2014-15 WMA forecast

What can you do if you aren’t in a hunting club? Well, the state’s WMAs offer fantastic hunting opportunities. Here are some suggestions.

For $15, a hunter can hunt a wonderland of public lands and waters featuring the most-appealing habitat for big game, small game, migratory birds and other species in the Sportsman’s Paradise.

Let that sink in for a moment, and then read on to learn about all the opportunities this state and its dedicated state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists provide with the wildlife management areas.

And with hunting seasons just around the corner, also take in the most-recent field reports and prospects for hunting any of those species on the WMAs this season.

Those WMAs are growing. Take, for example, Peason Ridge WMA that sits in the Gulf Coastal Plain South Region. After a five-year process involving miles of red tape, 18,000 acres of upland pines with hardwood creek bottoms transecting it have been added before the upcoming hunting seasons thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That brings the tract to 51,000 acres.

And there’s more to come, LDWF’s Wendell Smith said,

“We’re in the process of doubling it, at least 20,000 more (acres),” Smith said. “It’s great for the Louisiana sportsman. That 18,000 (that was added this year) is prime turkey habitat.”

Hunting clubs that previously hunted on some of that land “did very well” in their management of the new property, Smith added.

“We’re out there now posting new boundary signs. We’ll have it ready to go for this hunting season,” he said.

Smith, who is in his 25th year with the LDWF, also said the older portions of the WMA offers great opportunities, as well.

“The other part of Peason’s fantastic, too,” Smith said. “It allows our sportsmen to hunt a prime habitat area for just a $15 WMA permit. I mean, they can hunt the entire state with that.”

Other WMAs that have grown since last year include the highly popular Dewey Wills WMA (which increased by 265 acres) and the Little River WMA (which grew by 1,109 acres), according to Cliff Dailey, a WMA biologist supervisor who oversees those two WMAs in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley South.

In the MAV North-Monroe Region, Ouachita WMA also expanded by 3,000 acres, 41-year LDWF veteran Charlie Booth said.

That new area on the lower portion of the WMA butts up against Bosco Road and will be open this season. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reforested it with bottomland hardwood species; right now all you can see is shrubbery, but in two decades it will blossom into prime habitat, he said.

There are just so many acres at the hunter’s beckon for public hunting, up and down the state, side to side. Many are huge, with diverse habitat covering woods and water, and most are within a comfortable driving distance of any community.

For example, Maurepas WMA in the Gulf Coastal Plain Eastern Region has nearly 120,000 acres spanning five parishes, and it had the highest deer harvest of the nine WMAs in that region.

“It’s not the most easy hunting, but people who put their time and effort in have a good opportunity at harvesting a deer,” said Christian Winslow, an 11-year veteran biologist who supervises Maurepas and the region’s other WMAs.

There are plenty of deer hunters who take advantage of Louisiana’s deer hunting, public and private, across the state. While 2013-14 numbers were unavailable as of Aug. 31, 152,700 deer hunters between 16 and 59 years of age took to our state’s WMAs and/or private lands at least once in 2012-13, according to Johnathan Bordelon, who recently became the LDWF’s DMAP coordinator after 15 years in the field, including as biologist supervisor for the MAV South.

The 2012-13 total swells to 203,930 when senior hunters are counted, Bordelon said, explaining that mail surveys still track the historical number of hunters between 16 and 49 years of age, but it recently started adding senior hunters because they are such a fast-growing segment.

How does that 2012-13 number of deer hunters compare to five years earlier? Bordelon said in 2008-09 that 162,600 deer hunters were licensed and, while the majority hunted private lands, many hunted on WMAs.

The 2013-14 deer harvest on the state’s vast compilation of WMAs was staggering and one of the best since the mid-2000s, a banner season with 3,230 bucks and 2,422 does killed on public lands, Bordelon said. That’s the second-highest Louisiana WMA harvest in the past 10 years, he said, noting only the 2010-11 season’s harvest was higher by a couple of hundred deer.

“Definitely one of the better seasons: high harvest and high success rates on the WMAs,” Bordelon wrote in his report. “Weather was a contributor — very cold winter and deer did have to hustle and move to find food.”

The 10-year average per season was 2,613 bucks and 1,955 does harvested on Louisiana WMAs, Bordelon said.

Last season, 70 percent of the bucks harvested on the state’s WMAs were 6-month and 1 1/2-year-old deer, he said. Thirty percent were 2 1/2 years and older, an age group that has steadily increased over the past 10 years, he said.

Also, a concerted statewide effort has been made to enhance the hunting prospects for rabbits and squirrels on WMAs, Dailey pointed out.

Specially designated areas on certain WMAs will allow small-game hunting with dogs, confined to that specific area when the remainder of the WMA is restricted to still hunt-only.

These “small game emphasis areas” are offered on the following WMAs: Big Colewa Bayou, Bayou Macon, Bayou Pierre, Bouef, Dewey W. Wills, Marsh Bayou, Ouachita, Richard K. Yancey (formerly Red River/Three River), Sandy Hollow, Sherburne and Walnut Hull.

See individual WMA schedules for details.

Dailey, Smith and the state’s other WMA biologist supervisors and biologist managers talked about deer, squirrel and rabbit hunting prospects, including the top locales for killing quality deer, preseason conditions and last season’s harvest numbers for those species to help hunters get a better idea what’s happening on WMAs.

Here are their thoughts.

Mississippi Alluvial Valley

Heavy rainfall was oh-so welcome by WMA biologist supervisors and biologist managers when it came down in buckets for days in July.

While their regions were far, far from being dry, the extra wet stuff just sweetened the pot a few months before the big-game and small-game hunting seasons on WMAs kicked around Louisiana. As a result, habitat conditions improved significantly for those areas managed by Cliff Dailey and Tony Vidrine in the MAV South Region, and by Lowrey Moak and Charlie Booth in the MAV North Region.

While they were all thankful there was no major flooding to be concerned about going into 2014-15, the big rains sure didn’t hurt anything, Vidrine said.

“Abundant rainfall through the spring and summer months has helped promote growth of understory vegetation,” he said. “With the rainfalls we’ve had, we haven’t had any drought problems, and food availability is high. Habitat conditions look great right now as far as deer and rabbit, and mast should be better than last year when it was down a bit. Last year we didn’t have a real high acorn crop. The year before that it was excellent — extremely high.”

