Alabama's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Deer can be found in every part of the Yellowhammer State, but some areas produce far more whitetails than do others. Here's an in-depth look at the best places in which to bag a deer this fall. (October 2008)

It was a slow season for deer hunters last year -- but that could turn into a silver lining for Cotton State whitetail hunters this fall.

The harvest was down a little overall last season, and the southern two-thirds of the state had an outstanding mast crop, so it's thought that the deer are apt to have made it through last winter in better shape than is usual. And that could lead to a bumper crop of whitetails for Alabama hunters this year.

"Last year's deer season was average at best, but more likely a little below average," said Chris Cook, the deer studies leader for the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

He also said it was a strange season, at least in the west-central part of the state where he works.

"The first couple of weeks were really good, and I thought it was going to be an outstanding season," he observed. But then it slowed down and it never did pick back up, even in January, when Alabama hunting is usually at its best.

"We had a bumper crop of acorns down our way and they fell a little later," Cook explained. "When the deer got on them, the movement slowed way down."

The hunting was especially slow during spells of warm weather -- and that's something that Alabama hunters just have to deal with on a regular basis nowadays. "When it cooled off, it would pick up a little," Cook said.

The trend for the season in a lot of places was that hunters either got a nice buck or didn't do much at all, but we'll look more at the trophy buck action in Part II of this series next month.

Cook and other biologists around the state noted that the slow deer movement doesn't mean that few deer are left in Alabama, although it's evident that some hunters might tend to the first condition implies the second. The scientific professionals maintain that while deer numbers continue steady, conditions can just make the hunting tough.

The continual pressure on antlerless deer over the past several seasons also meant that does are wiser than they've ever been. They can be just as wary as the bucks once the guns start going off.

The state's biologists also said more and more Alabama hunters rely nowadays on green field hunting. In years of warm weather and plentiful mast, such hunting just doesn't produce the deer sightings that it can at other times.

"We biologists are sure glad for game cameras," Cook said with a laugh. "Without them, the hunters might think all their deer were gone. But the cameras often show deer using fields after dark."

Last year, late summer saw a touch of epizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease reveal itself among Alabama's whitetail herd, and that no doubt took out at least a few deer. The farther south you go in Alabama, the less impact the disease had. But outbreaks were reported in the northeast and northwest corners of the state. "It was worse in the northwestern part of the state than it was in the northeast," Cook reported.

The disease, transmitted by a biting gnat, is essentially a virus that can cause hemorrhaging in various tissues of a deer's body. Deer that get the disease often go to water, and carcasses can be found near water sources.

According to Cook, recurrent episodes of the disease are just a part of life for both deer and deer hunters in the Yellowhammer State and elsewhere in the Deep South. It tends to affect younger deer more, since older animals have generally been exposed to it previously and developed some immunity.

If early in the season you kill a deer with sloughing hooves, chances are good that the animal has had EHD. It poses no danger to humans, and the meat is said to be safe to consume.

WHAT NEXT?

The 2008 deer season dawns with a few changes on the horizon. A dozen or so North Alabama counties will see the either-sex deer season for firearms hunters extended to the full season.

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ALABAMA'S 2007-2008 TOP 20 WMAs FOR DEER HARVEST

RANKWMAGUNARCHERYBLACKPOWDERTOTAL1.Oakmulgee288143374682.Mulberry Fork261108263953.Blue Spring2505563114.Choccolocco20297273265.Martin/Skyline19027332506.St. Clair18366--2497.Sam Murphy1786162458.Barbour1725682369.Lowndes16053--21310.Cahaba River126681020411.Coosa98661117512.Hollins10359216413.Upper Delta104381015214.Freedom Hills10438--14215.Scotch105111813416.Little River79261812317.Black Warrior8433412118.Lauderdale10016--11619.Boykin6732310220.Wolf Creek6336--99

According to the biologists, it's still best to kill your does as early as possible, but the new framework gives hunters more opportunities to take antlerless deer whenever they choose.

