As days off and vacations were being planned for hunting in 2004-05, state wildlife biologists liked what they saw on public hunting acreage in their respective districts.

Their optimism was based on the fact so much rain fell in June and July. Overall, the effects are positive because vegetation was green and lush with nutrients going into August.

However, they each cautioned, what happens weather-wise between then and October dictates what degree of success hunters might enjoy on the state's many wildlife management areas.

Several of those WMAs have new ownership, but will continue to be leased to the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, a development that sure beats a transaction last year that took away a WMA after its ownership changed hands and was leased to private interests.

John Robinette, Region 5 Wildlife Division supervisor, was pleased to report that the Boise Cascade Corp. sold all the Boise Vernon WMA property to Boise Cascade LLC, formed by Chicago-based buyout firm Madison Dearborn Partners LLC. The Boise Cascade Corp. agreed to sell its paper and timberland assets for $3.8 billion and change its name to OfficeMax Inc., completing a transition from a timber company to the No. 3 office products retailer in the U.S.

Boise Cascade will retain a 10 percent stake in Boise Cascade LLC once the sale is completed in mid-November.

What does that mean to hunters who frequent Boise Vernon WMA? Robinette said he and the new owners talked about the WMA over the summer with the buyers saying they will honor a recently signed five-year lease agreement that covers thousands of acres.

"If we'd lost them, we're talking about thousands of man hours spent on them hunting and fishing," Robinette said.

Robinette had more good news before the hunting season gets into full swing. West Bay WMA owner Louisiana-Pacific sold property to two companies — Royal Martin in Alexandria (4,000 acres) and Forest Investments out of Mississippi (7,000 acres). He said both companies signed 25-year lease agreements with the state — at no charge to the state.

"We're lucky they're willing to continue with Wildlife and Fisheries for people to hunt and fish on the areas," Robinette said.

The department also has entered into partnerships with a non-profit organization and a utility company on certain areas in Region 5. For example, the Wild Turkey Federation will help with food plots on Boise Vernon WMA and West Bay WMA. And Cleco will plant seed for food plots along power line avenues, which saves the company the expense of having to go out and bushhog and benefits wildlife.

When hunters look at WMAs around Louisiana, they might not see them as prime duck hunting areas. But wildlife division supervisors from each region noted fair to good duck hunting opportunities on one or more of their WMAs.

In Region 1, Bodcau and Loggy Bayou WMAs yielded some of the best public-access duck hunting in that region, according to Wildlife Division supervisor Steve Hebert. Overall, very few mallards and diving ducks were harvested in the second split.

Hebert said 1,265 waterfowl hunting efforts produced 737 ducks in the greentree reservoir area of Bodcau. On Loggy Bayou, duck hunters logged 501 hunting efforts and harvested 501 ducks, he said.

Jackson-Bienville WMA waterfowlers bagged 30 ducks in 28 trips, he said. Duck hunters should take note that beginning this year the waterfowl season on J-B WMA will be the same as the outside waterfowl season with the exception that waterfowl hunting is restricted to Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays with a closing time of 2 p.m. Also, waterfowl hunting is prohibited Nov. 20-21.

And, Hebert said, be aware of a waterfowl refuge that has been established on J-B WMA. It is listed on the WMA's map and waterfowl refuge signs are posted.

Region 2 Wildlife Division supervisor Gerald Owens said potential duck hunting hotspots in that region include Russell Sage WMA and Ouachita WMA, where flooded impoundments are under department management. Like everyone else waiting on the fall flight, Owens is anxious to see how many ducks make it to Louisiana.

Most of Region 4's duck hunting opportunities are on Bouef WMA and Red River/Three Rivers WMA, which have most of the waterfowl developments and are subject to early flooding, according to Wildlife Division supervisor Reggie Wycoff. They also are strategically located in well-traveled flyways, he said.

Region 4's public duck hunting mecca is Dewey Wills WMA, which has abundant habitat for waterfowl, says Wildlife Division supervisor Czerny Newland. Sloughs and holes are prime spots.

"It's definitely the best of any of my areas for waterfowl. You can hunt the woods, hunt wood ducks, or get in Saline Lake and hunt big ducks," Newland said.

While Wildlife Division supervisor Kerney Sonnier is optimist about deer, squirrel and rabbit hunting on Region 6's WMAs, he is taking a wait-and-see approach on duck hunting prospects. Most of the action should take place on two WMAs in the Atchafalaya Basin — Sherburne WMA and Attakapas WMA.

