As the summer season turns to fall, Alabama hunters' thoughts turn to deer. If you're deer hunting in the Cotton State this year, it's time to make plans for where your hunts are going to take place. We hope to help.
"There are parts of the state where deer numbers seem to be increasing," said deer studies project leader Chris Cook of the Alabama Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF). "In other areas, the (deer) numbers are stable or have declined over the last 15 years and now have leveled out. Overall, the population statewide is stable, because when one area is slowly declining another one is increasing."
The only significant change, Cook said, is an expansion of season dates in the southern part of the state where biologists are making adjustments to be sure hunters are in the woods during the rut. For complete details, review the Alabama deer hunting season dates at OutdoorAlabama.com.
Last season DWFF ran a voluntary electronic reporting system to determine how many deer actually were killed in Alabama during hunting season. In the future this system probably will become mandatory. For the 2013-2014 hunting season, Cook said, he estimates that 7 to 8 percent of hunters reported their deer.
"It's a small sample, but I think it's a good starting point," he said. "This system will allow us to collect deer harvest data and make better management decisions. Long term, it will help us make decisions that will improve the deer herd and the hunting experience for Alabama's deer hunters."
Even the small DWFF sample size gives some insight into where deer can be found on private land.
Deer hunters reported 536 deer taken during the 2013-2014 season.
"This one is surprising," Cook said. "We don't know why it's so high on the list. It's not a county I normally think of as having lots of deer or lots of deer hunters." Madison County is the third most populated county in the state.
Deer hunters reported taking 434 deer last season.
"This one's a puzzler," Cook said, "especially when you consider that there is concern among hunters in that area about deer numbers being low. Of the counties that are high on the list, this one is the biggest surprise to me. It may just be that people in this part of the state want to be a bigger part of the overall management process."
Deer hunters reported 738 deer killed in the 2013-14 deer season. Cook said Jackson County was at the top of the list on the mail survey in the past also.
"Jackson County has produced a lot of trophy deer for years," he said. "It makes sense that it would also be good for numbers of deer. A lot of folks are real active deer managers there, so they're doing the work to produce good quality deer and numbers of deer."
Jackson County lies at the base of the southern reach of the Appalachian Mountains, so it has a lot of hilly areas. The Tennessee River runs along the southern border of the county, where it also holds farmland along the river.
Deer hunters reported 397 deer killed in 2013-2014.
"Again, this is a traditional deer hunting hotspot," Cook said. "The county has a lot of long-standing hunting clubs and big landowners who are real serious about deer management and who kill a lot of deer."
According to Cook, one reason for the large harvest is that the county still is largely rural. It also has the Alabama River running through the middle of it, and it has a lot of bottomland and floodplain-type habitat. Land features also include Black Belt prairie land and the Coastal Plain, providing a lot of diversity in habitat.
Hunters here took 382 deer last year.
"Limestone is a lot like Madison and Lauderdale counties," Cook said. "I don't know why it's so high on the list, unless it's just that the people there may have a better understanding of the value of reporting what they kill."
Deer hunters reported a total harvest of 458 deer in 2013-14.
"Like Jackson, this one is not surprising," Cook said. "It's had really good deer numbers for decades and is a heavily hunted part of the state. There are a lot of big hunting clubs and big landowners in that part of the world. It's a real productive part of the state from a deer standpoint."
Deer hunters collected 442 deer last season. Barbour County is adjacent to Russell County and shares many of that county's land characteristics.
"It's a good part of the state for producing deer," he said. "A lot of clubs and landowners in that part of the state are good deer managers and are serious about deer management. They take an active role deer management, and see the need for good deer reporting."
The Chattahoochee River flows along the eastern boundary of Barbour County. The county has a mixture of bottomland habitats along the river. The Black Belt prairie-type soils come to an end there, transitioning to the Coastal Plain soils.
Hunters reported 364 deer taken during the 2013-2014 season.
"This county is with Russell and Barbour counties, and is a really good, productive deer hunting county," Cook said.
Deer hunters here reported 361 deer taken during last year's season.
"This one is the same as Macon County," Cook said. "It has a lot of hunting clubs and a lot of good habitat and good landowners. They're good deer managers and produce a lot of deer and kill a lot of deer each year. There's just good deer country in that part of the state."
Deer hunters here reported taking 397 deer in 2013-2014. Baldwin County is right across the bay from Mobile, at the southwest corner of Alabama.
"Baldwin is a big county, and it has long-standing hunting clubs and a lot of private land in hunting clubs," Cook said. "The county has a lot of deer, especially when you get (north of) Interstate 10 in the northern part of the county. It also has a lot of deer hunters, so I'm not surprised to see it in that upper tier of counties on the list."
The western edge of Baldwin County features a large portion of the Alabama River floodplain as it nears Mobile Bay. The majority of the county holds lower Coastal Plain sandy types of soils. Once you get south of I-10, there's a good bit of agriculture. North of I-10, the landscape is dominated by pine forests and typical Southern woodlands.
WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREAS
Building the list of the top Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) for deer hunting in Alabama, last year's harvest numbers were matched with the number of man-days required for hunters to harvest that number of deer. The harvest number was divided by the number of man-days executed on the area to produce a harvest index number (shown as man-days per deer harvested) that indicates the relative difficulty of harvesting a deer from each of the areas.
What the harvest index number does not reveal, however, is how the size of the area plays into hunter success. For example, on a WMA with a low index number — meaning it didn't take many days for a hunter to harvest a deer — the chances for taking a deer may actually be quite low because the area is so small.
Nonetheless, this list gives you an idea of where to begin looking for a place to hunt this fall. Some of them require daily permits or have other specific requirements. Be sure to read the management are brochure for each of these areas before you go.
1. Fred T. Stimpson WMA
"For decades, Fred T. Stimpson Wildlife Management Area served as a wildlife sanctuary for us," Cook said. "We used it as a stocking source for deer and for turkeys, when we were restocking across the state. Until a few years ago there was no hunting on it. Now it's a youth-only hunting area with very limited hunting. It's a perfect setting to have a lot of deer killed because there's very little disturbance and a lot of deer."
Fred T. Stimpson WMA is located in Clarke County and covers a little more than 5,300 acres.
2. Coon Gulf Tract / RaccoonCreek WMA
Part of the Jackson County Waterfowl Management Areas and Refuge, Raccoon Creek WMA and the Coon Gulf Tract feature both gun and primitive weapons hunts.
"The rest of the areas in that Jackson County Waterfowl group are just archery," Cook said. "There are a lot of deer on the waterfowl areas, and this gives hunters an opportunity to use something more than just a bow and arrows."
Coon Gulf Tract is a little larger than 3,200 acres.
3. Choccolocco WMA
At more than 56,800 acres big, Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area is among the oldest of the state's WMAs. It is located in the Talladega National Forest in Cleburne County.
"The harvest rates and participation here seem to fluctuate quite a bit over the years," Cook said. "I think the hunters and the deer here kind of go through cycles, where people hunt it more in some years than they do in other years.
4. Seven Mile Island WMA
The Seven Mile Island Wildlife Management Area lies in Lauderdale County in far northwest Alabama. The area is small, spreading across a little more than 4,600 acres, and is associated with Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge.
"This is another archery only area," Cook said. The deer hunt runs from the end of December to the end of January.
5. Frank W. & Rob M. Boykin WMA
Frank W. & Rob M. Boykin Wildlife Management Area is located in Mobile and Washington counties, and is more than 17,700 acres in small units.
"This is one of our traditional WMAs," Cook said. "It's mostly pine forests, and is an area we lease from the Boykin family. This is one of the few areas that offers deer hunting with dogs, and they get a lot of participation on those hunts."
6. Sam R. Murphy WMA
At more than 17,700 acres, Sam R. Murphy Wildlife Management Area is quite fragmented. It is located in Lamar and Marion counties.
"This area is in a part of the state where the deer numbers seem to be increasing," Cook said. "This area is a deer factory. It produces a lot of deer, and the hunters are good at killing them. It's been pretty good for quite a while."
7. Lowndes WMA
"Lowndes Wildlife Management Area is one of our areas that has antler restrictions," Cook said. "Most of the bucks that are taken here are 2 years old and older. This area historically has had good deer numbers. It's owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is part of the Tennessee-Tombigbee mitigation project. We operate it as a wildlife management area."
Lowndes WMA is located in the county of the same name and covers almost 14,000 acres. It features youth, gun and archery hunts.
8. Mulberry Fork WMA
Mulberry Fork Wildlife Management Area is a 35,000-acre area located in Tuscaloosa and Walker counties.
"We lease this area from Forever Wild," Cook said. "We have the hunting rights on it for 90-plus years. We don't do much habitat management, even though we have the hunting rights. This area doesn't get a lot of hunting pressure on it, even though it has a lot of deer on it. It has pretty good hunting on it if you put the time in to figure out where to go. It's mostly hunted by local folks. We don't get a lot of people driving for several hours to come hunt on it."
9. Yates Lake West WMA
"The Yates Lake West Wildlife Management Area is another Forever Wild tract in Elmore County," Cook said. "This is a fairly new area. It's different from most of our WMAs in that there's not a check station. You have certain days you hunt, and you hunt on a map permit. There's a little more flexibility — and more opportunity — to hunt than on other WMAs."
Yates Lake West WMA straddles Tallapoosa River and covers more than 3,500 acres.
10. Barbour WMA
Barbour Wildlife Management Area is located in Barbour and Bullock counties and encompasses more than 27,000 acres.
"This is one of our oldest areas," Cook said. "It's been around a long time. We had leased a lot of this land, but we've been able to purchase most of it over the past 10 or 12 years. Now we can control the habitat part of the management on almost all the property, so we can do more to the habitat to make it better and more productive."
Cook said Barbour WMA was the first wildlife management area to have an antler restriction on it to protect yearling bucks. As a result, 85 percent of bucks harvested are 2 years old and older.
Of course, much more public-hunting land is found in Alabama. Check all federal, state and local hunting regulations before going afield and always practice good firearm safety and hunting ethics.