Thinking Small For Hunting Season

It's not all about deer and turkeys. As this overview of what's available demonstrates, the Cotton State is loaded with small-game hunting action as well. (December 2008)

Back when my armpits were as smooth as a baby's behind, it was unthinkable to pass up an opportunity to put meat in the freezer. Back then, fishermen would have regarded the practice of catch-and-release as playing with your food.

Chasing rabbits rates behind only the pursuit of deer and squirrels as the most popular sort of hunting in Bama's woodlands.

Photo by Polly Dean.

At that time, small-game hunting was also king in Alabama -- mainly because big game was scarce. And, of course, what you shot went home to the dinner table.

Now that whitetail deer are everywhere and outnumber deer hunters eight to one -- in a day that collecting venison comes with the added bonus of possible hanging a trophy rack on the wall -- the number of small-game hunters has shrunk faster than the Chattahoochee, Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers in recent drought. As a result, squirrel and rabbit populations are exploding.

I wish I could say the same about wild quail -- but I can't. Fortunately, Alabamians have some other choices for hunting that species in the form of numerous commercial bobwhite operations.

For those of you who've never tried or simply forgotten the thrill of still-hunting bushytails, listening to a pack of beagles churning through a briar patch or watching a brace of bird dogs play the wind, there's never been a better time to go after the Cotton State's "mighty minis." Best of all, it won't break your budget.

The seasons for squirrel and rabbit hunting are long; having opened back on Oct. 1, they'll run through Feb. 28, 2009. The quail season opened on Nov. 15 and also continues through the end of February.

SQUIRRELS

Leaning against a glass counter in a Georgiana hardware store a few years back, I was talking to proprietor Royce Lowery about the origins of his "Carson Ann" ribbon cane syrup, when the bells above the door clinked. A couple of young boys who'd parked their bicycles out front walked in, and Royce excused himself. Only he and his wife were working that day, and I think she'd gone to the bank.

"What can I do for you gentlemen this fine day?" he asked.

"Shotgun shells?" the oldest stammered.

"High-brass," the other added.

If we'd been anywhere other than rural Alabama, or if this had taken place inside one of the big box stores, security might've been called. But the only grudges held by these kids at Georgiana High School dealt with ridding their corner of Butler County of as many squirrels as possible.

Royce's variety was slim. He had only one type of shot shell suitable for bushytails. But to hear him tell it, the dusty box he held up was the answer to their prayers -- the Holy Grail of squirrel hunting ammo.

"This here is what you need," he smiled. "I guarantee it'll knock a squirrel out of the biggest tree in the county."

The boys grinned at each other, and the oldest dug some wrinkled bills out of his jeans pocket.

"Y'all go kill a sackful," was Royce's parting shot; he then turned back to me: "Now where were we?"

I was there to collect information for a newspaper story I was writing about ribbon cane syrup. Those couple of hours I spent inside the dark store beside the tracks in Georgiana amounted to one of the best interviews I've had the pleasure of conducting. Even if I can't remember the origins of Carson Ann syrup -- except for the fact it was named after Royce's granddaughter, whose photo is on the label -- I'll never forget the transaction that took place.

I'd do the same thing as a kid: Ride my bike to the local everything store, leave with a dust-coated box of shotgun shells or .22 bullets, and pedal as fast as I could back home so I could stuff them into my gun and go squirrel hunting. More often than not I'd come home at dark with one or two to skin. Even if supper were on the table, I'd still fry my squirrels.

I don't know why I stopped.

Nearly all of Alabama's wildlife management areas, national wildlife refuges and national forests are teeming with gray squirrels. North Alabama's parcels get the most hunting pressure and, accordingly, post the highest harvest numbers. Some of the best places to collect a limit are in Jackson County. There you find Crow Creek, Raccoon Creek and Mud Creek Waterfowl Management Areas, as well as the North Sauty Refuge. That's more than 25,000 acres available exclusively to small-game hunters.

Other notable tracts north of Birmingham include Skyline and Freedom Hills WMAs. All of the above routinely yield about 3,000 squirrels a year to dedicated hunters. Even Hollins WMA in Clay and Talladega counties that comes in No. 9 among producers of squirrels yielded 950 last season.

Central Alabama is loaded with opportunities, too. The ones favored by squirrel hunters are Oakmulgee and Cahaba River WMAs. Another good one is the Mulberry Fork WMA, but in spite of its proximity to Birmingham, it gets very little hunting pressure.

Way down south are the sprawling W.L. Holland and Mobile-Tensaw Delta WMAs, which encompass nearly 60,000 acres of tidal marshland habitat. But in their northern reaches there are also plenty of trees that harbor squirrels. Over in the southeast Blue Spring WMA is another hot spot for bushytails.

COTTONTAILS

I never liked being trapped indoors. Nothing within four walls could compare with hunting, building the ultimate tree house or prowling the Warrior River in a flat-bottomed aluminum boat with a dollar or two in my pocket for a cheeseburger at Buddy Vines Camp. And as the son of a beagle man, rabbit hunting was on my list as well.

My love for rabbits wasn't as deep as my passion for bushytails, mainly because I had trouble shooting them. They never stood still, especially with a wailing pack of beagles in pursuit.

This is the perfect example of why it's so important for kids to experience success in their outdoor pursuits. If I'd had the pleasure of actually shooting a lot of rabbits, I would've put cottontails at the top of my list. The added excitement of a chase was a whole lot more fun that sitting still scanning treetops for hours on end. It's also a reason I can never support a ban on deer dogging. Deer drives can be e

lectrifying, even if it feels better to shoot a buck you've been stalking mano a mano.

