2003-2004 WMA Forecast

A $15 license fee gives you access to some of the best rabbit, squirrel and deer hunting in the state. Here’s the biologists’ forecasts about what you can expect this year on the state’s WMAs.

Hunting small game and big game on public land holds unlimited potential and promise from one end of the state to the other in 2003-04.

Louisiana’s wildlife management areas await hunters who appreciate the opportunity afforded them by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Whether they fire a shot in earnest or not, the benefits of hunting some of the most scenic, bountiful areas in the country far outweigh the alternative, which is to stay home.

Before hunters enter another season with prospects so high for deer, squirrels and rabbits in so many areas, it is good to stop and reflect on what was lost since the 2002-03 hunting season in what is truly a Sportsman’s Paradise. The department lost a dedicated biologist and the state lost a whole WMA.

Many, many South Louisiana hunters and fellow department employees never will forget the late James Brooks, supervisor of Jackson-Bienville WMA. Brooks died in a fire at his home in late January, according to Region 1 wildlife division supervisor Steve Hebert.

Hebert said Brooks had just finished a long day of trapping turkeys when the tragic incident took his life, Hebert said.

“Many South Louisiana hunters had become friends with James as he helped them during their trips to Jackson-Bienville WMA,” he said recently while reporting on Region I. “Those who may not have known James personally will remember the hundreds of acres that he supervised or personally planted annually in spring and fall supplemental food strips.”

Hunters will have to deal with another loss this year because Plum Creek WMA, formerly Georgia-Pacific WMA, was pulled from the public hunting system in Louisiana. Gone are approximately 25,000 acres of forested land about five miles northwest of Bastrop in Morehouse Parish.

Region 2 wildlife division supervisor Gerald Owens said Plum Creek, a timber company, bought the property from Georgia-Pacific, which was in the eighth year of a 25-year lease that granted a tax exemption for that time. Publicity about the tax-exempt status prompted Plum Creek to ditch the land as a WMA.

“Plum Creek was put in a very difficult situation,” Owens said.

“The unfortunate thing is the general public no longer has access to it. They had a place to hunt that was affordable,” he said.

Instead, he said, Plum Creek leased the tract in 25 different parcels to private hunting clubs.

Overall, wildlife division supervisors were upbeat about deer, rabbit and squirrel populations in their respective regions for this fall and winter. Louisiana Sportsman takes you through the top WMAs for each species, and lists other WMAs with potential for 2003-04.

Region 1

Rabbit hunting wasn’t anything to write home about last season in Region 1. Based on self-clearing permits, 11 rabbits came from Jackson-Bienville WMA, eight from Bodcau WMA and five from Loggy Bayou WMA, according to wildlife division supervisor Steve Hebert.

Hebert said he wasn’t sure why rabbit harvest numbers were down compared to previous seasons in his region. Perhaps, he said, it was because of the heavy cover.

At any rate, he said, the population apparently has rebounded and should be average to above average heading into the fall and winter. Jackson-Bienville WMA, Bodcau WMA and Loggy Bayou WMA could be the top three areas again this season.

Timber thinning operations were under way this spring and summer on Jackson-Bienville WMA, he said.

Squirrel hunters are coming off an above average hunting season on and off the WMAs in this region in Northwest Louisiana. The fast-approaching season shows no signs of slacking off because the mast crop looks average to above average, according to wildlife division supervisor Steve Hebert.

The red oak group again looks above average to excellent despite the fact the region is seeing a decline in the red oak component in its forests due to disease and insect problems, he said.

Rainfall in Region 1 has been below average again this year, but the rain that did fall appears to have been sufficient to allow the mast crop for this fall to continue developing.

“I am expecting an average to above average squirrel season. The pine, hickory and oak pine mast should be sufficient to allow hunters to experience good squirrel hunting,” he said. “Bodcau, Jackson-Bienville and Loggy Bayou WMAs should all have pretty good squirrel hunting this year.”

