Alabama's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 2

Trophy deer can show up anyplace in Alabama, but some areas are in a class by themselves for producing big whitetails.

While overall deer harvest was down in Alabama last year, it was a good year for quality bucks in just about every area of the state.

The three-buck season limit is thought to be a big reason for the improvement in buck size and rack quality. For years and years, Alabama hunters could legally kill a buck a day over a season that started in October and stretched to the end of January. That changed a few seasons back when the new tighter per season limit was imposed.

It's widely thought that lots more hunters are passing up spikes and 4-pointers as a result, meaning more bucks are making it to the age to have a nice rack of antlers.

Chris Cook, the state's deer studies leader, said he didn't hear of a lot of top-end giant bucks being taken last year, but quality was evident from one end of the state to the other.

"We heard from several hunters in different parts of the state who said it was the best year they'd ever had for bucks," he said. "Typically, the more deer we have killed in the state, the more quality bucks we have. This was a little different since the overall kill was down."

Those same areas that have been the best producers of quality bucks year-in and year-out continued to be good producers last year and they'll likely be the top areas again this year.

Cook said they include the Black Belt counties in the middle portion of the state, along with the northwestern counties stretching from Lamar and Marion on the Mississippi state line to the Bankhead National Forest. In Northeast Alabama, Jackson and Madison continue to be good counties, while top counties in the far south include Wilcox, Clarke and Barbour.

The chart accompanying this story breaks down the public land buck harvest by management area. Top areas include Oakmulgee, Blue Spring, Freedom Hills, Scotch and Barbour. Those top five WMAs offer convenient access to hunters regardless of the area of the state in which they live.

As noted in Part 1 of the outlook in last month's edition, last season was an unusual year. The hunting was pretty good early and there was another peak just before Christmas.

"But that was as good as it got," Chris Cook said. "Just when we thought it was going to get really good in January, nothing happened."

There was bad weather -- extreme cold, plus some rainy weekends -- that hurt hunter participation later in the season.

BE A DEER MANAGER

Interest in deer management in Alabama continues to skyrocket, making deer hunting nearly a year-round sport in the Cotton State.

"A lot of folks are serious about management," Cook said. They're embracing every tool available -- food plots, selective harvest of bucks, thinning of doe populations, prescribed fire and harvesting timber."

Ron Eakes, the District 1 wildlife biologist in northwest Alabama, said public land hunters have to remember that they're part of the management team too, when it comes to hunting on the state's WMAs.

"We see some hunters who say, 'We're here to hunt big bucks,' and they don't harvest does," he said. "It's very important for them to remember to take does too on our WMAs. It is one reason our WMA hunting for bucks is improving. They have to shoot the does. They're our tools for that aspect of the management. If they don't do it, it is not going to get done."

According to Eakes, the last thing hunters should want is a lop-sided sex ratio.

"You're not going to see the buck sign in the woods if we get too many does," he explained. "You're not going to see bucks moving as much. If you don't keep the numbers in check, the forage base can be damaged and that's another piece of the pie for management."

He added that the two most important factors in growing big bucks is to let them get some age and to have good forage for them to eat as they're growing older.

HOW TO KILL A BUCK

If killing a bragging-size buck is your goal, there are periods of the season that offer a distinct advantage for you.

The early bow season starting Oct. 15 and the muzzleloader season starting Nov. 15 are excellent times to be afield. Generally speaking, the deer haven't been disturbed yet and it's an outstanding time to bag a buck on a natural feed pattern.

Acorns should be hitting the ground this time of year. Look for pawed up leaves, popped acorn caps and deer droppings as the signs pointing to the hottest oaks. If the feed trees are in a thicket, it is so much the better for buck hunting. It's entirely possible to find rubs and scrapes in such areas if a buck is using them regularly.

Some of the sign no doubt will be made at night, but it's a confidence booster to hunt a feed pattern and know there are bucks in the vicinity, rather than just deer. It's very important to enter feed thickets as stealthily as possible. The buck could be bedded not too far away and any unnecessary racket will alert him to your presence.

While many hardcore buck hunters prefer feed trees in thickets as high percentage stands in the early season, green fields can be hot tickets too. That's especially true if there are oaks dropping acorns in the edge of the field itself.Some deer pros contend that fertilizer running off from the fields makes such acorns the sweetest around and an irresistible treat to the deer.

Afternoon hunts tend to be most productive on these early season patterns, but morning hunts in the woods can produce too.

The rut is the other period buck hunters don't want to miss. There are pockets with November and December ruts in Alabama, but most of the state has a mid to late January rut. This is a time when bucks are on their feet looking for does.

Lots of hunters like to hunt this time of year in locations where they can see a long way and cover a big territory with a rifle. Cutovers in the early stages of regrowth offer both cover and food for whitetails, but they're easy to see down into from a treestand. They're outstanding places to watch for cruising bucks.

