Last Chance for Public Bucks

Last Chance for Public Bucks

Deer season is winding down, but there's still time to bag a whitetail on public land in Alabama. Here are a few places to try that you may have overlooked.

By Zack Glover

Wild turkeys with a Southern drawl are the toughest birds on the planet to hunt. And late season Dixie deer are fast becoming even wilier than their feathered friends are.

If I've heard it once, I've heard it asked hundreds of times. Where do all the whitetails go in December? It's as if someone is running around at night with deer legs, planting tracks all over the place, just to make us believe that our favorite hunting ground is overrun with the critters. Yet we never actually see the bucks.

This isn't to say that a deer can't be found during the weeks leading up to and immediately following Christmas. But for the most part, the rascals have seemingly gone underground - a habit responsible for the "December Doldrums" most of us experience.

Still, the proverbial rotund lady doesn't even take the stage to sing until mid-January. This is the month during which the rut peaks in many counties. Even in those places that saw rutting activity much earlier, the flip of the calendar signals the last waltz for the does that weren't partnered during their first time or two at the dance.

Additionally, in January there is very good news for those of you who don't have access to private or leased land. While more than half of the Heart of Dixie's wildlife management areas open their gates to gun hunters an average of four days in January, three tracts welcome riflemen at least two, if not three, days a week, for the entire month.

There is even a special place for bowhunters who want to see and experience new ground that hasn't been hammered day after day since mid-October.

Here is a closer look at four fabulous public hunting opportunities awaiting Alabamians this month.

Seven Mile Island WMA offers a very underutilized archery season in the month of January. Photo by Zack Glover

AUTAUGA

COMMUNITY HUNTING AREA

If you're looking for a good place to eat while traveling, a full parking lot in front of a hole-in-the-wall diner is usually a testament to fine vittles. Hunters seeking a decent and cheap place to collect venison would do well to fall in behind David and Elizabeth Gallet's Jeep Cherokee on Wednesdays and Saturdays during Alabama's gun deer season. This is especially true during January, when the deer within the Autauga Community Hunting Area are amorous!

The Jemison couple should be easy to spot. Aside from their blaze-orange caps, they will be towing a trailer to which David has mounted a hydraulic-powered scissor-lift - a 26-foot-tall crow's nest that has replaced the climbing and ladder stands they once carried afield.

The contraption practically is a fixture at the 6,400-acre public tract north of Prattville, and 35 miles from the Gallets' home. Even before they retired and began hunting there on Wednesdays as well, David and Elizabeth have spent countless Saturdays trying to rid the tract of some of its whitetails.

While most full-fledged, state-run wildlife management areas offer limited opportunities for riflemen, Autauga is open every Wednesday and Saturday during the general firearms season. The few bowhunters who show up have run of the place every other day.

The Autauga tract also differs from other CHAs like West Jefferson in that it has a check station, which is a mile north of Posey Crossroads on County Road 57, and a resident biologist. All hunters must check in on Wednesdays and Saturdays. All deer must be checked as well. In general, unlike on WMAs, there are no food plots or managed hunts on CHAs. As their name implies, they are simply places for hunters from the community to get into the woods.

The Gallets know the drill. They've been hunting the place for all but two of the years it's been in existence. They missed the first couple of seasons there because David didn't like the looks of the property, which was almost entirely clear-cut and devoid of deer tracks.

Even today, the land is managed for timber production. Aside from a few streamside management zones, it is dominated by loblolly and some longleaf pine stands, ranging in age from 1 to 20 years old.

"The only reason we even tried it is that Elizabeth looked at the calendar wrong one year, and we missed a hunt at the Coosa Wildlife Management Area." David explained.

Then Elizabeth suggested they give someplace else a try, and a tradition was born.

The pair has since traveled the state, hunting at least a dozen Alabama WMAs. But they're not apt to miss a day at Autauga. Other places might have more and bigger deer, but this one is close, familiar and special. A lot of people in Montgomery, Chilton and Autauga counties share the feeling, and the locals know where to go to see deer.

"We're not greedy," David says. "We'll only shoot 6-points or better, maybe two or three a year. It's not exactly a hotspot."