The full impact of the change to a three-buck limit, now entering its second season, still isn't known.

Good hunting locations lie throughout the Cotton State; at least one public area with solid whitetail numbers is almost sure to be within an hour's drive of anywhere in the state.

One way to maximize your hunting time is not just to look for lands you want to hunt, but also to consider the time at which you want to hunt them. To that end, you'll find a new chart in this year's deer outlook. This graphic shows some of the best wildlife management area hunts in the state by date. Our criteria for selecting the sites to include on the list were that an area should show a significant harvest of deer, with a success rate for the number of hunters afield on that particular hunt approaching 10 percent or better.

All that said, let's look at some of the best places to bag a deer this fall.

NORTH

The northeast corner of the state includes Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb, Cherokee, Etowah, Blount, St. Clair, Calhoun, Cleburne, Randolph, Clay and Talladega counties and Randy Liles is the supervising wildlife biologist for the region.

"It was slow in our corner of the state last year," Liles conceded. "But I've heard it was slow all over the state. The drought really hurt us last year." But he looks for a much-improved season this year, as mast-bearing trees and shrubs were looking good after spring and summer rains.

The top deer counties in this district are Cleburne, Cherokee and Jackson. The top WMAs are Choccolocco and Martin-Skyline. The hunting can be tough at each, but they do offer outstanding opportunities. Opening day is the most successful --and most crowded -- hunt of the season at Skyline, while the Thanksgiving either-sex hunt at Choccolocco is a winner.

"We're going to expand our youth hunt this year to Saturday and Sunday instead of just Saturday," Liles said.

That's designed just to provide more opportunity for fathers, grandfathers, uncles, sons and nephews to camp and hunt together.

"Pulling the trigger is not what this youth hunt is about," Liles noted. "It's about giving kids more time outdoors. I can remember when I was a kid and the camping was just as much fun as the hunting. We'd had requests to add this day so families could make a full weekend of it."

The northwest section of the state includes Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, C

ullman, Winston, Marion, Lamar, Fayette and Walker counties and Ron Eakes is the biologist there.

It was a poor year for hunting in this corner of the state last year, and results were off even on the state WMAs. Eakes' feeling was that escalating gas prices (of all things) might be at least partially to blame. "All the WMAs in our district are kind of remote," he offered. "With the way gas prices were, our participation was off."

It was one of those things that kind of snowballed, he added. Warm, dry weather likely caused less deer movement, so the hunters who did visit a WMA early in the season weren't likely to return if they didn't see much on those initial trips.

Freedom Hills WMA in this district is one that is coming on strong, Eakes said, especially for buck hunting later in the season.

"We're entering the fifth year of being on quality management, where a buck has to have at least three points on one side to be legal," the biologist pointed out.

Hunters at the area have also been steadily thinning the number of does. The result is January hunting with a so-called "classic rut." It's shorter, more intense and hunters are more likely to see rubs, scrapes and chasing behavior.

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Best 2007-08 WMA Hunts for Harvest Success

WMADatesSuccessBlue Spring1/1726%Lowndess1/1120%Sam Murphy12/26-2916%Scotch11/1716%Blue Spring1/2516%Mulberry Fork11/1712%Oakmulgee11/2412%Oakmulgee11/2311%Mulberry Fork12/2910%Martin/Skyline11/179%

Good private land hunting in this district can be found in Franklin, Walker, Lamar and Fayette counties.

CENTRAL

In the east-central part of the state, which boasts great deer hunting, the counties are Coosa, Tallapoosa, Chambers, Autauga, Elmore, Macon, Lee, Russell, Bullock, Montgomery and Lowndes.

Supervising biologist Rick Claybrook would characterize last season in his district as good. But it's nearly always good in this deer-rich slice of Alabama. "We can struggle during times of mild weather or heavy mast crops just like anyone else," he said. "But by and large, this is one of the premier regions of the state for deer hunting."

Three great central Alabama counties: Lowndes, Macon and Bullock.