Bodcau WMA could be THE place to be. It was last season when 1,826 squirrels were harvested on the 34,000-acre area in Bossier and Webster parishes. Also in 2002-03, there were 819 squirrels bagged on Jackson-Bienville WMA and 508 squirrels killed on Loggy Bayou WMA.

And there may have been more. Hebert pointed out that not all harvested game was reported by hunters.

Buck fever and deer hunting interest climbed during the 2002-03 season on and off the WMAs in Region 1. It was a much more successful season than 2001-02, according to wildlife division supervisor Steve Hebert, especially at Jackson-Bienville WMA.

The 32,000-acre-plus area in Bienville, Lincoln and Jackson parishes had 147 deer taken off it in 2002-03. Its harvest numbers were followed by Bodcau WMA, with 95 deer, and Loggy Bayou WMA, with 87 deer harvested.

Going into the new hunting season, weather conditions again appear favorable for wildlife, Hebert said. The conditions mirror that of last preseason, he said, which is a good omen.

“Last winter was fairly mild with a good spring greenup,” he said in a recent report. “The scattered rainfall, while below normal, has been sufficient to produce good browse and mast conditions when the hunting seasons start.

“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 at the start of the season, but that would be rare.

“I don’t expect supplemental food strips to be too productive if browse conditions remain good and we have a good mast crop. Hunters should be prepared to scout prior to the start of the season and adjust to the deer. Moving a deer stand 50 yards can make the difference between seeing and not seeing a deer.”

With that in mind, an attempt to increase the Jackson-Bienville WMA deer harvest means the deer season’s opening day has been pushed back to the Saturday before Thanksgiving due to the late rut in the region, Hebert said. The gun season for deer will open the weekend before Thanksgiving with a daily permit either-sex gun hunt.

Before that, he said, only bowhunting for deer will be allowed.

“By returning to dates that match the late rut in the area, it is hoped that hunters will increase their harvest and hopefully stem the decline in deer quality that we have seen during the last few years,” Hebert said.

Jackson-Bienville WMA’s deer hunters should see substantial changes in the habitat there this season, he said. Timber thinning operations were in full swing this spring and summer, he said. The thinning operations should make it good for deer but maybe make seeing deer moving through the understory a little more difficult.

“Browse conditions are improving on the area, and deer feeding and bedding activity will be changing to adjust to the changes in habitat,” he said.

He also said wildlife biologists Richard McMullan, Marty Edmunds and Jefferey Johnson will work the area opening weekend and throughout the season collecting samples from harvested deer to monitor the herd health and breeding dates. Hebert asked hunters to continue to assist the wildlife biologists in their research projects.

Also, he said, hunters planning to hunt the opening weekend daily permit hunt (Nov. 22-23) are invited to the Fourth Annual Hunter Safety Kickoff scheduled to be held Friday, Nov. 21 at the North Road Field Office. The event is sponsored by Entergy Corp., Weyerhaeuser, LDWF and other partners in the Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Habitat Program.

Hunters will have an opportunity to talk with wildlife biologists and Weyerhaeuser and Entergy representatives about ongoing projects on Jackson-Bienville WMA, he said. Hot dogs, soft drinks and door prizes will be available.

J-B WMA isn’t the only prime deer hunting area in Region 1, he pointed out. Bodcau WMA and Loggy Bayou WMA are good deer hunting areas in their own right.

“All the WMAs in Region 1 have good numbers and produce quality deer,” the wildlife division supervisor said. “If I was going to bow hunt for a Pope & Young class deer, I would go to Loggy Bayou WMA, especially the week prior to Thanksgiving and then late December and early January.

“Gun hunters should be successful hunting early November on Bodcau WMA and after Thanksgiving on Jackson-Bienville WMA.”

Region 2

There is an abundance of groceries for rabbits on the top three rabbit hunting WMAs in Region 2, according to wildlife division supervisor Gerald Owens.