Dailey, a 5 ½-year veteran who works out of the Pineville office in the MAV South Region, recently said he has seen chest-high beans off the wood line, and in the woods briars are growing higher than his head on Dewey Wills WMA.

He said winter ice and snowfall caused some timber to fall, which created additional openings to promote growth of native browse.

“As far as Mother Nature putting it there, it’s there. I think it’s about as good a situation as can be, as far as weather conditions affecting the habitat,” Dailey said.

His sentiments were echoed to the north.

“Well, habitat is good,” Moak said about the MAV North Region-Ferriday. “We’re seeing does with fawns now. We’re expecting an average or better deer season this year.”

And Booth, who is in his 41st year as an LDWF biologist, also has seen plenty of deer and deer sign in the summer, especially in mid-July while working on dove-trapping projects in the MAV Region-Monroe.

“I’ve seen a lot of deer. I’ve seen tons of does and fawn. (The fawns) probably dropped in mid-May and June,” Booth said. “They’re looking healthy. Everything’s looking very good right now.”

MAV SOUTH REGION-Pineville

There’s a good reason some of the harvested deer consistently check in at 200-plus pounds on Dewey Wills WMA. No one knows that better than LDWF’s Cliff Dailey.

“There’s always some good wall-hangers,” Dailey said.

Why? Basically, the deer habitat is prime because of the rich soil common to the Mississippi Alluvial Plain.

For instance, Dailey explained, dewberries that grow on Dewey Wills WMA will be more nutritious than, say, those on a coastal WMA. It all revolves around the soil, he said.

“(Deer) can tell what’s more palatable and nutritious, and it may be even more available at that time,” Dailey said.

The table is being set well for another above-average hunting season for big game and small game on Dewey Wills WMA and Little River WMA, he said.

In his written report, Dailey said the rains have really paid off.

“Above-average rainfall has provided quality browse for white-tailed deer and allowed for lush forest openings, giving wild turkey nesting/brood habitat,” he wrote. “Logging (on Dewey Wills WMA) and prescribed fire (on Little River WMA) have been used this year to improve habitat conditions for game and non-game species.”

Deer

The 63,901-acre Dewey Wills WMA naturally gives up the most deer between the two public areas managed by Dailey.

It has bottomland hardwoods, sloughs and cypress brakes that provide optimal habitat for deer, he said. The habitat also is favorable for growing quality deer, which are harvested each season.

“Spring/summer rainfall well above the five-year average has produced an abundance of quality deer browse,” the biologist wrote in his report. “Large expanses of agriculture along the eastern boundary also provide supplemental nutrients to the WMA herd.”

Last season’s deer harvest totaled 284, he said about Dewey Wills WMA.

Dailey offered some advice to those who want to be successful in their deer hunting on Dewey Wills WMA: Get off the well-worn path.

“There’s so much water in places; there’s almost always some kind of secluded area away from the competition,” he said, naming areas around Cross Bayou, Muddy Bayou and Saline Bayou.

Those deer hunters who go out by boat can distance themselves from the rest of the pack and avoid the main drag.

“If a guy comes in by boat, he has different options — Not that people can’t walk off the road and be successful because they can,” he said.

On Little River WMA in 2013-14, nine deer were harvested.

Squirrel

Nuttall, willow and overcup oak provide fall mast for squirrels (and deer) on the Dewey Wills WMA, the place to be each season for squirrel hunting.

Last season, the WMA’s squirrel hunters proved how productive the WMA can be for squirrel hunting by harvesting 4,158 squirrels. That’s nearly 1,000 more squirrels harvested there than in 2012-13.

Little River WMA’s squirrel harvest for 2013-14 was 538.

Rabbit

Dailey said old, dying trees combined with timber harvesting have created canopy gaps, making “briar thickets” beneficial for rabbits (as well as deer) on Dewey Wills WMA.

Rabbit hunters took advantage of the habitat to harvest 94 rabbits last season, he said. That’s 14 more than were reported killed the previous hunting season.

Little River WMA’s rabbit harvest totaled 13 in 2013-14, the same as in 2012-13.

MAV SOUTH REGION–Opelousas

Mother Nature has made amends for the 2011 flooding experienced in this region, as far as getting the habitat and animal populations back in order on the affected areas in the MAV South Region.

Vidrine mentioned the comeback more than once while talking about big-game and small-game hunting prospects for 2014-15. Going into the 2012-13 hunting season on his WMAs, Vidrine had said the flooded properties would bounce back, and he was right — particularly for hard-hit Sherburne WMA.

“Yeah, they bounce back pretty good. We’ll have to see how this season goes,” Vidrine said.

He did say the 2011 floodwaters set the turkey population back on Sherburne WMA, Grassy Lake WMA and Richard K. Yancey WMA. But that’s another story (see related story about hunting migratory birds and other gamebirds on WMAs in this edition).

The veteran biologist believed any localized flooding this spring and, especially during the heavy summer rainfall, could be withstood by the turkeys because they should have been big enough to withstand the conditions.

“As far as deer and other animals, it doesn’t affect them at all. A little rain doesn’t hurt. We should be all right,” Vidrine said.

Deer

Deer herds are thriving on the big three WMAs — Richard K. Yancey, Sherburne and Thistlethwaite — as well as on the WMAs in Avoyelles Parish — Spring Bayou, Pomme de Terre and Grassy Lake, Vidrine said.

For sure, his region’s WMAs produce quality bucks. He went into some detail about the history of big deer.

“R.K. Yancey remains one of the top producers of good, quality bucks in the region and the entire state,” Vidrine wrote in his report. “The large size of this WMA, along with good habitat, and remote terrain allows bucks to elude hunting pressure to attain older age classes.

“The fertile soil in this region of the state, in this bottomland hardwood habitat, provide for optimum growth.”

Plus, he wrote in his report, hunting is scheduled at the best time for hunters.

“The season framework on this WMA allows hunters plenty of opportunity to pursue bucks when they are most active,” Vidrine said.

