Alabama's 2009 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Big bucks are taken annually all over the Cotton State, but some areas produce better than others. Here's an in-depth look at those hotspots for this year. (November 2009)

Last year provided a solid season for quality bucks all across Alabama. Don't be shocked if this year isn't even better.

Alabama is entering its third year of the three-buck season limit and wildlife biologist Chris Cook, the state's Deer Project Studies leader, thinks Alabama is seeing at least a little bit of results from it.

"People are passing up spikes and 4-pointers more, even on the management areas where we don't have antler restrictions," he said. "The three-buck limit is at least partly responsible. I know guys who used to kill 10 and 12 bucks a year on the management areas. They're abiding by the rules and they're passing more on small bucks."

Passing up the little guys is exactly what the rule was aimed at, so Cook thinks it is having its desired effect. Before the limit, hunters could legally kill a buck a day in Alabama starting in bow season on Oct. 15, 2009, and running until the end of gun hunting, which falls on Jan. 31, 2010 for this season.

Cook agreed 2008-09 was a good season for bucks in Alabama, including on the state's network of WMAs.

"We saw some really nice deer that were taken," he said. "I've measured two or three bucks that went over 160 inches, including bucks from Barbour County and Tuscaloosa County."

Biologist Bill Gray in southeast Alabama said he measured a Russell County buck that scored more than 160 on the Boone and Crockett scale and a Houston County one that went more than 150.

"People throw these numbers around all the time, but an 8-point in Alabama that measures 130 inches is a really nice deer," Gray said. "People see these freak bucks from the Midwest on TV and expect to see one in Alabama, but everything is relative. Yeah, we do have places capable of producing 160-inch deer, but you have to understand that those deer aren't the norm."

Both Cook and Gray said they measured quite a few bucks in the 125 to 135 range.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources now has its own whitetail records recognition program. The minimum score for typical entries is 140 B&C for typical racks. For non-typicals, it's 165.

The old, private Alabama White­tails Records uses gross B&C scores without deductions for its entries. There's also the Buckmaster system that uses its own composite scores. The state's system uses the true B&C system, including deductions for asymmetry.

"What we're seeing is that about one of every three bucks we're asked to measure makes the records," Cook said. "That's what we wanted and what we expected."

They wanted a buck to be special to make the book. Over time, the state's program is expected to be able to shed some light on the best trophy regions in the state, but it's still so young that they're not there yet.

There has been talk of lowering the minimum entry to 135. A buck in the 135 to 140 B&C range is a career deer for the average Alabama hunter.

Where The Big Ones Roam

It may sound like a broken record, but those areas of the state most likely to produce a superior deer this year are the same ones they have been for years and years.

A crescent-shaped swath of the state starting in Marion County and running along the Mississippi line to Pickens and Greene and then turning east through south-central Alabama to Bullock County is arguably the best hunting region in the state.

Jackson County in the far northeastern corner of the state, with its rugged mountains, limestone bluffs and bottomland crop fields, also yields more than its share of trophies, despite heavy, intense hunting pressure countywide.

"Dark horse" counties with good trophy potential around the state include Tuscaloosa, Marshall, Bibb, Winston, Lauderdale, Butler and even Baldwin County down near the beaches.

"I would not be surprised at all to see a big deer come from Baldwin or Mobile counties," Cook said. "There's still a lot of agriculture in that region south of the interstate that provides the deer herd with some high nutrition food."

Other counties he likes are Barbour, Montgomery, Lowndes and Elmore.

Management Increasing

If you have some land with deer on it and you're willing to pass up small bucks, control the doe population and plant high-quality food plots, you can produce good whitetails just about anywhere in the Cotton State, Gray said.

But hunters who expend resources to improve the habitat and improve conditions for growing bucks don't guarantee themselves a trophy. They just give themselves more opportunity.

The management trend is something the state's biologists are noticing statewide. More and more clubs are forming with an emphasis on quality deer management in regions of the state that haven't had them previously.

"It used to be that the tradition was for North Alabama hunters to travel to the Black Belt for their hunting," Cook said. "Now they're hunting a lot closer to home."

The management aspect of deer hunting has turned the sport into a year-round hobby, not just something that is pursued in the fall and winter.

"People want to stay close to home and do some things to help their local deer herd," he said.

That same trend sees fewer and fewer hunters traveling to the state's WMAs, too. Those public lands were once among the only places that held deer in some regions of the state. Many of the state's hunters wouldn't consider hunting them now, but buck quality seems to be on the rise on the public areas.

When it comes to managing for quality bucks, Cook said hunters in North Alabama actually have one advantage over sportsmen in the Black Belt.

"They've never had the overpopulation problem to deal with and the damage to the habitat that it causes," he said.

In these hard economic times, the state's WMAs do offer a great opportunity for sportsmen who want to hunt, but don't want to spend a small fortune on hunting club dues. A number of the WMAs are managed for quality bucks, where a buck must have 3 points on at least one side to be legal.

The price to hunt the WMAs is just $16 for a season, plus a little gas money and maybe food to travel to them.

Becoming a WMA Hunter

Cook has noticed over the years that the most successful hunters spend a lot of time hunting on the WMAs, as well as scouting them in the off-season to get ideas of where they want to hunt.

The top WMA hunters usually don't hunt just a single tract. They have three or four WMAs they like and they're generally able to gun hunt every weekend of the season by alternating among those areas.

Big bucks have been killed on the WMAs by hunters who target trails in thick cover areas. But Cook said it's not the only way to hunt the WMAs.

