Alabama's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

In the Heart of Dixie, even unpromising spots can yield uncommon bucks, but certain areas are in a class by themselves when it comes to big whitetails. Here, Alabama Game & Fish zeroes in on the best parts of the state for trophy encounters. (November 2008).

In the Heart of Dixie, two regions of the state stand out for trophy deer hunters heading into the 2008-09 whitetail season: west Alabama, and the Black Belt that runs across the central portion of the state. No other regions in the state can quite compare with these two areas when it comes to producing top-quality whitetails.

"If you can get behind one of these gates and put some distance between yourself and other hunters, it's possible to still catch some deer on a natural feeding pattern between the hardwoods and the pines," Cook said.

Oh, sure -- big bucks are taken in other places. But more of them fall in these two areas each year than anywhere else.

West Alabama's potential for exceptional productivity really jumped out at me last season. Alabama Game & Fish serves as something of a clearinghouse for hunters who have taken top-end bucks and would like to get their story in print. As big bucks fell in late December and early January, many of those stories and pictures came my way, and I was startled by the number of true top-end deer taken in the western portion of the state. (Several of those bucks will be profiled in an upcoming edition.)

Chris Cook, the state's deer studies coordinator, has noticed the trend, too. He observed that the region running from Sumter County north along the Mississippi line through Pickens, Lamar, Marion and Fayette is a strong one for trophy potential.

Year in and year out, it has become a very good region," he stated. "I measured two bucks from this region last year that scored about 170 inches. I measured one from Sumter County that was 184'‚5/8 non-typical."

Habitat in western Alabama continues to be in very good shape, Cook reported. Deer numbers are strong there, but the region's not overpopulated, so whitetails can reach their maximum size. Also, some pine plantations and other rugged sections of land provide places for bucks to hunker down in and there grow old.

Even the hunting on public wildlife management areas bears out how solid the western region of Alabama is for whitetails. The accompanying chart shows the number of 2'‚1/2- and 3 1/2-year-old bucks that were checked on the state's WMAs last season.

Three of the top six spots for buck harvest were on WMAs that could be considered in west Alabama -- Oakmulgee, Mulberry Fork and Cahaba River. In Cook's view, all three are excellent places to try your luck.

"We had a lot of opportunity with more either-sex hunts on Oakmulgee last season," the biologist said. "That in turn improved participation. With more hunters in the woods, we had some good hunts. We'll have a lot of opportunity on this area again in the coming year."

Mulberry Fork and Cahaba River had the same type of thing going last year, with both producing nice deer. Cook's insider tip: Mulberry Fork has more deer, but Cahaba River has bigger specimens. "We saw several deer over 200 pounds on Cahaba River last year," he noted.

According to Cook, the areas are similar, with pine plantations on the ridges and hardwoods in the hollows. He recommended setting up in the transition areas between piney woods and hardwoods -- preferably behind a gated-off road, if you can find one.

If you hunt these areas, or anywhere on western Alabama's private land, be aware that some of the best hunts to be had there happen in mid-December. The deer here were stocked from a source in North Carolina and have an earlier rut date than the typical January rut of Alabama strain deer.

As for the Black Belt, Cook said, factors that make it a creditable producer of big bucks include the more-fertile soil and the chunks of property larger than will be found elsewhere in the state. Bigger parcels under single ownership make some really strong deer management possible in this region.

"In theory at least, when your soil is better, you should grow better deer," Cook reasoned. "The lower tier of the state with poorer soils -- places like Geneva, Covington and Baldwin counties -- struggle a little more to produce nice deer, but we still hear of nice bucks being taken in those places every year, too."

The same is true in northeast Alabama, where Jackson and Madison counties produce quite respectable numbers of bucks despite small tracts of land and lots of hunting pressure.

OTHER PLACES TO TRY

Given record prices for gasoline, it's hardly surprising that several WMA managers reported diminished participation at their areas last year -- especially at those requiring a lot driving to access such as Black Warrior and, to a lesser extent, Barbour. This year's even higher gas prices suggest that the trend's unlikely to change.

Still, those two WMAs offer excellent places to try for a buck in 2008-09, Cook said. "The antler restriction and how long Barbour has been on it makes it a very attractive place to hunt for people looking for a quality buck," he pointed out.

Cook added that Black Warrior, the state's largest WMA, gets almost no hunting pressure when you consider the size of the area -- a whopping 97,953 acres -- and noted, "Part of it went to 4 points per side last season."

Freedom Hills and Lauderdale, in the northwestern corner of the state, are said to be WMAs that are coming on strong.

The state's system of WMAs continues to be the most economical "hunting club" a sportsman could ever join. For the price of a $16 WMA permit, you can hunt thousands of acres all across the state, some of it managed for high-quality bucks.

If hunting WMAs seriously is in your future, you need to know about the WMA report published each spring by the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, a goldmine of data that can help you pick the areas you want to hunt and determine the very best times to hunt them. Offering insights into live weights, antler development and other factors that can help you assess the shape that the deer are in wherever you want to hunt, it's invaluable reading for a public-land whitetail enthusiast. Access the report at www. outdooralabama.com: Click the link for Research/Management; on the next page, click on Publications.

In working WMA hunts over the years, Cook has noticed that those who spend the most time on the areas take the most bucks. He recommends hunting as they hunt -- picking out three or four WMAs and skipping around to hit all of them.