Pomme de Terre, Spring Bayou and Grassy Lake WMAs in Avoyelles Parish present great opportunities to harvest quality bucks because there are hunting clubs in the vicinity that practice quality deer management, and that benefits the adjoining WMAs, Vidrine wrote.

Grassy Lake is adjacent to hunting clubs that manage for older class bucks that often traverse the WMA. Limited access and difficult terrain provides refuge for bucks to escape to and grow older.

Vidrine noted that his agency has incorporated a change in season structure at Thistlethwaite WMA, which has the potential to allow bucks to escape hunting pressure during the rut and attain an older age class in the future.

The biologist also pointed out the overall harvest rates.

Here is a breakdown of deer harvested per acre on his WMAs:

• Thistlethwaite WMA — one deer per 58 acres

• Pomme de Terre WMA — one deer harvested per 88 acres

• Richard K. Yancey WMA — one deer per 95 acres.

Vidrine also pointed out that WMAs in his MAV South Region vary in size; naturally the larger WMAs are more productive due to the vast acreage.

The harvest-per-hunter ratio might be higher on some of the smaller WMAs, but overall harvest differs because of the size of the WMA. Harvest numbers obtained from harvest checks done on opening days, deer checks on either-sex days and a majority of the data come from information obtained from hunters filling out self-clearing permits.

In other words, take that into consideration when looking at harvest numbers from 2013-14.

The larger WMAs had more deer harvested than the smaller WMAs, with Richard K. Yancey, Sherburne WMA and Thistlethwaite WMA having the highest recorded harvests in the MAV South Region-Opelousas.

Richard K. Yancey WMA led the way last season, with 750 deer killed — a little higher than average for the WMA.

Habitat is in very good condition on this area, Vidrine said, noting he anticipates another good harvest this season.

Sherburne WMA had a recorded harvest of 450 deer last season — another increase over the previous season, he said.

Deer have bounced back very quickly from the 2011 flood, he said, and he expects the harvest will climb even more this season. Habitat surveys indicate deer numbers are very high and habitat conditions favorable for the high production of deer, he said.

While Thistlethwaite WMA is smaller than Richard K. Yancey WMA and Sherburne WMA, it is a highly productive deer area (see harvest of deer per acre above). Its deer population remains high and should offer ample opportunity to bag a deer in 2014-15.

LDWF removed a point restriction on bucks at Thistlethwaite WMA because biologists weren’t seeing the results they wanted, Vidrine said.

But deer hunting prospects there are as good or better than ever.

“It’s a difficult place to hunt because it’s got such a dense palmetto area in there,” Vidrine said. “It’s got a dense population of deer in there. This year we (have seen) a lot of deer in there. It doesn’t get a whole lot of pressure because we reduced the number of days.”

Squirrel

There is a reason 4,505 squirrels were killed in 5,116 hunter efforts last season at Richard K. Yancey WMA.

“It’s just such a big area. It’s got so much land there,” Vidrine said about the 69,000-acre-plus WMA. “Some good squirrel hunters said every time they go to Yancey they killed a limit.”

The key is to avoid looking for them in “real clean woods” and find woods with a lot of vines.

“Do some scouting and look for feed trees. That’d be the areas to concentrate on,” Vidrine said, noting the area has prime squirrel habitat in an abundance of soft- and hard-mast trees.

From what he could see in mid-July, the mast crop should be a good one on Richard K. Yancey WMA, Sherburne WMA and Attakapas WMA.

Sherburne WMA, another large area at 43,000 acres, also gives up a large number of squirrels each season. For example, 2,701 hunting efforts accounted for 3,363 squirrels in the bag last season.

Thistlethwaite WMA had a recorded harvest of 880 squirrels for 1,195 hunter efforts in 2013-14. Vidrine said it always has been an above-average squirrel harvest area and should stay that way with its multitude of mast-producing trees.

A dense understory of palmetto does make it a little more difficult for hunters to creep up on squirrels on Thistlethwaite WMA.

There’s more to the squirrel-hunting picture in this region than the big three.

Vidrine said Attakapas WMA offers some of the most-successful squirrel hunts in the lower Atchafalaya Basin. However, it is accessible only by boat, which makes hunting pressure slightly less than some of the other WMAs. Ridges along the Atchafalaya River offer some of the best chances to harvest squirrels on the WMA.

Rabbit

Hop on over to Sherburne WMA or Richard K. Yancey WMA if you want a better-than-average chance of shooting a rabbit in this MAV South Region. Plus, you will have additional opportunities for rabbit hunting with dogs in October within the new small game emphasis areas.

There is also a dog hunting season in late January until the end of rabbit season in February.

Rabbit-hunting prospects are bright in those areas because the habitat is excellent for the production of rabbits and for protective cover. Forest management practices on the WMAs in the region have benefited rabbits and improved cover.

Rabbit-hunting opportunities also are fair to good on Spring Bayou and Pomme de Terre WMAs, according to Vidrine.

Last season’s recorded rabbit harvest on Sherburne WMA — 142 killed in 1,048 hunter efforts — was the highest ever for a MAV South WMA.

Richard K. Yancey WMA, meanwhile, had a recorded harvest of 97 rabbits in 481 hunter efforts.

Also, Spring Bayou WMA had a recorded harvest of 39 rabbits in 137 hunter efforts.

Vidrine said to keep in mind that rabbits are taken incidentally by hunters pursuing squirrels and other game on the WMAs. Self-clearing permits may be filled out for two or more different species hunted or taken on one hunt, which means hunter efforts are difficult to determine.

MAV NORTH REGION-Ferriday

Overall habitat conditions were fair to good in this region in late July, Moak said, adding that he expects them to remain that way up to the 2014-15 hunting season.

“Habitat conditions have improved, and with good weather we expect hunter harvest to be as good or better than last year for all species,” Moak wrote in his report. “We experienced minor flooding at Boeuf and Big Lake (WMAs) this spring, but both areas have recovered.

“These areas had a fair to good hard- and soft-mast crop last year, and indications at this time are that they will have the same this year.”

Squirrel-hunting prospects are bright based on what he saw in mid-July.

“What hardwoods I’ve looked at, I’m seeing lots of acorn,” he said. “If we don’t get any big drought, we ought to have a good mast crop.”

As for the squirrel population, it’s robust, he said.

