Cotton State

Looking for a place to hunt on public land in North Alabama this year? If so, these destinations may be just what you're after. (September 2006)

Photo by Mike Searles

The northern portion of Alabama was the last section of the state to be restocked with white-tailed deer. In fact, the effort in the region got under way only in the 1950s. That late start combined with some other factors and eventually created a good-news/ bad-news scenario there: While the deer herd never really exploded in numbers, neither did it overpopulate its habitat.

For more than 25 years, Keith Guyse has served as assistant chief of the Wildlife Section for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. He's had his finger on the pulse of the state's deer herd in the northern half of the state since he first took this position.

"Most of the deer stockings in Alabama started in the southern half of the state," he explained, "because of its proximity to the Fred T. Stimpson Wildlife Sanctuary and the other areas where the state captured and relocated deer." As a result, hunters upstate don't see nearly as many deer turning up in places like the Black Belt in the central portion of the Cotton State; on the other hand, the bucks that are present are well fed and healthy, and often grow impressive racks. This is the case on both private and public hunting lands in this part of the state.

Let's take a look at the significance of all this for the wildlife management, public hunting and community hunting areas in North Alabama.

WEST JEFFERSON PHA

One of Bama's newest public hunting areas, West Jefferson Public Hunting Area lies to the southwest of Birmingham near the community of Oak Grove. The tract covers 42,678 acres in Jefferson County on strip-mined and reclaimed land that previously belonged to U.S. Steel. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources leased this land to manage the hunting on it in the late 1990s. The property already had deer, but as soon as the state acquired it, biologists brought in 100 whitetails from South Alabama to help increase the size of the herd on the property.

"The deer for restocking West Jefferson came from the Upper State Game Sanctuary and the Fred T. Stimpson Wildlife Sanctuary," Guyse explained. "Since this is managed as a community hunting area, there are no wildlife openings, greenfields, improved roads or wildlife managers on it."

In fact, wildlife management areas are set apart from either public hunting areas or community hunting areas by exactly that lack of management. The PHA and CHA designations apply to tracts that the state simply leases to make them available to hunting; the level of improvement or wildlife management is minimal.

The rough and often steep terrain of West Jefferson harbors a solid population of deer. "This community hunting area gets quite a bit of pressure because of its close proximity to Birmingham," Guyse pointed out. To hunt West Jefferson, you must have a hunting license, a wildlife management area license and a permit, just as you do at all other tracts managed for hunting by the ADWFF.

"There are some good deer at West Jefferson for the hunters who are tough enough to go after them," said Guyse.

SKYLINE WMA

This 28,176-acre wildlife management area in Jackson County near Scottsboro has operated since the 1960s. Being a WMA, it has an area manager in charge to oversee its improved greenfields.

The only public site in the state with Cumberland Plateau terrain and -- so scenic that it makes you want to take photos -- Skyline contains flattop ridges with deep hollows called "coves." But be aware: It'll also test your conditioning if you walk through it.

Entirely devoid of the pine plantations so prevalent at many other Bama WMAs, Skyline is forested primarily with hardwood stands and thus attracts many bowhunters. Typically, the WMA holds four stalk hunts, a primitive weapons hunt and a youth hunt. The Birmingham North Archery Club spends a large amount of time in the trees at Skyline, and its members take quite a few deer there.

"Although there are a good number of hunters at Skyline, the area isn't crowded," Guyse said. "The WMA has good numbers of deer, the herd is in good condition, and you will find many nice bucks there."

For the most part, Skyline WMA hunters take deer by two methods: top hunting and bottom hunting. Those favoring the former target the flat tops of the high ridges, while partisans of the latter stay down in the coves between the mountains.

"Hunters usually have to choose either one or the other style of hunting, because moving from the tops of the mountains to the bottom just isn't practical," Guyse noted.

Guyse has observed that top-of-the-hill hunters tend to take more deer than do those in the coves. When the hunters go into the coves, they often get the deer moving, and the bucks flee to the mountaintops. The hunters up there often have the deer coming to them, while the cove hunters usually see whitetails moving away from them. Still, both groups usually meet with their share of success each season.

LAUDERDALE WMA

This area has lost a large amount of land in recent years, resulting in frequently changing boundaries, but it still contains 14,581 acres. Some landowners have pulled their properties out of this public hunting area, while others have added to it. The state has also purchased some land for the WMA.

Overseen by a wildlife manager, this tract has improved greenfields planted throughout its acres. Lying in the northwestern corner of Alabama on the Tennessee River, Lauderdale WMA's hilly terrain isn't as steep as Skyline's. The area features a good mix of hardwoods and pines.

Lauderdale's deer herd is stable and at a healthy level and contains some bucks with nice racks and bulky body weights. This WMA in particular has avoided the overpopulation that often causes the quality of a herd to decline.