Sherburne WMA's South Farm area is his recommendation because of the department's ability to grow food plants and manipulate water levels there.

Region 7's WMA duck hunting should be at its best on the lower end of Pearl River WMA, weather conditions permitting, and Manchac WMA "does pretty good at times." Pass-A-Loutre, another hotspot in the region, is under the Fur and Refuge Division.

Big game and small game, however, traditionally are the main attractions of Louisiana's WMAs. Hunters should have one in comfortable traveling distance wherever they reside in the Sportsman's Paradise.

Here's a look at the preseason and regular season for 2004-05.

REGION 1

Steve Hebert has been working hard to get gun hunters in the woods at the right time and has been successful. To wit, last year on Jackson-Bienville, the gun season for deer opened later than in previous years, and deer hunters enjoyed the change. According to self-clearing and daily permit data, 199 deer were killed in 2003-04.

"The later season corresponded with the peak of the rut. Hunters saw and harvested more adult age bucks with several topping the 200-pound mark on the scales," Hebert said recently in his report for Region 1.

"Having the opening of the gun season correspond with the peak of the rut helps minimize human activity in the woods prior to the rut and allows the deer to remain essentially undisturbed," he said. "No matter how we try, things go better when we work with the natural cycles."

Hebert proudly pointed out that all the WMAs in Region 1 have quantity and quality deer. For example, 119 deer were killed last season on Bodcau WMA and 106 deer came from Loggy Bayou WMA (based on self-clearing and permits and keeping in mind that not all harvested deer are reported).

The biologist pointed bowhunters looking for a possible Pope and Young deer to Loggy Bayou WMA, particularly the week before Thanksgiving and then late December and January.

Gun hunters, he said, should be more successful hunting early November on Bodcau WMA and after Thanksgiving on Jackson-Bienville WMA. He advised hunters to look for areas with dense bedding cover with mast and browse nearby.

Deer hunters need to check the J-B WMA deer season dates in the 2004-05 LDWF Hunting Regulations. Season dates basically will be calendar adjustments from last season. And J-B WMA hunters should note changes in rules and regulations regarding ATV use on the area. Starting Sept. 1, all ATV activity will be restricted to designated and marked ATV trails and the non-public maintained gravel roads.

Hebert said the ATV trails will be illustrated on the new WMA maps available at self-clearing permit stations and the Region 1 office in Minden.

The table has been set by wet weather the first two months of the summer, he said. Habitat and food was in such good shape as of the first week of August that it might work against hunters in Region 1.

"Hunter success this upcoming season will be dependent on weather conditions when the seasons start. Hopefully, the weather will be cold and damp," Hebert said. "I don't expect supplemental food strips or feeders to be too productive if browse conditions remain good and we have a good mast crop."

He advised deer hunters to get back to the basics — scout, be quiet and don't disturb game they plan to hunt.

"Enjoy being in the woods and for real fun take a kid with you and let him experience how lucky we are to be able to hunt, fish and enjoy Louisiana's outdoors," Hebert said.

And, he said, talking about hunting for any species, "While an abundance of food and cover is good for wildlife, it can make hunting tough. Hunter success this upcoming season will be dependent on weather conditions when the seasons start. Hopefully the weather will be cold and damp."

Hebert pointed rabbit hunters to Jackson-Bienville WMA as the best bet for hare hunting in Region 1. Hopefully, hunter success is better there and at other WMAs than it was in 2003-04.

"Last season rabbit hunters again didn't fare too well as indicated by the self-clearing permit reports. Hunters reported killing fewer rabbits on the WMAs when compared to previous years," Hebert said.

To wit: 40 rabbits were reportedly killed on Loggy Bayou WMA, nine rabbits on Bodcau WMA, and five rabbits on Jackson-Bienville WMA last season.

"I'm not certain why hunters were not able to harvest higher numbers of rabbits," Hebert said. "It could possibly have been due to the heavy cover last year."

The outlook is encouraging this season, he said.

"Wildlife Division personnel had seen and continue to see good numbers of rabbits while working on the areas. The rabbit population appears to be average or above again this year, and hopefully hunters will be more successful this year."

When Hebert reports squirrel hunters had an average to above average squirrel hunting season in Northwest Louisiana in 2003-04, he isn't kidding.

What should whet the appetite of true-blue squirrel hunters everywhere is that he expects more of the same there during the fast-approaching season, particularly on two WMAs.