“They did not kill them all last year,” Moak said with a chuckle.

Moak and his staff were involved in July in a timber-harvesting project designed to improve deer and duck habitat at Boeuf WMA, a project that coincided with another effort to improve deer and turkey nesting habitat on Sicily Island WMA.

Deer

Deer habitat has improved “tremendously” in recent years on his leading deer hunting WMAs, Moak said.

“I’m looking for the deer hunting on Big Lake and Buckhorn (WMAs) to get better this year and down the road,” he said, noting logging activities the past few years opened the canopy to let sunshine hit the ground, which resulted in heavy undergrowth on Big Lake.

“We’re going to reap the benefits,” he said.

A shot at a quality deer is likely at Big Lake, Boeuf and Buckhorn WMAs, he said.

“They all offer a chance at a quality deer, but Big Lake probably offers the best chance,” Moak wrote in his report. “Big Lake and its neighbor Tensas NWR together form a very large of bottomland hardwoods with large core areas.

“The refuge’s firearms season is limited, allowing more bucks to reach the older age classes.

Based on self-clearing permits, MAV North-Ferriday’s top deer harvest WMAs were Boeuf WMA, with 3,051 hunting efforts accounting for 325 deer; Big Lake WMA, with 2,739 hunting efforts resulting in 260 deer, and Buckhorn WMA, with 2,250 hunting efforts harvesting 196 deer.

“Boeuf WMA normally has the highest deer harvest numbers due to large size and high hunter numbers, and season length,” Moak wrote in his report.

Squirrel

While Big Lake and Boeuf WMAs lead the way for squirrel harvests each season, don’t discount Buckhorn.

Moak said Buckhorn WMA is more difficult to hunt because of the thick palmetto, but those squirrel hunters who are accustomed to hunting in that terrain are pretty successful.

How successful? Well, based on self-clearing permits, 487 squirrels were bagged on 274 hunting efforts last season.

But Big Lake WMA looms as the most-popular area for squirrels. Last season, 1,656 hunters killed 3,203 squirrels based on self-clearing permits. Bayou Boeuf followed with 1,735 hunting efforts accounting for 1,897 squirrels.

“At Big Lake, you can go down any road right now and see squirrels everywhere,” Moak said.

Big Lake WMA also has a late squirrel season with dogs, he said.

“They are very successful, and have been the last couple of years,” Moak said. “It’s very popular.”

Rabbit

Rabbit hunters who want to hunt a WMA in this region usually head for Boeuf WMA. And for good reason, Moak said.

“It offers the best opportunity because it’s so varied. There are lots of rabbits, and it’s so big,” he said.

Its close proximity to a large population in Concordia Parish also makes it a favorite among residents in North Louisiana.

“A good number of people live locally and it’s not a lot of trouble to drive and hunt rabbits there,” he said.

Plus, it’s easy to hunt.

Last season’s harvest numbers from Boeuf WMA totaled 102 rabbits taken in 127 hunting efforts based on self-clearing permits. Following Boeuf WMA was Big Lake WMA, with 24 rabbits taken by 74 hunters. Five Buckhorn WMA hunters reported no rabbits harvested.

“Big Lake WMA has a growing population of rabbits due to a substantial increase in habitat, which is a result of timber harvests. Hunter numbers increased last year from prior years and we expect this trend to continue,” Moak wrote in his report. “Buckhorn WMA has excellent habitat and a good rabbit population, but is not so popular among hunters due to the dense palmetto. Rabbit hunting is difficult.”

MAV NORTH REGION-Monroe

Heavy rainfall in July was a welcome development for this region’s WMAs.

“Everything — deer browse and stuff — looks real good for this time of year,” LDWF’s Charlie Booth said. “Usually, this late in the year (the temperature) gets in the upper 90s and low 100s, and that (vegetation) starts to wilt and become less palatable.

“With all the rain, it looks good.”

As a result, habitat conditions are rated as good on his three WMAs: Russell Sage, Bayou Macon and Ouachita. There were no major flooding events this spring and there are no major habitat changes since last year, he said.

“Hard-mast production looks as good as or slightly better than last year,” Booth said. “Weather conditions in the months ahead will ultimately determine the quality and amount of available wildlife foods for the upcoming hunting season.”

Deer

Booth said the three WMAs in his region have basically the same type of deer habitat, with the difference being the acreage of each WMA.

The WMA with the largest amount of deer habitat is Russell Sage, which has mostly mature bottomland hardwoods and historically produces the highest deer kill of the three WMAs, as well as heavier males than given up by Bayou Macon WMA or Ouachita WMA.

Russell Sage WMA’s close proximity to a large metropolitan area (Monroe) also means people have quick and easy access to it. And that shows: Based on last season’s harvest of 88 deer, it was the most productive in his region. It was followed by Ouachita WMA with 52 deer and Bayou Macon WMA with 30 deer.

While any of those WMAs can give up a quality deer at any given time, deer data collected over recent seasons indicate the best opportunity to bag a big buck is on Russell Sage WMA, according to Booth.

Booth’s 2013-14 deer harvest breakdown was a thorough one that provides a closer look at how deer hunters fared,

Deer harvest on Russell Sage WMA during the 2013-14 season was:

• Archery — 505 hunters, seven deer (two males, five females).

• Primitive weapon — 73 hunters, six deer (five males, one female).

• Buck only — 548 hunters, 26 bucks.

• Quality buck — 24 hunters, 0 bucks.

• Either-sex — 292 hunters, 59 deer (28 males, 21 females).

NOTE: During the either-sex hunt, the three largest bucks taken had live weights of 200, 215 and 260 pounds.

On Ouachita WMA, the  2013-14 deer harvest numbers were:

• Archery — 410 hunters, five deer (two males, three females).

• Buck only — 254 hunters, five bucks.

• Either-sex — 260 hunters, 42 deer (30 males, 12 females).

• Quality buck — 43 hunters were unsuccessful.

Deer harvest on Bayou Macon WMA last season was:

• Archery — 255 hunters, five deer (four males, one female).

• Primitive weapon — 22 hunters, three deer (two males, one female).

• Quality buck — 98 hunters, three deer.

• Either-sex – 172 hunters, 20 deer (10 males, 10 females).

