Alabama's 2007 Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Trophy deer can show up anywhere in the Heart of Dixie. But some areas are in a class by themselves when it comes to big whitetails. Here, Alabama Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at the best parts of the state for encountering trophy bucks.(November 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

The 2007-08 deer season is poised to become a historic one for hunters who target trophy-caliber whitetail bucks in Alabama. For all Cotton State hunters, the biggest change is that you can no longer kill one buck a day for the entire length of the long hunting season.

The Conservation Advisory board adopted a three-buck season limit last spring -- the first such statewide buck limit in more than 40 years.

"The new buck limit in itself is not going to make a huge difference," said state deer biologist Chris Cook. "The average hunter doesn't kill three bucks per season.

"What the new limit does is send a subtle message to the state's hunters that bucks aren't a limitless resource. It hopefully makes the hunter think about whether he really wants to shoot that spike or 4-point."

Cook said his hope is that over time, the new buck limit will take some of the pressure off the younger bucks. Wildlife managers would to see older age-class bucks make up a bigger share of the Alabama harvest in future seasons.

Cook thinks the new buck limit will probably impact only about 10 percent of the state's hunters. They're the guys who kill multiple bucks every season and they're the ones who stand to be riled by the idea that they can't shoot as many as possible.

"Our mail surveys indicate that most years, 40 percent of the hunters in the state don't kill a single deer," Cook noted. "It's one of those situations where 10 percent of the hunters take the biggest part of the harvest."

Cook expects the new licenses to have a blank on the back for hunters to record their buck kills. He said that any hunter transporting a dead buck without having filled out the tag would likely face a ticket from a conservation officer.

Beside the blank, there are expected to be notches, and each hunter must punch out a notch for every buck taken.

The other parts of the equation that could make this season historic are the climate factors that point to a lot of deer movement this fall.

A late freeze in the northern half of the state is expected to have impacted the mast crop. After a March that was warmer than usual, most trees were in or near full leaf, and flowering trees and a lot of other plants were in bloom. The late freeze didn't just nip the new growth, it killed it back.

The state was also entering a protracted drought going into the summer growing season. Both factors severely limited the availability of natural food this season.

That translates to deer having to move a lot more to feed.

"It's going to be hard on the deer," Cook said. "But if we get some cold weather to go with it, we'll see a lot of deer movement."

Last season, Alabama hunters had cold weather on the front end and the back end -- two key times -- and lots of deer were harvested during those time frames.

"The first part of the season was good last season. And then January, which is the rut in most of the state, was also very good," Cook agreed. "Those are two huge times for us every season."

Even when it's warm this year, the deer may move if the food supply shapes up to be as dire as predicted.

"We'll see deer keying on honeysuckle and greenbrier pretty early if the drought conditions continue," he said. "The hunters who like to hunt green fields may do pretty well, if they were able to get a little rain in the fall and get their plots up."

The best places to search for a trophy buck in 2007-08 remain the same ones they've been for years -- northwest Alabama and the Black Belt.

"It has been no secret in recent years that northwest Alabama is producing a lot of quality deer," Cook said. "Counties in that region, such as Lamar, Walker, Winston, Fayette and Franklin, will continue to be good this year. They've never had the overpopulation situation to contend with that we've had in some other parts of the state."

The rich, fertile soil of the Black Belt prairies in central Alabama also continue to produce better-than-average deer. Counties in this region that Cook likes include Dallas, Pickens, Marengo, Bullock, Macon and even Barbour.

In northeast Alabama, Jackson County has historically been a producer of nice bucks. But Cook said that in his book, it's not as good as northwest Alabama or the Black Belt. Jackson still produces some nice deer, but has a lot of hunting pressure.

"Quality deer can show up anywhere," Cook conceded. "We have some killed in the poorer soils of places like Covington and Geneva counties every year. But by and large, the places with better soils produce the better deer."

Just what kind of deer is a solid one for the Cotton State? Bucks with racks scoring 125 to 130 on the Boone and Crockett Club system are the kind of deer that make your season in Alabama -- and most hunters don't get one that big every year.

"A 125-inch buck is the more common size when someone tells you they got a good one," Cook confirmed. "You've got a lot better chance of getting a buck in that size-class. To be an exceptional buck, I think you have to throw it up there to 140 or better. Instead of a 3- or 4-year-old, you're looking for one that is 5 or 6."

With that said, here are some locations in each region of the state where you can look for your own 140-incher or better this fall and winter:

NORTH

As noted, the northwestern corner of the state continues to be one of Alabama's best producers of top-end racks. District biologist Ron Eakes sees no reason why that won't continue this year.

His region covers Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Cullman, Winston, Marion, Lamar, Fayette and Walker counties. With its big wildlife management areas and national forests, there's an estimated 180,000 acres of public land available for deer hunting in this region.

