Ice and snow may shut down much of the hunting and fishing in December and January in the northern states, but the action is just heating up in the Heart of Dixie this time of year.
You could argue that these are among the best months of the year for the Southern sportsman. The winter months are actually among the few times you can get outdoors in this region without having to battle mosquitoes, heat and humidity.
Here are some hunts and fishing trips you might want to try this winter.
THE BUDGET HUNT:
Bows On The River
Some of the best deer hunting in the state lies along the river systems in the lower half of the state.
If you don't mind hunting with a bow or crossbow after firearms season opens, you can access this region by hunting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bowhunting-only areas along the Alabama River.
I made this hunt a couple of years ago in late January and thoroughly enjoyed it. My pal Andy Beasley and I camped in the Corps of Engineers' campground at Millers Ferry, just outside of Camden.
We hunted Chilatchee Creek and the Dam Site. My buddy connected on a small buck the first morning while hunting the edge of a dried up slough. Such areas are often outstanding places to hunt, as they become deer travel corridors in years when the water is low.
One of Andy's strong suits is scouting from afar with technology and he'd already studied topographic maps, aerial photos and the like before we ever set foot on the land. He downloads maps from the Internet to his GPS and it's a real help in hunting a new place like this.
I saw outstanding sign — rubs, scrapes and heavily used trails — everywhere I hunted, but the weather and moon phase were off and I didn't get a deer.
There are some outstanding gated roads on these Corps lands that provide good access to the hunting areas. We used a deer cart to ferry in our stands, bows, and heavy winter clothing and to haul out my friend's deer.
There were other hunters in the woods the weekend we were there, even though it was bow-only areas, but no one walked in on us and there was plenty of room for everyone to hunt comfortably.
Camden is a hunter's dream town, with just enough amenities, such as grocery stores and restaurants, to make the trip easy and fun. We ate at a sandwich shop one night and at one of the local restaurants specializing in catfish and steaks another. The food was excellent at both and I've found a good evening meal like that always makes my out-of-town hunts more enjoyable.
The Corps campgrounds have hot showers that also help a hunter's feelings after a long day in the woods. Other amenities include electric and water hookups and picnic tables. The campground manager was an old-time deer hunter who offered all kinds of hunting tips, as well as some insight into the fabled fishing at Millers Ferry.
For more details on hunting the Alabama River and staying in the Corps campgrounds, visit www.al-lakes.sam.usace.army.mil/.
The Charity Hunts
For most such events, a three-day hunt will cost you what you might otherwise spend on dues for a moderately priced hunting club membership. But you just might find the hunting and the camp fellowship worth it.
A number of charity or school hunts take place across the Southern half of Alabama in December and January. The hunts are for a good cause, the fellowship is spectacular and the hunts offer access to private land that you might otherwise never be able to get on.
One of the oldest such hunts in Alabama is the Blue/Gray Hunt hosted by the Montgomery Lions Club and based out of the state's capitol city. This season's hunt is Jan. 13-15, 2012. The fee to participate is $850, which includes four hunts and some meals. Lodging is separate.
If the Lions Club hunt doesn't work for you, you might like to try one of the many other events offered as fundraisers by private schools in this region of the state.
Go online and search for Alabama charity hunts and you might be surprised at how many results you get. There's sure to be a hunt that strikes your fancy. Schools hosting hunts include Ashford Academy, Marion Academy, Lowndes Academy, Monroe Academy, Dixie Academy, the Lakeside School and Fort Dale Academy.
Some of those hunts also offer lodging as part of the price and usually a portion of the fee is tax deductible. The hunts usually occur during the rut on prime hunting land and they're said to be a great way to meet new friends who are also hunters.
THE DOWNRIGHT FUN:
Ducks At Their Peak
Alabama's population of wintering waterfowl peaks in January and it's the best part of the whole season to enjoy a duck hunt. The weather is a little colder and the water a little rougher by now, just enough so to separate the "die-hards" from the "wannabes."
Hunting ducks in Alabama can be as simple as wading a creek or slough for wood ducks. Or you can up the challenge and try to hunt a couple different ways in a single morning.
That's what my pal Adam Bunch and I did on Guntersville Lake last January.
We always seem to be battling a time constraint, usually because we're hunting during the week and I have to then get to work.
Our Saturday hunt last Jan. 15 was no different. Adam and his family were going to an Auburn basketball game and he had to be home by a certain time for everything to work out.
He came up with the plan, which was a little unorthodox. He planned to hit two totally different places and still be home by 10:30 a.m.
The first stop was the wood duck hole. He'd seen something like 100 in there a day or two earlier.
We got there and it took awhile for the action to get started, but the woodies absolutely swarmed us. Wood duck hunting is frequently a quick volley of shots at daylight and then it's over. But, these woodies came for the better part of two hours. They dipped and they darted and were really hard to hit.
