Alabama's 2010 Deer Outlook, Part 1 -- Our Top Hunting Areas
October 12, 2010
Deer can be found in every part of Alabama, but some areas produce far more whitetails than others.
When the doe stopped in the opening between the thick pines, I wasted little time in centering the crosshairs and squeezing the trigger of the little 7mm-08 rifle.
The shot caught her just at the back of the shoulder, a little higher than I had planned, and she dropped like a stone. The season had started slow and I was proud to get one for the freezer.
My father had taken an even larger doe just a short distance away the afternoon before and I thought things were about to break for our little family clan of hunters. Instead, the season just sort of fizzled from then on.
It was like that in a lot of quarters last year, according to Alabama deer studies leader Chris Cook. He and the state's other biologists from one corner of the state to another generally agree that last year was a below average year for Alabama deer hunting.
It started well with a decent bow season and beginning of gun season, Cook said, but the best hunting is usually in January and it never really got cranked last year. But, one upshot is that there were reports of more quality bucks being taken than usual in lots of places.
My father, brother and I constitute our inner circle of hunting. We can usually track what kind of season it is by what kind of luck we have on our little acreage in north Alabama. In a great season, the three of us will take 10 to 12 deer. An average year is around seven or eight. Last year, we took five.
Over many years of writing about deer hunting for Alabama Game & Fish, I've often noticed that how our season goes is a dead-on reflection of what the biologists see statewide.
The conundrum for us last year was simply what happened to the deer. My brother Mitch saw 10 or 12 bucks in one evening during bow season. Only one of those fell later to our band.
I saw a one buck several times during bow season, but didn't get aggressive in hunting him. It turns out that you can't really "save" one from bow season to hunt in gun season. Factors change and he might not be around later. You're better off trying to strike while the iron is hot. I never saw him once gun season started.
Cook said our experience was what lots of hunters reported last year.
"The first part of the season was pretty good, about like normal," he confirmed. "Then we had that slow period that we always have in December. But it never materialized just when you thought it would pick up in January. We don't know what happened."
For years and years, Alabama hunters have said truly cold weather was needed to make for a great rut and a super season. It was the coldest winter in years for most of the Cotton State last year.
"I can't help but wonder if it wasn't too cold," Cook said. "It may have slowed down movement instead of increasing it. A lot of people thought the conditions were perfect, but it never took off."
Still, an average deer season in Alabama is better than a stellar season in lots of other places. The season is just a week or two in many states. Alabama hunters get 3 1/2 months to get after it, if you include bow season. And there's usually an opportunity to harvest a deer or two even when the hunting is slow.
Factors like a big mast crop, hot weather, cold weather, rainy weather are just things Alabama hunters have to deal with. Conditions are seldom perfect. We as hunters have also done a good job of shooting does the last several years and keeping the herd in good condition.
The increased pressure on does just may mean that our deer -- even our does -- are more savvy now than they have ever been and it takes hunting smarter to be able to consistently bag deer in Alabama. Bill Gray -- another of the state's deer studies specialists -- said there may also be some localized areas where the deer population has dropped somewhat.
"We have areas where we've done a pretty good job thinning the does," he said. "On top of that, we may have underestimated the impact of coyote predation on fawns in those areas."
Such areas are not widespread, but rather highly localized. He said it's hard to make much impact on the coyote population by hunting and trapping, but hunters should do their part and shoot coyotes that happen by their stands in such areas.
Even more important is to manage for good chest high grasses and brush that is good habitat for fawns to hide.Even in a below average hunting year, Cook and Gray agreed the state's deer population is stable and there are good numbers in just about all areas. It's usually just that conditions are not conducive for those deer to be on their feet and on the move at the time hunters are on stand.
Randy Liles, a Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries district biologists, feels a lot of people have forgotten the basics of hunting. Too much hunting nowadays centers on shooting houses and food plots.
"We've forgotten how to read sign," he pointed out, "especially subtle sign like browsing sign."
The hunting can still be extraordinary for hunters willing to get in the thick woods with the deer, away from the fields, and who don't mind spending some time patterning the deer.
Each year in this space, we talk about the wide availability of public land deer hunting through the state's network of wildlife management areas. We usually point out tips and techniques that might help you to score on a public land deer.
This year, we're taking a little different take and pointing you in the direction of three special WMA hunting opportunities you might want to consider in 2010-11.
THE SLEEPER HUNTS
If you want to hunt the state's WMA, but you don't want to contend with the crowds that can show up on a regular gun hunt, then the primitive weapons hunts may be for you.
The "PW" hunts -- as the sta
te's wildlife biologists call them -- are traditionally "undersubscribed," meaning they can accommodate way more hunters than usually show up. More and more WMAs are offering PW hunts during the special blackpowder only season that runs the week before regular gun deer season opens in November.
The weather is typically nice, the woods aren't crowded and it's a great time to do some camping and smoke pole hunting. A group of four hunters I'm familiar with made just such a WMA hunt last season. They bagged a doe, a 4-pointer and had a trophy-class buck get away. That's an outstanding rate of success and opportunity.
Generally speaking, the PW hunts are among the most successful hunts in the WMA hunt offerings. The man-days per kill in 2009-10 were way lower for the PW hunts than for any other category.
