April 14, 2023
By Clifford Neames
The fertile soil along the Mississippi River produces some of the best whitetail hunting in the country. Th e giant waterway drains more than a million square miles, over an eighth of the U.S.’ land mass.
All that water, and much of what it holds, ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. But the best of what the water carries is left behind during a flood. And border lands between Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana benefit from what the river deposits as it recedes. The Batture Region has the perfect ingredients for top-quality whitetail habitat. The Mississippi Batture lies within the Delta and is comprised of land adjacent to the river that’s not protected by the levee. The soil, genetics and special habitat produce huge antlers and heavy-bodied deer each year. Th e river contributes to this remarkable place. But the river also takes a toll.
The Delta's Challenges
Winter rains and snow melt from the north swell the river, frequently causing it to surge beyond its banks during late winter and early spring. Water levels can rise and fall many feet during a season, causing flooding that lasts for months. In some years, this happens more than once.
The flood waters revitalize the land, as they have since the beginning of time. However, they also force animals to relocate, kill off necessary browse and make accessing a property difficult. Th e longer a flood lasts, the worse the problem is it creates. Water comes in, and water goes out. This cycle is a series of plusses and minuses.
Whitetails and water are a natural combination. If you hunt near water, you already know that wet conditions don’t bother deer. They will move through shallow water regularly and swim the deeper stuff without issues. They are even frequently seen crossing the Mississippi River.
When floods come, the deer move to higher ground. In this case, the nearby Loess Hills at the edge of the river are their first choice. That is a great short-term fix, but it creates a trap. Too many hungry deer in too small of an area can lead to a food shortage. Supplemental feeding is very expensive, labor intensive and raises the deer density even more. It is not a viable solution.
Bigger problems arise when high water remains for long periods. Whitetails are resourceful, and they can continue to move, but they may be too weak to handle a long swim to higher ground. And young fawns are the most vulnerable of the herd in current. This forced migration must be considered in a management plan on a property in this Delta region. A property flooded during the fawn drop could lead to catastrophic losses within an entire age class. Older deer are lost, too. There is no best-case scenario when the water arrives.
So, managing properties in this region requires great flexibility, dedication and patience. If you want more big bucks in a flood zone, you will have to work for them! Let’s study how one property in Mississippi has successfully been managed in these conditions despite Mother Nature’s challenges.
Older hardwood trees dominated the property and shaded out the understory. Select cutting and thinning timbered areas to aid new growth was the first leg of the plan. Oaks and other mast producing trees were favored, and competing trees were taken out to increase native forage and add areas for food plots and new roads.
Although certain trees provide food, they are less nutritionally valuable than food plots, according to Chris. Deer will hammer the acorns, but then they are gone. Good browse and food plots that have forage reaching peak nutrition at different times are much more valuable. And they can provide quality, year-round nutrition. Opening the canopy also allows more sunlight to reach the ground, and it encourages more growth of dewberry, briars and other natural browse.
A river’s flow carries everything downstream, some of those things are good and others are bad. High water just intensifies this process. This natural event flushes and dilutes toxins. It also creates a giant mix of good stuff carried along the way. The fine mix of nutrients provided during persistent flooding is a great benefit to the land. As water slows down, it leaves plenty of sediment behind, increasing levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and silicon in soil. This can decrease or eliminate the need for additional fertilizer and PH adjustment. And money not spent on fertilizer and lime can be invested into other parts of a management plan. On a large property, that can add up to thousands of dollars.
Flooding removes any chance of successful spring and summer plots. So, planting perennials is almost always wasted time and money. Fall and winter plantings of annuals are the whole game. So, the Swamp Donkey team decided to plant a mixture that offers plenty of quality browse during the property’s dry period. The mixture Wyatt plants includes wheat, oats, rye, winter peas, rape and clover. And if there is no flood, the clover will be available later in the year. Over 300 acres of food plots were put in. The decision to include this many food plots was a major part of the management plan.
The hard clay bed along the river provides a good base for roads, which high water isn’t able to degrade. Adding a solid road system made accessing remote areas of the property easier when transporting equipment and prepping hunting areas. Good roads also made accessing stand locations and retrieving game much easier. Once they were established, they required little maintenance.
Managing the Herd
Managing the deer herd properly was more complicated than completing the habitat improvements. Direct observations and a trail camera census gave the crew a rough idea of how many deer lived on the property. With that information, the Swamp Donkey crew planned to reduce the deer herd.
Flooding makes a long-term specific management plan impractical, because it adversely affects the population during each event. The amount of loss from a flood is very hard to calculate in advance, and a bad estimate can have long term affects. After each year, there is a need to evaluate change and set new management goals. During the first two hunting seasons, the crew’s goal was to reduce the number of does. So, they didn’t shoot any trophy bucks. This allowed more deer to move up in each age class.
The effectiveness of culling to manipulate a population’s genetics is debatable. However, removing a buck with inferior antlers, while abiding by some pre-set limitations, still makes sense. The goal is to decrease competition for food, which allows for the remaining deer to receive more nutrients. The desired result is heavier and healthier individual animals. So, removing low-quality bucks leaves more resources for potential trophy bucks, according to Chris.
The criteria for a cull buck to be taken on Swamp Donkey Properties was set at a 3 1/2-year-old with less than eight points, or a 4 1/2-year-old scoring under 125 inches B&C. Any 5 1/2-year-old scoring less than 140 inches could also be shot. No bucks under 3 1/2 years old were taken on the property. The results after the first two years of management showed promise, proving to the Swamp Donkey team that they were on the right track.
The original plan for the property was for it to be a place for friends and relatives to hunt. But Wyatt soon realized they would need more hunters to help manage the property effectively. So, Wyatt decided to allow a limited number of paid hunters to come to Swamp Donkey beginning in 2021. To ensure that only the right deer are taken, each hunter has a guide in the stand with them while hunting. This strategy has proven highly effective and has produced some whopper whitetails, according to Wyatt.
Now, after just six years of practicing the management program, there are many bucks carrying over 150 inches of antler on the property.
If you own or manage a hunting property that experiences regular flooding, you might want to consider adopting a similar management plan. The positive results won’t appear overnight, but when they do, all the work will be worth it.