Management practices and sufficient rainfall generated plenty of food, he said.

“We’re optimistic on most of the species,” he said, particularly rabbits.

He expected the top rabbit hunting WMAs he oversees to be Ouachita WMA and Union WMA. They were the top two spots in his region in 2002-03.

Fair rabbit hunting also might be enjoyed on Bayou Macon WMA, he said.

The rollercoaster ride that often is squirrel hunting on WMAs in Region 2 may be on the way up again, says wildlife division supervisor Gerald Owens. After all, the species’ success is cyclical.

“Squirrel numbers overall seem down the past few years,” Owens said. But, he said in the same breath, the squirrel population is slowly recovering from the two or three years of poor mast conditions in most areas.

“It looks like things are beginning to pick up. Squirrel numbers should slowly begin to pick up the next few years,” he said.

With that in mind, Owens tabbed Russell Sage WMA, with its 100 percent hardwoods habitat, as the No. 1 squirrel hunting area in Region 2. Right behind it should be Bayou Macon WMA and Ouachita WMA.

For numbers of deer, Union WMA is a prime area in Region 2. For quality and hunter success rates, it’s hard to beat Bayou Macon WMA or Russell Sage WMA.

Both areas are in good shape as of the first week of August, according to Region 2 wildlife division supervisor Gerald Owens. Timber management practices continue to create great habitat conditions for Union WMA.

Mother Nature is doing the rest.

“Sufficient rainfall during the summer has promoted favorable habitat conditions — deer browse, etc.,” Owens said recently.

“Union looks really good. I think we’ll have another good kill there,” he said about the area that yielded 205 deer during the either-sex season in 2002-03.

Things are looking up for the first weekend there because it is a lottery hunt and nothing else is open. Lottery applications are available until Sept. 15. Interested hunters can apply as an individual or a group, he said.

“It’s pretty popular,” he said about Union WMA, “so we run a lottery so we make sure we don’t get a lot of hunters at one time.”

Bayou Macon’s 2002-03’s deer harvest total was 93.

Russell Sage WMA with its bottomland hardwoods consistently gives up trophy bucks, Owens said.

Region 3

The Dewey Wills WMA’s size — more than 60,000 acres — sets it apart from other WMAs here when it comes to rabbit hunting, according to district wildlife supervisor Czerny Newland.

While no harvest data was available for 2002-03, he said, the top three rabbit harvests were on Dewey Wills WMA, Sabine WMA and Little River WMA.

However, he cautioned, “The success rate was lower than normal on Dewey Wills, but overall numbers were higher than the other areas because Dewey Wills is so large.”

In comparison, Sabine WMA encompasses 14,000 acres and Little River WMA has 3,100 acres.

Little River WMA, with mostly bottomland hardwoods, looms large as the place to be for squirrel hunting this season in Region 3. That’s the word this summer from veteran wildlife division supervisor Czerny Newland.

Newland rates the other top areas for squirrel hunting as Camp Beauregard WMA and Sabine WMA, which consistently turns out good numbers of squirrels despite limited habitat.

Mast production at Little River WMA, Camp Beauregard and Sabine WMA was very good in 2002, according to Newland.

A “very wet summer” has set the table for deer hunting this season in Region 3, namely at Alexander State Forest WMA, Sabine WMA and Camp Beauregard WMA

Region 3 wildlife division supervisor Czerny Newland said the rainfall has resulted in “excellent browse production,” which bodes well for the deer herds on those areas.

Also, each of those areas experienced good reproduction within the deer population, he said.

Newland predicted Alexander State Forest, which covers 8,000-plus acres in Rapides Parish, would have the best deer harvest in 2003-04, followed by Sabine WMA and Camp Beauregard WMA.

Dewey Wills boasted the region’s top deer harvest last season (data aren’t available). But in 2002-03, 96 deer were harvested for a ratio of one in every 24.7 hunter efforts during either-sex hunts on Dewey Wills WMA

And, Newland said, Dewey Wills WMA offers a good chance at a trophy buck because of genetics in the deer herd and soil fertility that complements those genetics. Don’t miss the late buck hunt there, he recommended.