Top PW hunts were at Barbour WMA where it took six man-days of effort per kill, compared to 16 on modern gun hunts; and Blue Spring with three man-days per kill compared to 16 for gun hunts. Other good ones were at Choccolocco -- six man-days per kill compared to 11 for gun hunts -- and Mulberry Fork at seven man-days per kill compared to 18 on the regular gun hunts.
The smoke pole fun doesn't end with the early primitive weapons season. Wildlife management areas all around the state typically schedule primitive weapons hunts for December and January, too. An enterprising hunter who didn't mind traveling to hunt different WMAs could just about make a season out of nothing but the PW hunts.
If you haven't blackpowder hunted in a few years, this may be your year to dust off you old thunder stick or acquire a new in-line model and hit the WMAs. Just like in the good old days of Alabama blackpowder hunting, does are still legal game on all the primitive weapons hunts so it's a great opportunity to put meat in the freezer as well as hunt a trophy buck.
THE DOG HUNTS
Blue Spring was the top overall WMA in the state last year for deer harvest -- and hunting with the assistance of dogs was the reason, district biologist Bill Gray said.
The dog hunt -- putting standers armed with shotguns and buckshot along a block of woods and then bringing a pack of dogs through it to flush deer toward the shooters -- is a time-honored tradition in Alabama.
Private land dog hunting has come under siege in recent years due to conflicts between landowners who like to still or stand hunt and neighbors whose dogs have gotten onto adjoining property. It's one of the main topics of discussion, both from people who favor it and those who oppose it, whenever the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Conservation Advisory Board meets.
Four WMA still allow dog hunts in the Cotton State. They are Blue Spring, Frank & Rob Boykin, Scotch and Upper Delta. They are all in the southerner tier of counties.
Blue Spring leads the pack when it comes to dog hunting success. Last year, more effort was spent dog hunting than stalk hunting at Blue Spring. Dog hunters took 192 deer compared to just 92 by stalk hunters.
The Blue Spring dog hunt is a great way to experience an age-old Southern way of hunting.
THE QUIETEST HUNTS
If you really want to have a WMA to yourself, take up archery hunting. That's especially true on days when no gun hunts are scheduled.
You can literally have thousands and thousands of acres to yourself. A friend of mine specializes in this kind of hunting and he's had great success hunting a tiny sliver of a particular WMA in January when that area's bucks are rutting. He almost always sees a racked buck and often gets a shot. It's almost a "gimme" that he will take a doe or two on his January hunt.
He found his hotspot through a combination of looking at aerial photography on the computer, scouting it in person and then fine-tuning his stand location as he hunted. It can be tedious, as all bowhunting often is, but the rewards are worthwhile.
Archery hunts with great success rates on Alabama WMAs occur on Barbour, where it takes 10 man-days per kill compared to 16 for gun hunts; Blue Spring at nine man-days per kill compared to 11 for dog hunts and 16 for stalk gun hunts; and Choccolocco at six man-days per kill compared to 11 for gun hunts. Another good one is Sam R. Murphy with seven man-days per kill compared to eight for gun hunters.
There's also some great bow hunting available on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land in the middle and lower parts of the state, as well as on TVA land in the northern reaches of the state.
Three WMAs associated mainly with waterfowl hunting offer limited archery-only hunts that are quite popular. Those are the Jackson County Waterfowl Area in Jackson County, the Swan Creek-Fox Creek complex near Decatur, and Seven Mile Island in the northwest corner of the state.
With those tips in mind for some quality hunts, let's look at some of the different regions of the state and where hunters can expect some good deer hunting this year:
The mid-section of Alabama is arguably the epicenter of deer hunting in the Cotton State. For private land hunting, this region features the Black Belt with its extremely fertile soils. There are hunting clubs, commercial hunting operations and other opportunities for accessing this deer rich land.
Counties like Pickens, Sumter, Dallas, Lowndes, Montgomery, Macon and Bullock all have a rich history of turning out both numbers of deer and high quality bucks.
For public land whitetail enthusiasts, this region has four WMAs in the top 12 in the state -- Oakmulgee, Mulberry Fork, Cahaba River and Lowndes. Oakmulgee has a Christmas rut, while the bucks on the other three rut more in January. So if you spend time on all four areas, there is the chance to hunt the rut more than once if conditions come together.
Counties like Jackson, Cherokee, Marion and Lamar offer outstanding private land hunting in this region of the state. Generally speaking, you need to lease property or be part of a club to access private lands here.
There are five Top 12 WMAs in the region -- James D. Martin-Skyline, Choccolocco, Sam R. Murphy, St. Clair and Freedom Hills. There's also the sprawling Black Warrior WMA that offers lots of land to roam, plus the chance to take a wild pig while you're deer hunting.
Randy Liles, a biologist in northeast Alabama, reported improved hunting at the Little River WMA as well. He said a new wrinkle this year on many of the WMAs will be more days for harvesting either-sex deer. It's an effort to get more hunters utilizing the are
The southern third of the state is as deer rich as any part of Alabama, particularly counties like Barbour, Pike, Clark and Wilcox.
The region is home to three top 12 WMAs -- Blue Spring, Barbour and Scotch.
"They really kill a lot of deer at Blue Spring," district biologist Bill Gray said.
In addition to having good deer numbers, Barbour is on an antler-point restriction that is producing some nice quality bucks too.
SUMMING IT UP
Put some thought into your deer hunting this year, particularly if you're choosing a new WMA to hunt, and consider the special hunts that offer such outstanding success rates. Chances are it will be another good year to be an Alabama deer hunter.