Photo by Curt Helmick
It is an exciting time to be a deer hunter in the Talladega and Shoal Creek Ranger Districts of the Talladega National Forest. New large-scale habitat management work is underway in the areas.
While the management work is primarily aimed at restoring wild quail populations and the red cockaded woodpecker, it is also lending a helping hand to the area’s deer herd.
The management techniques being used include thinning existing pine stands and burning them off to produce more succulent vegetation at ground level. The work started in the northern portion of Shoal Creek Ranger District and has now spread to the more southern Talladega District.
“The changes that are being made will improve the vegetation in the future for both deer and small game,” said Gene Carver, area manager for the Hollins Wildlife Management Area in the Talladega Ranger District. “I call it putting food in the grocery store.”
The areas being thinned will look rough for a couple of years, but they will hold real value for wildlife in the long term.
“We’re managing for early successional species in the forest,” explained Jeff Gardner, a biologist in the Shoal Creek District. “We’re burning more often to encourage new growth. It produces a lot of vegetation that deer like to browse on.”
The habitat work is going on throughout the national forest, but it is more intensive in the two WMAs that are part of the forest. Those are Choccolocco in the Shoal Creek District and Hollins in the Talladega District.
Randy Liles, the longtime manager of the Choccolocco WMA, is very excited about what’s happening.
“The Forest Service has experimented with both dormant condition burns and growing season burns,” he said. “The best results have been in the areas that have received the growing condition burns. You just wouldn’t believe how much it has improved the habitat.”
Part of the habitat work is restoring longleaf pine forests in areas that once held the trees but were later converted to loblolly. That means timber harvests are going along with the controlled burns.
The areas where timber harvests, burns and hardwood drainages meet are creating classic “edge” habitat for the whitetails.
“I would encourage hunters to check out these areas where the work is taking place,” Liles noted. “These are areas that will have deer food year ’round. In a good acorn year, the deer are still going to be in the hardwood drains, but these areas where the management activities are taking place are very good places to start looking for deer.”
The Shoal Creek and Talladega Ranger Districts cover some 220,000 acres in Calhoun, Cleburne, Talladega and Clay counties in northeast Alabama. The WMAs inside the forest have set dates for deer gun hunting, but they allow archery hunting continuously from Oct. 15 to Jan. 31.
The portion of the national forest outside the WMAs is open to hunting five days a week. It is closed to hunting on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, except around major holidays.
“The terrain ranges from rolling hills to very steep,” Gardner said. “We’re at the southern end of the Appalachians. The area includes Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama, and Dugger Mountain, the second highest. So we have some steep ground.”
There are two distinct rut dates inside the national forest. In the northern portion around Choccolocco, restocking was done with deer from North Carolina, and they generally rut in November.
In the southern portion around Hollins, restocked deer came from other parts of Alabama, and the rut is more traditional, occurring in January.
Gardner’s recommendation for first-time deer hunters in the area is to get away from the roads and try to find deer sign deeper in the woods to hunt around.
The blocks of land where habitat management work is underway are good places to start.
“We’ve got close to 3,000 acres in 25 different management blocks that are burned on a rotation,” he said. “We burn the even numbered blocks and then the odd numbers. It’s creating a mosaic of early successional habitat.”
Gardner pointed out that although some “old school” wildlife managers are not on board with growing season burns yet, the National Wild Turkey Federation now endorses the management technique.
The Forest Service hopes to thin and burn some 19,000 acres of woodlands over the next five to 10 years, so the number of management blocks available for hunting will grow over the next several seasons.
“When you have a real thick stand of timber, there’s not a lot in there for animals to feed on,” Gardner explained. “Getting sunlight to the ground produces more vegetative browse for the deer and in turn boosts insect production for turkey and quail poults.”
Another change the managers are talking about making on the national forest is increasing the opportunities for hunters to take animals of either sex. The WMA managers have been doing that, and Gardner said the Forest Service would likely need to make some changes eventually, too.
NOT SO MUCH PRESSURE
Choccolocco, Hollins and the national forest areas outside of those WMAs do get hunted, but the pressure is nothing like it was a couple of decades back, according to District 2 supervising wildlife biologist Keith McCutcheon.
“We have 50,000 acres at Choccolocco and 29,400 at Hollins,” he said. “So we’re talking about big areas.”
In fact, few of the state’s WMAs get the hunting pressure today that they got just 15 years ago.
“The reason is the deer herd has expanded so much,” the biologist said. “If you have a small piece of property out in the country, you’ve got deer on it today. Years ago, the state management areas were the only places that had deer, and that’s why people hunted there so much.”
There are not “wall-to-wall hunters” on the WMAs today like there were back in the mid-1970s.