Lowndes WMA is a winner for deer hunting in general early in the season and buck hunting late in the season. Expect a change at the area this year, with the January either-sex gun hunts being changed to buck only.

"We were just getting too many people for those hunts when it was either-sex," Claybrook said. "It had gotten to where it was not a quality hunt."

Feral hogs also are present on the WMA and Claybrook encourages hunters to take the destructive pests if they get the opportunity.

The west-central portion of the state comprises Pickens, Sumter, Greene, Marengo, Tuscaloosa, Hale, Jefferson, Bibb, Perry, Shelby, Dallas and Chilton counties. This is the part of the state in which Chris Cook works.

The traditionally favored counties of Greene, Dallas, Pickens and Marengo are again top places to look for whitetails in 2008. "Year in and year out, there are just a lot of deer in these counties," Cook said.

The three wildlife management areas in this district -- Cahaba, Mulberry Fork and Oakmulgee are all good, but Oakmulgee probably gets the nod as the best for deer numbers. "It's a good one to hunt because of the access, too," Cook said. "There are a lot of roads and many of them are gated. This provides good ways to get in and out of hunting areas."

There's no secret part of the WMA, however, that's better than another, Cook added -- it's all good. "I'd just try to get in the middle of it, if I were going to hunt it," he concluded.

SOUTH

The southwest part of the state has had a heavy population of deer for years. The counties in this region are Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Clarke, Baldwin, Wilcox, Monroe, Conecuh and Escambia.

The deer population in this region of the state continues to be very stable, supervising biologist Chuck Sharp said. "You can't base the assessment of the population on anecdotal evidence

, such as how many deer you see along a certain road and how many you saw on that same road last year," he stated.

In this part of the state, deer location depends on whether or not the many river bottoms -- particularly in the Mobile Delta -- are at flood stage and have driven the whitetails to higher ground. In general, lots of variables factor into the deer's selection of locations.

Over the years, development in Mobile and Baldwin counties has been tremendous, so the best hunting here is found in the most rural counties, specifically Clarke, Choctaw and Monroe. Scotch is probably the best WMA, with some particularly good hunts occurring there in January.

According to Sharp, Perdido River WMA is up and coming. "We've only had it for three seasons now," he pointed out. "It can be difficult to hunt, but it's got the potential to be a really good one within the next couple of seasons."

The southeast corner of the state is made up of the counties of Butler, Covington, Crenshaw, Pike, Coffee, Geneva, Barbour, Dale, Henry and Houston. Bill Gray is the district's supervising biologist.

"It was either feast or famine in our district last year," he said. "If you got a good day, you might go and see several animals. But at other times, you might go and not see much of anything."

A once-in-a-lifetime crop of acorns littered the ground in the district last year. According to Gray, so many acorns lay on the ground that it was like walking on ball bearings in some woods.

"I would expect us to have a much better season this year," he said. "I don't think there's any way we could have another acorn crop like that."

Numbers of deer are good throughout the district, with the highest populations thought to be in Pike, Covington, Crenshaw, Barbour and Henry counties.

A new public tract comes on line in this district this year: Geneva County WMA, which is really just a remnant of the old Covington WMA.

"We lost 15,000 acres of the Covington WMA," Gray said. "The new Geneva County WMA was previously part of Covington. This is actually the Geneva State Forest, owned by the State Forestry Division. They've done a lot of work on it and it's just one of the most beautiful places you'll ever visit. It's a hidden treasure and there's going to be some pretty good hunting on it."

The best WMA for deer numbers in the district, Gray asserted, is probably Blue Spring. Hunters take good numbers of deer here every year, and it's one of the few WMAs that still allow organized hunts with dogs on select dates. The opening-day and mid-January hunts are particularly successful ones here.

* * *

From the mountains in the north to the piney woods and swamps in the south, Alabama will continue in 2008 to offer the whitetail enthusiast both solid deer hunting and lots of places in which to pursue the pastime.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anthony Campbell is a reporter for the Advertiser-Glean in Guntersville. He is also a freelance outdoor writer and frequent contributor to Alabama Game & Fish.

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