Mississippi Magic

A lot of Louisiana hunters head across the state line and pay through the nose to chase Magnolia State deer. What’s the attraction? Here’s a look at what Mississippi has to offer.

Steve Anderson reached his land about mid afternoon, and hopped on his golf cart to head to a stand.

It was the first day of the 2003-04 bow season, and the skies were weeping — everything was perfect.

When the Prairieville hunter parked his cart, he grabbed his bow and began slipping to the stand site, but he was stopped short.

“I saw this buck walking into the field, right under my stand,” Anderson said.

The deer was casually feeding, oblivious to the hunter’s presence.

With only a moment’s contemplation, Anderson began slipping closer, keeping to the edge of the woods.

“I just kept taking a step, step, step,” he explained.

Finally, he was within 40 yards of the nice buck, and Anderson was unwilling to push his luck farther.

“I shot at him, he ducked, and I missed,” he recalled.

The deer, which sported an estimated 18-inch rack featuring 8 points, bounded off before slowing and melting into the woods.

“I got a real good look at it,” Anderson said.

Pursuit of that animal consumed the rest of Anderson’s archery season.

“I hunted that buck for the rest of the bow season, but never saw it,” he said.

On Dec. 19, Anderson was late rolling out of the sack.

“I slept in to let my wife out the front gate,” the Prairieville hunter said.

The end result was that Anderson didn’t leave the lodge until 7:30 a.m.

“I was going to hunt the power line, but when I got there one of our caretakers had parked his truck near the power line. I didn’t know what he was doing, so I headed to the back of the property,” he said.

He was slipping down a trail after parking his cart, and experienced deja vu.

“There were two deer standing right in a small food plot,” he said.

It was only a doe and yearling, but he was a mere 400 yards from where he had seen the big buck, and the circumstances were so similar to that early season run-in.

Anderson raised his rifle, scoping out the doe and considering taking the nanny. But he quickly dismissed the idea.

“I didn’t want to rock the woods,” he said. “The morning was too perfect, and I wanted to try and catch a buck.”

While Anderson admired the feeding deer, movement on the edge of the woods caught his eye.

The hunter swung his rifle to his shoulder and his heart stopped when he saw a beautiful crown of antlers.

Anderson inspected the rack long enough to ensure the buck wasn’t a young deer before moving the crosshairs into place and squeezing the trigger.

“Deer ran everywhere,” he said.

A few minutes later, Anderson was looking for blood, but came up empty.

“I shot and missed him,” he chuckled.

He refused to give up too easily, however, so he kept looking.

“I went like 30 minutes, and I’m still looking for the deer,” Anderson said.

While looking in the edges of the woods for a blood trail, sounds of movement over a nearby ridge grabbed his attention.

“I eased to the top of the ridge and look over it, and there’s the doe and yearling,” Anderson said. “Right behind it was the buck.

“He never left them.”

This time, Anderson took his time for his second shot at the deer.

This time he didn’t miss.

But he was astounded when he moved up on the downed deer — it was the same buck he had missed with his bow.

“I had figured it to be an 18-inch 8-point; it turned out to be a 19-inch 8-point,” Anderson said.

The buck scored 135 Boone & Crockett.

It’s this kind of hunting action, and the quality deer typified in Anderson’s story, that has drawn the Prairieville taxidermist to hunt in Mississippi.

“Being a taxidermist, I know where all these deer come from,” he explained.

So when he and buddy Ron Kellerher decided they would buy property together, Anderson pulled out a map and took a close look at where the majority of the big bucks moving through his shop were killed.

“You can draw an egg shape from St. Francisville up the Mississippi River almost to Vicksburg,” he said. “And it’s all within about 20 miles of the river.”

Antler growth on deer in this corridor has proved to be better throughout the year classes.

“The best bucks I take in per age class from this area are … 25 percent better,” Anderson said. “It’s proportionate all the way across the ages.”

The pair of hunters then began considering property values, and they quickly determined Louisiana property was out of the question.

“It differed from $5,000 an acre in St. Francisville to $2,000 an acre near Vicksburg,” he said.

With their sights set on securing Mississippi acreage, they began searching for a seller.

Soon they found just what they were looking for — 116 acres at the bargain-basement price of $1,060 an acre.

The tract of land, 20 minutes north of Natchez, was a mix of hardwoods and fields.

“It was about 70 percent hardwoods and 30 percent open land,” Anderson said.

