A North Bama Big-Deer Bonanza

A North Bama Big-Deer Bonanza

Last season was profitable for harvesting big bucks in the northeast corner of the Cotton State. The best of those whitetails get a good look here.

Steve Woods with the mount of the Jackson County buck that he took last season.
Photo by Anthony Campbell.

Jackson County, in the northeastern corner of the Cotton State, has a long history of producing top-end whitetails. Glance at one of the old Alabama Whitetail Record books and you'll see that this county has consistently ranked near the top in the number of record-class bucks produced.

In recent years, talk occasionally has it that Jackson County isn't what it once was -- that the salad days for big-time bucks are long past for this particular county. To those critics, Steve Woods might say, "Wait just a minute."

Woods, a lifelong resident of Jackson County, has taken plenty of garden-variety 6- and 8-pointers over the span of his 30-odd years spent chasing whitetails in his home county. But the truly big buck always eluded him -- until last December: Hunting just 300 yards behind his house on that fateful Saturday morning on the eighth day of the month, the 45-year-old deerslayer downed a 13-point whitetail that sported a rack grossing just over 160 Boone and Crockett Club points.

What makes the buck particularly interesting -- its enormous size aside -- is its whereabouts when Woods found it: not at Stevenson, or Paint Rock, or Skyline, or any of those other locales so much celebrated for big bucks over the years, but in Pisgah, a sleeper area for trophy deer. Even Woods admits that it's not one of the places he usually hunts.

"My brother Lamar has always killed the big bucks," Woods stated. "I usually hunt with him. We usually go to a more remote area off the side of the mountain. This was not a place I normally hunt."

The Woods brothers belong to none of the many hunting clubs that dot Jackson County, and shy away from nearby Martin-Skyline Wildlife Management Area, its 45,000 acres the most popular -- and most trodden -- hunting destination in the area. They usually go afield on family-owned land.

Behind Steve Woods' house is a cutover owned by his uncle -- and it was almost an accident that Woods ended up hunting there. "I walked in there on Friday and saw a couple of bushes that had been rubbed by a buck," the hunter said. Woods had killed a 6-pointer in the same general area several seasons earlier. The rubs that he was seeing weren't particularly impressive, and he assumed that their maker was just another smallish buck using the area. Still, he decided to set up his tree stand and try for the deer, since it was so close to home.

"I put up my stand on Friday for the Saturday hunt," he said.

When Woods awoke that morning, it seemed like anything but a good day for deer hunting. "It was 65 degrees, misting rain and foggy," he recalled. "The wind was blowing so it would hit me on my right side, and I thought it really might blow my scent towards the area I expected the deer to come from."

The hunter's problems seemed to be compounded by the fact that the tree he'd hung his stand in had a limb that prevented him from climbing higher than 14 feet. "I had meant to go back and cut that limb, but I forgot about it," he admitted. And not being able to climb any higher meant a large cedar tree would block his view.

"I looked up about 7:30 and here he came," Woods said. "He was just walking with his head down like he was in another world."

Because of the cedar blocking his line of sight, the hunter didn't see the buck until it was only 20 yards away. "There aren't many trees in that cutover, and the one I was in was really the only choice," he said. "You couldn't get back off the trail as much as you would have liked."

Though the cedar kept Woods from detecting the buck until it was right on him, the masking had a positive side, too. "It also meant he couldn't see me," the hunter noted.

In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that Woods didn't see the bruiser until it was so close. "If I'd seen him sooner, I might have got nervous and I might have missed," he said. As it was, he walloped the buck with a shot from his .300 Savage rifle. But he wasn't pleased with the buck's initial reaction.

"Usually when I've shot a deer, they jump and run off," he explained. "This one never flinched. He just kept right on walking; I had to ask at first if I had missed him. He went about 20 yards and laid down. I thought, 'This is crazy! I've missed this buck, and now he's going to bed right in front of me.'

"About that time he fell over."

And the suspense hadn't quite exhausted itself. "I got down out of my tree stand and walked to where he'd been and he was gone," Woods said. "I had turned my back on him while I was climbing down and he'd gotten up. I went another 20 yards and found him in a brushpile."

The excitement set in when Steve began counting points. "I came up with 14," he recalled. "It struck me that this deer probably hadn't been living where I killed him. I figured he came from the Fabian mines."

This hunter counts points the old-fashioned way: If you can hang a ring on it, it's a point. The man who later scored it came up with 13 scorable points measuring 1 inch or better.

The buck had an inside spread of 18 3/8 inches and gross-scored 161 1/8 B&C points. Unfortunately, 2 4/8 inches of deductions were assessed for lack of symmetry between the two sides of the rack, as well as another 9 1/8 inches for non-typical points, bringing the rack's official B&C total down to 149 4/8 points.

"It was just my time to get one," Woods said of harvesting the giant.

For a man who'd waited a lifetime to kill a super buck, the celebration was remarkably short and low-key. "I came around the house and my wife Delta was in the kitchen cooking biscuits and bacon for breakfast. She looked at me and said, 'What are you mad about?' I guess she thought I had missed another good one. I opened the door and said, 'You won't believe what I got -- it's a 14-pointer.'"

"You did not," was her reply -- to which her husband said, "I did too! And I need your help."

Delta went back with him to load the buck on a 4-wheeler. In the excitement of the mome

nt, she forgot to turn off the stove. "We burned the biscuits," Woods said with a laugh.

