October is one of the best months for southern sportsmen and women, as both hunting and fishing opportunities abound throughout.
By Greg McCain
The South abounds in opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, and the full complement of possibilities presents itself in October.
Fishing and hunting seasons overlap, with anglers taking advantage of cooler temperatures and seeking a variety of species. Hunters have equally plentiful chances afield.
The only problem is making a decision about what to pursue. Alabama offers it all in an array of beautiful settings, with countless public properties available to hunters.
Formed by the union of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers just to the north of Montgomery, the Alabama River has long been known as a destination for spotted bass. The spots are abundant and grow big and frisky on Jones Bluff, the uppermost reservoir on the Alabama River.
The river, which forms the northern boundary of Montgomery, has also become an equally good producer of crappie with both numbers and trophy fish resulting from above-average year-class production in 2010, 2013 and 2014.
In addition to bass and crappie fishing, catfishermen also boat blues up to about 50 pounds and flatheads up to about 40.
"While we don't sample for catfish, our numbers indicate that the bass and crappie populations are in excellent shape," said Graves Lovell, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries biologist.
The spots are primarily a main-river, structure-oriented target, and while some crappie can also be found on the main river, they prefer calmer water and flourish in the tributaries that feed the Alabama.
Streams like Swift Creek and Prairie Creek on the lower end are among favorites for crappie fishermen, and just about any of the numerous feeder creeks hold good crappie numbers. Catfishing is best along bluff walls and around any type of current break and eddy water.
"People have long known just how good the spotted bass fishing is on the Alabama River, and now people are coming to realize just how good the overall fishery is," said Dan Dannenmueller, crappie pro from Wetumpka. "I travel all over the country competing in tournaments, and we find the crappie fishing here to be as good and probably better than what we find on lakes around the Southeast and in the Midwest."
Regardless of the targeted species, good facilities can be found all along the river. One of the central launching spots is Cooters Pond Park just off Highway 31 in Prattville. While the launch area and parking are first-rate, the park features other family friendly amenities, including picnic facilities and a dog park.
To the west, other quality launches are found at Swift Creek near Autaugaville, and at Prairie Creek near Lowndesboro.
Football is a long-standing tradition in Tuscaloosa in the fall. While fishing may take a backseat to games on October Saturdays, the possibilities for good angling action exists almost within sight of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The Black Warrior River separates Tuscaloosa and Northport and features a riverine environment with rocky structure, bluff walls and limited backwater areas.
"Most people know it as the river that runs by the University of Alabama," said local angler Micah Easterling. "What they don't realize is there is some pretty good fishing available."
Three sections of the Black Warrior are found close to Tuscaloosa. The Oliver Pool runs for 8.8 miles from near downtown Tuscaloosa to the Holt Lock and Dam and is full of spotted bass. It also contains largemouth, which can be targeted with shaky heads, deep-diving crankbaits and topwater lures when the bass are schooling.
Boat access is limited to the Riverview launch just off River Road on the north side of Tuscaloosa.
Upstream of Oliver is Holt Reservoir, best known for spotted bass fishing, but is also home to the Alabama state record blue catfish — a 120-pound monster caught in 2012. However, most anglers focus on bass and crappie.
"It has some really nice largemouth bass but is primarily a spotted bass reservoir," said Jay Haffner District III supervisor. "As for crappie, you are looking at fishing deeper, down to about 25 feet around structure."
A number of quality launch facilities exist on Holt, including Rock Quarry Park on the Tuscaloosa side and Deerlick Creek Campground just north of Northport.
In addition to Oliver and Holt, Easterling finds good spotted bass fishing on Warrior Pool. This segment features a popular tailrace area just below Oliver Dam. The narrow reservoir, which features some oxbows full of grass downstream, winds for miles before emptying into the Tombigbee River near Demopolis.
"I actually do most of my fishing just below the toll bridge downstream from the tailrace area," said Easterling. "I've caught good fish through the years on both Oliver and Holt, but I've caught better fish recently on the next pool down."