Booth wrote in his report that Ouachita WMA has good deer hunting in the original mature bottomland hardwood tract purchased in the mid-1970s, as well as in the reforested Anderson Farm tract acquired in the mid-1980s.

Bayou Macon WMA has nearly 5,400 acres of mature bottomland hardwood from Shrock Road north, and more than 1,600 acres of native hardwood bottomland reforestation south of Shrock Road. Both habitat types offer successful deer hunting, according to Booth.

However, in recent seasons the reforested acres south of Shrock Road also has been highly productive for deer harvest. A recently marked 600-acre block of timber should produce some high-quality deer habitat once the deer harvest is completed and plant succession begins.

Squirrel

With hard-mast production looking as good or slightly better than last year, squirrel hunters should be looking forward to hunting on all three WMAs in the MAV North-Monroe Region.

And those public areas provide plenty of opportunity, Booth said.

Russell Sage WMA offers the largest amount of mature bottomland hardwood forest, and continues to get the most use and give up the most squirrels in the region.

Booth pointed out, though, is it near a large metropolitan area, which provides a large number of hunters to draw from, and gets over half of its squirrel hunting efforts and squirrel harvest each October.

Last season, Russell Sage WMA had 877 hunter efforts and a reported harvest 773 squirrels.

Bayou Macon WMA, located in rural East Carroll Parish, also has favorable squirrel habitat, but it attracts less than 50 percent of squirrel hunters due to its remoteness, Booth said.

However, hunter success rates for squirrels are basically the same on both Russell Sage and Bayou Macon WMAs. Last season, Bayou Macon WMA was the destination of 389 hunters who killed 335 squirrels.

Ouchita WMA has the least amount of squirrel habitat and the lowest usage among hunters. But with 161 hunters taking 186 squirrels in 2013-14, the success rate was a bit higher than Russell Sage WMA and Bayou Macon WMA.

Rabbit

While it doesn’t rank high among squirrel hunters, Ouachita WMA does appeal to rabbits and rabbit hunters, Booth said.

“Ouachita WMA continues to be the best of the three WMAs for successful rabbit-hunting opportunities,” the biologist wrote in his report.

Booth said the Anderson Farm Tract purchased in the late 1970s and subsequently reforested with bottomland hardwood species native to the area continues to be the hotspot for rabbit hunters who visit the Ouachita WMA.

Russell Sage WMA, which primarily has bottomland hardwood acreage, gets little use during the rabbit hunting season, he said.

Reforested agricultural fields on Bayou Macon south of Shrock Road present suitable rabbit habitat but gets very little use by rabbit hunters, he said.

Gulf Coastal Plains

At least one biologist remembers a crawling start to the deer hunting season on some top-notch WMAs in his region last season.

Deer harvest on opening weekend was off 50 percent on Fort Polk WMA, Clear Creek WMA and West Bay WMA, and Wendell Smith didn’t have to look too far for answers.

All he had to do was look up to the sky, then down to the ground.

“Last year opening weekend came on the heels of a full moon, a full week of acorns dropping and hitting the ground,” said the biologist supervisor for the Gulf Coastal Plains Eastern Region. “The kill was off a little bit. I can attribute that to the deer feeding at night. That’s all I can attribute that to because the deer were there like crazy. (But) the rest of the season (deer hunters) ended up catching up.”

Opening weekend is important to thin out a few deer because a deer eats 5 to 6 pounds of browse a day on the average. Managers count on getting some deer off the land surviving deer, like bucks, can grow bigger antlers and put on extra weight before winter arrives.

The 2013-14 harvest totaled 423 taken on Fort Polk WMA, 221 killed on Clear Creek WMA and 209 harvested on West Bay WMA, Smith said in his written report.

Barring another nocturnal feeding binge, prospects for big-game and small-game hunting are rosy going into 2014-15, according to Smith and fellow biologists Jeff Johnson, Christian Winslow and Cassidy LeJeune.

They are as fired up as the hunters this preseason.

“It looks like it’ll be a pretty good season the way it’s going. Habitat conditions are currently good on my WMAs. Winter weather hung on and spring green-up came a little later than usual this year,” said Johnson, who serves as biologist supervisor for the Gulf Coast Plains North Region. “Browse is in good condition and, if things continue as they have thus far, should be in good shape through the rest of the summer and into the fall. Just hoping we keep getting some semi-regular rains and things stay in as good a shape as they are so far.”

Heavy spring rains had an affect on WMAs in the Gulf Coastal Plains Eastern Region, Gulf Coast Plains Eastern Region biologist Christian Winslow said.

“The Pearl River was high throughout the spring, but (it) finally fell in June,” Winslow said. “This extended high water caused a delayed green-up in the inundated areas of the WMA, but a recent browse survey indicated fair to good habitat conditions.

“The high water likely negatively impacted turkey nesting and production, but current habitat conditions are good for fawning and poult-rearing. If we continue to get plentiful rainfall during the summer and do not get impacted by any tropical storms, we should have good habitat conditions on all of the WMAs in our region heading into the hunting season, and I’m looking forward to that. The only thing I’m always on edge about is related to tropical storms. Hopefully, we get out of the hurricane season with no major impacts.”

Cassidy LeJeune, biologist with the Coastal Game and Nongame Resources Division, also is hopeful this region is spared a visit by tropical weather of any kind. He pointed out that it’s been two years since the last one — Hurricane Isaac — impacted coastal WMAs.

“It’s been a while since we had any substantial tropical storms, so in general habitat conditions are good. We’ve been fortunate. We sure don’t need any more hurricanes,” LeJeune said.

He noted that “the only harsh climate event” this year was the unseasonably cold winter. However, he said, there were no adverse impacts due to freezing temperatures.

Gulf Coastal Plains Region-Eastern

It was a long, hard winter followed by a spring with localized heavy rains that combined had an impact on Winslow’s Gulf Coast Coastal Plains Eastern Region WMAs.

“Although rainfall was below average during most of the hunting season, heavy rains in late February caused high-water conditions on Pearl River WMA, which prompted a hunting season closure during the last week of the small-game season,” the 11-year veteran said.

A few months later, the region experienced another rain event.