Last season, squirrel hunters increased their harvest from the previous season by potting 2,233 squirrels on Bodcau WMA and bagging 1,109 squirrels on Jackson-Bienville WMA. Far back in the pack at third was Loggy Bayou WMA with 232, which was a decline from the previous season, Hebert said.

And it could be good for the top two areas again in 2005-06.

"It is still a little early to predict the quality of the mast crop for 2004-2005," he said, "but it appears that it should be at least fair or better. Red oaks look especially good where the trees are in good health. The white oak group looks promising. Hickory appears good, as does the pine mast crop."

REGION 2

Summer rains have been a blessing for the habitat in this region, according to Jerald Owens, who said, "Overall it looks good for this year. We've had this very unusual amount of summer rainfall. June was so wet, the wettest on record around here. July too."

As a result, deer browse was in great shape for the middle of the summer. Owens said what food the deer were finding at the time was almost spring-like browse — high in nutrients instead of the other way around.

About the only negative associated with the excessive rain was that it slowed down road work and bushhogging by department employees on the WMA.

"But all in all, it's a plus as far as wildlife," he said.

His top picks for deer hunting this season are Union WMA and Bayou Macon WMA. Union WMA gave up 168 deer during the either-sex hunting season in 2003-04, he said.

Union WMA boasted several bucks in the 290-pound range last season, while there was one weighing more than 240 pounds on Bayou Macon WMA, Owens said. And every season quality bucks are shot on Russell Sage WMA.

But they don't come easy.

"One of the things I advise — whenever possible — is to do some preseason scouting. I know a lot of people don't have time, but it can pay benefits. Consistently successful deer hunters, they spend time doing scouting before the season," Owens said.

Excellent is the grade Owens gives for rabbit hunting prospects on Ouachita WMA and Union WMA for 2004-05.

Why? He points to the more than adequate summer rains that watered the WMAs in Region 2. Browse conditions were unseasonably good for late July, he said, high in nutrients at a time when just the opposite usually happens because of prolonged periods of dry weather.

Wildlife is the beneficiary of prime forage conditions, he said.

"That translates over to any species that feeds on vegetation, weeds and grasses," Owens said.

Last season, Union WMA led the way in rabbit harvests, he said.

If Russell Sage WMA squirrel hunting is going to rebound, it's going to be this season the way the table is set, according to Owens.

"We had three years where the mast production was very poor. It's picked up a little bit," he said in mid-summer. "I wouldn't predict it'll be at high levels, but it should be at better levels. That'll help the hunters out."

The squirrel population is recovering in sync with the improved mast production, he said, which is why he forecast that WMA as the top one in 2004-05.

Despite the down side, Russell Sage WMA and its bottomland hardwood habitat boasted the region's top squirrel harvest last season, he said.

Other top squirrel hunting WMAs in the region are Ouachita WMA and Bayou Macon WMA.

REGION 3

A wet spring and wetter early summer was just what the doctor ordered for browse production. Czerny Newland is looking forward to seeing how the hunting season develops.

"I think that unless we have a surprise, our deer are going to be in very good shape ... with this late in the year it still being wet," Newland said.

The biologist reminded hunters that the department will continue to monitor for chronic wasting disease. And, he said, "Hopefully we will not have as much blue tongue."

His top three choices for deer hunting this season are Sabine WMA, Alexander State Forest WMA and Camp Beauregard WMA. Beauregard WMA and Sabine WMA usually give up deer in the 150-pound range, he said.

"Dewey Wills will always have that. It'll produce several good bucks each year. It's a big area, a bottomland area with good, rich soil," Newland said.

Usually, Newland pointed out recently, rabbits are on a 10-year cycle, and this season they appear to be on the upswing of the cycle on suitable WMAs in Region 4. He expects at least a fair to good rabbit hunting season in 2004-05.

Serious rabbit hunters will want to take their dogs to Sabine WMA, Dewey Wills WMA, Little River WMA and/or Camp Beauregard WMA, Newland said.

"We've been seeing a lot of rabbits on all of them," he said.

He also said browse conditions were tip-top going into late summer thanks to "abundant rain."

Sabine WMA, he said, has both swamp rabbits and cottontail rabbits, and sufficient cutover to shelter them.

When Region 3's top WMAs experienced a good mast crop in 2003, which just about sealed the deal for some above average squirrel hunting in 2004-05.

No one knows that better than Newland, who noted the mast crop increase just had to result in above average squirrel production. And the good news is that from all early indications the mast crop should be good this year for a second straight year.