The WMA schedule is set up in such a way that traveling hunter can

make a gun hunt on some area almost every weekend of the season. Bowhunters have it

even better, with the WMAs open the full season to the stick-and-string set. "Talk to the biologists who work these areas," Cook suggested.

Getting site-specific data from biologists makes it possible to catch three distinct ruts at Alabama WMAs. A typical hunting schedule for a guy focusing on the rut might be to hunt Black Warrior or Choccolocco in November, Oakmulgee in December and Barbour in January.

BUCK LIMIT'S EFFECTS UNKNOWN

Alabama hunters had a three-buck season limit last year for the first time in years, and Cook doesn't expect it to make a huge difference right off. The idea is that it just might encourage hunters to pass on spikes and 4-pointers and focus instead on bucks with a little more headgear.

"There are a few of these old-time WMA hunters who would kill 10 bucks a season, two or three on each of the three or four WMAs they hunted," Cook said. Obviously, the limit will have affected them a little.

Cook noticed one of them following the rules to the letter in his WMA rounds last year. The hunter "bucked out" by December, but continued to show up to hunt the WMAs. "On those later hunts, he didn't have a gun with him, and he was taking kids and other people hunting," he recalled. "We talked to him about it, and his attitude was that the rules were the rules, and he was going to follow them."

ALABAMA RECORDS PROGRAM

The Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries is in the process of setting up a state trophy-buck recognition program to be based on Boone and Crockett Club net scores. Minimum entry scores are 140 for typicals and 165 for non-typicals. As it will recognize the deer, and not so much the hunter, no separate categories will be established for bow or muzzleloader kills.

"We're patterning it after the Magnolia Records Program in Mississippi," Cook said.

The hope is to have scoring sessions in each wildlife district at least once a year. Over time, Cook said, the records will help point out trophy hotspots around the state.

Look for more details of the program soon on the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Web site, the address for which is www.outdooralabama.com.

REGIONAL RUN-DOWN

All that said, let's look at the various regions of the state to focus on some more areas of Alabama that usually produce good bucks.

North

The northwestern corner of the state, historically a good producer of big bucks, was somewhat quiet last year. An outbreak of epizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease is thought to have hit the whitetail herd in this portion of the state hard late in the summer of 2007.

Counties in this district are Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Cullman, Winston, Marion, Lamar, Fayette and Walker. Its big WMAs and expansive national forests lands open roughly 180,000 acres of public land for deer hunting.

District biologist Ron Eakes still regards Black Warrior WMA, in the Bankhead National Forest, as a place with some excellent trophy potential, but he noted that Freedom Hills WMA is another place coming on strong, with some especially good rutting action in January.

Black Warrior, Freedom Hills and Lauderdale WMAs now administer deer hunting on at least a portion of their lands under Quality Deer Management; a buck must have 3 points on one side to be legal.

Good private lands, as mentioned earlier, are found in Marion, Fayette and Lamar counties.

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

The sprawling James D. Martin-Skyline WMA in Jackson County is thought of as the public area in this district exhibiting the highest trophy potential. Some new property is being added to the WMA this season, and that should be an exciting factor for hunters who use the tract. It has a little bit of everything: bottomland farms, rolling plateaus, and steep, wooded mountains.

Central

The central-western portion of the state comprises Pickens, Sumter, Greene, Marengo, Tuscaloosa, Hale, Jefferson, Bibb, Perry, Shelby, Dallas and Chilton counties. Generally speaking, it lies within the Black Belt, which we've already designated as perhaps the best trophy region in the state at present.

State deer studies coordinator Chris Cook, who works in this part of the state, suggested that some of the best counties for big deer are Green, Dallas, Pickens and Tuscaloosa, and picks Cahaba River as the WMA with the best big-buck potential in this portion of the Cotton State.

East-central Alabama is another region that year in and year out has outstanding hunting for the best-quality bucks. The counties in this region are Coosa, Tallapoosa, Chambers, Autauga, Elmore, Macon, Lee, Russell, Bullock, Montgomery and Lowndes. Several of those counties are also in the fabled Black Belt. Rick Claybrook is the regional biologist.

Good areas for high-quality deer include Montgomery, Bullock and Macon counties.

Lowndes WMA, one of the better public hunting areas, is open to hunting under QDM. Claybrook acknowledged that the size of the area, only 11,000 acres, is a significant drawback, but added that they're going to buck-only hunts in January this year as a way to try to reduce the hunting pressure in the late season.

South4

The southwestern corner of the state has long had a heavy deer population. The counties there are Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Clarke, Baldwin, Wilcox, Monroe, Conecuh and Escambia. Chuck Sharp is the biologist.

Generally speaking, the best buck hunting here will be found in the northernmost part of the district, such as in Clarke and Wilcox counties. Scotch is a solid choice for WMA deer hunts.

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 district biologist covering this area is Bill Gray.

Barbour WMA is the old granddaddy of public lands for deer hunting in this zone. Its hunting seasons are open using QDM rules. In fact, it was the first WMA in the state to use such management techniques. Additionally the tract contains a wide variety of habitat types suitable for whitetails.

Good bets for private-land hunting are Barbour, Pike and Crenshaw counties -- all longtime buck producers in this neck of the woods.

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

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