“Heavy localized spring rains caused a couple of weeks of high water on Manchac, Maurepas Swamp and Joyce WMAs,” Winslow said, “but recent assessments indicate good habitat conditions and browse availability.”

The immediate outlook was favorable as of mid-summer.

“Oh, if we keep getting decent rains through the rest of the growing season, we ought to be looking at real good habitat conditions on these WMAs,” he said.

Winslow said he already was fielding calls from hunters asking various questions about specific areas and how they look.

“We’re happy to get those questions because it shows (hunters’) interest,” he said.

Deer

One of the most-productive deer-hunting areas in the Gulf Coastal Plains Eastern Region also happens to be one of the most difficult to hunt — Maurepas Swamp WMA, nearly 120,000 acres of which spans a five-parish area in Southeast Louisiana.

But it’s worth the effort.

“Last year it had the highest harvest (147 deer on 2,458 hunting efforts) of our nine WMAs,” Winslow said. “It’s not the most easy hunting — it’s a little more difficult than just walking in — but the people who put the time and effort in have a good opportunity at harvesting a deer.”

With little deer-hunting pressure, there is more opportunity to draw a bead on a whitetail —and an increased chance of getting a quality buck.

Following Maurepas Swamp was Tunica Hills WMA, with 120 deer recorded on 2,756 hunter efforts. Pearl River WMA came next with 33 deer on 2,607 hunter efforts.

Tunica Hills WMA has a fertile, productive habitat that supports a good deer population. It also is archery-only except for a 17-day primitive firearm season after Thanksgiving.

Pearl River WMA is very accessible to deer hunters due to the numerous maintained roads and trails, as well as its proximity to New Orleans, Winslow pointed out.

Of the region’s nine WMAs, Tunica Hills offers the best chance at shooting a big buck in 2014-15.

Why? The fertile, productive habitat and a healthy deer herd, the biologist said.

Maurepas Swamp WMA, as aforementioned, and Joyce WMA offer excellent opportunities to harvest nice bucks, as well, he said. However, access is more difficult than other areas. That’s why there are numerous quality, older age-class bucks on the areas.

Squirrel

If it’s squirrels you want in your bag, Pearl River WMA is the place to be, according to Winslow and statistics from 2013-14. Its habitat still is improving by leaps and bounds following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Although we still have a lot of thick areas, it’s been opening up each year, but it’s really getting better now. Hunters are able to access it more,” Winslow said. “Pearl’s the most-popular place (in the region) for squirrel hunting. I would say it’s fairly accessible for squirrel hunters, as we have numerous roads and trails for hunters.”

However, mast production there was below average last fall. Still, the red oaks on the area produced a fair amount of mast, Winslow said.

How productive was the squirrel harvest last season on Pearl River WMA? There were 1,576 squirrels harvested in 3,000 hunting efforts, he reported.

That squirrel harvest rate was followed by Maurepas Swamp WMA with 948 taken in 921 hunting efforts and Tunica Hills WMA with 444 squirrels taken in 1,609 hunting efforts.

Maurepas Swamp WMA is a consistent producer of squirrels, and Winslow expects more of the same for 2014-15. He pointed out the area has more than 119,000 acres of cypress-tupelo swamp, with numerous oak ridges and spoil areas found throughout the WMA.

Tunica Hills WMA has an abundance of mature oaks and other mast-producing trees that provide excellent squirrel habitat, the biologist said.

Rabbit

Hands down, Maurepas Swamp WMA gave up the most rabbits to hunters in 2013-14.

The numerous spoil banks and natural ridges harbor beau coup hoppers, and that showed last season when 238 rabbits were bagged in 740 efforts on the 119,000-acre plus WMA.

Pearl River WMA’s rabbit hunting involves hunting in thick understory created after Hurricane Katrina blasted through the region in 2005. But, as Winslow said earlier, the woods are beginning to open up. Rabbits are plentiful in the marsh south of U.S. 90, he said.

There were 14 rabbits killed in 1,609 hunter efforts on Pearl River last season.

Sandy Hollow WMA is an area kept in early success habitat through prescribed burning. It also has an abundance of edge habitat surrounding numerous fields and openings of the WMA, Winslow said. Seventeen rabbits were harvested in 281 hunter efforts in 2013-14.

Gulf Coastal Plains-Western

Smith is proud that two of the public lands in his region are part of the LDWF’s new small game emphasis areas intiative, a statewide effort to increase the hunting experience for rabbits and squirrels on select WMAs.

Marsh Bayou WMA and Walnut Hill WMA are part of the program.

“We’ve been getting requests for more opportunities for small-game hunting. We have listened to the public,” he said. “Hunters can use dogs to hunt squirrels and rabbits all season.”

Other WMAs in the program include Big Colewa Bayou, Bayou Macon, Bayou Pierre; Bouef, Dewey W. Wills, Ouachita, Richard K. Yancey (formerly Red River/Three River), Sandy Hollow and Sherburne.

See individual WMA schedules for details.

Otherwise, Smith was looking ahead to big-game hunting on his region’s WMAs. He emphasized how important it is to scout out an area before the season.

“(T)he summertime is when you need to put the time in,” he said. “It’s hot. But people who are successful, that’s what they do.”

Smith said habitat conditions on the region’s WMAs is “pretty good” considering summertime rain has been plentiful.

On West Bay and Clear Creek WMAs, Smith said, hunters will see new areas that were clear-cut in July. He also talked about the need to adjust because regular planting and thinning projects are ongoing.

Deer

All of the region’s WMAs have excellent deer hunting, as evidenced by last season’s harvest numbers.

Smith reported that Fort Polk WMA led the way with 423 deer harvested, followed by Clear Creek WMA with 221, West Bay WMA with 209 and Peason Ridge WMA with 176.

In 2012-13, the order was the same with Fort Polk producing 612 deer (a record), Clear Creek giving up 347, West Bay yielding 257 and Peason Ridge coughing up 114 deer.

Fort Polk WMA continued its tradition of having the highest deer harvest. Although there was a down season in 2011 (372 deer killed), the harvest was 563 in 2010 and 517 in 2009.

Why is that? There are 100,000 acres and hunters can, for the most part, spread out.

