By Otha Barham
The Meridian Star
Deer can be found throughout the nation, but there is no place like Mississippi for hunting them. It has been reported that Mississippi has more deer per square mile than any other state. Mississippi deer hunts are the most cherished in my bank of deer hunting memories.
Whitetail deer have spread north and west, even into traditional mule deer territory. Many hunters who grew up stalking the larger mule deer with heavier antlers and that bouncing gait are beginning to opt for hunting the sleeker more cunning whitetail, even where open seasons last less than a week.
I have hunted deer in seven states, some country very different from my native Mississippi. Hunting tactics and customs vary in the different areas. But the striking differences lie in the geography. A running whitetail in western Maryland or Pennsylvania thrashes oak leaves as he flees, and the thrill of that sound recalls Mississippi hunts. But in place of briar thickets and pine trees, there are rocks. Make that boulders. These emerge from the brown leaves of fall like giant, gray mushrooms and provide an attractive atmosphere for the hunt. The colorful deer that live there have darker faces with tufts of light chocolate hair at the bases of their antlers. But when I hunt them, I long for the sound of a December wind sifting through towering pines.
In the Texas hill country and the brush country to the south, whitetails move silently like tan ghosts through the pale green mesquite brush and prickly pear patches. The only noise of their movements is the occasional rock that is dislodged by their hooves.
These deer are thinner than their Mississippi cousins, even rutting bucks sporting smaller necks. But their antlers are impressive, due to abundant minerals in Texas soils. I enjoy hunting them, but when I am doing it, a Mississippi forest floor covered with oak leaves often surfaces from my memory.
Whitetails in Wisconsin, Michigan and states of like weather, grow to enormous size. The heavy ones that carry fat and body size necessary to live through the freezing winters have survived to pass on genes that ensure large offspring. These huge deer are worthy prey, but nowhere in their homeland can you listen to a Walker or redbone or bluetick or black and tan hound sing the trailing song that thrills hound men and women in Mississippi.
The western whitetail lives in sparse cover, provided mostly by cottonwood trees lining the streams and wheat fields or scrubby patches of brush that challenges this woodland animal to learn exceptional hiding skills. Light hunting pressure on the initial low populations resulted in some huge whitetail bucks emerging. Nowadays hunters travel long distances and compete in drawings to hunt these big trophy bucks. But there are no juicy persimmons or white oak acorns or honeysuckle vines to ensure the deer’s wanderings.
And so I find myself most satisfied when I am in Mississippi woods. As I wait, my memory replays the days when distant cries of the hounds brought crashing footfalls to a carpet of dry leaves and the concurrent snapping of pine limbs by antlers.
Ah yes the memories; the running buck I dropped at 150 yards, his sleek body floating gracefully in a sea of that gleaming, golden grass we call broom sage in Mississippi; my brother taking his first buck ahead of hounds, a wide-beamed trophy that launched a lifetime of deer hunting; the time I moved quietly down a pine straw covered log road toward the mournful cries of a single black and tan hound and came face to face with the biggest red fox I have ever seen. I hid nearby and watched the old hound pass by on the track that he had followed all night long.
It is the memories that bring me back again and again to deer hunts in Mississippi. I want to hear measured steps approaching in bone dry leaves as I wait in a white oak flat. I want to find pine and sassafras saplings rubbed bare of their fragrant bark near a fresh scrape beneath his signpost, a pin oak limb he snapped with his teeth. I want the damp air from the swamp to drift in with the evening fog as I stroke the warm coat of a buck that left his day bed five minutes too early.
These wishes attach me permanently to deer hunting in Mississippi. And they emerge to sustain me from their places in my memory.