Easterling targets fish around humps, rocks and other current breaks with swimbaits, crankbaits and plastics, saying there is always a good chance to catch a limit of 3- to 5-pound spotted bass.
The WFF maintains a series of 23 public fishing lakes spread across the state. These lakes, which range from just a few acres to some that are well over 100 acres, mainly feature fishing for bass, bream, crappie and catfish.
Matthew Marshall, WFF supervisor of state lakes, suggests visiting one of the recently renovated lakes for some of the hottest fishing. One example is Lee County Public Lake, south of Auburn. Renovated and re-stocked within the last two years, Lee County is full of fast-growing Florida-strain largemouth that will reach 5 pounds within two or three years.
Popular state lakes across north Alabama include Madison, Walker and Lamar. Moving south, other productive lakes include Bibb, Pike and Washington.
"There's actually something good to be said about every one of our public lakes," Marshall said. "They are a good, clean, family oriented fishing opportunity for people across the state. You can literally show up at most of these lakes and get just about anything you would need to fish, bait, tackle, snacks, permits and licenses, boat and trolling motor rental. They are good places for families to visit and are relatively easy to fish."
Deer season opens mid-month for Alabama hunters, with bow season opening on the traditional starting date. A primary destination of deer hunters across the state is the Black Warrior Wildlife Management Area, which is part of the expansive Bankhead National Forest. One of the public lands most targeted by deer hunters, this vast tract of land south of Moulton produces some exceptional bucks.
"I hunt some other areas like Oakmulgee," said Michael Perry. "But I'm mainly looking for trophy deer when I'm out there — not just anything that comes along — and that means I do most of my hunting on Black Warrior."
From year to year, the area yields bigger-than-average deer, but last year's hunts produced some exceptional record-breakers, including a 17-pointer and a 23-pointer.
The Black Warrior WMA, along with the surrounding national forest land, is challenging to the average hunter with up-and-down topography, perhaps one reason that the deer grow to such impressive sizes. While more hunters utilize the area on gun hunts, the vast size, almost 100,000 acres, limits encounters with other hunters, and pressure is really limited in bow season.
Perry typically hunts pinch points and other natural funnels, attempting to intercept deer moving to and from feeding and bedding areas.
"You won't see as many deer as you see on other public lands," Perry said. "But the average deer that you see is likely going to be a good one."
While small game can be found on just about any public land in the state, the Conecuh National Forest in extreme south Alabama is a go-to destination for rabbits, squirrels and other small game.
Covering 84,000 acres near Andalusia, Conecuh includes the Blue Springs WMA and remains a popular destination for deer and turkey hunters, in addition to the small-game opportunities.
Dustyn Tyer owns property that abuts the national forest and hunts for just about every target available. In recent years, small game has cycled back into his hunting routine.
"Like a lot of people, I hunted mainly deer and turkeys for years and got away from small-game hunting," Tyer said. "The last few years, I have gotten back into hunting for squirrel, rabbit and raccoon on the national forest and also on the Blue Springs part. We have a good population of small game that gets some pressure, but not a lot."
Tyer, his children and friends stalk and dog hunt squirrels, focusing on hardwood stands that thrive on certain areas of Conecuh and Blue Springs. A smaller population of fox squirrels inhabits the acres of long-leaf pines, though Tyer prefers to let them go to help expand their numbers.
Rabbits are another thriving product of the long-leaf pine stands managed on Conecuh. Hunters can walk up rabbits but have a better chance of success with beagles.
According to Tyer, the small-game hunts have gotten his children interested in hunting, and he encourages others to introduce youngsters to the outdoors through squirrel, rabbit and raccoon hunting, which is largely unutilized on national forest land.
Sportsmen in Alabama rarely lack for opportunities with some type of hunting on state and federal public lands almost always available, along with a seemingly unlimited number of fishing venues across the state. The combinations are endless, and October is a great time to sample as many as possible.