Region 4

Historically, this region offers fair rabbit hunting at best, according to wildlife division supervisor Reggie Wycoff.

“If you dig back in the records, it’s not that big a deal. It’s nothing for people to drive a long way for. You can run your beagles, though,” Wycoff said about rabbit hunting on Big Lake WMA, Bouef WMA and Three Rivers WMA. Those are his top three choices for the most successful rabbit harvests this season in his region.

One reason those areas rise above the rest is the choice habitat due to the elevation and timberland conditions, he said. Habitat conditions are highly favorable for the upcoming season, he said.

The top rabbit producer last season, he said, was Big Lake WMA. But hunters might want to keep an eye on Bouef WMA, where 315 rabbits were harvested in 2001-02 to set the pace in Region 4.

If you want to go somewhere where hunters averaged 2.9 squirrels per effort on opening weekend in 2002-03, you’ll want to head to Big Lake WMA.

But Bouef WMA ought to be the top squirrel hunting area this season in Region 2, says Region 4 wildlife division supervisor Reggie Wycoff. It will be followed by Big Lake WMA and Red River/Three Rivers WMA because they have better habitat, i.e., a broader variety of mast producing trees.

What kind of numbers is Bouef WMA capable of giving up? Consider in 2002-03 there were 1,516 squirrels harvested on the 48,000-acre area in Caldwell Parish. Ridges there have bumper crops of willow oak, nuttall oak, rock elm, sweet gum and persimmon. In lower areas, there is an abundance of overcup oak, bitter pecan and honey locust, with cypress and tupelo gum trees found in sloughs and old lakes.

Red River/Three Rivers had an outstanding year two seasons ago with 1,227 squirrels harvested.

It’s crowded each deer hunting season on 36,000-acre Red Rivers WMA and 26,000-acre Three Rivers WMA, which are neighbors in Concordia Parish

Hunters killed 422 deer, or 10.3 efforts/harvest, last season on Red River/Three Rivers WMAs. Wycoff said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the same kind of numbers, or more, again this season there.

“Down there (Red River/Three Rivers), that’s about an average year. Sometimes it goes to eight, sometimes it goes to 12,” he said. “Other areas may have better rates … that’s the only one hunters check in.”

Besides Red River/Three Rivers WMAs, Wycoff rates three others highly for deer hunting prospects this fall and winter. They are Bouef WMA, Big Lake WMA and Buckhorn WMA.

“All of those areas are good deer areas. They support good deer populations and have a pretty high harvest rate,” Wycoff said.

Hunters usually kill some of the bigger deer in the state on the region’s WMAs, he was proud to point out. Many Boone & Crockett-class bucks are harvested from them, he said.

Wildlife division supervisor John Robinette said some of the best rabbit hunting in this region should happen later in the season.

And the prime areas will be West Bay WMA and Boise Vernon WMA, Robinette said. Those areas support good habitat for hares, he said, especially in recent one- to two-year-old timber cutting or thinning areas.

Last season, West Bay WMA, with its 62,000 acres in Allen Parish, led the way. Sixty-nine hunters were checked and they had 35 rabbits, according to statistics logged in 2002-03.

Region 5

If Sabine Island WMA isn’t the No. 1 squirrel area in the Sportsman’s Paradise, then it’s No. 1a. Year in and year out, the cat squirrels lure hundreds of hunters to the island so rich in habitat.

John Robinette said the bottomland hardwoods mecca for the bushy-tailed small game is ideal for hunting squirrels, particularly during the early part of the season. He advised hunters new to the area to bring maps and plan their trips accordingly.

The harvest was astronomical there last season when 355 hunters and 1,113 squirrels were checked by department personnel working the Sabine Island WMA.