Newland expected Dewey Wills WMA, Little River WMA and Sabine WMA to repeat as the top three squirrel harvest WMAs in 2004-05.

REGION 4

Barring something major that affects habitat, deer hunting should be average to above average on Red River/Three Rivers WMA, the flagship WMA of Region 4.

Reggie Wycoff said a mild winter and rainfall over the summer set the table for what promises to be a productive season on an immense WMA that seems to always give up 270- to 300-pound deer. In the last quarter-century, about 10 Boone and Crockett bucks have been killed on Red River/Three Rivers WMA.

Historically, Wycoff said, the WMAs' deer have large body size and antlers.

But the hunting pressure is intense, too.

"All of the areas that we have in this region that are fairly good deer areas do receive quite a bit of hunting pressure. They're very popular to the sporting public," Wycoff said.

How much pressure? For either-sex hunts, there might be 4,000-5,000 people from as far away as New Orleans and Lake Charles at Red River/Three Rivers WMA.

The WMA system there has a lot of things going for it, such as the fact it's a bottomland hardwoods area with highly fertile browse plants. Some of the bigger bucks are taken late in the season when it's hard to get around without rubber boots because its historically wetter then.

Wycoff also advised hunters to study the hunting pamphlet, learn regulations for the WMAs and prescout the area you plan to hunt.

Rabbit hunting success on Region 4 WMAs will be consistent with the habitat that is present, according to Reggie Wycoff.

If habitat continues to be in good shape, expect rabbit hunting to be highly successful, particularly on Big Lake WMA and Bouef WMA. Wycoff and other Wildlife Division biologists are seeing plenty of signs of a high reproduction year, he said.

Big Lake WMA had the highest rabbit harvest last season in the region, Wycoff said.

Don't expect a bumper crop of squirrels on leading WMAs in Region 4. Wycoff expects at least an average one for 2004-05 because the population fluctuates with the success of the preceding year's mast crop.

With that said, he predicted Bayou Bouef WMA, Big Lake WMA and Red River/Three Rivers WMA to give up the most squirrels this season. Fox and gray squirrels inhabit most of the region, with the exception of Bouef WMA, where fox squirrels rule the branches.

On a typical opening day on Bayou Bouef WMA, squirrel hunters will average 1.7 or more squirrels per hunter effort.

REGION 5

It was late July, and at least one biologist was excited by what he was seeing in the woods on some of the state's top deer hunting WMAs.

"We're seeing, as far as deer, young deer scattered and some bucks with good antlers," John Robinette said as he warmed up to one of his favorite topics.

A recent browse survey indicated high numbers of deer with many areas (Boise Vernon WMA and West Bay WMA, in particular), "grown up to tremendous browse." The downside is that those areas are hard to hunt because the vegetation is so thick.

Last season, Robinette said, Fort Polk WMA had 476 deer reported harvested, followed by Boise Vernon WMA with 300 and West Bay with 200. Fort Polk WMA and Boise Vernon WMA will harbor good to excellent deer populations with deer harvests corresponding to the numbers.

"You need to get out and look for deer there (Boise Vernon WMA). Same for all our WMAs," he said.

Keep in mind, Robinette said, that West Bay has a good population of deer, but the harvest is low because they're hard to see due to the thick habitat.

As usual, West Bay WMA and Boise Vernon WMA should lead the way as far as rabbit hunting goes on WMAs this season in Region 5.

Robinette said habitat conditions were stable as of July. He expects late-season rabbit hunting, with beagles, to produce much of the action on both WMAs, which have a fair to good population of rabbits.

Not surprisingly, both WMAs had the highest rabbit harvests in the region last season, Robinette said.

One of the top squirrel hunting WMAs in the state is Sabine Island WMA, which proved its supremacy again last season when hunters downed a reported 962 squirrels, according to Robinette.

It's the "go-to" place for squirrel hunting in his region. But squirrel hunters fared fair to good on Fort Polk WMA (662 squirrels harvested) and West Bay WMA (635 squirrels harvested) in 2003-04.

Robinette said the first few weeks of the season on Sabine Island WMA usually are the best. It usually picks up again late in the season, he said.

"Sabine Island is all hardwoods, and there usually is a high squirrel population over there," Robinette has said in the past.

REGION 6

There are two reasons that Kerney Sonnier's optimism bubbles over going into the 2004-05 deer hunting season on the top WMAs in Region 6.

