October 11, 2016
By John Felsher
After what many say was an average season in 2015-16, Alabama sportsmen can have hope for better deer hunting this fall.
While sportsmen across much of the state can bag a doe a day on private lands, hunters in parts of northern Alabama will see fewer either-sex days this season in an effort to bolster the deer herd in that area. The Alabama Conservation Advisory Board voted on a proposal to reduce the number of either-sex hunting days in parts of Alabama. If the xproposal becomes law, sportsmen might only take does on 20 days throughout the season.
"Many people who hunt deer in northern Alabama expressed concern about seeing fewer deer last season," stated Chris Cook, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division deer project study leader in Northport. "Whether that's true or not is hard to say. In many places, I think the deer population is staying the same, but the hunting pressure is increasing."
Even with these various changes, Alabama sportsmen should still enjoy abundant opportunities to put venison in the freezer this fall from the nearly 1.3 million acres of public land throughout the state.
Part of District 1 in northwestern Alabama falls into the section of the state with proposed reduced either-sex hunting. The highest deer concentrations occur in the Marion, Fayette, Lamar and Walker counties.
"We have pockets of high deer densities in other counties," advised Kevin Pugh, district biologist. "Madison County has pockets with a lot of deer. It all comes down to the habitat quality. Cover is a major limiting factor."
The Sam Murphy WMA, a 17,625-acre property in Lamar and Marion counties near Guin, traditionally offers excellent deer hunting. It generally produces about 200 deer per year.
"Sam Murphy has the highest deer density in the district," Pugh said. "The habitat is mostly pine. It goes from early successional to mature pines. It has a ton of cover and browse. It has some hardwood drains. We've seen some big deer come out of Murphy. At least two deer at Murphy in the past few years went over 160 inches."
Freedom Hills WMA comes in a close second for producing deer in District I. Freedom Hills covers 31,868 acres in Colbert County near Cherokee. Hunters also do well on Lauderdale WMA, which covers 20,344 acres of Lauderdale County near Waterloo. The state conducted considerable thinning and burning on the properties. More sunlight hitting the ground encourages plant growth, creating food and cover for whitetails.
People can also hunt the Bankhead National Forest, which spreads across 181,230 acres. The largest WMA in the state, Black Warrior covers 91,263 acres of the national forest in Lawrence and Winston counties near Moulton. Historically, Black Warrior also produces some of the biggest deer in Alabama.
"Bankhead National Forest has a lower deer density, but traditionally many really big deer come out of there," Pugh recalled. "We see some really good bucks come out of Black Warrior. Every year, we'll get some 140- to 150-class deer with a 160 every now and then."
In District II of northeastern Alabama, some counties are in the area with proposed reduced either-sex hunting. However, sportsmen can find good hunting on Choccolocco WMA. Part of the Talladega National Forest, the property covers 56,838 acres of mountainous terrain in Cleburne County. The forest covers 392,567 acres at the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. People can also hunt the 28,802-acre Hollins WMA in the national forest near Hollins.
"We're not restricting the entire district to the reduced antlerless deer days," explained Steve Bryant, state supervising wildlife biologist. "At Choccolocco WMA, people wanted us to restrict the harvest there. Choccolocco has really good deer habitat. It's being restored to native longleaf pines. This habitat leaves abundant open spaces where summer browse can grow."
For some of the best hunting in northeastern Alabama, hunters should head to the James D. Martin-Skyline WMA on the Cumberland Plateau. The state acquired the original tract in 1959, but added to it over the years, so now it covers 60,732 acres along the Tennessee state line in Jackson County.
"Skyline has the biggest numbers in the district, but it also has the most pressure," Bryant explained. "Much of it is pretty rugged terrain with some flatter, more diverse areas down by the Tennessee River. It's mostly hardwoods, with a lot of oaks. It's good when we have a high mast year. The mast last year was abundant. It fact, since we had so much rain, a lot of it rotted on the ground."
People might also hunt Coosa WMA, which covers 22,988 acres of Coosa County near Rockford or Little River WMA on 13,100 acres in Cherokee and DeKalb counties near Centre. Sportsmen can also obtain permits to hunt some U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or Tennessee Valley Authority lands.
District III offers some of the best deer hunting in the state, with much of it the rich Black Belt area, a fertile swath extending across central Alabama. The best counties in the district include Dallas, Lowndes and Greene with Sumter and Pickens as honorable mentions.
Cook, who not only serves as the top Alabama deer biologist, but District III supervising wildlife biologist, recommends the David K. Nelson and Lowndes WMAs. Nelson includes 8,308 acres of bottomland habitat in Sumter, Hale, Marengo and Greene counties near the confluence of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Black Warrior River. Since water surrounds the property on three sides, sportsmen need a boat to access most of it.
Along the Alabama River, Lowndes WMA covers 13,962 acres in Lowndes County near White Hall. Lowndes produces some quality bucks each year.