Field edges, power line cuts, overgrown fields and the like offer the same advantage. Look for rubs, scrapes and big tracks to know that you're in an area that bucks are using.

The state's deer biologists say green fields and television hunting shows have caused way too many hunters to think they can just sit on the edge of an opening and kill bucks. Real hunting, they say, is getting in the woods, finding the sign and figuring out what the buck is doing.

Finding and unraveling sign to piece together the pattern is an enjoyable pursuit whether or not you end up tagging the bruiser that made the sign. When it does all come together, there's nothing like it.

You have to be ready to strike at a moment's notice when you find the sign you think you can exploit. A lightweight stand or ground blind can be your best asset to take advantage of a situation at a moment's notice.

With that being said, let's take a look at the different regions of the state and what they offer in terms of buck hunting this fall.

CENTRAL ALABAMA

The Black Belt counties of central Alabama are among the best in the state for taking a bragging-size buck. The good hunting is really from one end of the Black Belt to the other.

The region takes its name from the nutrient rich, dark colored soils that are prevalent in the area.

Counties on the western end like Pickens and Greene are outstanding producers of good bucks. On the eastern end, Montgomery, Bullock and Macon are all good producers.

Just north of the Black Belt in this same region of the state are three outstanding WMAs for bucks -- Oakmulgee, Cahaba River and Mulberry Fork. Oakmulgee is the No. 1 buck WMA in the state and both Cahaba River and Mulberry Fork are in the top eight.

The trio of WMAs offers outstanding public land hunting to the population centers located in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.

NORTH ALABAMA

North Alabama is probably the No. 2 region in the state for trophy bucks. At least three distinct areas in this region -- northwest Alabama around Marion and Lamar Counties, the Black Warrior WMA in the Bankhead National Forest and Jackson County in far northeastern Alabama -- have storied histories when it comes to yielding big bucks.

"Deer numbers have gone up in Lamar and Marion counties," said Chris Cook, the state's deer studies leader, "but the quality is still good."

He is finding that the locals are reluctant to talk with outsiders about their bounty. The state continues to hold scoring sessions as the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources assembles its whitetail records program. But, there are few takers for the measuring sessions held in this area of the state.

"They've got a really good deer herd and good habitat, but they're not advertising it," Cook said.

Ron Eakes, the biologist for this area of the state, noted that there are some real good public hunting properties in northwest Alabama.

Freedom Hills WMA was No. 3 in the state last year for quality bucks. Sam R. Murphy was No. 9. Round that out with the tradition of big bucks from the Black Warrior WMA and you have a region of the state where a hunter can spend the whole season and know there are quality racks in the surrounding woodlands.

Eakes also said there are three distinctly different ruts on those areas. The bucks of the Black Warrior rut in November. Sam R. Murphy is an early January rut, while Freedom Hills bucks rut in mid to late January.

In northeast Alabama, Jackson County has been an outstanding buck producer for years.

"A lot of people are serious about deer management in this corner of the state," Cook said. "And they're seeing results."

SOUTH ALABAMA

The counties in the lower third of the state have some challenges that other parts of the state don't. The soil there is sandier, thus less fertile and it's harder to grow big animals.

But there are some great hunting spots even in this region. In southwestern Alabama, Wilcox and Marengo counties stand out for quality bucks, said District Wildlife Biologist Chuck Sharp.

The Scotch WMA in Clarke County was No. 4 in the state for quality bucks last year.

"The Delta offers some good hunting opportunity too, but it was flooded out for most of the season last year," Sharp said.

It's strictly a January rut in this part of the state, with mid to late January usually being the best time to hunt.

In southeastern Alabama, there are a couple of killer WMAs -- Blue Spring and Barbour. Blue Spring was No. 2 for quality bucks in the state last year and Barbour was No. 5.

Barbour has been on quality deer management longer than any WMA in the state and now the whole county has adopted it. Growing quality bucks is something of a way of life in this region.

"It's the eleventh year of quality management for the WMA and it's the fourth or fifth for the county at large," Chris Cook pointed out. "I don't know if this is the best part of the state for quality buck hunting, but they've got some awfully good hunting here."

The late January hunts on Barbour catch the rut.

With regard to the hunting on the other good tract of public land, most of the deer are killed on the dog hunts at Blue Spring.

SUMMING IT UP

Ron Eakes, the district biologist in northwest Alabama, said the bucks are out there for savvy hunters who don't mind getting in the woods, reading the sign and figuring out how to put it all together.

And he said the WMAs are great places to pursue those bucks.

"It remains the best bargain in deer hunting that there is," he said. "There's not another club in the state that gives you access to 700,000 acres of hunting property for $16."

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