Winston County Deer Hunts

Known for its plentiful public access, this north Alabama county has produced some noteworthy whitetails over the years. Here's a closer look at the area's resources. (January 2006)

Photo by R.E. Ilg

The Bankhead National Forest in northwestern Alabama spans some 180,000 acres of land. About half of the National Forest -- an estimated 80,000 to 85,000 acres -- lies in Winston County.

The county is a land of big bucks and it consistently ranks among the top counties in the Cotton State for entries in the Alabama Whitetail Records book.

"There are a couple of things going on that result in there being some good quality bucks in Winston County," said Ron Eakes, the District 1 wildlife biologist from the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, then added regarding the Bankhead NF. "For starters, it's the largest block of forested public land in the state. There are some fairly steep bluff lines on the property, so it's relatively inaccessible. That allows the deer to get a little more age on them than they typically get on private land."

The deer density hasn't gotten out-of-kilter on Bankhead as it has in other regions of the state. So the habitat is in relatively good shape, allowing deer plenty of high-quality feed that helps those older bucks reach their maximum potential.

Since it's a national forest, some timber cutting and burning is conducted, which helps improve the habitat. There are also plenty of oak trees that produce acorn crops to feed the deer.

Lawrence is the other county that contains a big chuck of the Bankhead National Forest. Eakes said he likes the southern end of the forest -- the Winston County end -- better than the northern part.

"The soil is a little sandier and there are a lot of box canyons," he noted. "Smith Lake runs through the center of the national forest in Winston County. The elevation changes aren't as dramatic as they are in northeastern Alabama, but there are some 400 to 500 foot changes with a lot of bluff lines."

The biologist advises new hunters in the area to key on thick cover. It's where the deer live.

"If you're interested in taking a good quality deer, you've got to get in the thick areas," he emphasised.

Bucks feel secure in such cover and there's usually plenty of high-quality feed in there too.

Hunting around mast-producing trees can be good, he continued, but there's not a crop of acorns every year in many places. In the thick areas that have been logged, there's deer food such as greenbriar, honeysuckle and natural legumes available year-round.

"You have to find a spot that looks good to you," Eakes said. "The national forest is so big that you couldn't learn the whole area in a lifetime. You've got to find a few smaller areas that you like and concentrate on them.

"Don't just blow in and blow out and dismiss an area as not having any deer. You've got to spend time really learning an area if you want to increase your chances of being successful."

The Bankhead is one of those public tracts in Alabama that features a public hunting area within another public hunting area. The Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area lies completely within the Bankhead National Forest boundaries.

It's another proven producer of big bucks. Last year, it ranked No. 7 out of the state's 30 WMAs in the number of 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-old bucks that were checked in. There were 45 of those deer taken on the area. It ranked No. 5 in the state the year before that.

The Black Warrior WMA also contains the Sipsey River Wilderness Area, which is off-limits to any kind of motorized traffic. Hunters willing to hike back into the area should be able to find some good deer there.

"Black Warrior is a great place if you're primarily a weekend hunter," said Eakes, who spent 20 years as the WMA manager before becoming the district supervisor. "It's divided into two zones, an east and a west. Between the two zones, we have 20 or 21 days of gun hunting on Black Warrior. We have a hunt going on just about every Friday and Saturday of the season."

This year, they added a new wrinkle -- a mid-week primitive weapons hunt on Nov. 15-16 during the state's week-long early muzzleloader season.

"We'd realized that there weren't a lot of people utilizing the primitive weapons hunt we'd been having in January," Eakes explained. "So we decided to try something different. A few WMAs around the state offered the hunts this year as a pilot project."

Both zones of the WMA provide a week-long gun hunt the week after Christmas.

Historically, Eakes said, the most successful hunts on the WMA have been the earliest hunts in the season. That's because they tend to draw bigger crowds and more people moving around results in deer being pushed in front of hunters.

If a true top-end trophy -- a buck with 150 inches or better of antlers -- is your goal, Winston County and Bankhead Forest form an excellent choice for a hunt, according to Dennis Campbell, author of Alabama Whitetail Records.

"When you talk about top-end deer in Alabama, everyone talks about the Black Belt," Campbell offered. "But the Black Belt as a trophy region really reflects a bygone era in Alabama. Most of the top-end deer nowadays are coming from northern Alabama, and a lot of them are coming from Winston County."

Black Belt counties dominated Alabama Whitetail Records entries in the early days of the record book, but many of those bucks were actually harvested back in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

"The true picture is starting to come into focus now," Campbell countered.

Winston County ranks No. 5 in the state for 150-inch-plus deer in the Alabama record book that was published last summer. The only counties ahead of it are Jackson, Pickens, Greene and Lamar.

Hunters who downed their trophies in Winston County have entered 37 bucks scoring 150 or better in the state record book.

When you add in bow kills, which have a minimum score of 115, and muzzleloader kills, with a minimum 120, Winston County still ranks No. 9 with 43.