"A lot of guys just like to get somewhere where they can see and cover a lot of ground visually," he said.

They count on either the rut or hunter pressure to move bucks through those areas.

The majority of successful WMA hunters use tree stands, but a few hunt off the ground too.

"Most hunters get a one-fourth mile or less off the road," he said. "If you're willing to go deeper, you may find better hunting."

Gray recalls a couple of old-time hunters on Barbour WMA when he thinks of successful public ground hunting.

"These are older guys and I can remember years when they've killed a dozen deer between them," he said. "They've got two or three spots they like and that's where they hunt. They go in early and meet back at the truck for maybe 30 minutes around 1 p.m. to grab a bite to eat. Then they go back and hunt until dark."

He said the management area staff always jokes that the hunt is officially over when those two check out at the end of the day.

Public land hunters will find more opportunity this year. In the past, gun hunts have typically been conducted on Fridays and Saturdays. A few WMAs will open for Friday-Saturday-Sunday hunts this year to see if participation improves.

Let's take a closer look at what you can expect in each for the upcoming season.

The South

The southeast corner of the state -- technically known as District 6 to the state's biologists -- is made up of the counties of Butler, Covington, Crenshaw, Pike, Coffee, Geneva, Barbour, Dale, Henry and Houston.

The region has two outstanding WMAs for bucks -- Barbour and Blue Spring. The two areas put up very similar buck harvest numbers last season. The areas ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the state among public tracts for bucks harvested.

Barbour was one of the first WMAs in the state to adopt quality deer management and has been cited as one of the top public hunting grounds for deer in the South, if not the nation.

Blue Spring is not on quality deer management and offers something for just about every kind of deer hunter -- bowhunts, gun hunts, either-sex stalk hunts and either-sex hunts with the aid of dogs.

Biologist Bill Gray would like to see more hunters using the muzzleloader hunts that happen before the regular gun season comes in. He said it's a dandy time of year to be in the woods and a good time to take a buck that hasn't been disturbed yet.

Barbour and Pike counties are great private-land buck producers in this region.

The southwest part of the state in District 5 has a lot of deer, but isn't known as a true trophy region. It does produce some good deer, however. The counties in this region are Choctaw, Washington, Mobile, Clarke, Baldwin, Wilcox, Monroe, Conecuh and Escambia.

Cook mentioned earlier how he considers Mobile and Baldwin counties as having trophy potential.

Historically, the best buck hunting has been in the northern reaches of the district, in Wilcox and Clarke counties.

Scotch and Perdido River WMAs put up similar buck numbers last year.

Perdido is a fairly new public property and is considered to be on the upswing because of recent timber harvests and improvements in the food plot program.

The Central

Central Alabama is arguably the heart of trophy hunting in Alabama, with great counties like Pickens, Dallas, Montgomery and Bullock.

It's also quite hunter friendly, with three of the state's top six WMAs for buck harvest in this region.

The counties in west-central 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.

Oakmulgee WMA was the No. 1 WMA for buck harvest in the state last year for the second straight year. The region's other top WMAs are Mulberry Fork at No. 5 and Cahaba River in the sixth spot.

A hunter could spend an entire season hunting those three areas, as the hunts on them are usually staggered so that one is open every weekend of the season.

"All three are good," Cook confirmed. "Cahaba River probably doesn't have the deer numbers that the other two have, but the bucks that come from it are very nice quality."

The rut is staggered on the areas too. The Oakmulgee bucks rut in mid to late December. It's a New Year's rut for Mulberry Fork and a little later in January for Cahaba River, Cook noted.

Good private-land buck spots in this region can be found in Pickens, Greene and Tuscaloosa counties.

The east-central part of the state falls in District 4, and also offers good buck hunting. The counties in this region are Coosa, Tallapoosa, Chambers, Autauga, Elmore, Macon, Lee, Russell, Bullock, Montgomery and Lowndes.

Lowndes, Bullock, Macon and Montgomery are among the best anywhere in the state.

Lowndes WMA is biologist Rick Claybrook's pick as a top buck area. It's one of the state's smaller WMAs, at around 11,000 acres, but gave up 33 bucks of 2 1/2 years or older last year.

The North

The northeast corner of the state in District 2 includes Jackson, Marshall, DeKalb, Cherokee, Etowah, Blount, St. Clair, Calhoun, Cleburne, Randolph, Clay and Talladega counties. Randy Liles is the supervising biologist.

While Choccolocco WMA is known for producing lots of deer, the number of bucks checked here last season wasn't particularly high. The James D. Martin-Skyline WMA in trophy-rich Jackson County is probably the better choice for buck hunters.

The opening weekend and either-sex hunt in December are known to produce nice whitetails. Parts of Jackson County -- and even parts of the WMA -- have a traditional January rut, while other parts are known to have a late December rut.

Jackson County is year in and year out an outstanding private land trophy producer.

The northwest section of the state composes District 1, including Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Cullman, Winston, Marion, Lamar, Fayette and Walker counties. Ron Eakes is the biologist here.

Sam R. Murphy WMA near Guin is in the top five WMAs in the state for both overall deer harvest and for buck harvest. A ton of 2 1/2-year-old bucks were taken at Murphy last year.

Freedom Hills is another good buck producer in the northwestern corner of the state, with hunters taking more than 50 bucks last year. It has quality deer rules, and Eakes likes the age structure that it's providing for the herd.

The bucks on Freedom Hills WMA, which lies in southwestern Colbert County, typically have a late rut that falls in January.

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