Alabama's 2006 Deer Outlook

Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks (November 2006)

Wallhangers can show up anywhere in the Heart of Dixie, but some areas are in a class by themselves when it comes to big whitetails. Alabama Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at the parts of the state best for encountering trophy bucks.

Bragging-sized bucks show up all across the Cotton State, true. But a few old-reliable regions definitely offer you better chances of bringing down a wallhanger than do others.

The Black Belt -- the granddaddy region of Alabama buck hunting -- yields up nice animals every season, reported Chris Cook, the state's deer studies leader. Large numbers of deer roam quite decent habitat throughout most of that region.

But Cook has noticed that more top-end deer -- those with racks pushing 150 Boone and Crockett Club points or better -- have been taken the last several seasons in the northwestern corner of Alabama. So if a record book buck is your goal, Cook advises you to head for that quadrant of the state.

"There are a couple of reasons why we're seeing better deer taken in this area of the state," he noted. "One is that more land is being leased here nowadays. Ten years ago, there was still a lot of open-permit land there -- you could just go hunt it."

As more of that land is being leased, the leaseholders are increasingly turning to deer management. "They're not as likely to take the first buck they see," Cook said. "They're letting small bucks walk, and that's improving the age structure."

A lot of habitat work continues to be done in the region, most of it in the form of timber thinning and burning, so the whitetails accordingly have plenty of groceries to help them reach their maximum potential. Further, this part of the state has never had the overpopulation problems that have plagued areas of the Black Belt.

"They just haven't had to go through that," Cook stated. "And that's a very positive thing."

Generally, the best part of Alabama for trophies starts in the middle of the state and goes north. The poor, sandy soils of the southernmost counties aren't conducive to producing racks of the same quality as those seen in areas boasting more fertile soils.

"It might take a buck in these poor-soil counties five and a half years to develop the same rack that a 3 1/2-year-old has in the other parts of the state," remarked Cook. "You can still do some management activities that make a difference in the southern counties."

TACTICS FOR TAKING THE BIG BOYS

Just what defines a trophy buck in Alabama?

According to Cook, it's not necessarily the 150-incher that gets a person into the Alabama Whitetail Record book. "In most parts of Alabama, if you kill a 125- to 130-inch buck, you've killed a really, really good deer," he remarked.

In Alabama, 10- and 12-pointers tend to be rare, so here, many career-best bucks are likely to sport 8-point racks with a spread of 15 to 18 inches and main beams ranging between 20 and 24 inches, inclusive. "As he gets more age on him, he won't necessarily get a whole lot wider," Cook offered, "but the height of the rack and the mass improve."

How do you go about putting yourself in position to slay that beast? "You've got to have some luck," Cook suggested. "That's part of it. But there are things you can do to give yourself an advantage, too."

If you're hunting a property on which most bucks killed are 1 1/2 years old, Cook proposes that you should find another place to hunt. "Your chances of shooting a bigger deer aren't too good if a lot of bucks are getting shot at 1 1/2 years old," he asserted.

You've got to put in a lot of time in the woods, too. The best windows in which to look for a buck to slip up and make himself vulnerable are bow season, early gun season and the rut, the last of those three being a January affair in most parts of the state. Cook would pick the rut over any other period if he were going to use vacation days for his hunting.

The difficulties of hunting Alabama whitetails include bucks becoming extremely nocturnal and adopting unpredictable patterns that make it hard to determine their whereabouts. It's hard to sneak in tight to bedding cover, since most parts of the state abound in thickets.

Nowadays, a lot of Alabamians have become greenfield deer hunters, perhaps out of convenience more than anything else. Cook regards this as a pretty good rut tactic if you've got fields to which plenty of does come in the afternoons. "During the rut, the bucks will be cruising to check those does," he said. "And you might get an opportunity at a nice buck."

Scrape hunting gets a lot of press in other parts of the country, but Cook's never had a whole lot of luck doing it, and doesn't know many other Alabama hunters who have, either. "I'm not an expert on scrape behavior," he noted, "but in my mind, a lot of bucks hit scrapes once or twice and then never visit them again. That's why it can be a slow form of hunting."

Cook would rather try a little rattling, which, he says, can get surprisingly good results in Alabama. He's had lots of hunters tell him of having luck with it. The most successful rattling hunters that he knows of employ a two-man method: One rattles, and the other's the shooter. "It's a very good tactic to use on properties where a balanced herd has been a management objective and the doe to buck ratio is good," he said.

Hunting clearcuts is another dynamite approach to the rut, in Cook's view. He feels that cutovers, whose cover complement makes deer feel more secure moving around, can actually be a lot more productive than greenfields. "They feed in it," Cook observed. "They bed in it. It's just a good place for deer." He cautioned that this type of hunting can be tricky, since cutovers -- especially those replanted in pines -- grow up so quickly that there's a narrow window of opportunity for optimum hunting.

With these tactics in mind, let's look at the promise held out by different regions of the state, and at what you can expect of them this fall.

