Best Big Buck States for 2014: Alabama
October 31, 2014
Alabama has a reputation for producing quality bucks, particularly through the Black Belt region. As more hunt clubs and landowners become involved in deer management programs, the likelihood of seeing a truly 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.
The best way to truly understand where trophy deer are coming from is to have hard data with which to work. While the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries doesn't have a good list of trophy deer and where they were killed just yet, biologists are working on developing just such a list.
The ADWFF has begun tracking trophy deer killed in Alabama through a records and recognition program known as the Records of Alabama's White-tailed Deer (RAWD). This program will allow Alabama deer hunters to compare deer taken in their region to other areas of Alabama, as well as other states in the Southeast. It will also showcase quality animals produced by management efforts and programs in Alabama.
The antler scoring system used for the RAWD program is the same as the one used by the Boone & Crockett Club. The minimum scores for the RAWD program are 140 (net) for a typical deer and 165 (net) for a non-typical deer.
All free-ranging, white-tailed deer taken legally in Alabama are eligible for inclusion in the RAWD program. Hunters can enter a deer taken this year, or one taken 20 years ago.
Scoring sessions are held throughout Alabama at various times during the year. Currently, biologists don't yet have enough deer to develop a publishable list, but as hunters continue to submit deer, ADWFF will continue to compile the data and eventually have a searchable database that will provide information about where big deer really come from in the Cotton State.
Participation in the program is easy. Go to the ADWFF website at www.outdooralabama.com and click on the "Hunting" tab at the top right of the page. From there, scroll down and look for a header that says "Hunter Resources, Harvest Information, Records of Alabama White-tail Deer." Under that you will see a link that says "This page." Click on that link and you'll go to a page where you will find yet another link to the RAWD page. Here you will find more information, and links to RAWD score sheets.
In the absence of hard data about where big bucks are coming from, the best source is the experience of biologists from the ADWFF.
Chris Cook is the Deer Studies Project Leader for the ADWFF, and is probably the best resource in the state for where to find a trophy buck this fall.
Cook's top picks for wildlife management areas (WMAs) located within District 1 are the Black Warrior WMA in Lawrence and Winston counties, and the Sam R. Murphy WMA in Lamar and Marion counties.
"Year in and year out, those are the two top WMAs in that part of the state," Cook said. "Neither area has a lot of deer, but a good percentage of the deer killed are top end bucks."
Sam R. Murphy WMA is privately owned, so DWFF biologists don't conduct a lot of management on the area. However, land managers do cut timber on the area from time to time, so you'll see different age classes of habitat, and a lot of browse for deer.
Black Warrior WMA is located in William B. Bankhead National Forest. It covers more than 91,000 acres, and it doesn't have a high deer density. However, some of the finest bucks that you'll ever see come off Black Warrior. If you want to sit in a stand and see 20 deer in a day, you probably shouldn't go to Black Warrior. But if you want an opportunity at a really good buck on public land, this is one of the best places to try. The rut on this WMA usually comes in right around Thanksgiving, making it a good place for hunters who want to go early.
"The habitat there can't support high numbers of deer," Cook said. "The area has a lot of closed-canopy forest without a lot of good browse plants for deer to feed on throughout most of the year. It appears to be a hard-mast driven area; if there's a heavy mast crop, the following year the deer probably will have a bit better quality antlers. And the opposite is true, too. If there's a really poor mast crop, the following year the antlers probably won't be quite as good."
Cook said biologists speculate that one reason for the larger deer in these two WMAs is that this part (northern Alabama) of the state was stocked with deer from Michigan almost 100 years ago.
"Black Warrior also is a hard place to hunt, both from an access perspective and a terrain perspective," Cook said. "The deer have an opportunity to get older here than on some of the other WMAs."
Biologists have a harder time making suggestions about where big deer might be found on private land than they do for public land, again because of lack of data, but do provide some insights.
"If I had to pick three counties, they would be Lamar, Marion and Fayette," Cook said. "Those three counties are together, and Sam R. Murphy is in Lamar and Marion counties. They've been producing some really good deer for the last 15 to 20 years; there are some areas with a lot of small farms and diverse habitat that's really good for growing good quality deer."
Cook's pick for the best WMA in District 2 is James D Martin-Skyline WMA in Jackson County.
"This is one of our biggest WMAs," he said. "We own most of it, so we're able to do a lot more intensive habitat management and improvement than we are on some other areas. It's a pretty rugged place, kind of like Black Warrior, which helps the deer get some age on them."
Martin-Skyline WMA is a huge area with a lot of hunting opportunity, covering more than 60,000 acres.
Cook also suggested Coosa WMA in Coosa County and Hollins WMA in Clay and Talladega counties.
"Some really good deer are killed each year on Coosa WMA," he said. "It doesn't get a lot of heavy hunting pressure, and occasionally some bucks will make it to four years old. Hunters also kill two or three really good deer a year off Hollins WMA."