Eakes said that last year, warm weather during some of the hunts in his distr

ict resulted in fewer sportsmen afield, and the buck harvest was down somewhat.

"It should help our buck retention, with more bucks carrying over to this season," he added.

Black Warrior WMA continues to be an excellent place to hunt bucks. Keep in mind that much of the area sees a November rut. Even during bow season, you can see bucks chasing does.

Eakes noted that Freedom Hills and Lauderdale WMAs now have quality-deer management regulations in place. On those areas, a legal buck must have at least three points on one side.

"It's doing what we wanted it to do," Eakes pointed out. "We're seeing fewer 1 1/2-year-old bucks being taken, and more bucks making it to 2 1/2 years old. We're not seeing as many 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 year olds as we would like, but it is improving our age-structure."

For private-land hunting, some of the best potential for bucks is in Marion, Fayette and Lamar counties.

"We're seeing some nice bucks coming out of these areas," the biologist agreed.

The northeastern corner of the state is made up of Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb, Blount, Cherokee, Etowah, Clay, St. Clair, Calhoun, Cleburne, Randolph and Talladega counties. Randy Liles is now the acting supervising biologist, following the retirement of Keith McCutcheon.

Liles is the biologist in charge of Choccolocco WMA, but said he would still have to pick Martin/Skyline WMA in Jackson County as the public ground with the best potential in his district.

"The state owns the land, and they can do so much more habitat work," Liles noted in explaining his pick.

Skyline offers virtually any kind of habitat a hunter could want. There are bottomland farms on the Jacobs tract, rolling plateaus at the Poplar Springs section, and steep wooded mountains on the Walls of Jericho and the Stevenson segments.

"The only thing it has against it is, the soil is fairly poor quality," Liles said. "Still, some nice deer are taken here every year."

The biologist also noted that Little River WMA in DeKalb County is coming on strong as a good place for finding bigger bucks.

CENTRAL

The state's west-central portion is comprised of Pickens, Sumter, Greene, Marengo, Tuscaloosa, Hale, Jefferson, Bibb, Perry, Shelby, Dallas and Chilton counties.

Chris Cook works in this part of the state. The biologist said that some of the best counties for big deer are Green, Dallas, Pickens and Tuscaloosa. "They have good deer populations and they're also the places where we're seeing better-quality deer," he stated.

For quality deer, the better public hunting areas are Cahaba River and Mulberry Fork WMAs, both of which are easily accessible from the Birmingham area.

Cahaba River has a Christmas rut, while Mulberry Fork is more of the traditional Alabama January rut.

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

Rick Claybrook is the biologist, and Macon is his pick as the county with the best buck potential. It's one of the Black Belt counties, with highly fertile soils.

"It just seems like a lot of our better quality bucks come from Macon," Claybrook suggested and added that "Montgomery, Bullock and Lowndes aren't bad either."

Lowndes WMA is one of the better-quality public hunting areas. "We see some 140-inch bucks coming out of this area every year," he said.

The only drawback is that the area is comprised of only about 11,000 acres. Some of the rut hunts in January draw around 300 hunters, and they basically fill up the area.

Claybrook noted that big bucks could come from other areas of the district too, including the more northerly areas with Piedmont-type soils.

"One of the best bucks I've ever seen was a 150-incher that came off Hollins," he said, referencing the WMA located in the Talladega National Forest.

SOUTH

The southwestern corner of the state has a heavy deer population, as evidenced by the need for 70 days of either-sex hunting. And that overpopulation makes quality forage scarce in the area. Thus big bucks and racks are not as common. The counties in this region are Choctaw, Washington, Wilcox, Mobile, Clarke, Baldwin, Conecuh, Escambia and Monroe.

Steve Barnett is the biologist. For quality bucks on public land, he likes the Scotch WMA in Clarke County. The soil is better there, and there are good deer numbers.

For private-land buck hunting, he likes Clarke County, northern Mobile County and Wilcox County. "These are the three best areas we've got for bucks," he confirmed.

The southeastern 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 biologist.

Barbour WMA continues as a top pick for a quality buck on public land. It has been under quality-deer management rules for several years. Again, three points on one side of the rack are required for a buck to be legal for harvest.

The area has almost any kind of habitat a hunter would want to seek out. "It has hardwoods, cutovers, thickets and grown-over agricultural fields," Gray explained. "It has over 100 quality food plots."

Gray noted that a hunter could get in a thicket where he could see only 20 yards, or could be hunting on a clearcut or fallow field where his line of sight stretched out to 400 yards.

The biologist's picks for the best quality private-land hunting are Barbour, Pike and Crenshaw, all of which are perennial producers of better bucks.

What will the drought, the freeze and the new buck limit actually mean for this year's hunting in Alabama. Time will tell. But it stands to reason that the 2007-08 season could be one for the history books for the Cotton State!

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

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