The nest time you’re sitting in a stand or a blind, waiting for a deer to materialize in that sweet spot you’ve already picked out, ponder this: if you deer hunted a different tract of public land in Mississippi every week, you’d cover less than half of them. Our great state has just that much open, public land.
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks offers deer hunters a broad slate of Wildlife Management Area options. Some, such as Caney Creek, offer still-hunting only as well as hunting with dogs.
Cane Mount WMA is a draw-hunt only area that will get in your pocket, but the chances of shooting the buck of a lifetime on your set-aside area may be worth the investment.
Often overlooked by many are the National Wildlife Refuges across the state, many of which are located in areas containing the best soils for growing the protein-rich forage needed to produce massive antlers and 200-pound bodies.
The very names of these refuges are steeped in Mississippi history; Panther Swamp, Theodore Roosevelt, and Holt Collier, just to name a few. Yazoo and Noxubee join with Hillside, St. Catherine’s Creek and Dehomey to flavor the mix.
Not every refuge is a deer hunter’s mecca, but those with good deer populations should be high on any hunters bucket list. Small game and waterfowl also abound at Mississippi’s NWRs.
Permits are needed on all the refuges. Some groups of refuges, such as the Theodore Roosevelt refuge complex, utilize a common permit, while others such as Noxubee have a stand-alone permit requirement.
Some deer hunts are draw or lottery, while others are open within the statewide season structure. Another particular with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the use of the term primitive weapon, which refers to a rifle loaded from the muzzle. The statewide definition of primitive was altered several years ago to include some of those breech-loading rifles chambered in smokeless, centerfire cartridges. All this is to say, look before you leap, locate the regulations for the specific area or areas you wish to visit. Read them carefully, and be forewarned those regulations can be changed annually.
Located near Starkville, Noxubee is one of the gems of the refuge system in Mississippi. A diverse habitat makes it ideal for hunting deer, turkey, waterfowl and small game.
“Noxubee was created as a waterfowl refuge,” said Andrea Dunstan, the refuge manager. “It is not specifically managed for deer, but the habitat has all those things needed for quality deer to survive. Mast-producing trees on the refuge provide needed protein for deer and small game. These locations seem to be very popular with hunters.”
The Noxubee Refuge adheres to statewide regulations with regard to bag limits and antler restrictions. Those may be found online at www.MDWFP.com or in the 2017-18 issue of Mississippi Outdoor Digest.
“Because the regulations for each refuge vary, most of them do not have the same deer or small-game seasons as the statewide framework,” said Dave Godwin of Starkville, a former MDWFP wildlife biologist and an avid small-game hunter who spends some of his time at Noxubee.
“Therefore, small-game hunters can look at those regulations and find times of the year when they can hunt small game without being concerned about having deer gun hunting going on at the same time,” he said. “In some cases, the small-game hunters might have fewer days overall to hunt on these refuges, but the reduction in hunting pressure is a nice benefit. Most of the refuges in the state offer good small-game hunting.”
Godwin said Noxubee offers really good deer hunting and has produced several quality bucks that have been harvested. With the soil being fertile, if a buck can reach the age required to be at full potential, it should be very impressive.
“Deer get a decent amount of hunting pressure,” Godwin said, “but if hunters are willing to get off the main roads where they are less pressured, the hunting should be good.”
Godwin said Noxubee has some nice hardwood areas good for squirrel hunting, as do Dahomey, Panther Swamp, Yazoo and Hillside. Noxubee also has some nice upland areas, where they have a good prescribed-fire program. This creates a nice mix of habitat types for rabbit hunting. One may also find a few coveys of wild bobwhites there.
Located on the eastern side of the lower Delta, Hillside is mostly bottomland habitat, a labyrinth of thickets and brakes that some hunters say are too dense for snakes to crawl into.
The eastern edge of the refuge rises steeply from the Delta into the loess hills that outline that portion of the Delta from north to south. It is along those hills and the bottomland hardwood that deer hunters and squirrel hunters will find their game.
Theodore Roosevelt Complex
Hunting on the TRC requires with a single, annual $15 use permit allowing access to the seven refuges. For Richard Latham of Forest, the application process for Panther Swamp and Yazoo is part of his annual hunting ritual.
“I don’t get drawn every year, but more often than not I do,” Latham said. “There have been a few times when the woods were quiet and I saw nothing to shoot, but that is more the exception than the rule. I don’t think I have ever hunted Panther Swamp and not at least seen wild hogs. Last year, my hunting partner and I killed three.”
Latham was using a scoped, in-line muzzleloader on one hunt when everything went like a dream. The result was a big buck on the game cart and a hunt to remember.
“I had found a fresh scrape and hung my stand in a tree very close to it,” he said. “It was a perfect morning, cool, but not too cold. A little fog adorned the landscape, and things just felt right. Soon, I detected some motion and saw a doe working toward my stand. A few minutes later, a buck appeared.
“He walked past the doe and directly to the scrape. He was within easy bow range, and I was plotting just how I was going to get a shot. While he had his nose in the scrape, another buck appeared and stood just behind the first buck, their bodies forming a tee. I couldn’t believe it; they looked like twins. Both were good big Delta deer. Since one was broadside, that is the one I shot.”
The muzzleloader roared.
“The sound of the shot was muffled by the fog, and the smoke from the Pyrodex hung around me like an omen,” Latham said. “I waited as long as I could, then went to find my deer. I felt good about the shot, but did not immediately find any blood.
“I followed a big track for a ways and decided that was the other buck, the first one. I went back and tried another direction. Upon finding a little blood, I found the buck, not 50 yards from where he stood when I shot. We weighed him on the spot: 210 pounds, with an 18-inch inside spread.”
The trophy was the second buck Latham had killed at Yazoo in recent seasons, so there is little wonder that he makes his application every year. Remember to apply next September for 2018-19 hunts, as this year’s application period has passed.
Wild hogs are very common on Panther Swamp and Yazoo. Latham said he has never hunted Panther Swamp and not seen hogs, even after an aggressive program by the USFWS to remove them by a variety of methods. The three-hog hunt last year by Latham and a partner is proof there are plenty.
ATVs are not allowed on the refuges, so deer may only be ferried out with a game cart. Many hunters use carts to carry their climbing stand so they don’t have to return to their vehicle should they drop a deer, leaving the cart on a path or in a thicket while they hunt.
“Dragging a 200-pound buck out of the woods may be the ticket for some hunters,” Latham said, “but I’m getting too old for that. That game cart is a bruiser in the woods, but it is far better than dragging.”
Veteran hunter Howard Hayman of Morton said hunting Yazoo and Panther Swamp can be a great or horrible experience.
“It will be the best day of your life, or the most miserable,” Hayman said, talking about the conditions in the woods. “If the weather is too warm, mosquitos the size of turkeys will test every inch of you for a place to bite. If too wet, the mud will stick to your feet so that you have to stop often to clean the ping-pong paddle sized balls from your boots. But the deer there are giants, and that is what keeps me going back.”
About those hogs
Wild hogs and feral pigs live in appreciable populations on most national wildlife refuges in Mississippi. Hunters are encouraged to shoot them on sight with whatever the weapon and safety allows.
Wounded hogs can be very aggressive, so shooting one with a .22 long rifle or a shotgun with bird shot could do more harm than good. The wounded animal may escape and exact its revenge on another hunter.
Weaponry should be limited to that used for deer hunting.
But beware, some refuges are also home to our states expanding black bear population. In poor light conditions, a hunter might mistake a bear for a boar. The fines are substantial and could include jail time and a loss of hunting privileges. Know the difference, and if in doubt, don’t shoot.