He never could have loaded the buck by himself. It had a live weight of 210 pounds; making it easily the largest-bodied deer Woods had ever killed, as well as being his buck with the most impressive headgear.

It was all the husband-and-wife team could do to get it loaded, Woods pulling by the horns and Delta pushing from the back. "It helped that I was able to pull the 4-wheeler right up to him," Woods said. "I backed the 4-wheeler into a little hole and that made it easier. There was no way I could have loaded it by myself. My dad lives nearby, but he's 81, and I don't know whether he could have helped."

A lot of hunters would have put the buck in the back of a truck and ridden it all over creation showing it off; Woods went pretty much straight to the processor with this one. But he had more fun with it when he got there.

"The processor sees a lot of deer," he said, "and the first thing he said was, 'You didn't kill that buck locally.' He thought it had come from Illinois. I told him to just feel it. It was still warm."

His brother Lamar, who'd had more luck with bigger deer over the years, was especially happy about Steve finally getting one. Steve said that he "sort of aggravated" Lamar by telling him that he'd outdone him now. His brother took it in stride, never showing the slightest hint of jealousy.

"I think he was more tickled than I was," Woods observed. "He was calling everybody we know and showing them pictures. He'd been hunting about a mile away in a pasture when I got the buck. He got onto me for not calling him to help me come load it; I told him I didn't want to mess up his hunt."

This hunter counts points the old-fashioned way: If you can hang a ring on it, it's a point. The man who later scored it came up with 13 scorable points measuring 1 inch or better.

A postscript to our main narrative: Woods' shot didn't hit the buck exactly as he'd planned. He'd aimed at the shoulder, but hit the deer more back toward the stomach area. "I guess he must have taken another step right before I pulled the trigger," the hunter surmised. "That may be why he didn't jump when I shot. But it put a hole the size of a baseball in his side."

The Woods brothers' take on managing their hunting land is also a little different from that of a lot of hunters. "We don't mess with food plots," Steve Woods offered. "The land we hunt used to be farmed, but it hasn't been planted in years."

Spring growing conditions last year might have had something to do with the big buck ending up in the cutover where a lot of browse was available. "We had a big freeze the previous spring and it killed all the acorns," Woods said. "There wasn't a lot for the deer to eat."

Woods almost got another nice buck in the same place. "I went back the next weekend and hunted it again," he said. "I would have killed another one, but my uncle had let a young boy come across the pasture to hunt. He shot a big 9-pointer about 100 yards before it got to me."

The 14-pointer was the very first deer Steve Woods saw last hunting season. It was such a sight to behold coming down the trail that Woods lost track of what he was doing at the moment. "I was eating a piece of beef jerky when I saw him," he recounted. "To this day, I don't know if I swallowed that jerky or spit it out or what. I don't know what happened to that jerky."

Jackson County has given up lots of whitetails in the 120- to 150-inch range over the years, but it has never produced a buck that qualified for the B&C all-time record book.

Still, it's one of the top counties in the state in terms of high-quality deer. Lots of sportsmen take trophies here every season, and over the years, the county has yielded seven Pope & Young Club record-book typicals to bowhunters. In 1997, Eddie Bolt took the largest, a 147 1/8 P&Y that's No. 6 on the all-time Alabama list of archery typical bucks. The others: Rocky Drake, 136 5/8, 1982; Benford Sanders, 134 5/8, 1994; Robert Downey, 133 5/8, 1987; Joey Arnold, 133 2/8, 1993; Wendell Shelton, 125 7/8, 1998; Johnny Johnson, 125, 1994.

Amazing variety of habitat typifies Jackson County, ranging from river swamplands to farmland to coves to big wooded mountains. Many private hunting clubs are scattered around the county, which also boasts a substantial amount of public hunting land.

Martin-Skyline WMA is expected to add another 1,500 acres of hunting land this year, pushing the total size of the public hunting parcel to more than 45,000 acres. The type of land on the WMA mirrors that of the county at large, with two major coves in the Jacobs Farm and Henshaw tracts. The Little Coon (a.k.a. "Stevenson") area and the Walls of Jericho offer big woods and mountains. Finally, the Poplar Springs segment is a plateau, while the Post Oaks Flat is a cutover region.

Area manager Frank Allen reported that it's been difficult to track trends on the WMA in recent years, because acreage has been added nearly every year. Hunters on the WMA average taking between 250 and 280 deer per year, which works out to about 3.5 to 4 deer harvested per square mile.

It's difficult to assess the exact size of the deer population; Allen puts it at between eight and 15 animals per square mile, depending on the time of year. The population usually bottoms out in late summer and peaks when new fawns are born.

WMA staffers plant numerous food plots throughout the area. Crops include millet, sorghum, chufa and cool-season grass plots.

The tract typically hosts six gun hunts per season, ranging in length from one to four days each, along with a couple of two-day primitive weapons hunts and a youth hunt. Bowhunting is legal for the full season at Martin-Skyline.

According to Allen, a couple of nice bucks are always taken on opening day. Other than that, he likes the late December and January hunts as the best chance for a buck.

Another option for bowhunters -- although the time is very limited -- is the nine-day archery-only hunt held on the five waterfowl management areas in Jackson County in early November each year. The areas -- North Sauty Refuge, Crow Creek Refuge, Crow Creek WMA, Mud Creek WMA and Raccoon Creek WMA encompass another 25,130 acres, although much of it is under water.

Because of the limited hunting pressure, some bruisers live on the waterfowl areas. Keep in mind that this is a very popular hunt, so you can expect some competition.

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