If we could have shot better, we'd have gotten a full limit of six. As it was, we got three.
The woody hunt lasted longer than it should have and made us late for the second appointment of the day, a midmorning river hunt for divers. It was just as exciting as the wood duck hunt and we bagged four, but saw tons more. The divers were just ripping all around us. I saw more ducks in the air than I'd seen in awhile.
We thought knocking down four divers was pretty good in that we only had an hour to hunt. Adam got home on time as promised.
It's rare for something to work out like that when you're on a deadline. We shot from the time we got to the diver hole until the time we left.
"I've got to do something I haven't done in two years," I told Adam afterwards. "I've got to go buy some more duck shells."
Our ducks included the king of ducks on Lake Guntersville, the drake canvasback.
Charter boat captains in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores say the fall and winter months are the best of the year to catch bull redfish.
You can experience some pleasant days this time of year with low temperatures in the 40s and highs in the 60s and even 70s.
It's the time of year when people can go just off the beach and catch hard fighting redfish on light tackle. The good fishing for reds lasts through about March, so it's also possible to tap into this action a little later during spring break.
Some of the best fishing takes place just after cold fronts pass through, when northwest winds push baitfish away from the shore. That's the time redfish can be found right off the beach feeding on them. The redfish are often in large schools this time of year and you might see hundreds of them if you get into them.
If you don't find redfish just off the beach, the fabled Dixie Bar in Mobile Bay is also holding reds this time of year. Live mullet make good bait, as do live croakers and jigs that imitate baitfish.
You're not supposed to be able to catch rainbow trout in Alabama. The fish aren't native to the state.
But a put-and-take fishery for rainbows exists in the Sipsey Fork tailwater below Lewis Smith dam near Cullman. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stocks the trout from its Dale Hollow Fish Hatchery in Tennessee seven times a year. The Alabama Power Company supplements these stockings at times.
This year, Alabama Power plans to stock 1,600 pounds of trout in January, with the normal state and federal stocking of 3,000 to 3,500 trout planned for the third or fourth week in January.
Trout are released at the dam and slowly disperse downstream. The best fishing often occurs a week or two after a stocking, once the trout have had time to acclimate to their new home and scatter down the river.
"It's such a neat thing because this is the only place in Alabama where you can go fish for rainbow trout anytime you want," said Brandon Jackson of Riverside Fly Shop, the main tackle store near the trout fishery.
The easiest fishing is the three weeks right after new fish are put in the river. Most of the stocked rainbows are in the 9- to 16-inch range, but a few 18-inchers are sometimes included in the stocking.
Trout have shown up as far as 50 miles downstream, but the best fishing is within two miles of the dam.
For more information call Riverside Fly Shop at (256) 287-9582 or check their Web site at www.riversideflyshop.com.
Lots of crappie anglers wait until the dogwoods bloom before they hit the water, but they just may be missing out. Some of the best crappie fishing of the year occurs in the fall and winter.
Three places stand out in Alabama for crappie fishing, and we've already mentioned two of them in our hunting section — the Tennessee River and Millers Ferry.
The fishing can be cyclical on the Tennessee River, with some years better than others, but anglers in the know catch crappie all winter long from one end of this river to the other. Bank-bound anglers like to fish under bridges on riprap causeways. Some swear that night fishing is better, while others like to fish during the day, especially the early morning or late afternoon.
Other good places to find Tennessee River crappie, especially if you have a boat, are around docks and boathouses.
Millers Ferry is one of the best crappie lakes in the state, with lots of vegetation, both standing or blown-down timber, and lots of creek channels that all provide outstanding crappie habitat. The many creek channels are said to be among the most productive places for crappie both in winter's cold and summer's heat.
It might be possible to combine a duck hunting/crappie fishing trip on the Tennessee, or a bowhunting/crappie fishing trip at Millers Ferry this time of year, but you'd want to give yourself at least a week if you split your time that way.
Of course, no Alabama crappie fishing report is complete without mentioning Weiss Lake, the self-proclaimed Crappie Capital of the World. The lake continues to be an excellent producer of slabs.
State biologists are predicting another strong year for crappie on this 30,000-acre impoundment in Cherokee County.
Information about places to stay and eat adjacent to this lake is available from the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce Web site at www.cherokee-chamber.org.
You can also visit the Weiss Lake Crappie Guides Web site at www.weisslakecrappieguides.com for up to date fishing information.
From the Tennessee River in the north to Millers Ferry in the middle of the state, all the way to Gulf Shores in the south, there really is a lot of hunting and fishing opportunity in December and January. These trips are among the better ones you might consider when planning your winter fun this year.