As an adult and a far better shot, however, I'm better equipped to appreciate the pure poetry of a well-organized rabbit hunt. Excursions that meant so little at the time now pop into my head at the slightest provocation, and I can inhale the sweet-and-sour smell of the beagles and fresh hay in my daddy's dog box.

Later on, when I could drive myself, I'd sometimes go to abandoned strip pits in Jefferson County. I could walk the perimeters and kick up scores of rabbits.

Even today cottontails are certainly not disappearing. Rabbit hunting remains one of the most popular pastimes within Alabama's wildlife management areas -- placing No. 3 behind the pursuit of whitetails and bushytails.

Actually, Alabama's 30 or so WMAs and four national forests are perfect for hunting rabbits, and you even get a two-week window before the opening of bow 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.

The top areas for yielding rabbits among WMAs are usually Skyline, Lowndes, Covington and Swan Creek, as well as the duck hunting lands in Jackson County. All together, more than 10,000 man-days are devoted to rabbit hunting inside Alabama's public hunting tracts, and the annual WMA harvest exceeds 12,000 cottontails and swampers.

BOBWHITES

Once upon a time in this state, any outdoor activity could be interrupted when a startled covey of quail scared the bejeezus out of you. In those days, the first wild-animal sound that a kid could imitate was the bob-white whistle of a quail. I dare say that most kids nowadays have never seen or heard a quail in the wild.

Charles Kelley, now retired, was for many years the director of what was then our Game and Fish Division. He takes pride, and rightfully so, in the great strides the agency made in juggling sound wildlife management with the needs and desires of the average Alabama hunter and fisherman.

Cursed by some, idolized by many, Kelley made every decision with two things in mind: what was best for the resource and what would make the common man happy. He and the biologists he employed failed at only one thing, and that was in discovering a way to stop the decline of wild quail. Kelley still takes it personally, because that's the way he is. But his department was just one of many in the Southeast that ran up against this conundrum.

According to Quail Forever, the birds' numbers have been plummeting throughout the South since the 1960s -- with many states' populations down by as much as 82 percent. Nationwide, the population has shrunk from an estimated 31 million birds in 1967 to just 5.5 million today.

"Back in the 1950s and '60s, a person could walk around this part of Alabama and find plenty of coveys of quail," explained Kim Price, publisher of Covey Rise magazine, member of Quail Forever's national board and a charter member of Alabama's new Covey Rise chapter. "But that isn't the case anymore. Something has to be done about the condition of the local habitat."

Alabama is home to two new QF chapters: Covey Rise, which covers Coosa and Tallapoosa counties, and Black Warrior covering Tuscaloosa, Bibb, Hale, Greene, Pickens and Fayette counties.

"With both of these chapters focusing their efforts within the central and western regions of Alabama, there is an opportunity to create a lot of progress in the advancement of better land management practices, and this will ultimately help the quail and other wildlife in the area," said Andy Edwards, QF's regional wildlife biologist. "When you combine the newly passed Farm Bill legislation with the efforts of these two chapters, the benefits for quail will be tremendous."

Fire ants and unbridled growth of the population of hawks aside, most everyone agrees the biggest threat to quail has been in the loss of suitable habitat. The disappearance of row crops, backyard pea patches, a reduction in Conservation Reserve Program acreage and their replacement by timber farming are some of the culprits.

"Most of us have to hunt at game preserves to get a chance to shoot quail, and even those of us who work dogs seldom find suitable habitat where quail still exist," John Thames, president of the new Covey Rise Chapter pointed out.

"We are going to extend our hand to local landowners and farmers so we can educate them on how to create better wildlife habitat," added Kevin Adams, president of the Black Warrior Chapter. "It is incredibly important to show area farmers it is possible to preserve habitat and care for their lands' wildlife, while, at the same time, not having it impede their livelihood."

Biologists on the state's payroll tend to agree that the No. 1 reason for the continual reduction in our quail population is the loss of suitable habitat. With no other plans on the table, wildlife agencies everywhere are simply urging landowners to manipulate their properties and offer more food and the right kind of cover for quail.

The best bet for hunters looking for bobwhites is to visit one of the many commercial quail hunting preserves. Pen-raised birds are not comparable to wild ones, if you like a challenge. But, trust me, they taste even better. You'll get to see bird dogs at work -- pure poetry in motion -- and enjoy a hunt at your own pace. And, for most of us, once a flight-trained bird gets off the ground his chances of escaping are at least 50-50!

A couple of good ones are: Bobby and Jenni Moore's Briar Patch Hunting Preserve in Browns, a few miles west of Selma; White Oak Plantation near Tuskegee; and Water Valley Lodge in Gilbertown, one of the state's newest. Others can be found at www.gamebirdhunts.com. Drop down to the clickable map and go to Alabama for the list.

If you're a stickler for tradition and don't mind working all day for the chance at a single covey, then there are a handful of WMAs you could visit. Your best chances, according to the biologists in charge of the areas, are the waterfowl areas in Jackson County, Covington, Swan Creek, Sam R. Murphy and Oakmulgee WMAs.

Places to look on these tracts are around planted food plots or other open fields. And don't overlook any clear-cut areas that are in the 2- to 4-year-old range. These types of area sport early successional growth and the edge areas favored by quail.

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