The Yellowhammer State has a national reputation for producing quality bucks, particularly through the Black Belt region. As more hunt clubs and landowners become involved in deer management, the likelihood of seeing a true trophy buck is likely to increase.
This doesn't mean that all bucks will be trophy deer, or even that most of them will. Really big bucks always will be elusive and challenging to hunt. Fortunately, hunters have many places they can go to find big bucks in Alabama.
"We don't have statistics to look at to tell us the average age of bucks killed in a particular county or a specific region," said Chris Cook, Deer Studies Project Leader for the Alabama Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF).
"We only have data for the wildlife management areas. So a lot of the information we have is anecdotal, and is based on feedback from hunters, processors and taxidermists, as well as what our folks see hunters killing during hunting season."
Several years ago, the DWFF made some changes to the deer hunting regulations that were designed to increase the number of big bucks in the woods. Cook said those changes appear to be having the effect that biologists and hunters wanted to see.
"This past season was either the seventh or eighth season since we went from one buck per day with no season limit to three bucks per season," Cook said.
"It was a pretty drastic change, and as you would expect, there were some folks who didn't change how they hunt.
They either still only kill one or two bucks a year, or kill as many as they can and don't worry about the consequences."
Many hunters, however, understood the message that the DWFF was trying to send, such as hunters shouldn't shoot every buck they see. Some hunters went as far as putting self-imposed limits, and are passing on bucks that they might have shot in the past.
"I've talked to hunters, taxidermists, processors, biologists and law enforcement officers," Cook said. "There's definitely a feeling that people are more selective in what they shoot since we imposed the buck limit."
That has contributed to what looks like an increase in trophy class bucks harvested. In fact, there were a lot more good bucks harvested last year — 160 inches or more — according to Cook. And these deer were spread across the state, not just in one or two regions. This points to a statewide phenomenon, not just a local change in conditions.
The change in regulations, however, is not the only factor that may have affected the buck harvest in the last couple of years. Weather, too, may have played a part.
"That's (weather) a factor that's out of our control that influences harvest every year," Cook said. "It's not just that weather affects deer movement; weather also can affect the hunter's willingness to stick it out and to actually go hunting. It's a huge factor on both private land and public land."
According to Cook, if the weather is bad on a traditional hunting weekend, the harvest will be down, particularly on WMAs with limited opportunities for gun hunting.
"The same thing is true on private land," Cook said. "If opening weekend and the weekend following Thanksgiving have terrible weather for hunting and for deer movement, the total harvest will be down. But if conditions are perfect, the harvest typically is a whole lot better."
Regardless of what the bag limit is or the regulations are, the weather is going to greatly influence hunter success and the number of deer — not just big bucks — harvested.
Of course, hunters stand a better chance of harvesting a big buck in some parts of the state than in others. Those areas that harbor more big deer are pretty consistent from year to year, according to biologists.
"The area known as the Black Belt, which is the central part of the state from Pickens and Sumter counties across the state to Russell and Barbour counties, typically has some of the best deer killed every year," Cook said.
"There are two things that affect that. First is good quality habitat and great soils, so that it's a perfect place to grow big deer.
And there's typically a longer history of people managing for better quality deer on most parcels of land in that part of the state."
When the Deer Management Assistance Program began, the Black Belt area was where landowners first got involved. As a result, the idea of passing up young bucks there is not as new an idea as it is in other parts of the state.
Another area where big bucks are more common is Jackson County in the northeast corner of the state, which is not an area that most people would think about.
"It's a big county, and a county where people seem to be more serious about deer management than they are in other parts of the state," Cook said.
"There's some really good habitat when you get down off the hills and into the lower areas. Again, it's an area with a little more history of deer management and some better quality habitat in parts of the county."
Another area is on the western part of the state. From Birmingham to Coleman and further west runs Walker and Winston counties and the southern end of Lawrence County on over to Lamar, Marion and Fayette counties.
For years, these areas have produced nice deer, but the numbers have increased greatly in the last few years, even as hunting tactics have changed.
"Especially in Lamar and Marion counties, there used to be a lot of dog deer hunting," Cook said. "A lot of those clubs have had to change their approach to deer hunting. They're seeing deer and letting them walk when they would have shot those deer in years past."
What underlies the better habitat in all these areas is the soil. In most of the areas with better deer, the land has better soil. According to Cook, the central and southern parts of the state have a lot of areas with good soils, at least until getting close to the coast.
Even so, Baldwin County has a high amount of agriculture. Even the northern section of the state contains quite a bit of farming, and the Black Belt region has, of course, some excellent soil quality. The soils typically are shallower in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, but the bottoms still have some good quality, deeper soils.
What all of this says is that the next true trophy buck may come from almost anywhere in the state.
"The potential from one end of Alabama to the other is there," Cook said. "It's just more widespread in certain spots. In other areas, it's in the valleys and bottoms and along the river drainages as opposed to across the entire landscape like it is in the central part of the state.
There are very few places where the soil quality is poor enough to affect deer quality; it's just that in some places the good soils aren't across the entire landscape."
This discussion gives rise to another question. Biologists often say that one area has better soil that another, but what, exactly, does that mean?
According to Cook, better soils have a pH between 6.0 and 7.0, meaning that they are very close to neutral or slightly alkaline. The best soils are typically a sandy loam, rather than clay or sand. Of course, the plants growing in those soils have better nutrition, which translates into better nutrition for deer, and means bigger deer with better antlers.
"Those better soils translate into food for the deer," Cook said. "If you do the management part of things, you can produce as good a deer in most of south Alabama as you can through central Alabama or even north Alabama. Soils are not as much of a limiting factor here as they are in some other places that have poor quality soils."
Although genetics plays a role in producing big deer, it's not as big a role as many hunters believe.
"Genetics plays a big role for the individual deer," Cook said. "But as far as genetics limiting the quality of the bucks that a property can produce from one end of the state to another, that's never been an issue. Big deer are likely to be killed in any county.
There's always one that's a lot bigger than the rest, and one that's a lot smaller than he should be for his age class. But you're going to see that anywhere you go in the whitetail's range."
Genetics is not anything that hunters should even be concerned about, says Cook, as most deer don't hit their full potential until they are 5 or 6 years of age, but hunters are shooting them when they are 3 or 4. A 140-class buck at 3 has the potential to become a 160-class if allowed to mature a little more.
"A hunter will shoot a 140-class buck as a 3-year-old and kind of forget about the age once he's dead," said Cook. "Then the same hunters will target the cull bucks and think they're affecting the genetics, but they're not; they're just killing bucks they don't want to feed any more.
Even shooting the bucks on the right side of the bell curve, you're not changing the genetics of that population; all you can do is allow the deer that should have the most potential to make it to that age when they can express all that potential."
In other words, shooting cull bucks has little or no effect on the genetics of the population. Hunters who are really serious about trying to do something positive from a genetics perspective should shoot the 5-year-old 6-pointer standing next to the 140-class 3-year-old.
And ignore those that say Alabama should import deer from up north. Even if the deer survived the shock and stress of being moved to a new environment, bringing in a few wouldn't make a difference.
"There are so many deer in Alabama already that you couldn't afford to physically bring enough deer here to change the genetic landscape," Cook said.
"On free range deer you have what you have, and you need to work with that. When you work with the habitat side of it and the age structure side of it, you can produce deer that every hunter should be happy with."