Many of the deer come from the Fullerton area on the east side of the tract, Smith has said in the past, which is on the east side of the WMA, which has Six Mile Creek running through it. This portion of the WMA, which has Six Mile Creek running through it, is mixed forest of pines and hardwoods.

While Peason Ridge WMA consistently produces deer with big racks, Smith said all the WMAs in his region have the potential to yield fine bucks.

Squirrel

West Bay WMA’s squirrel hunting continues its reign as the top squirrel producer in the Gulf Coastal Plains Western Region.

There is a popular squirrel-hunting area — Bay Gall — on the WMA, Smith said. It is similar to an upland swamp, where water oaks and other top mast producers are plentiful. That is where most of the hunters go and where most of the squirrels are harvested.

For example, Smith said, last season 609 squirrels came off West Bay WMA. The previous season, according to his report, there were 2,143 squirrels harvested there.

Rabbit

There is limited rabbit hunting on most of the WMAs in the Gulf Coastal Plains Western Region, Smith said, mostly because the areas are pine plantations, which basically aren’t favorable rabbit habitat.

The harvest rate fluctuates up and down, and much of the action occurs late in the season, he said.

Clear Creek and West Bay WMAs each had 57 rabbits come off their respective properties in 2013-14. The harvest was about 85 in 2012-13.

Gulf Coastal Plains Region-North

Go scout before the deer-hunting season on WMAs in the Gulf Coastal Plains North Region, especially at Jackson Bienville WMA.

That’s what veteran WMA biologist supervisor Jeff Johnson advised hunters about the upcoming season on any of his WMAs.

“Go take a look. The deer herd’s evenly distributed. Find whichever habitat you want to hunt — hardwood bottoms to piney woods — look for habitat that you prefer and go at it from there,” Johnson said.

Johnson keeps bowhunters in mind when discussing deer hunting prospects on WMAs. For sure, he said, nearly all of his WMAs are good deer hunting areas.

“There are options for folks who want to gun hunt more and options for those who prefer bow hunting more — some places with more access and some with less, and choices in habitat types,” he wrote in his report. “All of them have good populations of deer. It’s just a matter of a hunter deciding what type of habitat and style of hunting they prefer, and then putting in a little effort to check these places out and see which one fits them best.”

As for giving up heavier deer, Loggy Bayou WMA is one of those special areas, he said, as the gun season is fairly short. He pointed out that it isn’t a large area, either, so the deer on it have a chance to make it to older age classes.

Other productive bowhunting areas in the past have been Alexander State Forest, Bayou Pierre and Soda Lake, he said, noting the latter two are archery-only WMAs.

“The gun hunt and the primitive season that follows are scheduled to typically hit so there is some rut activity starting to occur,” Johnson said of Loggy Bayou WMA. “(A g)ood place to go for a gun hunt, and (an) even better place to go with a bow if getting a good buck with a bow is what someone is hoping for.

“Several of my other areas are known for producing really nice deer, as well. Any of these WMAs are capable if a hunter puts in the time to scout and has the patience to stick with it during hunting seasons.”

As for deer and their young on the ground, as of the third week of July Johnson hadn’t seen many fawns on Jackson Bienville WMA, which he ranked high on a list of productive deer hunting each season.

“I passed through Bodcau and Bayou Pierre, and saw several fawns,” he said.

Deer

The highest deer kill reported last season was on the Jackson Bienville WMA, where 320 deer were harvested, Johnson said. He expects the area to give up the most deer again this season.

But there is another very-productive options, he said.

“If Union gets a few more hunters, it can be up there,” Johnson said.

Bodcau WMA’s deer harvest last season was reported at 151 deer, while Camp Beauregard WMA checked in with a reported 139. The 2012-13 deer harvest numbers were 330 for Jackson Bienville WMA, 148 for Union WMA and 145 for Bodcau WMA.

Johnson said there are reasons Jackson Bienville WMA, which features hardwood creek bottoms to pine hills, gives up so many deer each season.

“Constant management of pine forests on this WMA provides perpetual natural disturbance that mimics nature and provides areas of good browse growth every year, as well as areas of significant escape cover,” he wrote. “Mix that in with the hardwood creek bottoms and you have an ideal place to consistently produce good numbers of deer.”

About Bodcau WMA, he wrote that it, too, has a wide range of habitats and food sources to go along with its vast size.

“Additionally, it has some areas that are tougher to access, but can be worth the work to get to, as those harder-to-access areas often receive lower hunting pressure,” Johnson reported. “It has a fairly high deer herd for this part of the state, and  (it)sometimes surprises me that more deer are not harvested off of Bodcau than what usually is.”

Camp Beauregard WMA, an area that draws well from nearby Alexandria, should be another preferred destination for successful deer hunters this season. After all, it did rank in the top three in deer harvests for 2013-14.

Squirrel

One of the top squirrel-hunting areas in the state has that distinction because of its habitat.

Bodcau WMA has a mix of bottomland mast-producing trees along Bodcau Bayou and its tributaries, as well as mixed pine/hardwood upland habitat, Johnson said.

“It’s probably the one with the most squirrel habitat of any of our WMAs (in the Gulf Coastal Plains North Region),” Johnson said.

And that habitat often pays off in the form of a squirrel or two — or a limit — for the pot.

In 2013-14, Bodcau WMA gave up 1,372 squirrels, followed by Jackson Bienville WMA at 1,191 tree rats and Alexander State Forest at 295.

The previous season, for comparison, Bodcau WMA gave up 1,393, followed by Jackson Bienville WMA at 1,352 and Camp Beauregard with 319.

Jackson Bienville WMA should be ripe for more productive squirrel hunting this season, he said.

“Although this area is primarily upland pine, there are significant drainages throughout the WMA. The hardwood timber along the major creeks, as well as the feeder creeks and upland drains, provide a good mix of mast-producing trees that provide good squirrel production,” he wrote.

Alexander State Forest WMA also is a productive choice.

“Alexander State Forest WMA was a good area for squirrels last year and should be again,” Johnson reported. “It, too, is a primarily upland area and pine forest, but it has several nice creeks within it that provide good squirrel opportunities.”

Johnson has said that most WMAs in his region with good hardwood habitat should have squirrels and provide “decent hunting.”