Ranked right behind Sabine Island WMA in the squirrel hunting outlook are West Bay WMA, Boise Vernon WMA and Fort Polk WMA, all of which offer good squirrel hunting opportunities, Robinette said.

Mast production looked good throughout the region as of the third week of July, he said.

Quality bucks are common on WMAs in Region 5, says wildlife division supervisor John Robinette.

“Boise-Vernon WMA and Fort Polk WMA have been producing some very good quality bucks,” Robinette said recently in a report about the two deer hunting hotspots in Vernon Parish. Boise-Vernon WMA has a little more than 54,000 acres while Fort Polk WMA is huge at 105,545 acres.

“The main reasons these areas have been producing quality bucks are because we are annually reducing the deer herd sufficiently to reduce competition for available browse. In other words, there is more food available for the remaining deer to carry them through the winter, which allows them to be healthier,” he said.

The areas show no sign of diverting from their reputation as top deer hunting spots. Last season Boise-Vernon had 347 deer (including archery season’s 41) harvested while Fort Polk WMA had 333 deer (including archery season’s 59) harvested.

“Boise-Vernon and Fort Polk WMA still rank high in deer harvest with around 300 to 350 deer harvested annually from each area,” Robinette said.

Habitat conditions were good during the summer months in Region 5, he said the next-to-last week of July.

“Dry weather during early spring caused some concerns with the habitat conditions and food plots,” he said, “but recent rains have greatly improved the conditions on the WMAs as well as across the region.”

Another traditionally prime deer hunting area is West Bay WMA, where 148 deer were taken by 5,403 hunters checked in 2002-03. But it isn’t as good as it could be, according to Robinette.

“West Bay WMA has a high population of deer,” he said, “but habitat conditions make it extremely difficult to harvest deer in this area. Harvest is way below what we would like from the area. A person who does his homework early should have an excellent chance to harvest a deer from this area.”

Region 6

Without a doubt, Sherburne WMA in the Atchafalaya Basin ranks as the top rabbit hunting area in Region 6, says wildlife division supervisor Kerney Sonnier.

Why? Forest regeneration fields and early successional plant species provide excellent food and cover on the sprawling 42,000-acre-plus WMA. Logging activities in the interior areas make for the ripe rabbit habitat.

As a result, hunters usually bag 2.1 rabbit per hunter effort there, like they did in 2001-02. Other top areas in the region are Thistlethwaite WMA, with its old-growth fields and prime cover, and Attakapas WMA in the Atchafalaya Basin.

A great diversity in oak species and soft mast trees and vines combine to make Thistlethwaite WMA in the Atchafalaya Basin the place to be for squirrel hunting in Region 6.

No one knows that better than wildlife division supervisor Kerney Sonnier, who ranked it the top WMA. The 11,000-acre area in St. Landry Parish easily gives up a little more than one squirrel per hunter effort, he said.

Another area with unlimited squirrel hunting potential is the Attakapas WMA, which also is in the Atchafalaya Basin, Sonnier said. What it has going for it is the swamp with its cypress-tupelo stands and some oak, maple and hackberry growing on higher ridges and spoil banks, Sonnier said.

Last season the blue tongue disease, a viral infection, was the worst ever seen in a deer herd by veteran game biologist Kerney Sonnier. As a result, the animals didn’t move much, if at all, on Sherburne WMA in the Atchafalaya Basin, he said.

Sonnier, Region 6 wildlife division supervisor, said, “I think the harvest was impacted by blue tongue.”

The numbers of deer hunters who hunted Sherburne WMA fell about 1,000 from 3,100 to 2,100, he said, because they would scout and come up empty on deer sign. Consequently, he said, they just lost interest and didn’t show up during the hunting season.

“Hopefully, we’re not faced with that blue tongue again this year. July’s generally when it starts showing up, and there’s been none so far,” Sonnier said recently.