Habitat conditions were excellent with lush vegetation as of the last week of July, and the animals were healthy and in good shape going into August. And while a mast survey would be taken later in the summer, Sonnier could tell by some fallen trees (especially red oak) that mast production is average and above average.

"Hopefully we won't get storms (tropical weather) that mess everything up," Sonnier said.

His top three picks for deer hunting this season are Thistlethwaite WMA, Attkapas WMA and Sherburne WMA, all of which have ample food sources and no reports of diseases.

Last year's top three deer harvests, he said, came from Attakapas WMA, Sherburne WMA and Thistlethwaite WMA. Several 200-pound class deer came off Thistlethwaite WMA while one close to 250 pounds was bagged on the Attakapas WMA.

Some of the best deer hunting on Attakapas WMA generally occurs during the either-sex season and the late muzzleloader season, he said.

Two of this region's rabbit hunting meccas are beautifully situated in the nation's last great overflow swamp.

If you want top-notch forest regeneration, with a profusion of ground cover — saplings, bushes, briars, vines, etc. — you can't beat Attakapas WMA and Sherburne WMA in Region 6.

That's the word from Sonnier, who is so confident the small game are so prolific that even a very wet spring isn't a big concern to him despite the possibility it may have impacted the rabbit population.

For sure, he ranks Attakapas WMA, Sherburne WMA and Pomme de Terre WMA as the top three places to hunt rabbits in 2004-05. That's also how they ranked last season in harvest numbers, he said.

Sherburne WMA benefits from abandoned agricultural fields that have grown weeds for a plush grassy underbrush. Attakapas WMA benefited in the long run habitat-wise from Hurricane Andrew that hit dead square in August 1992.

Seven different species of mast-producing oak make Thistlethwaite WMA the leader among squirrel hunting WMAs in Region 6.

"If one or two fail, others produce," said Sonnier about the top squirrel hunting area.

But it isn't the only WMA where squirrel hunters can enjoy a day in the woods and come back with meat for the pot. Sonnier listed Sherburne WMA, with its mature hardwoods on ridges, and Attakapas WMA, both in the Atchafalaya Basin, as his other top choices for 2004-05.

Last season, the top harvests came from Thistlethwaite WMA, Attakapas WMA and Sherburne WMA, respectively. Hunters also might want to try Pomme de Terre WMA, which also has a diverse oak-mast tree species.

REGION 7

The Region 7 Wildlife Division supervisor can't get over how "outstanding" the browse looks, and expects mast production to be equally good on WMAs around southeast Louisiana.

Once the region got past flooding problems early in the year, wet weather was a boost to vegetation growth over the late spring and early summer months, according to John Mullins. Coupled with a mild winter, the outlook is good for deer on Maurepas Swamp WMA, Tunica Hills WMA and Pearl River WMA.

Maurepas Swamp WMA is the region's biggest with 62,000 acres. But it is a lot more remote than the others and often difficult to traverse because of the flooded swamp.

And disease and high water combined to claim deer several years ago, Mullins said. However, the population seems to have recovered "pretty well," and the herd is coming back.

"I expect this year to have a pretty good kill there," he said.

For a WMA its size, Tunica Hills WMA yields a lot of deer in its bowhunting- and muzzleloader-only seasons because of its ideal habitat.

Pearl River WMA also has good deer habitat but probably has more feral hog hunters in there than deer hunters, he said, as the hogs have been wild for several generations now.

Rabbit hunters and wildlife biologists couldn't ask for better overall preseason browse conditions on selected WMAs in Region 7.

Mullins says Ben's Creek WMA looks the best for harvest potential going into 2004-05. Its "real thick habitat" can be attributed to three-year-old clearcuts in the area that attract rabbits like bees to honey.

But rabbit hunters should fare well on several other Region 7 WMAs, including Pearl River WMA, which "has a fair rabbit crop (swamp rabbits) every year," Maurepas WMA and Pearl River WMA.

Squirrel hunting prospects appear best for the upcoming season in Region 7 at Pearl River WMA, an old favorite among seasoned squirrel hunters who are familiar with its hardwoods.

"It's bottomland hardwood habitat and a good bit of it is good habitat with a lot of varied mast species — oaks, tupelo, beech and hickory," Mullins said recently while reporting on conditions in Region 7.

He also pointed squirrel hunters to Maurepas Swamp WMA, where the higher areas have oaks, tupelo and cypress trees.

Another possibility is Tunica Hills WMA, where cat squirrels are dominant. Patient, experienced hunters, however, can pick off the squirrels that move around often.