When the doe stopped in the opening between the thick pines, I wasted little time in centering the crosshairs and squeezing the trigger of the little 7mm-08 rifle.
The shot caught her just at the back of the shoulder, a little higher than I had planned, and she dropped like a stone. The season had started slow and I was proud to get one for the freezer.
My father had taken an even larger doe just a short distance away the afternoon before and I thought things were about to break for our little family clan of hunters. Instead, the season just sort of fizzled from then on.
It was like that in a lot of quarters last year, according to Alabama deer studies leader Chris Cook. He and the state’s other biologists from one corner of the state to another generally agree that last year was a below average year for Alabama deer hunting.
It started well with a decent bow season and beginning of gun season, Cook said, but the best hunting is usually in January and it never really got cranked last year. But, one upshot is that there were reports of more quality bucks being taken than usual in lots of places.
My father, brother and I constitute our inner circle of hunting. We can usually track what kind of season it is by what kind of luck we have on our little acreage in north Alabama. In a great season, the three of us will take 10 to 12 deer. An average year is around seven or eight. Last year, we took five.
Over many years of writing about deer hunting for Alabama Game & Fish, I’ve often noticed that how our season goes is a dead-on reflection of what the biologists see statewide.
The conundrum for us last year was simply what happened to the deer. My brother Mitch saw 10 or 12 bucks in one evening during bow season. Only one of those fell later to our band.
I saw a one buck several times during bow season, but didn’t get aggressive in hunting him. It turns out that you can’t really “save” one from bow season to hunt in gun season. Factors change and he might not be around later. You’re better off trying to strike while the iron is hot. I never saw him once gun season started.
Cook said our experience was what lots of hunters reported last year.
“The first part of the season was pretty good, about like normal,” he confirmed. “Then we had that slow period that we always have in December. But it never materialized just when you thought it would pick up in January. We don’t know what happened.”
For years and years, Alabama hunters have said truly cold weather was needed to make for a great rut and a super season. It was the coldest winter in years for most of the Cotton State last year.
“I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t too cold,” Cook said. “It may have slowed down movement instead of increasing it. A lot of people thought the conditions were perfect, but it never took off.”
Still, an average deer season in Alabama is better than a stellar season in lots of other places. The season is just a week or two in many states. Alabama hunters get 3 1/2 months to get after it, if you include bow season. And there’s usually an opportunity to harvest a deer or two even when the hunting is slow.
Factors like a big mast crop, hot weather, cold weather, rainy weather are just things Alabama hunters have to deal with. Conditions are seldom perfect. We as hunters have also done a good job of shooting does the last several years and keeping the herd in good condition.
The increased pressure on does just may mean that our deer — even our does — are more savvy now than they have ever been and it takes hunting smarter to be able to consistently bag deer in Alabama. Bill Gray — another of the state’s deer studies specialists — said there may also be some localized areas where the deer population has dropped somewhat.
“We have areas where we’ve done a pretty good job thinning the does,” he said. “On top of that, we may have underestimated the impact of coyote predation on fawns in those areas.”
Such areas are not widespread, but rather highly localized. He said it’s hard to make much impact on the coyote population by hunting and trapping, but hunters should do their part and shoot coyotes that happen by their stands in such areas.
Even more important is to manage for good chest high grasses and brush that is good habitat for fawns to hide.Even in a below average hunting year, Cook and Gray agreed the state’s deer population is stable and there are good numbers in just about all areas. It’s usually just that conditions are not conducive for those deer to be on their feet and on the move at the time hunters are on stand.
Randy Liles, a Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries district biologists, feels a lot of people have forgotten the basics of hunting. Too much hunting nowadays centers on shooting houses and food plots.
“We’ve forgotten how to read sign,” he pointed out, “especially subtle sign like browsing sign.”
The hunting can still be extraordinary for hunters willing to get in the thick woods with the deer, away from the fields, and who don’t mind spending some time patterning the deer.
Each year in this space, we talk about the wide availability of public land deer hunting through the state’s network of wildlife management areas. We usually point out tips and techniques that might help you to score on a public land deer.
This year, we’re taking a little different take and pointing you in the direction of three special WMA hunting opportunities you might want to consider in 2010-11.
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