Alabama's 2009 Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas
September 28, 2010
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 2009)
The 2009-10 deer season is the best of times and the worst of times for Alabama's many whitetail hunters.
The tough part of being an Alabama deer hunter is that there are always factors outside the sportsman's control that seem to dominate how the season turns out. It can be warm weather, wet weather, drought, too much mast, not enough mast, and the list goes on. On top of that, the best hunting areas always seem to be locked up by exclusive, expensive hunting clubs.
But then there's the great part of being a Bama deer hunter. Our deer herd continues to thrive. Whitetails can be found virtually everywhere. If you live in the suburbs and have three or four acres of woods, chances are you've got deer on your place. Our season starts Oct. 15 and runs to Jan. 31. We're allowed three bucks and an unlimited number of does. And we've got hundreds of thousands of acres of public land just sitting there for the adventurous sportsman to access.
Overall, the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to chasing whitetails in the Cotton State.
Perhaps the best place to start in picking a place to hunt is to look at last season and the season before. Last year was an "average" season for Alabama's deer hunters, the biologists for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries said. But that's a blessing when you consider how hard the hunting was the season before that.
In 2007-08, the woods in the northern half of the state suffered a late freeze that wiped out a great deal of the mast crop. Then in late summer, temperatures hit the 100s during a drought and that caused an outbreak of EHD in lots of places around the state, with widespread reports of deer deaths.
The hunting consequently was very difficult and the harvest was off all around the state.
"Hunters took about 342,000 deer that year," said Chris Cook, one of the DWFF deer studies leaders. "It was as low a harvest as we'd had since 1994-95."
The harvest typically runs between 400,000 and 450,000 deer in Alabama, and Cook said the numbers were closer to that for 2008-09. Final statistics on the statewide harvest estimate were still being compiled as this went to press, but Cook said it was a lot stronger last year.
Just from judging by the harvest on the state's network of wildlife management areas, the increase could be seen.
"The man-days of hunting effort weren't much different from the previous year, but the harvest was up," Cook said.
At least one wildlife manager looks for that rebound to continue this season. That's Ron Eakes, the district biologist for the northwestern corner of the state.
"I believe we had a lot of deer sneak through last year," he said. "We had an unbelievable mast crop and the deer didn't have to move much to feed. In our district, we had some rainy weather on weekends that kept some hunters from getting out. I believe those factors together caused a few more deer to make it through the season and the plentiful food meant they came through in great shape."
Tips From The Pros
The DWFF district biologists spend a great deal of time in the field every year in their work and most of them hunt. They are in every sense of the word professional outdoorsmen.
They also work the check-in stations on the various WMA hunts and see the traits of successful hunters. They've got plenty of tips to help you be a more successful whitetail hunter, if you'll take their advice.
Bill Gray, the other DWFF deer studies leader, encourages hunters to use trail cameras as a guide to help them hunt. He had an eye-opening experience with them during his own hunting last season.
He's part of a hunting club that controls 1,200 acres. The club has three ridges that come together in one place in an area consisting of 12-year-old pines. Gray found a scrape where the three ridges met and set up a trail camera there on Dec. 30. He went back and pulled it on Jan. 25 and had about 250 pictures in his camera, including shots of a 140-inch 8-point and an even bigger 10-point.
This is a thick, thick area that people rarely venture into. Some of the buck pictures were at midday. Gray planned to hunt the spot the last four days of the season, but he missed one day.
"You know what happened," Gray said. "I had left my camera and I had a picture of the big one at 12:30 that day."
He didn't take any of the bucks, but the lesson is clear. The thick woods are where you want to be for good opportunities and the midday period is an overlooked gem.
"The deer are there and they can be frustrating to hunt," Gray said. "But that's what makes it so magical too."
Chris Cook's tip for hunters is to spend some time learning the WMAs. The most successful hunters every year at the checking stations are guys who put in time scouting and then hunt the WMAs year after year after year.
"They get the most out of their $16 WMA permit," he said.
Randy Liles, the district biologist in northeast Alabama, has a couple of tips for private landowners who might be trying to manage their land on a shoestring budget during the soft economy.
"You can save some money on your plots by using a mixture of wheat and redtop clover," he said. "For the money, it's about the most effective thing you can plant. But you can do more for your habitat by striking a match at the right time of year and under the right conditions than you can do with anything you plant."
If you do add controlled burning to your arsenal of wildlife management tools, be sure to contact the state foresters or DWFF personnel to make sure what you have in mind goes along with accepted practices.
With those things being said, let's take a look at some places around Alabama that should offer topnotch hunting this year:
The southeast corner of the state in the DWFF's District 6 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.
This is one of the state's super regions for whitetails. It boasts of not one, but two of Alabama's top-ranked WMAs for whitetails -- No. 1 Blue Springs and No. 6 Barbour.
Hunters took an incredible 528 deer on Blue Spring last year. Every gun hunt on the area is either-sex, and it's one of the rare public areas that hosts stalk hunts and dog hunts for deer.
Stalk gun hunters took 183 deer from the tract last year, while dog hunters killed 175. Archers accounted for another 126, and blackpowder hunters got 44.
"They have two, two-day dog hunts and anyone can get in on the action," Gray said. "Some groups appreciate having extra standers and some don't."