"For all practical purposes, looking at all record entries doesn't tell the real story," Campbell pointe

d out. "You've got some counties like Madison and Montgomery that have a lot of bowhunting and it changes the overall picture somewhat."

He thinks the true measure of a county's trophy potential comes from looking at the 150 or better deer that have come from the area.

"In my opinion, Winston is a good county for a couple of reasons," Campbell continued. "For starters, the genetics are real good. The first deer stocked in that county were from Michigan and those transplants have had a big impact on the genetics in that area."

Native Alabama whitetails were stocked in the area several years ago. Campbell said there's probably some hybridization or mixing of the Alabama and Michigan deer going on now and that's probably a bonus for the county.

"Another big plus is that the herd in Winston County hasn't expanded so much that the numbers have hurt the habitat," he said. "I don't look for that to happen for quite awhile."

The key to killing a big deer, Campbell argued, is to find some under-hunted ground where the deer are able to get some age on them. A lot of hunters are spending big dollars to lease ground and try to make that happen.

"But you can believe they're killing some big deer on public lands like Bankhead too," Campbell said.

The trick, he added, is to go to the extra effort to get into places where no one else is hunting.

"You have to find those pockets that are almost unhuntable," Campbell noted. "We're not talking about just getting out and walking into the woods a little bit. We're talking about finding some true remoteness. It takes work. Accessing a place with a boat is one way to do it. Who wants to get out in a boat before daylight when it's 15 degrees outside? Not many hunters will do it."

The Black Warrior area does get some hunting pressure, but not as much as it got in years gone by.

"We're within an hour's drive of something like a million and a half people," Eakes said. "That includes Huntsville, Birmingham, the Quad Cities and smaller towns like Cullman, Russellville, Double Springs, Hamilton and Jasper."

In the old days you might have 3,000 people show up for a gun hunt on Black Warrior. A heavy hunt today is about 1,000 hunters. Spread them out over some 80,000 acres and it's not really crowded with hunters.

"There's a lot more pressure on early hunts, when everyone is real excited, but it drops off a lot on the later hunts," Eakes said.

One of the biggest deer to ever come from Winston County was a Boone and Crockett record book qualifier taken by James Huckbay back in December of 1973. The buck qualified for the Alabama record book as both a typical and a non-typical.

Its typical score was 188 under the AWR method of scoring, while it's non-typical score is 207 1/8. In the B&C system it earned a score of 199 2/8 as a non-typical and placing it No. 7 on that list for the Cotton State.

A lengthy, humorous story detailing the highlights of that long-ago hunt is included in the Millenium (2000) edition of the Alabama Whitetail Records. Huckbay had been invited to hunt with friends at Bankhead Sportsmens' Club. He was easing down a trail into a thick bottom when the buck walked up on him.

He had his scope turned all the way up on 9-power and could basically just see hair when the deer appeared at 35 yards. He thought he'd killed a small deer.

"I was a relatively new deer hunter and I thought they were supposed to be the size of elk," he commented.

The buck had 28-inch main beams and an inside spread of almost 24 inches. It had 16 points, 7 on the right antler and 9 on the left.

Black Warrior typically offers gun hunts in late November around Thanksgiving, three more weekend gun hunts in December, plus the week-long hunt after Christmas and a couple of hunts in January. The archery season is hunter's choice and is open Oct. 15 to Jan. 31.

Hunters on the WMA need a WMA license in addition to their regular hunting license. The weekend gun hunts require hunters to pick up a weekend permit at the checking station. The standard map/permit serves as the permit for the archery season and the week-long gun hunt. Rules on the WMA require hunters to wear safety belts when hunting from tree stands.

The porton of Bankhead National Forest outside of the WMA is open to gun deer hunting for the full season, except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The national forest is only open to gun hunting on Tuesdays and Wednesdays three times over the course of the season -- immediately prior to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

The Black Warrior WMA has a good many plots planted in both cool and warm season foods. Eakes said they're not necessarily the best places to hunt because lots of people start their quest for a Black Warrior deer in the vicinity of a plot.

"The plots draw a lot of interest from hunters, so you end up with a lot of human scent around the plots and it doesn't take long for the deer that use the plots to go nocturnal," he explained.

Look to the thick and hard-to-get to areas, he advised, and your potential to score big improves significantly.

For Your Information

The "Alabama Whitetail Records" book is an important tool in the arsenal of Alabama hunters looking for a true top-end trophy. The book highlights areas of the state where trophies have historically come from and the areas where trophies are currently being taken.

The latest edition of the book was published in July of 2005. Author Dennis Campbell includes commentary in the book about areas of the state where he feels the best trophy potential lies. Winston County is one of those areas.

The book is $49.95 plus 9 percent tax and may be ordered by sending a check to Alabama Whitetail Records, P.O. Box 310727, Birmingham, AL 35231 or by calling (205) 674-0101.

(Editor's Note: Although the author of this article and Dennis Campbell of Alabama Whitetail Records share the same last name and a passion for deer hunting, they are not related.)

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