No major metropolitan areas are close to Lauderdale, so it doesn't attract crowds for any of its hunts, and hunting pressure is correspondingly low.

Forested, and boasting a good road system enabling access to most sections, the Lauderdale tract belongs in substantial part to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Guyse recommends Lauderdale WMA to anyone who wants to get away from the crowd and onto public land without much hunting pressure.

BLACK WARRIOR WMA

If you want an even better way to really get away from the crowd,

consider hunting this area, possibly one of the best early-season public tracts in the state.

"Black Warrior WMA, located in Winston and Lawrence counties near Moulton, is one of the largest WMAs in Alabama," Guyse said.

This 97,953-acre state-managed reserve is on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the 180,000-acre Bankhead National Forest. In the center of the WMA lie the 25,986 acres of the federally designated Sipsey Wilderness Area. Much of the tract is covered with rough hill and valley terrain and features dense undergrowth.

"Black Warrior WMA has a good road system outside the wilderness area," Guyse remarked. "The wilderness area is pristine, with only a few hiking trails going through it."

If you plan to head to the areas in which the deer take refuge once hunting season opens, you'll need a strong back, as no motorized equipment is allowed in the wilderness area, and all travel is by foot. The effort required to get off the beaten path can pay off, however, since some of the biggest deer taken on public land in Alabama come from Black Warrior WMA.

"We have an unusual population of deer at Black Warrior," Guyse said. "The deer came from several northern states back in the 1920s. The deer population on this WMA never has exploded as it has on most WMAs in the state. Although numbers have always been on the low side, the habitat and the amount of available food has always been good. Because of the light hunting pressure, the bucks have a better chance of growing in to the older age-classes and sporting bigger racks."

The rut arrives early at Black Warrior WMA and usually ends by January. Obviously, this is an apt place for using rutting tactics during an early-season hunt.

"Because this area is so big," Guyse stated, "when we have gun hunts at Black Warrior, we only hunt half the area at a time. When we've tried to hunt the entire area at one time, the hunters have spread out so much that they can't keep the deer moving enough to be successful!"

The sparseness of the Black Warrior herd has led the ADWFF to introduce surplus deer from south Alabama into the tract in recent years. It's hoped this stocking will lead to expanded numbers of animals.

"This hope hasn't been realized yet," Guyse reported. "We were experimenting with the genetics of the Black Warrior herd and hoping to improve the pool so that the herd could grow. But as of today, we haven't seen much change in the growth of this herd."

The Black Warrior deer herd hasn't diminished: It just hasn't grown as fast as have populations at public areas in other sections of the Cotton State. On the other hand, the low density of whitetails makes room for some sizeable bucks.

"I'd say your chances of taking a buck at Black Warrior aren't as high as at some of the other WMAs," Guyse admitted. "But if you do take a buck at Black Warrior, your chances are extremely good of his being nice."

PUBLIC LAND STRATEGY

"Those who work the hardest get the most" -- an old adage, and one that usually proves true when it comes to bagging big bucks at Alabama's public-hunting areas. You hear tales of beginner's luck: A hunter simply walks on the area for the first time and, 10 minutes later, downs a wallhanger. But then, you hear those stories repeated endlessly because such occurrences are actually ridiculously rare. There's no substitute for planning and scouting on public-land hunts.

Let's take a look at a few ideas on preparing for your next hunt. They may not get you the buck of a lifetime, but they should at least put you in a position to make the feat more feasible.

First of all, get a detailed map of the area well in advance. In fact, consider combining several maps and a photo. If available, an aerial photo of the vicinity used in conjunction with a topo map and a state WMA map would be ideal. Use these to identify terrain features that could be sanctuaries for wily older bucks.

Next, talk with the area manager to pinpoint places in the tract that most hunters avoided. After all, the state's paying him or her to know about the area, and you're paying his or her salary through taxes and buying hunting licenses -- so you might as well take advantage of what he or she's paid by you to know. Ask the manager to give you an idea as to the reasons for other hunters giving it a wide berth. If the answer amounts to "It's too long a walk," or "The cover's too dense," you may have found a goldmine.

Time to get in there and scout the area. A GPS receiver is exceptionally useful for this, since you can mark waypoints -- and find them again in the early-morning dark! In the process, mark several trees -- as many as 10 -- in which you can hang a stand. This gives you more options with regard to weather and wind conditions.

Another advantage of recording GPS waypoints as opposed to leaving a tape trail or other physical markers is that only you know them: You're not establishing a trail for less-industrious hunters to profit from.

Finally, develop a couple of plans for getting in to and out of there based both on the information you've acquired about the area and terrain and on various wind directions, thus enabling you to salvage your hunt should last-minute wind shifts threaten to mess things up.

As I said, none of this can ensure that you'll fill that space over the mantel with a public-land buck. But on the other hand, simply blundering into the area on opening day -- no preparation done, no clue as to what you're doing -- certainly won't get the job done!

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