"Both Lowndes and Nelson have good deer numbers," Cook said. "Nelson is a little harder to access without a boat, but people can drive into one area. Lowndes has good roads and access close to Montgomery."
Cook also recommends Oakmulgee WMA in the Talladega National Forest, which spreads across 44,500 acres of Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties. The habitat consists mostly of mature pine and upland hardwoods with some hardwood drains. People can also hunt the surrounding national forest properties.
"For me, Oakmulgee is one of the prettiest places to hunt," Cook commented. "It's been around for a long time. and pulls in hunters from around the state."
Hunters might also venture onto the 39,859-acre William R. Ireland, Sr.-Cahaba River WMA in Bibb and Shelby counties or the 35,260-acre Mulberry Forks WMA in Tuscaloosa and Walker counties. These areas hold some deer, but typically don't receive as much hunting pressure.
Sportsmen can also hunt on smaller Forever Wild properties outside the WMA system, including the Sipsey River Complex in Tuscaloosa County and the Old Cahawba Prairie Tract in Dallas County. Some Corps of Engineers tracts along the Tombigbee and the Black Warrior Rivers offer good hunting.
The Black Belt also extends into parts of District IV in southeastern Alabama, where hunters can find good pockets of deer.
"The harvest was a mixed bag in the 2015-16 season," remarked Bill Gray, district wildlife biologist in Enterprise. "I think the population in this district is holding steady. There may even be some places where the deer population is increasing slightly, but I think overall the population is stable."
Many people hunt Barbour WMA, a 28,214-acre property in Barbour and Bullock counties near Clayton. One of the best public deer hunting properties in the country, Barbour sits in the transition zone between the Black Belt Region and the coastal plain.
"Barbour WMA is the crown jewel of this district," Gray claimed. "It has the highest deer population in the district. It has a really good mix of habitat with hardwood bottoms associated with drainages and streams. About 30 percent of the area is in pine plantations. We're restoring longleaf pines. It leaves a beneficial plant communities in the understory."
Sportsmen may consider Blue Springs WMA in the Conecuh National Forest. Blue Springs covers 24,783 acres of Covington County near Andalusia. Conecuh National Forest covers 83,000 acres of mostly pine flatwoods near the Florida line, but includes some hardwood strands and bogs.
"Blue Spring WMA offers many opportunities for antlerless harvests," Gray said. "It's a great place to go if someone just wants to kill a deer. It has sandy soil so deer don't have the nutrients to produce really big antlers."
Geneva State Forest in Geneva County also offers sportsmen excellent opportunities to bring home venison. In 2014, the state purchased 3,649 acres and added it to Geneva State Forest, bringing the acreage up to 10,368 acres. The property has mature longleaf pines with some hardwood drainages.
Subject to the rules of the U.S. Army, sportsmen can also hunt about 30,000 acres on Fort Rucker east of Enterprise. People can hunt some Corps of Engineer lands along the Chattahoochee River and Lake Eufaula. The Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge spans the Alabama-Georgia line and allows archery hunting.
In District V, in southwest Alabama, the Upper Delta WMA includes 42,451 acres of swamps and waterways in Baldwin and Mobile counties. The marshy Mobile-Tensaw Delta/W.L. Holland WMA, also known as the Lower Delta, covers 51,040 acres north of Mobile Bay. Sportsmen need boats to access most of both properties, but hunters can enter some areas on foot.
Throughout the 2015-16 season, some of the highest water in decades severely limited access to the delta. The Upper Delta contains higher ground, and therefore more deer, than the Lower Delta. High water can concentrate deer in higher parcels of ground or push them to neighboring lands.
"If someone just wants to put meat in the freezer, the Upper Delta is not bad, but that depends upon the water levels," stated Thomas Harms, state biologist in Spanish Fort. "High water is bad for people who want to hunt the public land, but good for people with private lands adjacent to the delta. Even after the water drops, it takes time for deer to move back into those areas that were flooded. High water can help open some areas. Once it dries out, green growth will sprout."
When the delta floods, people used to visit Scotch WMA, which covers 19,480 acres in Clark County near Coffeeville, Unfortunately, Scotch WMA will be eliminated from the Alabama WMA system, as the group that owns the property has decided to pull the property because of requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
"Perdido is another good area,"said Harms."They are clearcutting some areas and replanting them in longleaf pines at Perdido. They've also been doing a lot of burning. Perdido has a pretty good deer population. It's not as heavily hunted as some other public areas."
Perdido WMA includes 17,337 acres along the Perdido River in Baldwin County. People might also hunt Grand Bay Savanna, which includes 5,151 acres of lower Mobile County, but it allows only shotgun and archery hunting.
All across Alabama, sportsmen can find good hunting opportunities if they just do their homework. They need to scout some properties to find the best spots. On public lands, they might even want to hunt afternoons or during the week when hunting pressure drops.