November 22, 2018
For many Alabama sportsmen, hunting season begins and ends with deer. Indeed, the Cotton State offers outstanding whitetail hunting with liberal limits and long seasons. However, sportsmen can hunt more than deer on nearly 750,000 acres of state wildlife management areas and many thousands more in national forests and federal refuges in habitat ranging from mountains to marshes.
Many people start hunting by following relatives or friends into the forests to look for squirrels. Any area with mature hardwood trees or forests of mixed hardwoods and pines probably holds some squirrels.
Find a spot with good mast-bearing trees and move as quietly as possible through the forest. Every few steps stop to look around and listen. Watch for anything unusual, such as odd shapes on tree trunks, moving branches or objects falling. A good pair of binoculars can help spot the masters of concealment hiding in nooks of big trees.
Periodically, find a fallen log, stump or comfortable tree base on which to sit quietly and listen. Listen for claws scratching bark, nut fragments hitting the leaves or ground, and squirrels barking. Some people use dogs to sniff out squirrels.
WMAs dominated by hardwoods hold abundant squirrel populations. For some of the best squirrel hunting, visit the Upper Delta WMA in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Mobile. Other good areas include Barbour, Black Warrior, David K. Nelson, Freedom Hills, James D. Martin-Skyline, Oakmulgee and William R. Ireland-Cahaba River WMAs.
“Nelson WMA is primarily bottomland hardwood habitat that offers particularly good hunting opportunities for gray squirrels,” said Chris Cook, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources biologist. “It also has some fox squirrels. Since the majority of the land is only accessible by boat, it doesn’t get the amount of pressure that some WMAs see.”
Before deer populations recovered a few decades ago, more people hunted rabbits than anything else in the state. The sport still attracts a dedicated fan base. Fervent rabbit hunters usually raise beagles and love running the hounds after cottontails. Although squirrel and rabbit seasons begin on the same day in September, many rabbit hunters don’t even let their dogs out until the frost hits the ground later in the winter.
“Huntable rabbit populations can be found throughout Alabama,” advised Jeff Makemson, ADCNR biologist. “They are more abundant in areas where suitable habitat of briar and plum thickets, cutovers, overgrown fencerows and brush piles exist to provide adequate cover. Rabbit populations are higher in areas of the state that are actively managing the forest and trapping to control predator populations. From what I’ve observed, the rabbit population in Alabama is improving.”
Rabbit hunting with dogs sounds easy. Just release the beagles and wait for them to jump a bunny. However, when dogs flush a rabbit, it can go anywhere and often disappears into a hole long before anyone ever sees it.
“A rabbit is hunted day and night from all kinds of predators on land and in the air,” explained James Sealy, Jr., rabbit hunter from Citronelle. “When I first started hunting rabbits, I underestimated them, too. They are constantly trying to avoid predators much more skilled than human hunters. They can see a person and disappear without the person ever knowing it. Hunting rabbits with beagles is not as simple as one might think, but it’s a lot of fun.”
With so many scaly, furry or feathered creatures hunting them, rabbits prefer to stick to the thickest briar patches, underbrush, honeysuckle thickets, bushes, log piles and other hiding places. Jumping a rabbit in thick cover never guarantees a shot, but patient hunters might see that cagy critter return to his home grounds.
“Many times, people make the mistake of listening to the dogs and trying to spot the rabbit right in front of the dogs, but the rabbit will be way out in front of the pack,” advised Larry Meeks, rabbit hunter from Huntsville. “When rabbit hunters hear the dogs heading toward them, they need to stop, keep quiet and start looking for the rabbit. People don’t really need to hide, but they need to stay still and quiet when waiting for that rabbit to return. Keep alert and watch for the rabbit. They are pretty sneaky.”
While most people hunt rabbits with dogs, lucky sportsmen might bag an occasional bunny without canine help. Some hunters team up and take turns smashing through thick cover while others wait on the edges watching for anything bolting out to escape. Squirrel and bird hunters occasionally kick up a rabbit and bag it as a bonus.
Some better areas for rabbit hunting include Choccolocco, Jackson County, Mulberry Fork, William R. Ireland-Cahaba River, Lowndes, Skyline and Swan Creek WMAs. Besides cottontails, sportsmen might also bag some big swamp rabbits in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta or other bottomlands, swamps or marshes in the state.
For most, the dove opener in September kicks off another fall afield since it traditionally opens before most other seasons. However, many dove hunters only venture out on opening day or weekend. As other seasons open, people often forget about dove hunting, but this swift little bird can provide exciting wing shooting into the winter as birds migrating from states farther north arrive.
“In Alabama, an average of 30,000 dove hunters harvest an average of 430,000 mourning doves annually,” said Seth Maddox, ADCNR biologist. “The dove population is good across the state.”
Extremely swift and agile fliers, doves can exceed 55 miles per hour and easily embarrass the best wing shots. With twisting, erratic flight patterns, doves can provide extremely challenging sport.
