The first opportunity for hunters to pursue deer each year is with a bow, and Alabama has many places for bowhunting. In fact, there are some locations where only bowhunting is allowed.
By John N. Felsher
Many experienced deer hunters take up archery because they want a bigger challenge. Some hunters yearn to recapture a piece of vanished history, while others simply want to expand hunting opportunities.
"For more than 20 years, I've hunted deer exclusively with a bow," revealed Alan White, a bowhunter from Stapleton. "Bowhunting forces people to become better hunters because they must get so close to deer before they can let the arrow fly. If someone makes a mistake when a deer is 20 yards away, it's much worse than when the deer is 200 yards away."
Most people probably learn essential deer hunting skills before taking up archery, but bowhunting can greatly improve those skills. Any reasonably proficient shooter can drop a deer more than 200 yards away with a good high-powered rifle. However, archers must get much closer, which takes stealth and concentration.
"I started rifle hunting for deer in 1996 and bowhunting in 2000," recalled Katie Pugh, a bowhunter from Lowndesboro. "When moving from rifle hunting to bowhunting, an archer needs to work more on the ability to control scent and become stealthier. Archers must get closer and wait for the right shot at the right moment to put a deer down quickly."
Deer can thrive in close proximity to people. In fact, deer populations grow into pest levels in many suburban or semi-rural areas, becoming too numerous for the habitat to support and destroying gardens, browsing on expensive ornamental plants and creating driving hazards.
With few or no natural predators, huge bucks might die of old age without ever experiencing hunting pressure. In these small parcels, archers can quietly slip into a good spot to hunt unpressured deer where firing a magnum rifle at daybreak would cause a neighborhood uproar — not to mention a safety hazard.
"Bowhunters can get into places where it's not safe to shoot high-powered rifles," White explained. "Also, some property owners don't want any shooting on their land because they might have livestock around or some other reason. People can hunt with bows on very small properties and nobody will know it."
Places to Go Bowhunting
Archers not only enjoy more access to property, but they can also spend significantly more days afield.
The Alabama bow season lasts about a month longer than gun season. Moreover, most state wildlife management areas allow archers to hunt the entire season, but might restrict modern firearms hunts to a few days.
Even on extremely popular public properties, archers often find little competition from other deer hunters for most of the season.
Whether looking for a bigger challenge, a new place to hunt or to spend more days afield, Alabama bowhunters can find abundant opportunities all over the state.
The state maintains 36 wildlife management areas comprising about 775,000 acres for public hunting. With an annual WMA permit, sportsmen can hunt all of these lands, but check the regulations for specific properties before hunting.
Some public lands only allow bowhunting for deer. This includes several small U.S. Army Corps of Engineers properties along the Tombigbee, Alabama and Black Warrior rivers. Some of these rarely hunted tracts hold big deer, but sportsmen need to purchase a hunting permit.
Perhaps the best-known place for archery-only hunts in Alabama is Oak Mountain State Park, which covers 9,940 acres in Pelham south of Birmingham.
Despite being close to an urbanized part of the state, the largest state park in Alabama provides good opportunities for archers to bag deer.
"The archery program at Oak Mountain State Park is administered by the Bowhunters of Alabama under their urban deer control program," explained Chris Cook, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Deer Studies leader in Northport. "They have a process for assuring the proficiency of the hunters participating and working with them on how to be as inconspicuous as possible. Archers can hunt the entire park. Most people who hunt there have been doing it for a while; they know how to get off the main hiking trails and not cause a disturbance."
The Oak Mountain State Park habitat consists primarily of closed-canopy upland hardwoods. Each season, hunters take approximately 40 to 50 deer off the park property.
Hunters can rent a cabin or camp in the park, and even practice at the archery park, which includes ranges with targets out to 50 yards. It even has a 12-foot platform for simulating shooting from a stand.
Some smaller Forever Wild properties outside of the WMA system also offer archers excellent opportunities to arrow deer. The Sipsey River Complex in Tuscaloosa County contains 7,155 acres of riverine bottomland hardwoods divided into two tracts.
The Old Cahawba Prairie Tract in Dallas County contains 3,007 acres. On most days, only archers may hunt the property, but the area does permit limited gun hunting. The habitat consists mostly of grasslands, pine forests and drainages along the Cahaba River.
A little farther north, people can hunt the 35,559-acre William R. Ireland, Sr.-Cahaba River WMA in Bibb and Shelby counties near West Blocton, or the 35,260-acre Mulberry Fork WMA in Tuscaloosa and Walker counties.
"Both of those areas are big chunks of land close to Birmingham, but they don't get as much use as some other areas, especially among bowhunters," Cook commented. "Even on the most popular wildlife management areas, bowhunters can usually find some good places to hunt. On most public areas, much of the acreage is barely touched, or maybe not even touched at all by typical hunters."
