Start talking about big bucks in Alabama, and the conversation turns to the Black Belt; this region is well known for producing trophy whitetails. Although land use patterns have changed somewhat over the years, the Black Belt still yields more than its share of bruiser bucks every year.
Chris Cook is Deer Program Coordinator for Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). He said the Black Belt stretches from Choctaw and Sumter counties and the lower portion of Pickens County on the west across the state to Russell and Barbour counties on the Georgia border. By traditional reckoning, the region includes part or all of 17 to 20 counties. The Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association—a non-profit organization that promotes outdoor recreation and tourism in the region—sees the area as a little broader, encompassing 23 counties. Either way, this area has some of the best hunting you’ll find in Alabama. The region gets its name from the dark soils there.
“It’s a prairie-type soil that is fairly neutral in pH,” Cook said. “It’s not your typical Alabama soil; the typical Black Belt soil is a clay that is lighter or darker grey. It has unique plant communities associated with it. There’s a whole assortment of native grasses and native forbs such as bluestem and Indian grass.” This soil is more productive than most other soils in Alabama, which results in better nutrition for deer living there.“Historically, there was a lot of agriculture through the Black Belt,” Cook said. “From the 1960s until the early 1990s, there was a combination of a growing deer population, great habitats and row crops; that’s the main reason it was such a destination. It was a recipe for tremendous deer.”
Today, Cook said, the area has less agriculture than in those years, so the region doesn’t stand as much head and shoulders above the rest of the state as it once did.
“One reason it’s still a good place to go is that many bigger properties there have been managed for deer for a long time,” he said. “This was one of the first regions where people started managing for deer, instead of just going and hunting for deer. Today, most of the rest of the state has caught up with this area in terms of managing for deer, and now you’re as likely to see a big deer come from any other part of the state as you are from the Black Belt. But there are still plenty of deer in the Black Belt.”
PUBLIC & FEDERAL LAND
Cook said there’s a small amount of Army Corps of Engineers land in the Black Belt.
“All of it is located along the rivers, so it’s on the edge of the Black Belt soils and getting into the flood plains soils,” he said. “These are still great habitats for deer, but there aren’t any big blocks of land there.”
A couple of the state’s WMAs are owned by the Corps of Engineers but managed by DCNR: David D. Nelson WMA and Lowndes WMA.
“All the permits for these areas are issued by the Corps of Engineers, online,” Cook said. To find information on these areas, go to the Corps’ website at http://www.sam.usace.army.mil, mouse over “Missions” and select “Civil Works,” “Recreation,” and “Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway” from the dropdown menu.
The other WMAs in the Black Belt region are Oakmulgee WMA and Barbour WMA. You can find information on regulations and permits for these areas at www.outdooralabama.com.
“Look under ‘Hunting’ and ‘WMAs’ and look at those areas,” Cook said. “The Oakmulgee WMA is part of the Talladega National Forest. It’s on the north edge of the Black Belt between Tuscaloosa and Selma. It’s 140,000 acres and is more coastal plains soils.” Barbour WMA is on the south side of the Black Belt, Cook said.
Hunters recently have had an increase in hunting opportunities in the Black Belt region.
“We have purchased land in Dallas County,” Cook said. “Those tracts are being managed as Special Opportunity Areas (SOAs), where a limited number of hunters are drawn and allowed to enter. Last year we had a three-day hunt where they came in after lunch, and then hunted all day the next two days, and then hunted until noon the fourth day to make three full days.” The new area that was open for the 2017-2018 hunting season is the Cedar Creek SOA, and the one that will open for the 2018-2019 season is the Portland SOA.
“They’re both on the east side of the Alabama River south of Selma,” Cook said. “That area goes from the river bottom into the Black Belt, so they tie those two physiographic regions together.”
Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust also owns 227,000 acres of land in the state for public use, a small amount of which located in six areas is in the Black Belt. Some of these areas include hunting stations specifically for disabled hunters. For more information about these areas, visit www.Alabamablackbeltadventures.org, mouse over “Hunting and Fishing,” and select “Public Hunting” from the dropdown menu.
Check out this video to learn how to manage your small track of land to bag your trophy buck.
Hunting leases are, of course, also available within the Black Belt region.
“There are several timber companies that have lands available for lease,” Cook said. “The Westervelt Company has a large hunting lease operation, as well as Weyerhaeuser. Plum Creek was bought by Weyerhaeuser, so everything they had is run by Weyerhaeuser now. Soterra also has some land in the Black Belt. There are some smaller companies as well, but those are the biggest ones.”
Leases on Westervelt land can be found at https://westerveltwildlife.com/. Click on “Our Hunting Leases” on the upper left, then on “Available Leases” in the upper center of the page, and then select “Alabama.”
For Weyerhaeuser, go to https://www.wyrecreation.com/leases. In the upper left corner, click on “State” and select “Alabama” from the dropdown menu.
To find Soterra leases, go to http://soterraleases.com/. In the center of the page, click on “Hunting Leases” and you will get a searchable inventory for Alabama and Mississippi.
One other possible source is Rayonier. Go to http://www.rayonierhunting.com/ and click on “Find a Property” at the upper left. You’ll get a page where you can select leases to look at by state.
Timing is important here. You should start looking for a lease in late April or early May at the latest. That’s when last year’s lease holders start relinquishing properties and those properties start appearing on websites. Keep in mind that good hunting leases won’t last long on any of these sites; some of them may disappear in as little as a day. You will have to move quickly to get the one you want.
As soon as you’ve found a lease you think you like, contact the managing forester and let him know you’re interested in the property. If you think the piece of property is a real possibility for you, ask if anyone else is looking at it and try to gauge how fast you’ll need to proceed. Make sure you get on the agent’s radar so he knows you’re seriously looking at the piece of property; get out to see it as quickly as possible. Most agents will give you a few days to go look at a piece of property before they commit to someone else (unless that person is ahead of you in line and has already been to see the property).
The Black Belt is home to more than 40 lodges that accommodate hunters for deer hunting. According to Pam Swanner, project director for the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association, these are full-service lodges that offer everything a deer hunter could possibly want, including cutting, wrapping and freezing of meat. Although the exact services offered by these lodges varies slightly, they all provide meals, lodging, guides, and a complete hunting experience.
Lodges in the Black Belt have joined with other providers of outdoor recreation in the area to form the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association. This non-profit organization is committed to promoting outdoor recreation and tourism opportunities in the state’s Black Belt region; their website is a one-stop destination for everything the hunter needs to know about hunting anything at one of the region’s lodges.
Access the association’s website at http://alabamablackbeltadventures.org/. Mouse over “Hunting and Fishing,” and select “Outfitters and Lodges” from the dropdown menu. You will get a list of 55 lodges located in the Black Belt, showing the activities available at each one. Each lodge name is clickable and has its own page with more information; many of those pages contain links to websites for the individual lodges.