The best buck the Gallets have taken off the tract was a 9-pointer, though Elizabeth once shot a 6-point buck that almost rivals it. Several 8-pointers have been hauled back to Jemison from there as well.

They used to carry climbing stands to the woods, and then they tried ladders, until one was stolen. Now - a knee, ankle and three hip surgeries later for him, and a bad back for her - they spend their days afield in the crow's nest.

David, a retired construction mechanic, found a deal on a scissor-lift and mounted it on a trailer. When they get ready to hunt, husband and wife climb into it and hit the hydraulic switch, which lifts them well above tree level.

Of course, other folks hunt the area more conventionally.

"Most folks go to the clearcuts," said Brett Abbott, who has been the resident biologist at Autauga for 16 years. "I'd say that the majority come from the tri-county area. If they can find a tree big enough, they'll hang a climber. If not, they'll set up a ground blind."

Although 80 acres of food plots have been planted, young clearcuts are as much a magnet for deer as they are for hunters.

"On an average Wednesday, we'll have about 35 folks; between 50 and 60 on Saturdays. But lots of them are gone by 9 a.m.," Abbott continued. "I try to tell them you need to stay until lunchtime, at least. The deer here have learned, and they move l

ater in the morning."

Abbott said the best deer to come off the tract last year was an 8-pointer that scored almost 145 inches of antlers. It was only 3 1/2 years old, too, but it had nearly 5-inch bases and 10- to 11-inch tines.

All total, hunters harvested 58 deer there during the 2003-04 season - 40 by gun; 15 by bowhunters, who could take a deer of either sex; and three during the weekend set aside specifically for muzzleloaders. That's about the same number of whitetails brought to the Autauga station the previous year.

Season-long archery deer permits and maps are available at the check station, which opens by 5 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They can also be obtained at the probate office in the Autauga County Courthouse, at Posey Crossroads General Merchandise, and at the White City Market. Gun hunters not only need the permit/map, but they're also required to pick up a daily permit at the check station.

ST. CLAIR

COMMUNITY HUNTING AREA

St. Clair Community Hunting Area near Pell City is almost identical in size to Autauga and is also open to firearms hunters on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the season. There isn't a check station per se, but all harvested deer are required to be recorded on either the ledger at Anna's Grocery at the intersection of U.S. Highways 231 and 411, or at K&N Service Station, where State Route 144 crosses U.S. 231.

Both of these stores also have the season-long permits that all hunters must possess while afield. Other sporting goods outlets in the Pell City area have those permits as well. Plus, they may be ordered by sending a self-addressed and stamped envelope, along with your license numbers, to the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Office, 4101 State Route 21 North, Jacksonville, AL 36265.

This little piece of ground coughed up nearly twice as many deer as were registered at Autauga. A total of 95 were killed in 2,600 man-days of hunting, with two of three taken by riflemen. St. Clair, in fact, was second only to Demopolis WMA, with 9.8 deer taken per square mile during the 2003-04 season.

WEST JEFFERSON

PUBLIC HUNTING AREA

Thirty years ago, before I had a driver's license or was required to buy a hunting license, there was only one piece of green paper in my thin 13-year-old's billfold, and it didn't bear the visage of a dead president. The little folded slip - a free permit to hunt - was my ticket to tens of thousands of acres of land.

In those days, budding and veteran hunters alike simply hunted hoof prints - rarely seeing what left them - or depended upon dogs to strike a trail and push the deer to them. God only knows how many squirrels I lugged out of what were then U.S. Steel's vast land holdings. There were so few whitetails, however, that every deer had a name.

The formerly strip-mined land between Oak Grove and the Johns communities was my close-to-home hunting place. Daddy did often take me to Sumter County, part of the deer-rich Black Belt, on weekends. During school-break weekdays, however, my best buddy Poncho and I piled into a neighbor's pickup to be driven to the foothills of Sealy Ann Mountain.

We rarely saw a deer, and we never shot one. But we still enjoyed the times of our lives - dreaming, plotting and becoming acquainted with every rock, road, bush and tree.

Folks have it much easier nowadays. Access to this land is no longer free, but it costs only $15 for a WMA license for the hunting rights, and stalk hunters have the run of it a dozen or more times in January alone.