A small Forever Wild property that allows bowhunting — the Shoal Creek Preserve — includes 298 acres in Lauderdale County near Florence. The property consists mainly of fallow fields, upland hardwoods and bottomlands along creeks. In Autauga County, north of Prattville, the Charles D. Kelley-Autauga WMA covers 8,127 acres and only allows bowhunting for deer.
"Over the years, people who have hunted Shoal Creek area have had a lot of success," advised Chris Smith, assistant chief of the ADCNR Wildlife Section in Montgomery. "Most of them like that it is for bowhunting only. These bowhunting only areas don't see as much hunting pressure as the more popular WMAs that allow gun hunting."
Another small property, the Coon Creek Tract in Tallapoosa County consists of 320 acres of pines and hardwoods along a creek that flows into Yates Lake. Archers might also try the Pike County Pocosin, northeast of Troy. A "pocosin" is a type of inland wetland saturated by groundwater and rich in sandy, acidic soils and peat, good for growing evergreens. This property covers 333 acres in two tracts. The habitat includes scrub hardwoods and longleaf pine forests.
"The Coon Creek Tract is a very beautiful tract with a lot of mature timber with good hardwood and pine mix," Smith remarked. "I've hunted Coon Creek during the week and had the entire tract to myself."
Many smaller WMAs or portions of larger WMAs that exist mostly for waterfowl or small-game hunting, such as those in Jackson County, allow bowhunting for deer. Swan Creek WMA covers 8,870 acres of Limestone County near Decatur. Mallard Fox Creek in Lawrence and Morgan counties spreads across 1,742 acres. Both permit archery hunting for deer, as does Seven Mile Island WMA, which covers 4,685 acres of Lauderdale County near Florence.
"Many of these small areas primarily allow waterfowl and small-game hunting, but they do allow bowhunting for deer," Cook said. "Some portions of Lowndes WMA only allow archery for deer. We added about 2,000 acres to the Dutch Bend Tract on Lowndes WMA about three years ago. It only allows archery hunting for deer. A couple other pieces on the property allow archery only for safety reasons because of the proximity to other private properties."
The Dutch Bend Tract remains an operating agricultural area along the Alabama River near White Hall west of Montgomery. The habitat consists of bottomland hardwood strips between fields planted in corn or soybeans. The property can produce some quality deer.
Big Deer Producer
One of the better public areas for producing big deer in Alabama, Lowndes WMA sits in the Black Belt Region along the Alabama River between Demopolis and Montgomery. The property covers 15,920 acres of mostly swampy lowlands and reclaimed agricultural fields in Lowndes County.
When the state took over Lowndes WMA, the land largely consisted of old agricultural fields and replanted native hardwoods. The state manages the property to produce trophy bucks through antler restrictions.
"Lowndes WMA has good quality and good numbers of deer," Cook said. "With the antler restriction, we wanted more bucks to move into the 2.5-year-old and older age class. Some pretty good deer are killed off Lowndes each year."
One of the largest public hunting areas in southern Alabama, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and W. L. Holland WMA covers 51,040 acres of wetlands in Baldwin and Mobile counties. Most of the property allows gun hunting for deer, but the Jacinto Port Tract near Saraland only permits archery hunting.
Some national wildlife refuges in Alabama also offer archery hunting for deer. Wheeler NWR, located along the Tennessee River, covers 35,000 acres near Decatur. The refuge holds mixed bottomland hardwood forests and pine uplands dotted by numerous water bodies.
The refuge allows hunting on about 18,000 acres six days a week. Archers may take deer of either sex, plus feral hogs, during the state season. The refuge does not allow sportsmen to hunt deer with modern firearms, but does open a brief season in January each year for hunters who want to use flintlock rifles.
Better known for its waterfowl hunting opportunities, Eufaula NWR includes about 11,184 acres on either side of the Chattahoochee River and Lake Eufaula. Of that total acreage, 7,953 acres sit in Alabama with the rest in Georgia. The habitat consists mostly of wetlands, forests, grasslands and open water. On the Alabama side, the refuge permits archery hunting for deer.
Choctaw NWR consists of 4,218 acres of lakes, sloughs, bottomland hardwood forests and old croplands on the Tombigbee River near Coffeeville. Besides the river, some creeks flow through the area, making much of the lowland property accessible only by boat. The property only allows archery hunting for deer.
Even in the most heavily hunted public areas, archers can still find places where gun hunters might not venture. People frequently drive right past pockets of habitat that might provide excellent hunting. However, these small parcels near boundary lines, camping areas and check stations, where people would never think to fire a rifle, might offer superb bow hunting opportunities.
"Many rifle hunters want to find places where they can see a long ways," Smith explained. "They might pass up some pretty good places to hunt. If the season has been in progress for a while, the deer will try to find places where people won't disturb them. The places that most people might overlook for gun hunting might be great places to hunt with a bow."