The small buck tiptoed into the corner of the woods so quickly and quietly that the hunter in the Ol’ Man climbing tree stand 30 yards away almost didn’t notice him.
It was barely daylight, just legal shooting time. The buck sniffed the ground where some liquid C’Mere Deer attractant had been squirted, then slowly edged around the hunter, scooping up the occasional acorn from the forest floor.
The little buck was just the first of a parade of deer the hunter saw that morning before arrowing a large doe that walked along the exact same track the buck had taken earlier.
I was the hunter perched in that tree, and this exciting early November hunt took place on the Jackson County Waterfowl Management Area in northeast Alabama three years ago. I had not seriously bowhunted in a couple seasons, but my pal, Andy Beasley, talked me back into it.
He helped me get my gear ready and even scouted out the public land where we were hunting. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable hunts of that entire season for me — except for maybe the long drag to get the deer out.
That hunt perhaps illustrates the opportunity that is available on the state’s wildlife management areas scattered throughout North Alabama. Thousands and thousands of acres are available to hunters, all for the price of a $16 WMA hunting license.
It’s the cheapest hunting club — and the largest — you’ll ever have the opportunity to belong to. Once you break free from the idea that private ground offers far better hunting than public ground, you just may wish you’d gone public years earlier.
My friend Beasley grew up hunting in clubs and that continued well into adulthood for him. As good hunting leases got harder to find and prices went up — and as Andy matured as a hunter — he turned exclusively to archery. He still has some private ground he hunts, but public-land bowhunting is a big part of his game plan every season now.
Instead of finding public ground confining, he has found it liberating. Private hunting lands might be no more than a few hundred acres. Beasley likes the idea of having much bigger spaces to roam on the state’s network of WMAs. If he doesn’t like where he’s hunting, he picks up and finds a new place. That’s easy to do on a public ground where there might be 45,000 acres of land. The opportunities are seemingly endless for an enterprising hunter who doesn’t mind a little walking.
Beasley has had to make some equipment changes to get into this new form of hunting, but we’ll talk more about that later.
Thousands of acres are waiting for you, too, if you’re willing to do a little more work and a lot more bowhunting.
A TALE OF TWO SEASONS
If you spend much time on the WMAs, you may find the hunting to be a little crowded when bow season first opens in October. For the first month of the season, lots of people flock to these public lands.
But that changes once gun season opens. The typical WMA has a gun hunt every couple of weeks. But in between those hunts, the WMAs are nearly empty.
“From mid-November to the end of January, you can have a lot of these WMAs to yourself if you’re a bowhunter,” said Deer Studies Leader Chris Cook of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. “A lot of hunters have more than one WMA they visit and they like to travel around for the different gun hunts. They hang up their bows once gun season opens.”
Frank Allen, the manager of the Martin-Skyline WMA in Jackson County, said he sees very little bowhunting on his area from mid-November into January.
“You can have 45,000 acres to yourself if you bowhunt after gun season opens,” he agreed.
Still, it’s worth noting that DWFF statistics show that more deer are killed with archery gear on the WMAs in the first month than the rest of the season combined. That’s a function of the deer not being pressured yet and a lot of bowmen in the woods.
The northeastern part of Alabama is a hotbed of bowhunting activity.
“I don’t know why that is, but there has just always been a lot of interest in bowhunting in that corner of the state,” Cook said. “If you think about a lot of Alabama’s professional tournament archers, they come from this part of the state.”
Choccolocco WMA is the premier destination for archers in this neck of the woods. Last season, Choccolocco hunters put in 670 man-days of hunting pressure and bagged 86 whitetails. That’s an impressive 7.8 man-days per deer, the best harvest rate of any WMA in North Alabama.
Statistics collected by the DWFF show Choccolocco hunters took 22 deer in the first two weeks of the season, 25 in the second two weeks and 39 the rest of the season.
This tract covers 56,000 acres of rolling timber, with lots of hardwood ridges. There also are some pines that are heavily managed for timber production, so there are cutovers, thinned pines and the like.
Brandon Howell is the WMA manager and he said the area has a lot of mountain chestnut oaks that produce the big acorns.
“You’ve probably heard all your life that the deer won’t eat those acorns, but we had lots of deer on those last fall,” he said.
Howell planted 55 food plots on the WMA last year and revisited every one of them before the season ended. He saw evidence of deer use on every plot and it wasn’t hard to spot the main trails coming into the plots.
“Because of the terrain, a lot of our plots are close to the road,” he noted. “The biggest mistake I see our hunters making is setting up right on the food plots. If this were private land, that might be OK. But we have traffic on these roads, not just from hunters, but from other user groups.”
The old saying at Choccolocco is that the bucks on the WMA are ridge-runners. Howell said it’s true that deer use the ridges as corridors to travel to plots and other areas. He encourages hunters to work their way out onto the hardwood ridges running toward the plots.
“These food plots are diamonds,” he said. “But the deer use them after dark. That’s why you want to be farther out on the ridges, so you can intercept them traveling toward the plots.”
You might also find deer working the honeysuckle and other tender growth under the thinned pines, but it is a much harder movement pattern to try to decipher.
No discussion of northeast Alabama bowhunting is complete without mentioning the Martin-Skyline WMA. Last year, archers expended 1,095 man-days of effort and took 36 deer — 23 in the first two weeks of season, 10 in the second two weeks and only three for the rest of the season.
Manager Frank Allen said the best way to hunt the 45,490-acre area is to find three or four small places you want to hunt, and then learn as much as you can about them. It can be intimidating to look at such a vast tract. The best bet is to divide it into 200 or 300 acre plots and hunt them like they were small club leases.
The area has something for everyone — bottomlands, ridgetops, mountainsides, and even a working farm.
Allen has noticed that archers are more successful when there’s enough mast production to concentrate the deer. There was a total mast failure the year before last and the hunters really struggled to find deer.
It is a popular hunting area, so have more than one spot in mind if you visit, just in case someone beats you to where you wanted to go. I learned that the hard way one November morning a couple of years ago, when I went there with bowhunting a specific trail in mind. Two trucks were already at the parking space when I got there.
Skyline has a relatively new section of property — the Henshaw Cove tract in the Paint Rock Valley — that offers good hunting. But be forewarned that it’s a walk-in-only area and you have to cross the Paint Rock River to access the tract.
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