The 2010-11 deer season was one of rebound for Alabama hunters.
If you remember back two seasons ago, the hunting was slow and the harvest was below normal across the state. Things got a lot better for Bama deer hunters last year, with the biggest deer harvest since 2005-06, according to Biologist Chris Cook, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources deer studies leader.
Alabama hunters reported taking more deer; and some hunters also had an exceptional year for quality bucks.
The big question going forward is whether the upward trend will continue in 2011-12. It's hard to know ahead of time just what will happen, but conditions seemed to be favorable heading into the fall.
Deer populations have stabilized in much of the state, with the animals in just about everyone's backyard now. The spring and early summer started out wet, with the moisture meaning browse should be in good shape for deer. Good browse helps individual animals in the deer herd to physically be in top shape heading into the fall hunting season.
The unknown variable is the mast crop. It is good to have some acorns, but too many can make for frustrating hunting conditions since deer don't have to move much to feed.
The weather is another variable. Cool temperatures in the fall and winter seem to be a boon for hunting and we never know year to year just how that will play out.
If you hunt on public land in Alabama, things may just be getting better and better. Participation in the hunts on the wildlife management areas statewide is down. With a few exceptions, you really don't have to worry too much about crowded conditions, if you go on a public land hunt. At the same time, the harvest is slightly up. That means fewer hunters are killing more deer on the WMAs.
The lack of participation in the WMA hunts continues to be a source of concern for the Alabama DCNR. A lot of management time and effort is expended on the WMAs and the state's biologists like to see people enjoying the resources these areas provide.
Even if you have some private land to hunt, you might want to consider spending some time on the WMAs. Many are big, sprawling and provide a true "backwoods" experience that can be lacking if you spend most of your time hunting a semi-suburban tract close to home. The hunting can be a true challenge and it's fun to spend time roaming a big set of woods, unraveling sign and trying to put together a pattern you can exploit.
I own a small tract of semi-rural private land where I live. That provides a great deal of my hunting, but I also visit a WMA or two every season for a change of pace and a chance to match wits with the big woods whitetails. It's a fun mix of hunting.
MORE OPPORTUNITIES IN 2011
Hunters in Alabama will have unprecedented opportunities to take antlerless deer in 2011. The state has gradually been adding counties to the zone that allows either-sex hunting for the full season. This year the last counties around Birmingham will be added to the full season for either-sex action, making the whole state of Alabama now open for antlerless harvest for the full season.
Bowhunters will have the last two weeks of October and first two weeks of November to themselves as always, with a week-long muzzleloader season in mid-November in most counties, just before the gun season opens Nov. 19 and continues through Jan. 31, 2012
Many of the WMAs also open for the mid-November muzzleloader hunt and it's a great time to camp and hunt while the temperatures are still fairly pleasant. Two good areas for such trips are Oakmulgee and Choccolocco WMAs. They rank in the top five in the state in terms of deer harvest and also have nice campgrounds with showers and other amenities.
Baiting or supplemental feeding (depending on you point of view) and extending the season into the first two weeks of February continue to be hot topics of conversation in the deer hunting community in Alabama. Neither, however, looks to become a reality this season.
Even without such an extension, Alabama's hunters have one of the longest, most liberal seasons in the nation with 3 1/2 months in which to legally kill up to two deer per day.
Chris Cook said Alabama hunters can continue to look for decent January action. For years the first month of the year has been thought of as the prime time to hunt in Alabama. That€šs because so many of the state's bucks rut during this time. But the hunting has sort of fizzled in January during the last two seasons.
"We had some really good hunting the first part of the season last year," Cook said.
That led him to expect a really great January, but it didn't happen.
"It makes you wonder what kinds of stars have to align for us to have a good January," he added.
In North Alabama, where I hunt, the action had been good from Thanksgiving through New Year's. Then a deep snow fell and stayed on the ground a week, accompanied by bitter cold temperatures in mid-January. The snow seemed to slow the hunting on my small property and it never recovered before the end of the season. Other hunters I spoke with in the region also seemed to think the snow put things off, although why was never clear.
MANAGE FOR A MOSAIC
If you own your own hunting land in Alabama, District 1 Wildlife Biologist Ron Eakes said you want to go for a "patch work" or "mosaic" look to your property for maximum benefit for deer and other wildlife.
Hunting property made up only of old growth forest can't meet the needs of a whitetail herd 365 days a year. Neither can a property made up primarily of wide-open fields.
Ideal deer habitat includes some old growth forest, particularly mast bearing trees like oaks and persimmons, some brushy territory such as a cutover or old grown up field and some food plots or green fields.
"Walk through your habitat and hold your hands about 3 1/2 feet off the ground," Eakes said. "That's about as high as a deer can reach. They need their food to be that low to the ground and lower."
He also said hunters need to remember how to hunt hardwoods and cutovers.