That was seven years ago, and Anderson and Kellerher began immediately making habitat changes.

“Now it’s about 70 percent hardwoods, 20 percent planted pines and 10 percent fields,” Anderson said.

The pines were added to keep deer on the property.

“The pine thickets did just what they’re supposed to — give those mature bucks cover,” he said.

The deer population also has changed over the past seven years.

“When we bought the property, there were a lot of does, and we saw a lot of young bucks,” Anderson said.

The previous owners had simply followed state laws, so mountable bucks weren’t exactly common.

“They shot 25 deer off of it the year before (the land was purchased), and all but one buck was a 1 1/2-year-old,” Anderson said.

By gradually stepping up the expectations for harvesting bucks, Anderson’s and Kellerher’s little piece of Mississippi now provides quality hunting opportunities.

“It took about three years before we started seeing 3 1/2-year-old deer,” Anderson said.

Their rules were simple: Shoot three does for every buck killed.

“Last year we shot 33 does and 11 bucks,” he said.

That’s a lot of deer from such a small patch of woods, but the bucks shot there are now almost all mounters.

“We’ve killed four bucks that scored at least 140,” Anderson said.

Anderson and Kellerher are part of a growing number of Louisiana hunters who cross the state line into the Magnolia State to pursue deer, and their findings closely parallel state biologists’ assessment of their deer hunting opportunities.

“We have a very good deer population statewide,” said Larry Castle of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

Castle, the chief of the agency’s Wildlife division, pegged the total population at between 1.5 and 2 million deer, “depending upon fawn survival and recruitment.”

And tops among all of the Mississippi options are those lands tracking the Mississippi River.

“The Mississippi Delta and batture lands … surpass all other soil regions in the state,” Castle said.

The reasons all stem from the fertility of the land.

“It’s like in livestock: The more energy and protein you put into an animal, the better that animal will perform reproductive-wise and growth-wise,” Castle explained.

Well, the Delta lands are rich with high-energy food that allows deer to thrive in terms of numbers and individual growth.

The results are incredible.

Bucks reach an average of about 70 pounds in their first 6 months, and roughly double that within the next year.

At 2 1/2 years of age, the average buck pushes 170 pounds, and then growth rates slow a bit.

Bucks that reach 3 1/2 years of age average right at 190 pounds.

The 200-pound mark is hit in an average Delta buck’s fourth year.

Antler development mirrors this fantastic growth rate.

The average 1 1/2-year-old buck sports about four points.

In the next year, that average reaches seven, and some mass begins to form. The average circumference is 3 1/2 inches, with an average spread of right at 13 inches.

Eight points generally top a 3 1/2-year-old buck, while the average circumference reaches 4 inches.

The inside spread has now reached an average of 15 inches, with beam length stretching to 18 inches.

The following year, the average buck has truly matured.

Its rack will sport more than eight points, and the circumference of the antler bases will reach 4 1/2 inches.

Beam length tapes out at about 20 inches, and there is about 16 inches of air encompassed in the rack.

Growth rates for Delta Region does also are very good, with the average female growing from about 65 pounds at 6 months to upwards of 130 pounds at age 3.

But there are other great options, Castle said.

“The Black Belt region that stretches across the state, and even into Alabama, is a close second,” Castle said. “It also has superior soil quality, and systemically, that soil quality moves into the deer.”

This region, officially known as the Black Prairie Soil Resource Area, is actually split into two bands, one that stretches from just north of Waynesboro west-northwest to about Jackson and another that reaches from about McLeod through Starkville to the Tupelo/Oxford area.

The average 1 1/2-year-old buck weighs in at about 115 pounds, slightly less than those found along the Mississippi River.

A year later, the bucks will average about 140 pounds.

Three and a half years after birth, the average buck will reach 160 pounds.

A truly mature buck (4 1/2 years of age) in the region will reach an average of 170 pounds or so.

Antler growth in the Black Belt also lags just behind that in the Delta.

The average 1 1/2-year-old buck will sport a rack of four points.

At 2 1/2 years of age, this same buck’s rack will grow to include six points and a spread of about 11 inches. The circumference at the bases will be just more than 3 inches.

The buck still hasn’t reached eight points by its third year, but circumference has reached about 4 inches and the spread stretches more than 13 inches.

By 4 1/2 years of age, the buck wears eight points on a rack that measures more than 4 inches around at the bases, about 18 1/2 inches along the main beams and about 14 1/2 inches inside.