When it comes to private land, Cook suggests Jackson County.
"That's the place to be for good quality deer in this district," he said. "There are always some really good deer killed in Jackson County."
Jackson County is on the Tennessee River, and there's some agriculture in the county. It's in the very northeast corner of the state, just across the border from Chattanooga, so it's relatively hilly. This is an area where a lot of people hunt, and hunters take a lot of deer. Landowners in the county are also very serious about deer management, which may contribute to the quality of the bucks there.
"People are letting deer get some age on them, which is a key to big bucks," Cook said. "In District 2, this is the county that year in and year out has the better deer that are killed."
In District 3, Cook likes the William R. Ireland, Sr-Cahaba River WMA in Shelby and Bibb counties.
"This area has some really good deer taken off it each year," he said. "It has some really low deer densities, and some pretty good deer habitat. Those things combine to have the deer in great shape. Deer that can make it to 4-plus years old there are going to be really exceptional in that part of the world. It's a good WMA for good quality deer."
Cook also likes Lowndes WMA in Lowndes County.
"This is one of the areas where we have an antler restriction," he said. "As a result, deer have a leg up on the deer on other WMAs, and a lot of them make it to 2 1/2-years old. That greatly improves their odds of slipping through into the 4-plus-age class. Getting a couple years more growth on a deer is a big plus."
If you can't get to either of those WMAs, Cook said to check out Oakmulgee WMA in Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties, or Mulberry Fork WMA in Tuscaloosa and Walker counties.
"Those two WMAs have some decent deer taken off them, although I would put Cahaba River and Lowndes at the top," Cook said.
For private land, Cook suggests Dallas, Greene and Sumter counties.
"These counties have had good deer populations for a long time," he said. "There a lot of large landowners and a lot of large hunt clubs that have been managing for larger deer for a long time. This area probably has a longer history of passing young bucks and trying to keep deer numbers in balance with the habitat than other parts of the state. This was the first part of the state to have deer, so they were some of the first people to want to take that next step, from just killing deer to wanting to kill better quality deer."
These counties also are part of the Black Belt region, with better quality prairie-type soils, as well as some flood plain soils.
"Sumter County has the Tennessee-Tombigbee River running along its eastern boundary," Cook said. "The bulk of the county also is in the Black Belt. Greene County is the same; it lies between the Tennessee-Tombigbee River and the Black Warrior River, and most of it is in the Black Belt."
Dallas County, Cook said, is similar to the other two.
"Most of it is in the Black Belt, and the Alabama River runs right through the middle of it," he said. "So it also has some really good quality soils as well as a long history of quality and trophy deer management."
Also, don't overlook urban areas close to larger cities in District 3. When you get over near Birmingham in Jefferson County, you'll find a lot of deer around the suburban/rural interface. If you can get access to an area outside the city limits where you can hunt, you may have a good opportunity to kill some older deer that aren't getting a lot of hunting pressure like they would in a typical rural setting.
In this district, Cook likes Barbour WMA in Barbour and Bullock counties.
"Barbour WMA has far and away the better quality deer," he said. "Like Lowndes, it has antler restrictions. It was the first WMA that we placed the antler restriction on to try to get deer into the 2-year-old and older age classes. We own 100 percent of Barbour WMA now, so we're able to do a lot on the habitat end of it; that benefits the deer because they have better quality habitat to feed on. This is definitely the best bet for quality deer in the district."
Another possibility for quality deer is Geneva State Forest WMA, located in Geneva County near the Florida state line. This area also has an antler restriction, although it's a smaller area and the habitat isn't quite as good as at Barbour WMA. This WMA is getting into the Coastal Plain and into sandier, lower-quality soils, but hunters still kill some pretty good deer there.
Cook said the best quality deer on private land in this district are in the Barbour, Bullock, Macon and Russell counties.
"The reasons these counties are good are basically the same reasons as Sumter, Greene and Dallas," he said. "They have really good quality soils and as a result, better quality habitat when it's managed properly. There also are some large landowners and large hunting clubs with a long history of managing deer. That all works together to produce some big deer."
Scotch WMA in Clark County is Cook's pick for the best public land in District 5.
"There are some really good deer killed on Scotch WMA year in and year out," Cook said. "This is an area that we lease from Scotch Land Management. It's typical of most industrial pine forests in that part of the state, with the same silvicultural practices as most of the hunt club land in that area. The deer don't get a whole lot of hunting pressure outside of the dog hunts, and I'm sure that helps a lot. Hunters kill some older bucks there each year."
In terms of private land, Cook said, he suggests Marengo, Wilcox and Choctaw counties.
"They border Sumter, Greene and Dallas," he said. "A large portion of these three counties are in the Black Belt, and the common border between Marengo and Choctaw counties is the Tombigbee River. The Alabama River runs through Wilcox County. They have quality soils, as well as a long history of quality deer management among the landowners and hunt clubs in that part of the state."