"We see too many hunters in a mentality of 'build it and they will come,'" he said. "They think if they plant a green field, they can sit on it and have success. But you're not going to have a lot of success on green fields when the woods are loaded with acorns."
In managing for the mosaic in your woodland, Eakes said, the most cost effective tools that can be implemented are timber harvests and controlled burning.
"By using fire, you can knock back the vegetation and keep the early successional vegetation coming on," he said.
Before taking a timber or burning program on by you, consult with the Alabama Forestry Commission or the DCNR, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. They have trained professionals who can advise you on exactly what you need to do and can also offer safety tips to make sure your burn or cut goes as it should.
LET THE YOUNG WALK
Hand in hand with a program to improve habitat management is the idea of letting small bucks walk. A buck is never going to reach its full potential unless it has time to grow — at least three years and preferably five.
"The old saying is, 'if I don't shoot him and he jumps the fence, my neighbor will,'" Eakes said. "If you shoot him, you can guarantee he won't grow anymore. Maybe your neighbor will shoot him, but maybe he won't."
Part of the idea behind the three-buck limit the state imposed a few years back is to make people think twice about shooting young bucks. If you want meat, Eakes said, shoot a doe.
Even when hunting public land, hunters make the ultimate decision on whether a small buck gets to walk.
"Hunters are our management tool in this regard and they can have a big impact, even on management areas that don't have a quality buck program in place," Ron Eakes said.
Human development can be used to illustrate the difference time can make in how a body develops.
"It's like comparing a 10-year-old boy to Cam Newton," the biologist said. "The boy might have the potential to have the same type body Newton, but you won't know until he gets some age on him."
That's enough philosophy for now about managing land and managing age-class for better deer hunting, but those are important factors to remember as you get ready for this hunting season.
Now it's time to look at some regions of the state that offer outstanding deer hunting potential heading into 2011-12.
The mid-section of Alabama continues as arguably the top part of the state for both deer hunting overall and quality buck hunting as well. This region features the Black Belt with its extremely fertile soils. There are hunting clubs, commercial hunting operations and the area hosts charity hunts such as the Blue & Gray Hunt out of Montgomery and the many school benefit hunts that offer access to this prime region.
Top-notch counties are Pickens, Sumter, Greene and Bullock, but places like Tuscaloosa and even Coosa County shouldn't be overlooked either.
The Coosa WMA jumped from 14th place among the WMAs in numbers of deer killed two seasons ago to No. 5 in the state last year. The harvest went from 162 deer to 307. It's not often that the state's top five WMAs list gets a new member, but something is definitely going on there.
Other top WMAs in this region are Oakmulgee at No. 2 in the state with 378 whitetails tagged last year. Mulberry Fork and Lowndes also rated well. Oakmulgee has a Christmas rut, while the rut on the others is more of a traditional January rut.
Counties like Jackson, Cleburne, Marion and Lamar offer outstanding private land hunting in this region of the state. There are lots of private hunting clubs around the region that offer good whitetail action. There's also good hunting on some of the public areas.
Choccolocco WMA ranked No. 4 in the state last year in the number of deer killed and is a consistent top five WMA for harvest numbers. Sam R. Murphy is another good one that also offers good buck hunting. Martin-Skyline and St. Clair are other good bets.
Randy Liles, the district biologist for northeast Alabama, said Choccolocco offers three-day either-sex hunts just about every weekend from Thanksgiving through the first of the year. This also WMA has a November hunt, and that early action is viewed as the best.
Liles also offered a tip for one "dark horse" WMA in his area.
"We're adding a two-day youth hunt Nov. 12 and 13 on Little River this year and I think it has the potential to be a real good hunt," he said.
Ron Eakes, the district biologist in the northwest corner of the state, said Freedom Hills is coming on strong in his area. Hunters have a chance to have some outstanding "classic rut" hunts on this area in January, where they'll observe rubs, scrapes and even bucks chasing does.
The southern tier of counties is generally deer rich, particularly counties like Geneva, Covington, Wilcox and Clarke.
A top public hunting area in the region is Barbour, which was the No. 1 deer-harvest WMA in the state last year. Blue Spring is also good and allows hunting with deerhounds. A final option is Scotch WMA in the southwest corner of the Cotton State.
The region is home to three of the top 12 WMAs in last year's rating. Those are Blue Spring, Barbour and Scotch.
As noted, Barbour is the No. 1 harvest WMA and even more impressive when you consider that it has a three-point per side antler restriction. District Biologist Bill Gray has said previously he likes the blackpowder hunt on Barbour as a chance for hunters to get on some undisturbed deer.
SUMMING IT UP
Alabama continues to be a strong state for deer hunting. And when it's really good, like it was last year and hopefully will be again this year, the season is truly something special to behold.
Best of all, you don't need a hefty bank account to access the action if you're willing to travel a bit and spend some time on the many publicly owned WMAs.