Next on the list is the thick loess (pronounced “lorse) lands, stretching from about Vicksburg to the Tennessee state line. This rich region hugs the bluff land along the eastern border of the Delta and ends to the east about Jackson.

“It produces large numbers of deer, and where there are not too many deer, it produces superior deer,” Castle said.

Does are very healthy, with average weights running more than 65 pounds for 6-month-olds to more than 125 pounds for 3 1/2-year-old nannies.

The average thick-loess yearling weighs in about 70 pounds, and bucks add another 60 pounds within the next year.

This average 1 1/2-year-old buck wears four points that measure about 2 1/2 inches in diameter.

Twelve months later, the deer has bulked up to about 160 pounds and added three more points. The spread has reached between 12 and 12 1/2 inches, and circumference has grown by an inch.

At 3 1/2 years, the average buck will be pushing 200 pounds. Antler growth includes an average of 8 points and more than 4 inches of circumference. Antler spread has moved into the 15-inch range.

The typical 4 1/2-year-old buck still has 8 points (the average is about 8 1/2 points), but now antler spread is moving into the 16-inch range and there’s plenty of mass with circumference averaging about 5 inches.

Deer in the Upper Coastal Plain, which comprises most of the northwestern portion of the state, produces a herd Castle classified as “generally good and healthy.”

That being said, the herd in this large portion of the state isn’t what would draw legions of hunters.

“There are localized spots that have been correctly managed, and there are superior deer in those areas,” Castle said.

The rest is prone to overpopulation.

“You end up with not high-quality deer there,” he said.

Doe weights are the first sign of a big difference between the higher-quality habitat and the Upper Coastal Plain.

The starting point of just under 60 pounds doesn’t seem to indicate a problem, but does only add about 45 pounds during the next three years.

“It’s not very productive deer range,” Castle said.

The average yearling buck begins with a roughly 10-pound disadvantage, but the disparate weights only grow from there.

At 1 1/2 years of age, Upper Coastal Plains bucks weigh in at only about 112 pounds.

Such a buck has still produced an average of four points, but circumference is slightly less than those bucks in the more-fertile areas of the state.

An average buck’s weight moves to about 135 pounds during the next 12 months — fully 25 pounds lighter than bucks of similar age in the thick loess region.

The average buck will sport 6 points, and circumference measures about 3 inches.

Antler spread is a paltry 10 1/2 to 11 inches.

By year three, bucks have barely broken the 150-pound mark.

Antler growth remains relatively slow, with an average of seven points, a circumference of about 3.7 inches and less than 13 inches in antler spread.

The 8-point mark isn’t reached until the deer’s fourth year. Circumference has reached 4 inches, but spread still is considerably narrow at only 14 to 15 1/2 inches.

Weight has changed only by about 10 pounds.

The least fertile area in the state is the Lower Coastal Plain, which includes all of the land from the Gulf of Mexico to the lower split of the Black Belt and from the Alabama state line to about Interstate 55.

Bucks in this least-desirable habitat range from about 105 pounds at age 1 1/2 to an average of 155 pounds at 4 1/2 years of age.

Antler growth is similarly stunted, with a 1 1/2-year-old buck averaging less than 4 inches and not breaking the 8-point mark until it hits 4 1/2 years of age.

Circumference measurements reflect that of Upper Coastal Plain deer, but spread is slightly less.

There are several other localized soil types that fall somewhere in the mix, but most of those match fairly closely those soil regions they border.

Scattered throughout the state are 44 wildlife management areas encompassing about 2 million acres of prime hunting land. There also are various national wildlife refuges and national forests providing even more opportunities.

The quality of deer hunting on these public areas varies as much as the soil type, Castle said.

“It’s very variable,” he explained.

These areas can provide hunting for those Louisianians who can afford stiff hunting-club fees, but there is a caveat: Non-residents aren’t allowed to shoot does.

For a map of the public areas, contact information for each WMA and the latest harvest information from the state-owned lands, see sidebars.

About Andy Crawford 863 Articles
Andy Crawford has spent nearly his entire career writing about and photographing Louisiana’s hunting and fishing community. While he has written for national publications, even spending four years as a senior writer for B.A.S.S., Crawford never strayed far from the pages of Louisiana Sportsman. Learn more about his work at www.AndyCrawford.Photography.