Another factor in the drop in hunter use was a particularly bad year of mosquitoes, he said. While the stinging swarms deterred the hunters, they also obviously bothered the deer because one hunter reported seeing a deer up to his ears in the water, its nose showing, and flapping those ears to shake off the mosquitoes.

Blue tongue apparently didn’t affect the deer herd on Thistlethwaite WMA in St. Landry Parish, where 211 deer were harvested in 2002-03, the wildlife supervisor said.

“We had a good harvest there. We didn’t have any reports of blue tongue,” he said.

Habitat conditions are favorable for fair to good deer hunting on both areas, plus Attakapas WMA in the Atchafalaya Basin.

“At this point,” Sonnier said the last week of July, “vegetation is lush as a result of a wet spring and early summer. That’s great for wildlife.”

Thistlethwaite WMA’s outlook is promising, he said, because of the diversity in mast producers and the fact a logging regime is on a 20-year rotation, which also creates various forest age classes and associated vegetative resources.

Thistlethwaite WMA and Attakapas WMA are the best choices for a chance at a trophy buck, he said.

Region 7

There’s a pearl of a public rabbit hunting area in southeast Louisiana. It’s the Pearl River WMA, which has consistently given up large numbers of rabbits, at least the last two seasons.

The outlook is good again for the WMA in St. Tammany Parish, where 371 rabbits were harvested last season. But right behind it and vying for hunters’ attention is Ben’s Creek WMA, which yielded 263 rabbits in 2002-03, and Maurepas Swamp WMA, with a harvest of 251 rabbits last season.

Region 7 wildlife division supervisor John Mullin believes the top three WMAs will be the same and stay in the same order for 2003-04.

There’s a pearl of a squirrel hunting area in Southeast Louisiana. It’s the Pearl River WMA, where the small game thrive in the posh habitat above Interstate 10.

John Mullins hunted squirrels and other game there when he was younger. Now he oversees it as wildlife division supervisor in Region 6. He likes what he sees, too, going into the new season.

“We’re seeing a good amount of squirrels and we’re seeing a few small ones right now,” Mullins said in mid-summer. “The early crop came off in April or so. They’ll make another crop in late August. When the season opens, they’ll have young ones.”

Last season, he said, 371 squirrels were harvested on Pearl River WMA, where there are many mast trees and a good variety of mast trees. Hunters averaged “in the neighborhood” of one squirrel per effort.

“If one fails, the other takes its place. There’s good habitat over there for squirrels,” Mullins said.

A second choice for hunting squirrels in the upcoming season is Ben’s Creek WMA, where 263 squirrels were bagged last season. Right behind it is Maurepas Swamp WMA, which gave up 251 squirrels in 2002-03.

Maurepas Swamp WMA’s deer hunting forecast is a good one. Ditto for Tunica Hills WMA (primitive weapons) and Pearl River WMA.

John Mullins gave the word a few weeks ago when he talked about prospects in Region 7, where he works as the wildlife division supervisor.

He’s optimistic despite a spring that was too dry and a summer too wet. Browse is plentiful now, he said, and there is some mast, but it’s too early to predict the quantity or quality of the crop.

Leading deer harvests last year in the region were on Maurepas Swamp WMA, with 127; Tunica Hills WMA, with 77, and Pearl River WMA, with 73.

Pearl River WMA consistently gives up as many deer as it does rabbits and squirrels because of the habitat, Mullins said.

“The deer herd’s pretty stable in there,” he said. “They’re not killing a tremendous amount of numbers in there, but they’re doing fair.”

If hunters are hoping to get a trophy buck in their sights, they should travel to Maurepas Swamp WMA. Deer get big there because there are so many areas inaccessible to hunters.

The eighth-largest deer on Louisiana WMAs was bagged there last season, Mullins said.

About Don Shoopman 509 Articles
Don Shoopman fishes for freshwater and saltwater species mostly in and around the Atchafalaya Basin and Vermilion Bay. He moved to the Sportsman’s Paradise in 1976, and he and his wife June live in New Iberia. They have two grown sons.

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