“There’s room for a few more people,” he said. “Choccolocco used to
get 1,500 to 2,000 people on an average opening day. We’re probably looking at half of that now. All total, we get about 4,600 people on the WMAs for the year. We used to get that on two hunts. There’s a lot more room than most people think.”
McCutcheon shares Liles and Gardner’s enthusiasm for the work underway now at Choccolocco.
“The habitat initiatives are creating a dependable food supply for the deer,” he said. “It’s going to add up to better survival from year to year, even in the years when we have a mast failure. We have multiple habitats for the deer now. They’re not totally dependent on the acorns.”
Like the other biologists, McCutcheon advises hunters to look for the areas where the pine thinning and burning has happened.
“Deer are edge animals anyway,” he observed. “If you can find where some of the upland habitat meets the managed stuff, you’re going to find deer.”
ON THE WMAs
Choccolocco consistently ranks near the top in Alabama for WMAs in terms of the number of deer harvested. Hollins is usually a little further down the list but always in the top half of WMAs for deer numbers.
Last season, Choccolocco hunters took 322 deer — 223 on gun hunts, 68 on archery hunts and 31 with primitive weapons.
On Hollins last year, gun hunters took 94 deer, archery hunters took 76 and primitive weapons hunters took 14 for a total of 184 whitetails.
Also, there are more hunting opportunities on the WMAs now than ever before.
Choccolocco hosts a seven-day gun hunt in November; a two-day gun hunt, five-day primitive weapons hunt and seven-day gun hunt in December; and a four-day gun hunt in January. Those add up to 25 days of firearms hunting on the WMA over the course of the season.
Hollins offers a single day of hunting on opening day of the regular season, followed by a seven-day gun hunt and a two-day primitive weapons hunt in December. In January there are seven-day and two-day gun hunts. There are 19 days of firearms hunting in all.
As mentioned earlier, both areas are open for archery hunting throughout the Alabama deer season.
“We’ve noticed that the seven-day hunts give people a chance to relax and enjoy themselves a little more,” Liles said. “We get a lot of people camping and hunting. There’s a social aspect to it that goes along with the hunting.”
Gene Carver, the Hollins manager, said they’ve noticed a change in the pressure with the addition of the seven-day hunts. They still get the same number of hunters, but they’re spread over more days.
“We might have 100 people a day spread over 29,000 acres on any given day of a seven-day gun hunt,” he said.
The harvest is directly proportional to the number of people hunting.
“When we get 1,000 or 1,200 people walking around, they jump deer and run them over someone else,” Carver explained. “We don’t have as big a harvest when there are only 300 people hunting.”
Bowhunters kill nearly as many deer on Hollins as the gun hunters do.
“We only have 18 or 19 days of gun hunting through the season, so the bowhunting is very good,” he added.
Hollins bowhunters often do quite well around the many small food plots on the area.
On Choccolocco, the Thanksgiving hunt may be the best gun hunt to try. The deer then are either in rut or just winding down from the rut. Gardner said the best rut hunting might actually occur in bow season before the gun hunts start.
The five-day primitive weapons hunt is another good opportunity, and it allows hunters to harvest up to two deer per day.
A new development at Choccolocco is a 1,700-acre area set aside for disabled sportsmen. It did not get a tremendous amount of use last year, but the word has gotten out. More hunters with disabilities are expected to use the area this season.
The regulations on the disabled area are the same as for the WMA at large in regard to the type of hunting and when it is allowed. However, disabled hunters are allowed to use ATVs and vehicles to get around in the area.
“Logging roads and firebreaks make the area very accessible,” Liles said.
On Hollins WMA, the best hunts are the late December primitive weapons session and the seven-day hunt the second week of January.
“Our deer are just starting to rut in mid-January,” Carver said. “We might get a little bit of rutting activity in late December, but there’s significantly more rutting on that second seven-day hunt.”
There is an intensive planting program in place at Hollins, with 128 green fields and 35 acres of summer forage planted each year.
“The more intensive habitat management is taking place on the WMA,” Carver said.
In some years, the archery kill exceeds the gun kill on Hollins. Those many green fields are prime hunting grounds for bow hunters. Many of those fields are behind gates that are never opened to vehicular traffic.
Carver advises hunters to look for pines that have been thinned near hardwood drains. The drains are prime travel corridors and can be excellent places to set up.
“The WMAs in the Talladega National Forest are underrated and underutilized,” Carver said. “They are great places to hunt. Some of my archery hunters hate it when I brag on our area because they don’t want the competition.”
Randy Liles of Choccolocco echoes those sentiments. “The face of the Talladega National Forest is changing,” he said. “And it’s very much for the better.”