bucks are not killed. It is easy to mistake a young yearling buck for a doe, but a couple simple tips often solve the problem.

We encourage all of our members to have a good set of binoculars and to take a moment to study their target before shooting. Often in the fall, a single deer coming into a food plot is most likely a buck, but not always. Hunters have to look closely for signs of protruding "nub" antlers or a flat-topped head, which indicates a buck. If the deer has a rounded forehead, then this is a doe.

Many deer hunters also comment that the fall coat of a yearling buck is often much darker than that of the doe.

The Quality Deer Management Association has some excellent color posters to hang in camp showing the physical feature confirmations of a doe as compared to a young button buck. These are good information guides to have around for all hunters to study. QDMA also has a good chart for aging bucks on the hoof as well. Buy several.

Mississippi has plenty of public land to deer hunt to secure an ample supply of quality venison for the family meat pole. All it takes is some dedicated homework, focused scouting and scheduling plenty of time in the woods to prove all your efforts worthwhile.