Alabama's Other Hunting
September 28, 2010
Deer and turkeys may get all the publicity, but the Yellowhammer State teems with smaller game. Let's survey this often-untapped bonanza! (December 2007)
Though rabbit hunting has fallen by the wayside for many sportsmen, the Bama woodlands are full of bunnies.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
No offense to the Apostle Paul, who wrote those words -- but at times I wish I hadn't heeded them.
When I was a child, I hunted as a child does. I understood the ways of squirrels, rabbits and, to a lesser extent, bobwhite quail. I planned ambushes, and some of them worked. But when I became a man, I soon forgot how much fun that type of hunting was. And now that I'm old enough to admit it, to cherish it, I have no children to pass those sports along to.
I've hunted almost every species to be found in the Heart of Dixie -- not to mention those in about 13 other states, three Canadian provinces, in Finland and South Africa. My brain has recorded a lifetime of experiences in the great outdoors. Yet while I can reflect on and wax poetic about encounters with record-book whitetails and black mambas, some of my most cherished memories take me back to childhood, when Alabama small game was more than enough to seduce me.
Every so often, it's good to remind all hunters that there's no lure stronger than success when introducing a kid to hunting. Big bucks aside, the most consistent success comes from pursuing small game.
There are plenty of places to go, many of which won't cost a dime. And there have never been as many squirrels and rabbits. (Bobwhites have certainly have seen better times -- but that's why the state's numerous quail preserves come in handy.)
Many of the people and places I'm about to introduce had slipped deep into my own personal well of memories. That they're coming back to me now, as colorful and lively as they were almost four decades ago, is a testament to small-game hunting.
So pull up a rocker, lean back, and maybe even search your own wells. When you're done, I bet you look at your shotgun or your rimfire and start making plans to hit the fields or woodlands.
Lee Estis wasn't your typical Alabama hunter when I met him in the mid-1970s. Or maybe he was.
In his late 60s back then, the patriarch of the Estis clan belonged to W.E. McGowen Hunting Club in York, home away from home for 30 to 40 Birmingham-area residents who'd discovered that paradise was a mere two-hour drive down the newly-opened Interstate 59/20.
A man of few words -- almost unintelligible ones at that, given his proclivity for stuffing baseball-sized wads of chewing tobacco into his jaw -- Lee's claim to fame was that nobody could shoot as many squirrels, nor yank off their hides, as fast as he could. The only member who came close to rivaling him was his own best hunting and fishing buddy Frank Stokes.
Separately, they were nothing alike. Lee might've had a dozen hairs on his head, his scalp always snugly covered by a sweat-stained ball cap tilted sideways, which always seemed to make his glass eye bulge even more. He wore old WWII camo festooned with patches and was always in need of a shave; the gray-whiskered jaw bore a perpetual brown stain from the corner of his mouth to his chin.
In stark contrast stood the shorter and stouter Frank, always freshly-shaven, his full head of dark hair clean and combed. He fancied crisp new redbone-colored Carharts and caps with straight bills -- versus those that folks roll tightly so that the brims will curve around their faces.
Lee and Frank were squirrel-hunting aces beyond compare. More than once, club members eager to get a jump on deer season would drive to York in order to participate in the early fall squirrel-fest presided over by these gentlemen. It was the only time of year that the older gents were granted the opportunity to hold court, since Lady Luck would have to intervene if they were ever afforded a shot at a whitetail.
Of course, they had to do all the cleaning, too, not to mention the cooking of the squirrels. As if they'd have had it any other way!
Only once did anyone top them, and that was a fluke. They probably forgot about that day after a full night's sleep in Frank's over-the-cab camper. More than three decades later, however, I still cherish the bragging rights I earned by returning to the clubhouse with my first limit of bushytails and a grin wider than the yellow gate leading to it.
Deer hunting was new to me, but I'd long been the terror of the squirrels living on the U.S. Steel property next to our house. I spent more time marking off the days leading to squirrel season than waiting for Christmas.
I hunted with a 16-gauge double-barreled shotgun in those days. I owned a .22, but I never understood the concept of sighting-in the scope on the little Marlin I'd received one year from Santa; if the gun was shooting low and to the right, I learned to aim high and to the left. I managed to take quite a few bushytails with the compensation method, but not nearly as many as I did with a scattergun.
The day I ventured into the bottomland we called the old Ganguet (pronounced gun-gate) place was perhaps the greatest single day of hunting I'd enjoyed prior to discovering South Africa in my 40s. And I wasn't even old enough to buy a license.
About the only things in my squirrel-hunting arsenal were patience and a keen sense of hearing. I found a likely spot, sat down on a fallen log beside a dry oxbow and in maybe three hours collected eight squirrels. My daddy heard all the shooting, but his jaw still dropped when I walked out of those woods with my pants pockets bulging, the animals carefully arranged so that all of the tails sprouted from the openings like flowers in a vase.
My friends, it doesn't get any better than that.
How I managed to grow into adulthood and lose my affection for squirrel hunting now perplexes me. But if one thing instilled in me a love of the outdoors, it was prowling the woodlots after school and on weekends, shooting squirrels and then frying them for supper. I also had a drawer full of squirrel tails, just in case I ever decided to answer an ad in the back of one of those national sporting magazines and mail them off to makers of crappie jigs.
Nowadays, sadly, far too many adul
ts have forgotten the joys of hunting bushytails -- or, in this day and age, never learned them! Since the whitetail deer population explosion in Alabama, kids often skip the small-game phase and rush straight into deer hunting.