But for those who like hunting squirrels with their dogs, Bodcau and Union WMAs open up earlier for hunting squirrels with dogs, Johnson said. Whereas most other WMAs open the season with dogs in January, those areas allow it in early December.

“It’s a good chance to hunt squirrels in Bodcau and Union a little earlier with dogs,” Johnson said.

Rabbit

Rabbit hunters in this region usually fare best at either Loggy Bayou or Union WMAs.

“We get a limited number of rabbit hunters. We’ve got plenty of rabbits, just not many (hunters who) hunt public land. But the rabbits are there if someone wants to give it a shot,” Johnson said.

Those two WMAs swapped places the past two seasons as far as having the highest rabbit harvest. In 2013-14, Loggy Bayou WMA’s reported take was 108 rabbits while Union’s total numbered 79.

Two seasons ago, Union WMA had 97 and Loggy Bayou WMA checked in with 73. Bodcau WMA’s 2013-14 harvest was 79 and Elbow Slough WMA’s 2012-13 harvest was 35 (it opened for one month in February).

Johnson reported that Loggy Bayou WMA has been a consistent producer in the past and should continue to do so this year because it has plenty of food and plenty of cover. Union WMA, he wrote, was “really good” last season.

He pointed out there are many areas that were clear-cut over the past few years, and those sites have been replanted and are in prime shape for producing rabbits.

And Bodcau WMA, he wrote, has been a fairly consistent producer because it has a mix of habitat types, plus a significant block of natural prairie areas. Those areas provide good rabbit cover and good conditions for hunting rabbits, he wrote.

Coastal and Nongame Resources Division

While duck-hunting activity might get most of the attention on the WMAs along the coast of Louisiana, and deservedly so (see related story on hunting migratory birds on WMAs in this edition), there are coastal WMAs that offer great hunting for deer, squirrels and rabbits.

No one realizes that more than biologist Cassidy LeJeune, who pointed out that some of the best archery deer hunting in the state can be had on the Atchafalaya Delta WMA because ridges there support a sizable deer herd.

“When it comes to deer hunting on the coast, Atchafalaya Delta has and always will be one of the top spots,” he said.

He noted that during the bow-only season archery hunters kill 150 deer a season consistently and last season harvested 173, which is one deer per 15 hunter efforts. There were 2,520 hunter efforts during the season.

LeJeune noted there are other solid deer-hunting opportunities to be had on the coastal WMAs, namely at Salvador WMA and Pass-A-Loutre WMA. There has been consistent improvement in habitat conditions across the coast, particularly at Salvador WMA, he said.

Otherwise, rabbit-hunting interest and rabbit harvests are higher than squirrel hunting on the coast’s WMAs.

As July was about to turn to August, LeJeune was hopeful tropical weather wouldn’t threaten any of the coastal WMAs.

“We’ve been fortunate. We sure don’t need any more hurricanes,” he said.

About the only harsh climate event, he said, was the “abnormally cold” and prolonged winter in South Louisiana.

Deer

How popular is Atchafalaya WMA as a deer-hunting destination?

There were 2,520 hunting efforts and 173 deer harvested there compared to 209 hunter efforts and a reported eight deer harvested on Salvador WMA. Another 221 hunter efforts resulted in four deer killed on Pass-A-Loutre WMA, while one deer was killed in 62 hunting efforts at Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA. Nine hunter efforts failed to produce a single deer on Lake Boeuf WMA.

“There is a lot of interest” at Atchafalaya Delta WMA, LeJeune said.

Terrain features that appeal to a stable deer herd are found on islands with 4 feet of elevation, he said. The big island is always popular, he said.

A youth lottery hunt is the only deer hunting on Atchafalaya Delta WMA for two weekends in October.

And this area doesn’t produce the average marsh deer.

“Atchafalaya Delta WMA is the most-promising coastal WMA for an opportunity to bag a trophy deer,” LeJeune said. “Historically, this area has produced some of the larger deer harvested across coastal WMAs, and there is no evidence that this trend will change over time.”

How big did some of those deer get there? Last season there was a 172-pound 12-point buck with a 16 1/8-inch inside spread, a 150-pound 9-point with a 16-inch inside spread and a 150-pound 9-point buck with a 12 5/8-inch inside spread.

Salvador WMA also has been known to give up good-sized deer, LeJeune said.

Squirrel

Obviously, LeJeune said, squirrel habitat is at a premium, as most of the coastal WMAs are marsh environments.

“Pointe-aux-Chenes and Lake Boeuf WMAs are the only coastal WMAs that have significant populations of squirrels,” he reported. “Squirrel-hunting opportunity at Pointe-aux-Chenes is best (mainly at Point Farm, one of the leading areas in mitigation trees) due to past and present management activities by LDWF (tree planting projects, cutting of shooting lanes, etc.). Each year habitat conditions improve at Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA.”

But there are other options.

“Lake Boeuf is more of an inland WMA we manage,” he said. “It has the potential for being a spot to kill squirrels, as well.”

Squirrel hunters averaged a reported 1.4 squirrels per hunter effort last season at Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA. There was no harvest reported last season at Lake Boeuf WMA.

Rabbit

Habitat conditions are super and the rabbit populations are booming with the quiet tropical weather seasons experienced the past two years,” LeJeune said.

Most of the rabbits probably will come off Salvador WMA, he said, which had a “good” season last year. And abitat conditions are as good or better there than last year.

“We anticipate that the kill per effort may be higher due to high breeding production due to good habitat conditions,” the biologist said.

Salvador WMA’s rabbit harvest in 2013-14 totaled 2.1 rabbits per hunter effort, followed by Atchafalaya Delta WMA with a reported one rabbit per hunter effort and Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA with a reported 0.3 rabbit per hunter effort.

“Although Atchafalaya Delta WMA experienced lower hunter success than Salvador WMA, (the) outlook is favorable that hunters will do well during the 2014-15 season since the rabbit population on the WMA is usually very high,” LeJeune wrote in his report.

Hunting rabbits on the spoil islands is the best bet there, he said.

“Pass-a-Loutre is not an extremely popular rabbit-hunting destination due to its remoteness and accessibility,” he said. “However, it is a great place to pursue rabbits, and hunters that are willing to put in the effort can do well.”

About Don Shoopman 566 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.