TROPHY HUNTING IN THE HEART OF DIXIE

North

As mentioned earlier, the northwestern corner of the state has been one of Alabama's best producers of prime-quality racks for several seasons now -- and district biologist Ron Eakes sees no reason for that not to continue into this year.

Eakes' territory covers Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Cullman, Winston, Marion, Lamar, Fayette and

Walker counties. In this region full of sprawling wildlife management areas and national forests, an estimated 180,000 acres of public-land deer hunting will be found.

Year in and year out, Black Warrior and Sam R. Murphy WMAs give up the biggest bucks in the district, so they're Eakes' picks for the top public-land producers of high-grade deer in his district. "January was warm and did us in last year," he said. "We're hoping for some better hunting weather this year."

A lot of habitat work -- pine thinning and prescribed burning -- is ongoing in the district's Bankhead National Forest, which should provide plenty of browse to help the bucks attain their maximum potential.

For private-land hunting, Eakes likes the buck potential in Franklin and Marion counties. The population isn't quite as high there, so bucks have a chance of getting all the groceries they need to reach the pinnacle of their development.

The northeastern corner of the state comprises Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb, Cherokee, Etowah, Blount, St. Clair, Calhoun, Cleburne, Randolph, Clay and Talladega counties. Keith McCutcheon, the biologist for the area, noted that improvements in deer quality are slowly being seen in his part of the state, too. "It's not leaps and bounds," he said, "but we're seeing small, incremental changes over time."

More either-sex hunting days have been added in portions of this district this season, which should make it easier for private-land managers to harvest the necessary number of does.

McCutcheon reported that Jackson County continues to be a solid buck producer in his district. Martin-Skyline WMA is one of his selections as a top public buck-hunting ground; also, he speaks well of Little River WMA.

"There's some talk," he offered, "of going to quality deer management" -- under which a legal buck is defined as one having 3 points on one side -- "on Little River, but we're still in the very early stages of taking a look at it."

Central

The counties in the west-central portion of the state are Pickens, Sumter, Greene, Marengo, Tuscaloosa, Hale, Jefferson, Bibb, Perry, Shelby, Dallas and Chilton counties. Chris Cook works in this area.

A significant factor here is the timing of the peak of the rut in much of Pickens County -- around Christmas, a little earlier than other regions of the state. Pickens, Greene and Sumter are historically big-buck counties, and still yield trophies today, but the whole region is a worthwhile one.

"I measured a 152-inch buck last season that came from Dallas County," Cook reported. "So you just never know."

East-central Alabama is another region that boasts outstanding hunting for bucks of quality. The counties constituting this region are Coosa, Tallapoosa, Chambers, Autauga, Elmore, Macon, Lee, Russell, Bullock, Montgomery and Lowndes. Rick Claybrook is the biologist.

"Montgomery and Macon have the Black Belt soils," Claybrook said. "They're our better counties for both numbers and quality. Bullock is always one of our better counties for quality trophy-class deer, too."

Lowndes WMA, not too far south of Montgomery, is Claybrook's pick as a top public deer destination; it operates under QDM guidelines. "It's a small area," he stated, "only 10,000-plus acres. But it's been a pretty good area. Going to QDM has led to a shift in the harvest. Instead of yearling bucks making up the bulk of the buck harvest, it's a lot more 2-year-olds, and that feeds over to some 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds being taken." Instead of taking 110-pound spikes, he added, hunters harvest 140-pound bucks wearing multiple-point racks.

South

The southwestern corner of the state's large deer population is evidenced by the 70 days of either-sex hunting that it affords in its constituent counties: Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Clarke, Baldwin, Wilcox, Monroe, Conecuh and Escambia. Steve Barnett is the biologist.

Hunters in this region are still adjusting their tactics to adapt to the changes wrought to the landscape by Hurricane Ivan's passage two years ago. Barnett points to Wilcox, Monroe and Clarke as the top counties for top-quality deer in his district. Scotch WMA in Clarke is his pick as a topnotch public site for buck action.

"There's a good mix of pine and hardwoods on the WMA, with some new clear-cuts and some good broad streamside management zones," he remarked. "It's a real diverse region. It has a little better soil than some of the other areas in our district, which translates to better physical condition and antler development."

The southeastern corner of the state is made up of the counties of Butler, Covington, Crenshaw, Pike, Coffee, Geneva, Barbour, Dale, Henry and Houston. The public area in the district that district biologist Bill Gray singles out: Barbour WMA. He's seen remarkable improvements there since it began being managed on a QDM basis several years ago.

"If you spend some time hunting there, you'll have a pretty good chance to kill an older age-class buck," he said.

For private-land hunting, he likes Barbour, Pike and Crenshaw counties, which, he feels, just tend to yield up better bucks year in and year out than do some of the others.

No matter where you live in the Cotton State, there's bound to be some decent buck hunting somewhere close by. We hope that these tips on locations and hunting tactics can help you in your quest to take a bruiser Bama buck this fall.

Find more about Alabama fishing and hunting at: AlabamaGameandFish.com

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