U.S. Steel has since become USX Corporation, which has turned over the management of the land to the DWFF. All acreage west of the Warrior River, spanning portions of Tuscaloosa and Walker counties, is known as the Mulberry Fork WMA. East of the river lies the West Jefferson Public Hunting Area. Each exceeds 40,000 acres in size, and both are now teeming with deer.

The only difference between the two is that Mulberry Fork is an all-out WMA, complete with check station, food plots and very specific regulations and hunt dates, while West Jefferson is more like the Autauga and St. Clair CHAs, only bigger and better!

Instead of two days a week, as is the case at Autauga and St. Clair, riflemen have three days to hunt West Jefferson - Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Since there is no check station, hunters are not required to pick up the daily permit during the gun days. If you have state and WMA hunting licenses, all that remains is to possess a season-long permit - the same required of bowhunters at all the state's WMAs. Those are available at numerous country stores and sporting goods retailers between Fairfield and Oak Grove.

It sure wouldn't hurt to call ahead first, however. I once had to visit five places that normally have the permits before I could get one. It would have been far simpler to order one by mail. The address for that is: Supervising Wildlife Biologist, P.O. Box 305, Northport, AL 35476. Include a large, self-addressed stamped envelope and your current hunting license numbers with your request.

West Jefferson is actually split into two portions, Zones A and B. The latter is all the property south of County Road 36, which pretty much covers the North Johns and Sumter communities.

As this PHA is so close to three metropolitan areas - less than an hour from downtown Birmingham, and not much farther from Tuscaloosa and Jasper - West Jefferson draws a lot of hunters. It's second only to the Freedom Hills WMA for man-days invested in the pursuit of deer.

Last year, it yielded 164 deer to 9,375 man-days of hunting. Firearms hunters bagged 120, 34 went to bowhunters and 10 to blackpowder marksmen. That equates to a lot of hunters going home empty-handed, but you must consider the size of the place and the less restrictive hunting there.

On smaller tracts, an abundance of hunters can keep the deer on the move, thus they are seen and shot. On a large tract like West Jefferson, however, hunter traffic is more dispersed. Since the opportunities aren't limited to a few weekends a year, the number of hunters at any given moment on the tract is smaller. Thus, the deer are more nocturnal and less apt to be pushed into someone's crosshairs.

But don't despair. Those who hunt the place in January have no trouble locating buck sign. Almost every old logging road that skirts or crosses a ridge has a scrape. Every power line - even the little ones used to carry a line to a coal bed methane pump - is ringed by rubs.

If you get off the main road and do some walking, you find plenty of places to sit or hang a stand. After that, the rest depends upon Lady Luck. Just be sure to have a friend to call or a deer cart in your truck in case she smiles on you. The hollows on the property become Alabama's own Grand Canyon when you are lugging a deer across or out of them.

SEVEN MILE ISLAND WILDLIFE

MANAGEMENT AREA

To this point, we've covered three public tracts that have great appeal for riflemen. There is a fourth, however, where guns are not allowed. Since even archers as a rule are kept out until December 27 each year, the month of January offers some prime deer hunting in mostly undisturbed acreage.

Seven Mile Island WMA is in Lauderdale County near Florence. The smallest of the bunch featured, this 4,685-acre tract is primarily a great place for waterfowl and small game hunts. Very few bowhunters even take advantage of the month-long opportunity for deer in January.

The total man-days for 2003-04 amounted to 200, which was half the previous year's tally. For their efforts archers arrowed 14 deer between December 27 and January 31 - about the same number taken in 2002-03, but with half the effort. The good news about the hunting is that the number of man/days needed to harvest a deer is the lowest in the state. The bad news is that only walk-in hunting is allowed.

A season permit may be obtained by writing Area Biologist Daniel Toole at P.O. Box 1314, Florence, AL 35631, or by calling him at (256) 353-2634. When writing, enclose a SASE. The permits are also available at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge outside Decatur, the Lauderdale County Courthouse, and at some bait and tackle shops in Florence.

There is no check station, but all deer taken by bowhunters must be recorded on a report sheet at the area's entrance gate.



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