It's not too late, though. There are probably more squirrels in Alabama today than there have been at any point in history. And even if other members of your lease might frown upon small-game hunting -- out of fear that all the shooting will drive their beloved deer onto adjacent lands -- there are plenty of public places teeming with bushytails that are dying of old age.
Nearly all of the state's wildlife management areas, national wildlife refuges and national forests are perfect starting points. Some of the best are in Jackson County. Here you'll find Crow Creek, Raccoon Creek and Mud Creek WMAs, as well as the North Sauty Refuge. That's more than 25,000 acres available exclusively to small-game hunters and some waterfowlers. Other north Alabama tracts are the Swan Creek WMA in Limestone County and the Mallard-Fox Creek WMA in Lawrence and Morgan counties.
Central Alabama is loaded with opportunities, too. The ones most special to me are the Oakmulgee, West Jefferson and Mulberry Fork WMAs. And way down south are the sprawling W.L. Holland and Mobile-Tensaw Delta WMAs, which encompass nearly 60,000 acres of tidal marshland habitat.
The season is long, from Oct. 1 through Feb. 29.
I was too little to shoulder a shotgun back when my father was in the beagle trade. Besides, though we've never broached the topic in the many years since, I tend to believe that rabbit hunting was Daddy's personal escape from the wife and kids. I'm certainly not complaining, because he found innumerable other fun things for the two of us to do outdoors.
Rabbit hunting with dogs was as much his passion as sitting out squirrels was mine. And this brings me to another member of the same Sumter County hunting club.
Jimmy Riggins was a rakish gent who wore a Crocodile Dundee hat long before they were cool. He supplied the beagles and wrangled the invitations from a host of landowners who never once flinched at the culling of 30 or 40 rabbits off their land once deer season had ended. As a rule, hunting cottontails and swamp rabbits prior to deer season wasn't done because of the likelihood of "wolves."
I'm not talking about wild canines. "Wolves," in this sense, are those big, ugly larvae of the botfly found under the skin of rabbits and squirrels prior to the first hard frost. Though it was safe to eat the meat, some folks would cut out the portion touched by wolves, while most everyone I knew wouldn't eat the affected game. Thus they didn't start hunting until it got cold.
About the time Daddy decided he could no longer afford to keep and feed a pack of beagles, partly because he was spending $200 to $250 a year to be a member of McGowen Hunting Club, he fell in with "Riggins," whose hunts were legendary. If I'd known what I was missing, I'd have given my father no peace until he let me tag along.
Now, I'd gone on some rabbit hunts. These were close-to-home affairs, and by a good day's end, we might've had three or four rabbits to skin. After a Riggins hunt, they'd lay out more rabbits than a tailgate could hold.
I didn't fall in love with rabbit hunting until many years later, when I was invited to White Oak Plantation near Tuskegee. The owner, Robert Pitman, had decided to add yet another entrée to his already full menu of hunting opportunities. To pull it off, he arranged to have several packs of deer-proof beagles, and he sold out of spots long before the first hunt kicked off.
I made several of those hunts over the years and the excursions were always high on my crowded list of must-dos.
Actually, Alabama's 30 or so wildlife management areas and four national forests offer perfect for hunting rabbits, and you get two weeks before the opening of archery deer season and the entire month of February to have the tracts mostly to yourself. In addition, hunting is allowed on some U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, national wildlife refuges and several small tracts purchased in recent years by the Forever Wild Land Trust.
I wish I could offer a glowing report on the status of the bobwhites in Alabama, but I can't. In fact, the wild birds are disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate. Quail Forever, the conservation organization dedicated to the restoration of quail habitat and the comeback of America's former favorite among upland game birds, paints a dim picture.
Last fall, the organization pointed out, the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies -- whose members manage wildlife in 16 states -- suggested that the bird could disappear from some areas of the South by 2010. That glum outlook is supported by the National Audubon Society, which recently announced that the population of the northern bobwhite quail has declined by 82 percent over the last 40 years. Quail numbers have dropped from an estimated 31 million in 1967 to just 5.5 million today.
According to Quail Forever, if quail habitat continues to disappear, so will the quail. Quail and quail hunting are in dire straights.
Biologists tend to agree that the No. 1 reason for the drastic reduction in our quail population is the loss of suitable habitat. With no other plans on the table, wildlife agencies are simply urging landowners to manipulate their properties and offer more food and the right kind of cover for quail.
"In recent years managers and researchers have revisited sound bobwhite biology and have made new discoveries about bobwhite behavior, ecology and management," Stewart said. "Individuals who are applying this knowledge are currently experiencing unprecedented bobwhite management successes and population highs.
"The message is clear: Quail do not have to be just part of the past. They respond to management," he added. "Supply the birds a favorable environment, and they usually increase rapidly."
Despite the low numbers of native bobwhites, nearly 17,000 hunters take to the field each year in Alabama. We still have more quail hunters than coon hunters, though chasers of cottontails and bushytails are far more numerous.
Many folks who enjoy watching bird dogs zigging and zagging across the landscape are turning to the state's commercial operations. Pen-raised quail are no match for wild bobwhites when it comes to dodging lead -- but they sure taste good.
The wild bird season runs from Nov. 15 through Feb. 29, but the season at licensed quail preserves extends into March.
Find more about Alabama fishing and hunting at: AlabamaGameandFish.com