The 2009-10 deer season is the best of times and the worst of times for Alabama’s many whitetail hunters.
The tough part of being an Alabama deer hunter is that there are always factors outside the sportsman’s control that seem to dominate how the season turns out. It can be warm weather, wet weather, drought, too much mast, not enough mast, and the list goes on. On top of that, the best hunting areas always seem to be locked up by exclusive, expensive hunting clubs.
But then there’s the great part of being a Bama deer hunter. Our deer herd continues to thrive. Whitetails can be found virtually everywhere. If you live in the suburbs and have three or four acres of woods, chances are you’ve got deer on your place. Our season starts Oct. 15 and runs to Jan. 31. We’re allowed three bucks and an unlimited number of does. And we’ve got hundreds of thousands of acres of public land just sitting there for the adventurous sportsman to access.
Overall, the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to chasing whitetails in the Cotton State.
Perhaps the best place to start in picking a place to hunt is to look at last season and the season before. Last year was an “average” season for Alabama’s deer hunters, the biologists for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries said. But that’s a blessing when you consider how hard the hunting was the season before that.
In 2007-08, the woods in the northern half of the state suffered a late freeze that wiped out a great deal of the mast crop. Then in late summer, temperatures hit the 100s during a drought and that caused an outbreak of EHD in lots of places around the state, with widespread reports of deer deaths.
The hunting consequently was very difficult and the harvest was off all around the state.
“Hunters took about 342,000 deer that year,” said Chris Cook, one of the DWFF deer studies leaders. “It was as low a harvest as we’d had since 1994-95.”
The harvest typically runs between 400,000 and 450,000 deer in Alabama, and Cook said the numbers were closer to that for 2008-09. Final statistics on the statewide harvest estimate were still being compiled as this went to press, but Cook said it was a lot stronger last year.
Just from judging by the harvest on the state’s network of wildlife management areas, the increase could be seen.
“The man-days of hunting effort weren’t much different from the previous year, but the harvest was up,” Cook said.
At least one wildlife manager looks for that rebound to continue this season. That’s Ron Eakes, the district biologist for the northwestern corner of the state.
“I believe we had a lot of deer sneak through last year,” he said. “We had an unbelievable mast crop and the deer didn’t have to move much to feed. In our district, we had some rainy weather on weekends that kept some hunters from getting out. I believe those factors together caused a few more deer to make it through the season and the plentiful food meant they came through in great shape.”
Tips From The Pros
The DWFF district biologists spend a great deal of time in the field every year in their work and most of them hunt. They are in every sense of the word professional outdoorsmen.
They also work the check-in stations on the various WMA hunts and see the traits of successful hunters. They’ve got plenty of tips to help you be a more successful whitetail hunter, if you’ll take their advice.
Bill Gray, the other DWFF deer studies leader, encourages hunters to use trail cameras as a guide to help them hunt. He had an eye-opening experience with them during his own hunting last season.
He’s part of a hunting club that controls 1,200 acres. The club has three ridges that come together in one place in an area consisting of 12-year-old pines. Gray found a scrape where the three ridges met and set up a trail camera there on Dec. 30. He went back and pulled it on Jan. 25 and had about 250 pictures in his camera, including shots of a 140-inch 8-point and an even bigger 10-point.
This is a thick, thick area that people rarely venture into. Some of the buck pictures were at midday. Gray planned to hunt the spot the last four days of the season, but he missed one day.
“You know what happened,” Gray said. “I had left my camera and I had a picture of the big one at 12:30 that day.”
He didn’t take any of the bucks, but the lesson is clear. The thick woods are where you want to be for good opportunities and the midday period is an overlooked gem.
“The deer are there and they can be frustrating to hunt,” Gray said. “But that’s what makes it so magical too.”
Chris Cook’s tip for hunters is to spend some time learning the WMAs. The most successful hunters every year at the checking stations are guys who put in time scouting and then hunt the WMAs year after year after year.
“They get the most out of their $16 WMA permit,” he said.
Randy Liles, the district biologist in northeast Alabama, has a couple of tips for private landowners who might be trying to manage their land on a shoestring budget during the soft economy.
“You can save some money on your plots by using a mixture of wheat and redtop clover,” he said. “For the money, it’s about the most effective thing you can plant. But you can do more for your habitat by striking a match at the right time of year and under the right conditions than you can do with anything you plant.”
If you do add controlled burning to your arsenal of wildlife management tools, be sure to contact the state foresters or DWFF personnel to make sure what you have in mind goes along with accepted practices.
With those things being said, let’s take a look at some places around Alabama that should offer topnotch hunting this year:
The southeast corner of the state in the DWFF’s District 6 is made up of the counties of Butler, Covington, Crenshaw, Pike, Coffee, Geneva, Barbour, Dale, Henry and Houston. Bill Gray is the district’s supervising biologist.
This is one of the state’s super regions for whitetails. It boasts of not one, but two of Alabama’s top-ranked WMAs for whitetails — No. 1 Blue Springs and No. 6 Barbour.
Hunters took an incredible 528 deer on Blue Spring last year. Every gun hunt on the area is either-sex, and it’s one of the rare public areas that hosts stalk hunts and dog hunts for deer.
Stalk gun hunters took 183 deer from the tract last year, while dog hunters killed 175. Archers accounted for another 126, and blackpowder hunters got 44.
“They have two, two-day dog hunts and anyone can get in on the action,” Gray said. “Some groups appreciate having extra standers and some don’t.”
Barbour also produces many deer every year, even though it’s managed under quality deer rules requiring a buck to at least have three points on one side to be considered legal. The January hunts tend to produce best on Barbour, but Gray thinks the real sleeper hunt is the primitive weapons hunt that is held before rifle season starts.
“The deer haven’t been messed with much and it’s a good time to be in the woods,” he said.
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