Barbour also produces many deer every year, even though it's managed under quality deer rules requiring a buck to at least have three points on one side to be considered legal. The January hunts tend to produce best on Barbour, but Gray thinks the real sleeper hunt is the primitive weapons hunt that is held before rifle season starts.
"The deer haven't been messed with much and it's a good time to be in the woods," he said.
As far as private land counties in his district, he likes Covington, Geneva and the northern end of Barbour County as the places with the heaviest deer populations.
The southwest part of the state in District 5 is a solid deer region. The counties in this region are Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Clarke, BaldÂwin, Wilcox, Monroe, Conecuh and Escambia. Chuck Sharp is the biologist.
"We had a lot of mast on the ground in this district last year, but it still ended up being a pretty decent season," Sharp said.
Wilcox probably has the best deer population of any county in the region, he added. Scotch WMA has been the traditional pick as the best public land to hunt in the district, but the new Perdido River WMA blew it away in terms of deer harvest.
"Perdido is coming along," Sharp confirmed. "When we first got it, it was really thick, and that put off some hunters. We've had some timber operations that have opened it up and made it more accessible.
Central Alabama is arguably the best region of the state for deer and deer hunting. And west-central Alabama is probably the better part of the central region.
It's also quite hunter friendly, with three killer WMAs that together encompass more than 120,000 acres.
The counties in this District 3 are Pickens, Sumter, Greene, Marengo, Tuscaloosa, Hale, Jefferson, Bibb, Perry, Shelby, Dallas and Chilton. Biologist Chris Cook works in this part of the state.
"Our district includes Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, two major population centers, but all our counties are pretty good for hunting," Cook said. "The best counties for deer are those same counties that have been good for so long -- Dallas, Green, Sumter and Pickens. Hale and Tuscaloosa counties aren't bad."
Like the southeastern corner of the state, this region boasts not one but two of the top-rated WMAs in the state -- Oakmulgee and Mulberry Fork. Cahaba River is also an outstanding WMA.
"Because they are close to population centers, these are very important WMAs, but the hunting is also very good on them," Cook said.
One development in the district is that more either-sex gun hunts are now being allowed on Demopolis WMA. That's why its harvest numbers jumped significantly in last season's statistics.
"It's not the typical WMA in that a lot of the hunting has to be accessed by boat," Cook said.
Oakmulgee is the real showplace of the district. It's consistently one of the top producing areas in the state.
"It has good deer numbers and you have a chance to kill a nice deer there," he said. "To not be on any kind of quality deer management program, we have a good distribution of age-classes in the buck harvest there. Last year, we had 60 year-and-a-half-old bucks, 44 that were 2 1/2 and 53 that were 3 1/2."
The December hunts have traditionally been the best ones at Oakmulgee, but the good hunting carried over into January last year, Cook said.
The east-central part of the state in District 4 also has very solid deer hunting. The counties here are Coosa, Tallapoosa, Chambers, Autauga, Elmore, Macon, Lee, Russell, Bullock, Montgomery and Lowndes.
Good private land hunting can be found anywhere in the district, but Lowndes, Bullock and Macon really shine to biologist Rick Claybrook.
Lowndes WMA is his pick as a top public hunting ground. The harvest numbers were down on the WMA last year, but only because the either-sex gun hunts in January were changed to buck-only hunts.
This region of the state is a winner year in and year out, but doesn't have as much public access on quality hunting grounds as the western part of the region.
The northeast corner of the state in District 2 holds Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb, Cherokee, Etowah, Blount, St. Clair, Calhoun, Cleburne, Randolph, Clay and Talladega counties. Randy Liles is the supervising biologist.
Choccolocco, an old and venerable hunting ground, is the top WMA for whitetails in this region and consistently ranks in the top five in the state in terms of deer harvested.
It has been well documented how the deer rut early here and the November and December hunts are the ones you want to go on. Even though Choccolocco continues to rank high in the WMA kill statistics, Liles said it could be even better if more hunters would show up for the hunts there.
He said the soil at Choccolocco is poor quality, but they're offsetting that with lots and lots of habitat work, such as pine thinning and controlled burning. There's also a vast network of food plots on the area.
Wild hogs are present on the WMA, too, and Liles said to focus your efforts in the northeast quadrant of the WMA if you want to have a chance at some pork to go along with your venison.
Good private land hunting in this region can be found in Jackson, Cleburne and Randolph counties.
The northwest section of the state holds District 1, taking in Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Cullman, Winston, Marion, Lamar, Fayette and Walker counties. Ron Eakes is the biologist here.
He's proud of the hunting on all his WMAs, but the one that really shines is Sam R. Murphy near Guin.
"The deer numbers are really doing well here," he said.
It's a top-five WMA in terms of deer harvest.
There's no shortage of public hunting land available in this district. Other WMAs are Black Warrior, Lauderdale, Riverton, Freedom Hills and Wolf Creek.
For the hunter who doesn't want a lot of company, Eakes recommends Wolf Creek. It's something of a fragmented WMA, but he said the hunting is fine and there's not much competition.
Good private lands in this corner of the state are in Lauderdale, Colbert and Franklin.
The state's network of WMAs and the fact that hunts are staggered on different weekends means a hunter could hunt every weekend of the season in a different part of the state if he or she were so inclined.
It's certainly nice to have that option, if nothing else for a change of scenery, even if you have some private land close to home.