Dr. Sam Polles retires from MDWFP


As the longest-serving executive director of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP), Dr. Sam Polles and his team of 600 to 1,000 dedicated people (including seasonal workers) in all 82 counties in Mississippi have worked tirelessly to bring residents the best outdoor programs and facilities available anywhere. 

With his retirement this past February, Polles looks back after nearly three decades with pride and optimism about the accomplishments of the MDWFP staff and the opportunities to continue that trend into the future.   

“MDWFP is one of a very few agencies that touches the lives of citizens across this state every single day,” Polles said. “Whether they’re hunters, anglers, or outdoor enthusiasts or not, this agency directly or indirectly touches the lives of all Mississippians in some way. And while our primary mission is to provide quality outdoor recreational opportunities for residents and visitors of Mississippi, we are also heavily involved in research, education, and public safety.”

Since he was invited to interview with then-Gov. Kirk Fordice for this position in 1992, Polles has served as executive director under the leadership of five governors.

Long before Polles took the reins of the MDWFP, he was already a hard worker. By age 12, he was sweeping and mopping floors, washing dishes and cooking on a flat iron griddle at the Clarksdale restaurant owned and run by three generations of his family over a 60-year period.  It was here that he learned from everyday experience what was expected to get the job done right and on time.  

And it was during those years that he was introduced to the outdoor pursuits of hunting and fishing, thanks to his extended family.  

“My dad worked 17 hours a day at the restaurant, from 5 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, so my grandfather would take me out quail hunting, and my uncle John would take me out fishing and hunting,” he said. “I always enjoyed it and I was grateful they could be my first mentors for teaching me about hunting and fishing.”     

After graduating from Clarksdale High School, Polles continued his education at then Delta State College in pre-med/pre-dental studies, then to Mississippi State University, where he earned both a master’s and doctoral degree. From there he went on to hold positions with the University of Georgia’s extension and research facility; the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Stoneville, Miss.; and the Bass Pecan Company, a multi-million-dollar business with holdings in oil, gas, orchard, and nursery operations. He also managed, and eventually held part ownership of the Long Leaf Plantation and Hunting Preserve near Hattiesburg, followed by consultant work with interests in Georgia.    

His next career move would prove to be his best fit. 

“I could have never imagined in 1992 that this opportunity would evolve into a life’s calling that would endure for nearly three decades,” Polles said. “During this time, I have been blessed to work with one of the most capable, committed, and talented teams of professional public servants found anywhere, at any level of government. The men and women of this Department are often not appreciated for their tireless efforts, but they remain steadfast in their commitment to preserve Mississippi’s rich and historic conservation heritage for generations to come.”

Polles is quick to point out the strong economic impact the agency has on Mississippi. 

“Outdoor recreation is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” he said. “Our state parks, state lakes, and wildlife management areas draw locals and tourists from all over the country, producing jobs for these communities all over Mississippi.”     

Polles also praised the professionalism of the MDWFP’s law enforcement bureau, made up of men and women whose duties cover far more than those of game wardens.  

These bureau employees are among the state’s first responders during natural disasters and state emergencies, and they are “highly trained” and equipped professionals with the statutory authority to enforce not only the conservation and natural resources laws, but state and federal laws as well.  

The MDWFP also works with other state conservation agencies to create awareness and education for Mississippi’s young people about natural resource conservation programs, hoping to catch their attention and build their interest in a lifetime of outdoor pursuits.    

These efforts include programs conducted by the Museum of Natural Science, the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery and Education Center, Archery in Schools, and a growing competitive clay shooting skills program for high school and college students, to name a few. The agency also sponsors fishing rodeos, hunter education programs, and many other events. 

Now that he has stepped down from his day-to-day duties at the MDWFP, the former director is settling into a new role as he enjoys time with his family. 

Polles and his wife Mary Margaret, both natives of the Mississippi Delta, are celebrating their 55th anniversary this June. They are the parents of three sons, and grandparents to seven grandsons, ranging in age from 3 to 27. He and Mary Margaret now live in Lake Caroline in Madison County. 

“I want to spend more time with my grandchildren and travel a bit,” he said. “Yellowstone National Park is on my bucket list, and overseas, I want to see the Greek island of Skopelos, where my grandparents on my father’s side were from. The island is also known for being the location the movie Mamma Mia! was filmed.”  

He also plans to enjoy his favorite outdoor activities of duck and turkey hunting with his sons and grandsons. 

“I have many great memories of enjoying these sports with my sons as they were growing up,” he said. “And now, I love watching my grandkids playing sports and being in the outdoors with them.”     

Polles is proud of the accomplishments the MDWFP achieved during his tenure, and he is confident the agency will continue to flourish. 

“The MDWFP’s mission continues to be relevant,” he said. “We have made many improvements, we continue to look for new revenue sources through grants and other sources, and the parks continue to be funded. We have a good marketing staff that continues to promote our assets. The agency is on the right track.”

Ultimately, bringing children and families back outdoors has always been the goal. 

“In the past you grew up being introduced to outdoor activities like hunting and fishing by your father or grandfather or a family mentor, Polles said. “Now children and parents are more engaged indoors. The activities that our agency promotes encourage families to spend more time outdoors and enjoy the resources Mississippi offers. I’m proud of that.”