While overall deer harvest was down in Alabama last year, it was a good year for quality bucks in just about every area of the state.
The three-buck season limit is thought to be a big reason for the improvement in buck size and rack quality. For years and years, Alabama hunters could legally kill a buck a day over a season that started in October and stretched to the end of January. That changed a few seasons back when the new tighter per season limit was imposed.
It’s widely thought that lots more hunters are passing up spikes and 4-pointers as a result, meaning more bucks are making it to the age to have a nice rack of antlers.
Chris Cook, the state’s deer studies leader, said he didn’t hear of a lot of top-end giant bucks being taken last year, but quality was evident from one end of the state to the other.
“We heard from several hunters in different parts of the state who said it was the best year they’d ever had for bucks,” he said. “Typically, the more deer we have killed in the state, the more quality bucks we have. This was a little different since the overall kill was down.”
Those same areas that have been the best producers of quality bucks year-in and year-out continued to be good producers last year and they’ll likely be the top areas again this year.
Cook said they include the Black Belt counties in the middle portion of the state, along with the northwestern counties stretching from Lamar and Marion on the Mississippi state line to the Bankhead National Forest. In Northeast Alabama, Jackson and Madison continue to be good counties, while top counties in the far south include Wilcox, Clarke and Barbour.
The chart accompanying this story breaks down the public land buck harvest by management area. Top areas include Oakmulgee, Blue Spring, Freedom Hills, Scotch and Barbour. Those top five WMAs offer convenient access to hunters regardless of the area of the state in which they live.
As noted in Part 1 of the outlook in last month’s edition, last season was an unusual year. The hunting was pretty good early and there was another peak just before Christmas.
“But that was as good as it got,” Chris Cook said. “Just when we thought it was going to get really good in January, nothing happened.”
There was bad weather — extreme cold, plus some rainy weekends — that hurt hunter participation later in the season.
BE A DEER MANAGER
Interest in deer management in Alabama continues to skyrocket, making deer hunting nearly a year-round sport in the Cotton State.
“A lot of folks are serious about management,” Cook said. They’re embracing every tool available — food plots, selective harvest of bucks, thinning of doe populations, prescribed fire and harvesting timber.”
Ron Eakes, the District 1 wildlife biologist in northwest Alabama, said public land hunters have to remember that they’re part of the management team too, when it comes to hunting on the state’s WMAs.
“We see some hunters who say, ‘We’re here to hunt big bucks,’ and they don’t harvest does,” he said. “It’s very important for them to remember to take does too on our WMAs. It is one reason our WMA hunting for bucks is improving. They have to shoot the does. They’re our tools for that aspect of the management. If they don’t do it, it is not going to get done.”
According to Eakes, the last thing hunters should want is a lop-sided sex ratio.
“You’re not going to see the buck sign in the woods if we get too many does,” he explained. “You’re not going to see bucks moving as much. If you don’t keep the numbers in check, the forage base can be damaged and that’s another piece of the pie for management.”
He added that the two most important factors in growing big bucks is to let them get some age and to have good forage for them to eat as they’re growing older.
HOW TO KILL A BUCK
If killing a bragging-size buck is your goal, there are periods of the season that offer a distinct advantage for you.
The early bow season starting Oct. 15 and the muzzleloader season starting Nov. 15 are excellent times to be afield. Generally speaking, the deer haven’t been disturbed yet and it’s an outstanding time to bag a buck on a natural feed pattern.
Acorns should be hitting the ground this time of year. Look for pawed up leaves, popped acorn caps and deer droppings as the signs pointing to the hottest oaks. If the feed trees are in a thicket, it is so much the better for buck hunting. It’s entirely possible to find rubs and scrapes in such areas if a buck is using them regularly.
Some of the sign no doubt will be made at night, but it’s a confidence booster to hunt a feed pattern and know there are bucks in the vicinity, rather than just deer. It’s very important to enter feed thickets as stealthily as possible. The buck could be bedded not too far away and any unnecessary racket will alert him to your presence.
While many hardcore buck hunters prefer feed trees in thickets as high percentage stands in the early season, green fields can be hot tickets too. That’s especially true if there are oaks dropping acorns in the edge of the field itself.Some deer pros contend that fertilizer running off from the fields makes such acorns the sweetest around and an irresistible treat to the deer.
Afternoon hunts tend to be most productive on these early season patterns, but morning hunts in the woods can produce too.
The rut is the other period buck hunters don’t want to miss. There are pockets with November and December ruts in Alabama, but most of the state has a mid to late January rut. This is a time when bucks are on their feet looking for does.
Lots of hunters like to hunt this time of year in locations where they can see a long way and cover a big territory with a rifle. Cutovers in the early stages of regrowth offer both cover and food for whitetails, but they’re easy to see down into from a treestand. They’re outstanding places to watch for cruising bucks.
Field edges, power line cuts, overgrown fields and the like offer the same advantage. Look for rubs, scrapes and big tracks to know that you’re in an area that bucks are using.
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