To hunt doves successfully, sportsmen must first find them. In the right spot, limits can come easy, as long as the ammunition holds out! Look for doves in open fields or semi-open grasslands punctuated by occasional trees, brush or fencerows. Also look for places where doves can drink water and swallow grit or tiny pieces of gravel to help them break down and digest seeds.
Most people hunt doves by waiting in cover along a timberline or field edge to intercept birds flying from their roosting to feeding or watering areas.
For people too impatient to wait for birds to fly over them, jumping doves might present an option. Hunters can walk through a brushy field or along forest edges and fencerows, hoping to flush birds from thick cover. Occasionally, startled doves may only fly short distances to alight in some tree or bush, so sportsmen can possibly flush them again.
In Alabama, sportsmen can also shoot Eurasian collared doves without limit all season long. In dove season, they don’t count in the daily bag. An exotic species native to south Asia, Eurasian collared doves grow larger than mourning doves and sport distinctive black collars around their necks.
“For mourning doves, I recommend hunting the Jackson County WMAs or Seven-Mile Island, Sam R. Murphy, Lowndes, Mulberry Fork, Barbour or Perdido WMA,” Maddox advised.
Bobwhite quail used to reign supreme across the South, but numbers dropped drastically in the past few decades. Not many places still hold good numbers of wild bobwhites, but the state wants to do something to change that by improving habitat for the majestic birds in some places.
“Quail populations are low statewide,” lamented Chuck Sykes, director of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “High wild quail densities are found only on large landholdings where direct management efforts are being routinely conducted. Quail hunting occurs statewide, but most public land opportunities are on wildlife management areas or national forests in central and south Alabama where habitat is more open and more farmland exists.”
During the 2017-18 season, the state opened a new public hunting area specifically for quail. Other types of hunting on the 7,000-acre Boggy Hollow WMA in Covington County near Andalusia will be allowed, but management will intensively focus on improving habitat for bobwhites. Part of the 83,000-acre Conecuh National Forest, Boggy Hollow WMA consists primarily of mature longleaf pine forests and open savannas.
“Boggy Hollow is mostly flat with some slightly rolling hills,” said Griff Johnson, biologist over the area. “Most of it is longleaf pine forest with understory primarily in predominantly grasses, gallberry and yaupon. As a new place, we didn’t have many hunters during the 2017-18 season, but the ones who did hunt saw birds. One hunter reported seeing birds each time he went and reported seeing about 25 birds one day.”
Besides Boggy Hollow, hunters might also bag a few wild quail on Blue Springs WMA, which includes 24,783 acres of Covington County or the 16,000-acre Geneva State Forest near Florala.
Sportsmen can also hunt some largely ignored birds and animals, as snipe and woodcock occur statewide. They look similar with small bodies and long bills used to probe soft mud for invertebrates. Both fly swiftly and erratically, making them extremely difficult to hit, but snipe prefer marshes and soggy fields while woodcock love thick bottomland hardwood forests.
“Besides doves, migratory game birds are very underutilized species of game within Alabama,” Maddox commented. “Although populations are stable and abundant habitat is available, we have very few woodcock, rail, gallinule or snipe hunters.”
Woodcock might appear in large concentrations today and disappear tomorrow. A hard cold front could push more birds into the state. Look for woodcock in the Jackson County WMAs, Lowndes, Oakmulgee, Blue Spring or Upper Delta WMAs. The best snipe hunting occurs in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Swan Creek, Mallard-Fox Creek, Seven-Mile Island and Lauderdale WMAs.
Sportsmen can also hunt common or purple gallinules and several rail species. Gallinules and king rails prefer freshwater marshes and reedy lake shorelines. Clapper rails like salt marshes like the ones found around Mobile Bay and the Alabama coast. Rails and gallinules won’t come to calls or decoys, so hunters need to go to them, either in small boats or by walking wet grasslands.
In Alabama, people can also shoot beavers, bobcats, coyotes, feral pigs, foxes, groundhogs, nutria, opossums and raccoons all year long without limit on private lands. For wingshooters, besides Eurasian collared doves, people can shoot crows, English sparrows, starlings and pigeons. Some WMAs set different seasons and impose different regulations so always check what’s legal before hunting anything to stay out of trouble this season.
Try A Cast & Blast
Sometimes, sportsmen can combine different types of hunting or even take a “cast and blast” experience, combining fishing with looking for game.
One of the best places in Alabama to do a cast and blast is the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, which is a labyrinth of streams, swamps, lakes and marshes in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Fed by the Mobile and Tensaw rivers plus numerous tributaries, the delta wetland transitions from upland forests to bottomlands, cypress swamps and tidal marshes at the north end of Mobile Bay.
The more forested Upper Delta WMA covers 42,451 acres near Stockton, a good place to hunt squirrels. The marshy 51,040-acre Mobile-Tensaw Delta/W. L. Holland WMA offers good opportunities to bag ducks, snipe, rails and gallinules.
While paddling on any of the numerous streams in the delta, folks can cast for bass, bream, crappie or other fish while looking for squirrels or other game. In the lower delta, sportsmen might also catch redfish or other salty species at the same time while hunting gallinules, snipe or ducks. At any time, someone might spot a feral hog anywhere in the delta.